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What are the best toys to buy for children?

I recently took part in some research on what adults think are the best toys to buy for children. Unsurprisingly, Lego was considered the top ‘classic toy’ that all children should have. Play Doh came out second highest (which was a bit of a shocker as so many parents curse it for getting into the carpet!). In general, bikes, puzzles, board games and balls were considered the top types of toys that all children should have. Which is not a bad list.

But it got me thinking. I am absolutely passionate about the role of play in child development (see What is free play and why is it important?) and the role of play in building family relationships (see Why play is good for parents as well as children). And I also love a list challenge! So, here is my guide to the best toys to buy for children.

Construction toys

Making things is one of the key ways that children learn the basic principles of the universe. Such as gravity (see it in action when that tower topples!). And how shapes fit together. And how some things are heavier than others. Construction fosters complex thinking skills like planning and problem-solving and mental rotation. And best of all, you can take it all apart and make something completely different the next day. Which are the best construction toys to buy for children? Whichever ones that your children (and you) will play with the most!

Role play toys

Dressing up is the classic role play activity. There’s no need to buy lots of expensive off-the-peg costumes though (they will quickly grow out of them). A trip to the charity shop for interesting hats and scarves will go a long way. A few domestic toys – like a tea set – can be adapted for lots of imaginative games but real world props are great too. (I’ve lost count of the number of different role play uses I’ve seen for a wooden spoon!).

Nurturing toys

All children need toys to cuddle and feed so they can practise their nurturing skills. Whether that’s teddy bears or baby dolls or real live animals, children learn how to be kind and gentle and care for others by practising those skills in play.

Perspective-taking toys

These are the type of toys that children use to act out scenes. It might be action hero figures who are battling to save the planet or puppets putting on a play – perspective-taking toys help children to step inside different characters in the same scene and pretend to be them, voicing their words and thoughts. These help younger children develop a ‘theory of mind’ (in which they learn that two different people have different thoughts and feelings) and promote empathy (that ability to stand in someone else’s shoes). Children often choose to use perspective-taking toys when they are playing solo.

Arts and crafts

Along with construction toys, arts and crafts activities are right up there on the list of best toys to buy for children. Art and craft activities help children develop fine motor skills and finger dexterity. Colouring, threading beads, cutting and sticking – these are all brilliant for helping children develop their hand-eye co-ordination. Art activities also teach children how to focus and apply themselves in order to complete a task.

Moving around toys

Balls and bikes are great for encouraging children to move, to get out of breath and build their muscles. But there is really no equipment needed – a pair of wellies and a raincoat are the best investment! You can use sticks and rolled up jumpers to build an obstacle course, or stage a Mini Olympics in the woods. Or try a balloon for some (supervised) indoor toddler jumping. Or turn on the music and dance…

Use your imagination junk materials

All parents know how frustrating it feels when you spend a fortune on a new toy for a child and they spend more time playing with the cardboard box. So, why not cut out the middle stage and just give them junk. Boxes, scraps of material, toilet tubes, ribbons, old sheets and blankets – these are the versatile starting points for so many imaginative games. Rather than spending money on new toys, raid the recycling box and kitchen cupboards to put together a collection of junk-modelling, den-building, use-your-imagination materials. And then let the kids get on with it!

Board games

Board games are a brilliant way to bring families together to focus on each other away from all the other distractions of modern life. They also often involve thinking skills like prediction, strategy and problem solving, and social skills like co-operation, negotiation and turn-taking. If you have limited time, or younger children, opt for quick play versions.

Children love novelty, so if a toy can be used in only one way, it’s much more likely to gather dust. Ultimately, children need their play experiences to be as wide and varied as possible. But that doesn’t mean they need millions of toys. Often, a few basic play materials will spark their imagination more than a whole room full of ready-made toys (as long as you turn off the tech). So the best toys to buy for children are the ones that can be used in lots of different ways. And the ones that you can’t wait to join in…..

photo of child holding crayons - one of the best toys to buy for children!

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