What are the best toys for learning and development?
There are many ways to define the “best” children’s toys, but specifically in terms of which toys best facilitate learning and development, academic research has found that simple, non-electronic toys are best at keeping kids’ attention and fostering the development of fundamental skills.
There’s ample evidence from multiple sources that basic toys like building blocks, crayons and puzzles are most effective at encouraging children to both interact with parents and other children as well as explore and be imaginative on their own. At the same time, electronic toys that talk and make noise can be distracting and deter communication between children and parents.
One well-respected study on which toys are most effective at fostering positive play is the Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University’s TIMPANI research (which stands for Toys that Inspire Mindful Play and Nurture Imagination). It examines preschoolers playing with certain toys and score how the kids play with them on these metrics: thinking and learning, cooperation and social interaction, creativity and imagination, and verbalization.
Below are the last several years of toys that scored the highest.
- 2018: Magz Clix40 Magnetic Building and Stacking Set Consisting of 40 Magnetized Piece
- 2017: Animal Planet Animal Kingdom Mega Pack Playset – 60 Pieces
- 2016: Plus-Plus Midi Size Basic Color Assortment, 100-Piece
- 2015: Hape Checkout Register Kid’s Wooden Pretend Play Set
- 2014: Paint and Easel (easel by Community Playthings) and Hot Wheels Basic Car 50-Pack (Packaging May Vary)
- 2013: Magna-Tiles 32 piece Pack, and Brio My First Railway 15 Piece Train Gift Set
- 2012: LEGO DUPLO Creative Play My First Box of Fun 10580, Preschool, Pre-Kindergarten Large Building Block Toys for Toddlers
- 2011: TINKERTOY – 100 Piece Essentials Value Set – Ages 3+ Preschool Education Toy
- 2010: Melissa & Doug Wooden Vehicles and Traffic Signs With 6 Cars and 9 Signs
Why are so many other toys labeled as educational?
Parents should never take toy labeling that says “educational,” “promotes development” or other similar promises at face value, because such claims are rarely supported by rigorous evidence.
In the book Parenting, Inc.: How the Billion-Dollar Baby Business Has Changed the Way We Raise Our Children, Berkeley psychology professor and respected childhood and language development expert Alison Gopnik sums up this reality this way: “There’s no FDA for children’s products. You can say whatever you want about how something will make your baby smarter, and nobody reviews it or asks if there’s research to back this up.”
Why should I trust you?
Our articles are short and direct so parents can quickly get the answers they need, but there’s lengthy research behind everything we publish. If you’d like to check our facts and learn more, here are the best sources we found and used for this article:
- “Smart toys and educational games for kids: An evidence-based guide” from ParentingScience.com.
- “Give the Gift of Health: Toys that Benefit Your Child’s Development” from Seattle Children’s Hospital.
- “Choosing the right toys for the right age,” from WebMD.
- “Don’t let the toys do the talking: The case of electronic and traditional shape sorters” from The Brookings Institution.
- “Can toys create future engineers?” from The New Yorker.
- “What Babies Know About Physics and Foreign Languages” from The New York Times.
- “Give kids the gift of language skills but go soft on the noisy toys,” from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
- “10 Non-Tech Holiday Gift Ideas to Promote Kids’ Language & Learning” from HealthyChildren.org.