Following on from the previous blog post where I talked about the “No 1 toy in our house“, I’m finally putting together a post for open-ended toys to answer one of the most popular questions I get asked about play and that is
“What are your favourite/best/must-have toys for kids/babies/toddlers/preschoolers?“
Now before I go ahead and talk about the toys that make my Top 10 list and share some of the ways in which we have used them, I want to quickly touch on ‘What makes a good toy?“
The Wooden VS Plastic Debate
With the surge of beautiful, handcrafted wooden toys readily available in the market in this day and age, coupled with all the negativity surrounding the environmental issues caused by plastic toys, there has been an overwhelming bashing of plastic toys in favour of wooden toys.
This whole filling your children’s childhood with “wooden over plastic toys” ideology has honestly been one of my biggest pet peeves about play. Now before you scoff and decide not to read the rest of this post because you absolutely love all things wooden, please give me the chance to explain because I am a massive fan of wooden toys myself.
Yes, wooden toys are timeless and durable.
Yes, wooden toys are definitely more environmentally friendly.
Yes, wooden toys are tactile, safe, less distracting and more interactive.
Yes, wooden toys encourage imagination to flourish and grows with your child.
BUT, those wooden toys that you have in mind and are picturing in your head when you think about your favourite toys, they are great toys NOT because they are wooden, but because they are OPEN-ENDED.
This myth that wooden toys are better than plastic toys stems from the fact that most wooden toys ARE indeed open-ended whereas a large proportion of plastic toys in the market are battery-operated, light-flashing and single-purpose toys that doesn’t do anything to inspire a child’s imagination or creativity, and get thrown out soon after a child gets bored of or grows out of it.
So What Are Open-Ended Toys?
Simply put, open-ended toys are toys that can be played with in multiple and varied ways.
They are often described as toys that are 90% child and 10% toy as they leave plenty of room for a child’s input. Ten children could be given the same toy and all ten of them would find different ways to play with it on different occasions based on their interests, developmental stage, natural abilities and imagination. By this definition, the same toy can usually be played with by a baby, a toddler, a preschooler and even beyond.
Open-ended toys encourage endless creativity and imagination.
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The Top 10 Must Have Open-Ended Toys In Our House
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With that said, here is a list of toys that would make the Top 10 in my house. Most of them are tried and tested favourites of my children (so well-loved they are never rotated away) but a couple are still on our wishlist because good quality open-ended toys ARE an investment. I’ve included the latter here even without having trialled them or seeing it in action because I know my children, and I know the potential and possibilities that certain open-ended toys offer.
1. Magnetic Tiles
We have both a 150-piece set of Playmags and a 100-piece set of Magnatiles. This is honestly the most played with toy in our house and I’ve written up an entire blog post about the 10 different ways that my children have played with them as babies and toddlers which you can read here so I shall not elaborate on them further. In short, they are worth every cent and more (even though they are plastic toys).
2. Play Silks
We started off with a really affordable set of 6 juggling sensory scarves from Ebay just to see if my kids would get much use out of it. They did, and because I noticed that some of our Ebay scarves were fraying at the edges, I decided to invest in Sarah’s Silks and we’ve never looked back. Play silks are so versatile and can truly be used for anything and everything that you want it to be.
I’ve used our silks in sensory play with my children when they were babies, stroking different part of their bodies, waving them from side to side to help them practice tracking with their eyes and as materials in treasure baskets.
We’ve used them as dress ups, props for dancing with and for role play.
We’ve used them as backdrops for creating small worlds.
Tip: Go through the fabric/scarves section in thrift shops or op-shops to look for suitable materials.
3. Animal Figurines
These were probably the first few toys that really encouraged my firstborn to delve into pretend play and role play.
We started our collection with zoo animals and farm animals as those were the ones she recognised and identified with most from the books we read, and frequent visits to the farm and zoo. We’ve since amassed quite the collection ranging from forest animals to sea creatures. Our collection is largely CollectA brand from Oh Ivy and Mini Zoo, though we do have a couple of figurines from Kmart as well.
Some of the ways we’ve used our animal figurines include –
Props for sensory play. Because they are plastic, they honestly make such a great addition to sensory play as they are easy to wash and clean after use.
To complement and enhance book-inspired play and for retelling familiar stories
Imaginative Play/ Creating Small Worlds
4. Peg Dolls
Our peg dolls were bought as a set of 50 unpainted dolls from Ebay and it is one of my proudest DIY attempts to date using this tutorial from the amazing Anna at The Imagination Tree. Since it’s DIY, the monetary investment is low yet the time I’ve put into making them has yielded significant results in terms of the amount of play time/ use my children have gotten out of them.
If DIY is not your thing, a great alternative would be Grimm’s 12 Rainbow Friends, Grapat 12 Nins or even some lovely hand-painted peg dolls by the incredibly talented Melanie Shanks.
This is honestly one of our toys that’s played with daily as my children add peg dolls to pretty much every other toy they play with. With its unlimited potential for creating stories about different roles and characters in every type of play you can imagine, adding peg dolls to your toy collection would undoubtedly be a worthwhile investment for encouraging language and literacy through play.
We use them for colour-matching/ sorting activities
As a complement to construction play
Representing and creating different roles and characters in imaginative and small world play, weaving fabulous stories in the process.
5. Rainbow Blocks
This set of 24 rainbow blocks come in 6 different shapes and 4 different colours. It is such a fabulous resource for construction play, shapes and colour exploration with natural light casting shadows.
It’s also such a great resource to use with a lightbox too.
6. Rainbow Pebbles
This set of 36 rainbow pebbles comes in 6 colours and 6 different sizes, as well as 20 activity cards. We use these to sort and match by colour and by size, to stack, to build, as loose parts for creating small worlds (roads, paths, hills, grass, lakes etc), transient art, filling and transferring (when my 1yo was at that stage), as pretend food etc.
Side note: I introduced these pebbles to my 1yo even before she turned 1 and was still mouthing. To make it baby-friendly, I simply removed the smaller pieces that would be a choking hazard and only offered the bigger pieces. And of course, supervision is ALWAYS of paramount importance.
7. Set of Good Quality Building Blocks
Blocks are blocks. Whether it’s a set of $10 blocks from Kmart or a $200 set of Grimm’s building blocks, they all serve the purpose of encouraging children to build, construct, create, imagine, design, engineer, experiment, problem-solve etc.
We have a set of natural wooden blocks from Zart Art that my children love and use often in their play as well as a basic set of colourful patterned blocks from Kmart.
But if I were to recommend one set of blocks in particular, it would be the Grimm’s Large Stepped Pyramid. It ticks all the boxes for being a set of good quality blocks. I like that the blocks are big and chunky (honestly much bigger than you would expect) and would be suitable for even younger toddlers. I also like the fact that the colours are of different shades and gradients and would be such a great resource for colour exploration (If you haven’t already noticed, I am big on toys that encourage colour exploration).
But the main reason why this would be my top choice for a building blocks set is the fact that these blocks are all mathematically proportionate to each other so it will be such a handy resource for visualising mathematical concepts and learning through play.
Edited: At the point of writing this blog spot, we haven’t yet bought the Grimms Large Stepped Pyramid. We were still saving up for it but I knew its potential and felt it was necessary to include it in this roundup. We’ve since added it to our toy collection and I’ve written up a more comprehensive post about why I’ve chosen to invest in the Grimms Large Stepped Pyramid. Read it here.
8. Gluckskafer Building Slats
These Gluckskafer building slats is the latest addition to our collection of open-ended toys. We’ve only had it since August yet in just 4 short months, this has quickly risen to Top 10 position in our house and has been played with every single day. We’ve used them to make roads, mazes, 3D structures and buildings, create patterns and designs, as loose parts etc.
Just like the Grimm’s Large Stepped Pyramid I mentioned previously, the colours are of different shades and gradients so they are perfect for colour exploration activities (Side note: other complementary resources would include the “Colour Pantone” book and paint chips which you can get free from any local hardware store).
Once again, these are also all mathematically proportionate to each other so they too will be such a handy resource for visualising mathematical concepts and learning through play. If the Grimm’s large stepped pyramid is way out of your budget, this could be a great alternative worth considering.
9. Grimm’s Large Rainbow
OK I have to include a Grimm’s product on this list. I just have to. Grimm’s wooden toys are world-renowned, and for good reason! Besides being open-ended, I love that their wood is sourced from sustainable forests. The unique wood grain from every single product is just stunning and truly one of a kind. And the fact that they use non-toxic dyes to get the bright beautiful colours they are known for, thus making it safe for use from birth? TICK TICK TICK!
Now if there is only ONE Grimm’s item that I can recommend as a starting point, it would be the large stacking rainbow without a doubt. It is so simple and minimalist in design, yet offers so much in terms of creative possibilities and imaginative endeavours. Less IS more and it couldn’t be more perfect to describe this particular product.
With essentially only 12 pieces of wood and at only age 1 and 2, my children have somehow managed to come up with a thousand and one ways of using these on their own initiative so I know this is definitely one toy that will grow with them over the years and I honestly can’t wait to see what else they will come up with as they develop and mature in the years to come.
I know my children so well. I know their interests and what they gravitate to, and I know the insane possibilities that this toy could bring.
My 2yo lives and breathes imaginative play and small world play so I know the Wobbel board would add another dimension to her play that she hasn’t had the opportunity to explore or tap into yet.
My 1yo is my active little one who loves movements of all kinds. She’s a jumper, a climber, a roller, a runner, a crawler and the one who first used the largest Grimm’s rainbow piece as a rocker between my girls, so I know the Wobbel for her in particular would be the perfect invitation to explore all the wonderful goodness of movement and physical play.
LESS IS MORE
Now I am fully aware that the majority of the toys on this list would be considered a massive investment for many (me included), which is why in some cases, I have opted to DIY or to find cheaper alternatives for a start just to test the waters of whether my children would use it sufficiently to make it worth the hefty price tag. Some of these are also STILL on our wishlist as we slowly put aside money to save for it.
Because of the stringent criteria that I place on the toys that enter our house, I’ve honestly never had to go through our toy collection and do massive toy culls, nor do we have toys simply just sitting in a corner or at the back of a cupboard unused and unloved.
With Christmas round the corner, it can be very tempting to pile our children with many different toys and presents (couple of medium to big items and several stocking fillers for instance for each child). For us personally this year, we are very blessed to have family members offer to chip in for a Wobbel as a shared gift for the children and it would most likely be the only present for them this year and I have no problems with that.
I truly believe that less is more and if we were to only just have these 10 toys in our house, I’m confident that my children would still be able to get YEARS of engaged play out of them 🙂
p.s. Want to make sure that the toys you are thinking of purchasing are as open-ended as these toys in our Top 10 list? Here’s my “FREE Curated List of 70+ Open-Ended Toys and Resources” that I’ve created just for you so you can be sure you are making informed toy purchases. Click the button below to get your FREE download .
Lovely post! I have a few of the items from that list and this year for the kids birthday in December (we don’t do gifts for Christmas since their birthdays are so close) they are getting a wobbel board and peg dolls (they are turning 4yro and 1yro) plus a set of magnetic tiles I got for free in a giveaway on Instagram. 🙂
My 4yro son is obsessed with his magnetic tiles and will surely love the new addition. He was never very into the wooden blocks, though, or the rainbow. I still keep them and encourage play with them, but my son’s choice is always magnetic tiles, Lego and the Schleich animals.
I was wondering why you chose plastic animals vs. wooden animals? I really love both. The plastic animals look so much more realistic and they are cheaper. We have switched over to mostly wooden toys or open ended toys recently but I can’t decided whether to invest in wooden animals or get well made plastic ones.
I’m looking to buy some DIY peg dolls and was wondering what paint do you use to paint yours and where did you get them? If it’s ok with you may I know what is the brand called and also your experience with it please?
What a lovely list of toys! I so wish we could afford some of those lovely Grimm’s sets. I see in several pictures of small world play you’ve got toadstools, trees, and the like. Where did you purchase those? My daughter would go nuts for the toadstools! Thanks!
My wife and I are looking for toys to get our daughter. She’ll be six months old next month. You mentioned that big, chunky blocks are good for younger toddlers so hopefully she can use them now and grow into them.