An early childhood educator who’s now homeschooling her kids weighs in on her absolute favourite toys for imaginative and creative play at any age
One of the most common questions I get asked as a teacher mum of 3 is “What are your must-have open ended toys for kids/babies/toddlers/pre-schoolers?” Before I share what’s on my Top 10 list, I want to quickly describe what an open-ended toy is.
Simply put, open-ended toys are toys that can be played with in multiple and varied ways. Open-ended toys encourage endless creativity and imagination. 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 pre-schooler and even beyond.
With that said, here is a list of toys that would make the Top 10 in my house. Most are tried and tested favourites of my children, but a couple are still on our wish list because good quality open-ended toys ARE an investment. I’ve included the latter here even without having trialled them because I know the potential and possibilities that certain open-ended toys offer.
Click through to see my top picks!
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.
Click here to read more about why I love Magnetic Tiles!
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 also used them as dress ups and role-play, props for dancing with and as backdrops for creating small worlds.
Find them in Singapore at: Noah’s Toys, Etsy
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 my child 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.
Some of the ways we’ve used our animal figurines include props for sensory play. Because they are plastic, they are easy to wash and clean after use. We also use them to complement and enhance book-inspired play, for retelling familiar stories and creating small worlds for imaginative play.
Our peg dolls are one of my proudest DIY attempts to date. They are 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. As a wonderful bonus, we also use them for colour-matching/ sorting activities.
Find them in Singapore at: Lazada, Playhao
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.
Find them at: Amazon.com
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, transient art, filling and transferring, as pretend food etc.
Side note: I introduced these pebbles to my 1-year-old 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.
Find them in Singapore at: Barefoot Toys
Whether it’s a set of $10 blocks from Kmart or a $200 set of Grimm’s building blocks, they all encourage children to build, construct, create, 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 in particular, it would be the Grimm’s Large Stepped Pyramid (Disclaimer: This is not a product we have personally tried and tested but it’s on my personal wish list for the kids). I like that the blocks are big and chunky, 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.
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.
These Gluckskafer building slats are the latest addition to our collection of open-ended toys. We use them daily 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. They 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.
Find them in Singapore at: Barefoot Toys
OK I have to include a Grimm’s product on this list. 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 definitely be the large stacking rainbow. 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, 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.
Find it in Singapore at: Noah’s Toys & Games
Is it a rocker? Is it a bridge? Is it a stool? Is it a seat?
My 3-year-old lives and breathes imaginative play and mostly uses this to add to her small world creations. My 1-year-old 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 the Wobbel for her in particular is the perfect invitation to explore all the wonderful goodness of movement and physical play.
Find it in Singapore at: Playhao
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. Some of these are also STILL on our wish list as we slowly put aside money to save for it. However, 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.
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.