It’s tempting to get your kid every shiny new toy they ask for. But some toys are better than others when it comes to actually stimulating your child’s brain while also keeping them entertained. The parents on the Engadget staff know this well, and we’ve tried out a bunch of educational toys with our kids, with various results. These are some of the ones that have had staying power with our children — and even we adults have to admit we found them pretty fun, too.
There are tons of building toys out there, from LEGO, to Tegu, to the classic wooden block. But one of my favorites (and my kid’s) are Magna-Tiles. These large, colorful construction toys come in a variety of sizes and shapes and click together, or to other surfaces, with the aid of powerful magnets. They can be combined to form simple shapes like cubes and pyramids, or arranged to make magnetic art on a garage door. Plus there are themed packs that can add windows, staircases or even functional cranes to the playsets.
These are open-ended building toys that don’t have set instructions for making a particular scene or item. They’re safe for a three-year-old, and fun for much older kids, too. Honestly, as a nearly 40-year-old man, even I have a blast finding new and interesting ways to create ever more elaborate structures with my son. We’ve built castles, spaceships, racecars and even a ferry terminal complete with a moveable boarding ramp.
At $120 for a 100 piece set, Magna-Tiles certainly aren’t cheap, but they’re definitely the sort of toy that will keep your child entertained for years to come, while also helping them learn valuable problem solving skills. — Terrence O’Brien, Managing Editor
Kindle Kids Edition
I can tell you first hand that Amazon’s Fire tablets for kids are great for little ones. They can withstand the carelessness of a young child and offer access to tons of content with parental controls. However, once your kid gets a little older a dedicated device for books with fewer distractions is a better option. And for exactly that reason, Amazon makes a kid-friendly version of its Kindle e-reader.
The device comes with a protective cover and one year of the company’s Kids+ service for unlimited access to books ($4.99/month afterwards). There are no videos or games on the Kindle Kids, but it does offer access to Audible. It can store books for offline reading and battery life lasts for weeks at a time. Most importantly, parental controls allow you to monitor content and a dedicated dashboard keeps tabs on their reading habit over time. — Billy Steele, Senior News Editor
Lovevery play kits
It can be a daunting task picking the best toys to help your baby learn and develop through the toddler and preschool years. Lovevery tries to reduce the stress by doing all the picking for you. It’s a mail-order service that delivers specifically timed play kits designed around Montessori tenets for different developmental windows. Each box is a mix of toys and books (or cards for little babies) that start at birth and go all the way up to four-years-old. The kits come every two months through the first year. At this point, things get understandably more complex and the boxes arrive every three months.
The kits aren’t cheap: the boxes for babies are $80 each and when you hit one year they go up to $120. I can attest after nearly a year and a half that the service is great. It has been nice to refresh our child’s toys with things that are more appropriate for his developmental stage on a regular basis. Everything is safe and well-built, and most importantly, highly engaging. — B.S.
Smart Lab: Smart Circuits
When it comes to introducing kids to electronics there are a ton of options, but I personally like the Smart Circuits kit. It can take a kid from simple blinking lights to complex motion-controlled games. The snap-together baseboard can lie flat on a table like a regular breadboard, but it can also be folded into a cube or the pieces can be attached at a 90-degree angle. This gives kids an extra element to play with when they graduate to designing their own circuits.
The kit itself only has a few pieces, but they’re quite flexible. And they’re all housed in large colorful plastic that should be easy for a kid to handle. There’s the usual electronics kid fare, like LEDs, a speaker, a potentiometer and two buttons. But there’s also a tilt switch, a light sensor and a microprocessor capable of handling some relatively robust tasks. The kit comes with instructions for 50 projects, but with the parts available a creative child could build quite a few more.
My one critique is that the jumper wires can be tough to insert and might require a bit of patience — something we know not every eight-year-old has an abundance of. — T.O.
Playskool Shape Sorter
A shape sorter is an awesome toy for younger kids because it encourages hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, problem-solving and even vocabulary (by identifying the names of shapes and colors). My kids have a few of them, but the one I like most is this Playskool model and here’s why. The lid latches, which means they can’t just dump the shapes out easily; they have to learn how to work the mechanics of the lid as well. Also, the multi-colored shapes have tactile patterns on them that match the area of the box they’re supposed to fit into, and that gives me another teaching opportunity. The whole thing is durable, too — my son likes to chew on the shapes and my daughter likes to stand on the box, but despite that abuse, there’s not so much as a dent or a scratch on it. And because it’s only $12, it makes a great gift if you’re buying for someone else’s kiddo. — Amber Bouman, Associate Editor, Parenting
The Yoto Player is the perfect toy for a young child who wants to play their own tunes and stories, but who isn’t ready for an iPad or smart speaker of their own. Yoto’s cute design and blocky, pixel-like display looks distinctly retro. It’s detailed enough for kids to make out images, but it’s insufficient for video, which should actually be good news for parents worried about too much screen time. Yoto calls the player a “carefully connected” speaker: You bring it online during the initial setup, but from there kids can access safe songs and other content through physical cards. — Devindra Hardawar, Senior Editor
Kiwi Crates subscription
I am, admittedly, a sucker for a good subscription box. But Kiwi Crate is the only one that doesn’t feel like an indulgence. Each month my three-year-old gets a collection of simple DIY toys, crafts and games built around a theme. For instance, a recent box was all about bioluminescent animals. Inside was a plush lightning bug that we had to stuff ourselves and shape using hair ties; a mushroom that had us painting a Slurpee lid and then dotting it with glow-in-the-dark stickers; and a dancing, glowing jellyfish as well as several window clings of sea creates for him to create scenes with.
Past kits have covered farm life, dinosaurs and simple machines like ramps. The stuff inside the box is usually pretty simple (think: cardboard, felt and wood). It’s definitely not built to last, but my kid has gotten plenty of use out of each piece.
The best part is the crates will grow with him. As he gets older the projects will get more complex (and the price will go up). Later boxes include everything from screen-printing tools, to trebuchet kits and even robots. — T.O.
The Kano PC may look at first like a cheap Surface knock-off, but based on our testing, it’s also a perfect introduction to the computer world for young children. It’s partially DIY — the base unit is a Windows 10 tablet with a pre-installed CPU, memory and storage, but kids will have to plug in a colorful battery and speaker module to get it going. Kano encourages youngsters to take a close look at all of the PC’s clearly labeled hardware with the bundled magnifying glass. And once they get going, it’s still a decently capable Windows 10 PC, with a Celeron CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 1080p webcam. Heck, it even comes with a keyboard cover, something Microsoft still hasn’t bundled with the Surface tablets. — D.H.
Playtime Engineering: Blipblox
The Blipblox may look like a simple noise-maker for kids, but this gadget is much more than just a toy. While the device is loaded with 300 melodies and a synchronized light show, it also packs a capable digital synthesizer engine. There’s an oscillator with the usual assortment of synth parameters along with an amp envelope, two LFOs, modulation envelope and a low-pass filter. The Blipblox also has a MIDI input for use with a keyboard or other accessories in addition to a ¼-inch output. Lastly, it runs on three AA batteries or plugged in via a USB cable. Blipblox can teach kids about music through a basic approach to instruments and synthesis, but its features are advanced enough to offer noise-making magic for parents, too. — B.S.
Montessori Busy Board
My kids are currently fascinated with snaps, zippers and closures, which is fun because it means it’s easy to amuse them, but awkward, too, because they often decide to undo the closures on the shirt I’m wearing. A busy board capitalizes on this curiosity by offering several different clasps, snaps, zippers, buttons and openings for little ones to work their fingers on. It intrigues children by activating their senses and helps them develop their fine-motor skills and problem solving by using real-world obstacles. It also adheres to the Montessori philosophy of simple, wooden toys that help children explore the world around them through play. The deMoca busy board is one of my favorites because it has bright, eye-catching colors, and 10 sensory activities including a zipper, a buckle, a latch and Velcro. It’s easy to bring along on trips, and deMoca also makes a “Quiet Book” — a soft-cover, fabric version that’s washable. — A.B.