I think almost every parent at some point feels that they have too many toys for their kids. It seems like no matter how much cleaning and reorganizing, selling and donating, threatening and taking-away we do, we end up with multiplying toys.
As our family looks to downsize and simplify, we notice that our kids enjoy their imaginative toys the most. These are the toys which inspire open-ended, creative play. (And as a bonus, they rarely require batteries or make loud noises!) I’ve compiled my kids’ favorites and the smartest buys, so read on for the best toys to inspire imagination – and I hope that they help your family pretend, create, and play together!
I do have affiliate links in this article. The items don’t cost you any extra, but a percentage may come back to help me provide for my family. I appreciate you!
Playdoh is a reliable way for your kids to spend long amounts of time quietly engrossed in their creations. It’s like an old friend for me and my kids. We have big jars and little jars, as well as lots of tools and sets. (I could never wrap my head around the food-making sets, though; that just seems like too much temptation. Besides, my kids don’t need to learn that it’s ok to eat a blue and purple cheeseburger.) This fun factory set is my son’s favorite, but apparently it’s been discontinued so get it while you can!
Smart Max magnetic toys are the coolest thing ever. We had the classic set for a while now, and recently got our son the cars. There are balls which attract to both magnets, and then each oversized color pole has one magnetic pole. They build and stick together, but are easy for little hands to grab and pull apart. My toddler loves them and uses them for simple building and grasping, while my preschooler is able to build huge contraptions! These are one of my favorite toys to play with, personally. (And if your kid is a bit older, they might like the Power Vehicles set, which are wheels and other truck parts which clip on to the original Smart Max poles. This is my son’s favorite toy at the moment!)
While anything by Melissa & Doug is going to be quality, my favorite is their cookie set. Whether or not you have a kitchen for your child, these cookies are the cutest things ever. They come with a tray and twelve cookies with velcroed icing (the cookies also stick to the tray), a cookie can, a spatula, and an oven mitt. My kids love bringing me cookies and I love that all the pieces stick together quickly.
One thing which has to be on this list is a simple watercolor set. I’m a huge fan of the simplest, most open-ended toys. A cup with just a tiny bit of water (or even a wet cotton ball) and some inexpensive paints can keep my kids busy for a long time! My older child experiments with color combinations, like getting a color more saturated or mixing it with another. And any time spent honing those fine motor skills is time well spent. My favorite is this Crayola 24-color set because it’s three separate palette rows, so each kid gets one.
My son was given a sticker book for his last birthday, and I was amazed. This is the coolest idea: these books come with activities as well as open-ended “scenery pages”, and different sets of stickers that correspond to page numbers; but the paper is slick so that the stickers can be peeled off and reused again and again! Ahem, except the stickers themselves still stick to anything and everything, not just the book, so this might not be your go-to in the car or on a plane.
I could go on and on about our dress-up box. And I must brag here and say that it was totally my idea. (Pinterest, don’t you say a word.) We have new things like witch hats and construction vests, old things like scarves and Halloween costume components, and party items like leis. It’s a great thing to play with when friends are over, and it is easy to clean up. This box is what we use: it was affordable, it looks nice enough for our living room, it’s durable as hell, and it has a safe-open lid for my toddler. The idea of dress-up is the epitome of what this article is about: toys which inspire imagination!
My son found out about dominoes when he was about three years old, and he was fascinated. While I won’t recommend these for younger children (or any unsupervised child), this is a special toy we pull out on occasion. They can be used traditionally to play a game of dominoes, which also practices counting and matching; or you can get creative and build a line of dominoes to knock over! Be ready to take a video!
Who would I be if I didn’t add Legos or Duplos to this list?! Our collection is steadily growing and I love it! Legos are designed for older kids, and Duplo (same brand) for younger kids. Any kind of building blocks can be some of the best toys your kids will have. The pieces are bright and durable (read: step on one and you will think your life is ending), and you can mix and match the sets. We have the zoo, a construction set, and a farm, and we have our eyes on more! Just be sure as with any toy that you check for the appropriate age level. Some sets, like this Lego Moana set I want sooo badly, aren’t yet safe for my littles. Sorry, guys.
Headed outside for some sunshine? We love playing with good old chalk. I know it’s not sophisticated and complicated, but that’s the beauty of it. My kids love the big thick pieces for their little hands, and color all over the place! I also got some really inexpensive chalk paint, which can make any smooth surface into a chalkboard. We upcycled an old table for the kids to draw outside, or trace hands and feet to decorate colorful prints! You can make a path, or a maze, or a butterfly as big as your head.
I’m so glad that we invested in a sandbox when our son was little. It’s one of those toys which just grows with your kids; the ways in which our children play in it has changed, but they certainly still love to use it! We like ours because it has a lid and little seats on the corners, but just make sure any sandbox you get can be closed up… because, you know, rain and wild cat poop and the like. We also found these tiny CAT trucks on a whim and they’re perfect for playing in there.
If you want to have a cute and functional way to store your toys, this is what we have in our playroom. The buckets are super durable and come with the shelf itself, where we have everything from monster trucks to play food. Just be sure that you mount any furniture items to the wall with child anti-tip locks.
Lastly, I wanted to add this book. It’s called #BabyLove: My Toddler Life by Corine Dehghanpisheh and it’s a cute readable rendition of how we all (parents especially) can stand to put down our devices and just spend some real face time with our kids. Mom sees her toddler playing with her phone and tells him no, but then sees the bigger picture in that scenario. What I love about this book is that it shows the mom has good intentions – in this story, she always has her phone but it’s usually just to take photos or videos of her kid – but even then, she realizes that she’s putting a screen between her and her child. Let’s never forget to simplify our lives, put down the electronics, and just “be” with our kids.
I hope that this list has given you lots of ideas for some of the best toys your kids can use to imagine! I have a Pinterest board called “Toys and Fun!” if you’re looking for more inspiration. And as always, feel free to let me know what ideas you have too, and please share!