Blocks are only the beginning: Best toys to build with!

Oona Baker
September 18, 2009

There are some toys are universally classic, and children gravitate towards open-ended toys that let them construct, add-on, and create! No longer limited to the old-school varieties of construction materials like Tinker Toys and Erector Sets, toy companies have taken us to the moon, deep under sea, and to the former Soviet Union with construction toys. We all have the quintessential picture of us as a child somewhere: grinning proudly beside a wobbly construction masterpiece that we wouldn't let Mom clear off the dining room table for weeks. Children love to build and here are some ways to help their love of construction grow!

For the littlest builders, soft blocks and nesting sets allow small fingers to grasp, manipulate, and transfer. The Internet is flush with tutorials for making your own set of cloth alphabet blocks, or sweet squares that feature storytime characters, or family members. Alphabet blocks can be charmingly retro, counting blocks come in mod colors and patterns, even preschoolers can fashion soft stacking toys out of felt for younger siblings.

Toddlers (and much older children) left alone with a stack of cardboard bricks will enjoy the visceral pleasure of cause and effect: I can make this, and I can smash it down! Bricks become bedrooms, castles, fortresses, and restaurants in an open area. Look for cardboard bricks at church rummage sales or on Amazon, they will be one of your best investments for many years to come.

The two giants of construction are Lego and Playmobil. Open-ended play can start in the toddler years with Duplo blocks, and then you'll find yourself kneeling, picking tiny Playmobil eggs out of the carpet as you delight in setting up the small-scaled chicken coop just as much--or more--than your preschooler. The magic of these toys is in the minutiae, your child is the creator of entire tiny worlds, operating rooms, circus tents,fiefdoms, and pyramids. Not only do these toys build fine motor skills, they expand the imagination macroscopically.

Spend an afternoon hunting around on Etsy and you'll see how easy it is to return to simpler times and let baby develop fine motor skills with eco-friendly unadorned blocks, crafted by hand from reclaimed wood. If you have a daughter crazy about all things automobile, they may enjoy adding windows, doors, and wheels with Automobloxs, and taking them for a spin around the kitchen floor. Construct (and deconstruct) Russian landmarks with HABA's master builder set, or build a cozy space that's just for the birds with the Connectagons Treetop interlocking collection from Magic Cabin.

Sometimes just the act of stacking (and restacking, and restacking) can keep a little one fascinated for hours, and if you ransack your recycling bin, you just might find the materials to keep a cooped-up toddler building and creating a miniature city (and road, and airport, and garage). Gather oatmeal containers, toilet paper rolls, tinfoil, strawberry baskets, and cast-off juice boxes to fashion a tiny empire. (and then name it!)

On a rainy day, when your children are sitting noses pressed to the front window, begging to go ooooooooutside and do anything, you may save the day by unearthing a big cardboard box and letting them build tunnels or cut out doors and windows, even a deck of cards or set of dominoes can be building fodder for hours. Children are by nature architects, and it's fun to remove all the bells and whistles and let them get busy with simple elements to stack and balance and knock down--which we all know is the best part!

From the Parents

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