15 Worthwhile Toys for the Early Years

If you’re like me, you like keeping money in your pocket/bank, you don’t like your house being overrun by toys, and basically you hate wasting time and money on anything your children will outgrow or lose interest in within the lifespan of a housefly. (They don’t live long folks.)

As the twins (now 1 years old!) have really begun playing more independently, jointly, and with things, I’ve lost myself in thought about toys. I’ve been pretty picky about toys, so thankfully, I am fairly happy with the amount of and type of toys in my house, for the most part. But let’s face it: not all toys are created equally. Some toys stand the test of time and parent/teacher sanity, and some don’t.

Before I get to a list of my top toy picks, the teacher in me can’t help but give a little background on the educational aspects of play and toys.

Play is a tricky, tricky word in the education world. But it shouldn’t be. As an early childhood educator, for me, play is EVERYTHING. I’ve explored play before in my Rigor in Play Series, which emphasizes not only the importance of play, but how we can absolutely achieve educational rigor through play.

As teachers and parents, we owe it to our children to dedicate some serious time and thought into what toys and materials are at their fingertips. I firmly believe that age ranges and recommendations on toys, books, and such are flexible; however, the adults who best know a child must intentionally match play materials to her interests and abilities.

So, take Lev Vygotsky’s concept of scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development (See Rigor in Play Part 2, for some of my examples of this, and this quick definition of ZPD too.) and apply it to how you choose, arrange, and facilitate use of play materials.

Okay, aside from all that educational pedagogy and vernacular, parents and teachers also want to know they are spending their money wisely, on materials that will last. I mean last time, interest, multiple children, and multiple ages and stages. With those parameters in mind, I scrutinized all the toys in my house and also thought about my years teaching Pre-K and Kindergarten to come up with a  list of…

15 toys good for the baby, toddler, and preschool years that are totally worth your money and space!

Of course, there are some things to keep in mind: play will look different at the different ages and stages, and it’s up to us adults to constantly supervise and check for any potential hazards. But, from my experience, play can be safe, challenging, developmentally appropriate, and FUN with these toys, for baby and up! Since 15 is a lot, I’ve broken it up into 3 parts, so be sure to stay tuned for more! You’ll find some Amazon links at the end.

Let’s start with the toys that in my opinion and experience you can’t go wrong with from the first moment baby is interested in playing with toys.

1. Stacking/Nesting Cups

I wish I could find the specific brand that we were gifted back when my firstborn was 6 months old. Man, these things have held up! They are a great example of simple open-ended toys. They can be stacked and nested in various ways. They work for water and sand play. They double as teethers for babies (like my twins) who want nothing to do with actual teething toys and just want to teeth on everything else. My big boy uses them as representational objects for ice cream cones, birthday cakes, and more. They introduce concepts like size, color, texture, even numbers and letters (depending on what visuals they feature). We’ve even worked on one-to-one correspondence and sorting/matching with other play materials, like match box cars or Little People® toys.

Best perk: Since they nest, these will take up almost no space in your house, diaper bag, or car.

2. Plush Toys 

Some of our favorites are from the Jellycat brand, Pottery Barn Kids, and Target, because they have some of the softest, most snuggly plush toys, with ears, arms, or tails just the right length for baby to drag around so sweetly. Babies love mouthing, hugging, banging, and pulling along their favorite plush toys. A beloved plush can also become YOUR best friend if you can establish it as a “transfer object”, one that they cling to rather than needing to cling to you to soothe or drift off to sleep (for babies 6 months or older, because of SIDS risks prior to that.)

As children get older, they’ll still love the cuddliness and warmth of plush toys, but they’ll enjoy them looking more scientifically accurate. For toddler and pre-schoolers, there are a lot of good options, but just looking at our collection, it seems we have several made by Aurora and the Wild Life Artists that are great for more complex imaginary and science-based play.

Bonus perk: My toddler makes sure that every child leaves the house with a soft toy for the car, and when he is reluctant to quit playing in order to get out the door, I can always get him moving by asking him “Which friend are you going to bring today?” Puppy Dog, Mr. Croc, ovejita, Baby Elephant, Búfalo…  they sure get around. And when we are out, these guys serve as great mediators for redirection and reminders of expected behavior. For example, he’ll listen SO much better if I say, “Mr. Croc is going too far, can you remind him that he should stay near the babies and Mommy.” Or if it’s Puppy Dog that I’m threatening because he isn’t listening, “Puppy Dog is going to have to go in the stroller if he isn’t helping you be a good listener.”

3. Duplos

Big boy was obsessed with parking garages for a few weeks.

Why do Megablocks even exist? Seriously, Duplos (the medium sized Legos) are PERFECT for baby hands and big enough to not pose a choking hazard. Plus, Megablocks really don’t interlock well, they’re so big, and once your baby gets their hands on Duplos, your Megablocks will be obsolete. Those are three big frustrating attributes, so just skip them and start with the much superior Duplos. I think I’m in danger of going on and on and on about Duplos, so let me just say:

Duplos bricks and Lego bricks can actually be used together, so these bad boys will be used for YEARS! There are MANY shapes, sizes, colors, and figures of Duplos, so children can explore many different concepts all at once and as their little brains grow. They are open-ended toys that help develop one-to-one correspondence, hand-eye coordination, imagination, perseverance, problem solving… oops, I think I started going on and on after all. They’re awesome. The. End.

Best perk: Parents and teachers will have just as much fun (or more!) playing with these. Just remember to follow your child’s lead and facilitate rather than lead play.

4. Plastic or Wooden Cars

Toy cars provide some extra fun and great physics lessons on the playground!

Look for cars that are a good size for little hands to grasp and manipulate, without any parts that will break or come apart easily, and with functional wheels. We love Melissa and Doug’s! Babies will love pushing them back and forth, and back and forth, for some happy minutes of independent play. I’ll admit it. I let my babies even play with metal matchbox cars, and its okay, I promise. Read more in The Little Old Ladies Who Drive Me Nuts! You can’t always choose what your child will love, but if they’re playing safely, then let ’em play!

Later, babies will begin to line them up, crash them, and as they become full-fledged imaginative little toddlers, there will be all sorts of traffic jams, pile-ups, racing games, break-downs, tows, etc. Since these aren’t that big either, you can easily grow a diverse collection without taking up too much space. (Just toss them all in a bin at the end of the day.) That’ll ensure that multiple children of mixed ages can play cooperatively and with sustained interest and attention.

Best perk: Older kids can pair toy cars with toy figures, blocks, boxes, and other play materials to create more elaborate play scenarios.

5. Bristle Builders

Like Duplos, these are interlocking blocks that come in various shapes, sizes, and colors. My babies have all LOVED them for teething, bath toys, and grasping at an early, EARLY age. I currently have the basic shapes only in order to avoid smaller parts that could pose a choking hazard.

My toddler is starting to create some cool things with them, like cars and planes, but my favorite is when he stacks the circular pieces from largest to smallest, then sticks a small rectangular piece on top and walks around singing “Happy Birthday”. I’ve seen Pre-K students do wonders with these things and look forward to seeing what else my kids will do with them as they grow. Seriously, I’ve seen children construct elaborate structures that I would never have dreamed of.

Bonus perk: Sensory fun!

What are some of your favorite toys that pass the test of time, interest, open-endedness, and mixed ages and stages?

Recommended read:

0 to 3: How to Play with Babies

2 thoughts on “15 Worthwhile Toys for the Early Years”

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I’m so glad that my blog makes sense to other people too. Duplos are my favorite gift to give for a one year old’s birthday, because it makes parents think and realize, that yup, maybe printed age recommendations deserve another look and that play can become more imaginative and challenging earlier than we sometimes give kids credit for.

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