Best Toys for Kids and Toys to Avoid

three children playing with toys and title best toys for gifted kids

Looking for great toys for bright kids? I’ve got a list of toys that make great Christmas gifts (or other holiday gift) or birthday presents.

Choosing toys for bright kids can be tricky. Quality is an issue because they’re attuned to the aesthetics at an early age. Longevity is an issue because boredom is a national pastime for many gifted kids.

If you are trying to pick toys for a child, I’ve separated my favorites into age group categories, but feel free to ignore those breakdowns if you prefer. I’ve even got some ideas for those pesky tween and teen years!

Below the list of recommendations, I’ve got a list of toys you should avoid, which is also important!

While I specialize in gifted kids, I think these are great choices for every kid. Ages may need to be adjusted a little bit for different needs.

If you’re already set for what toys you need or want, you can skip to the toys to avoid.

Note: Sometimes I use affiliate links, which means that if you click through and buy something, I get a few pennies (to buy more books!). It will never cost you anything extra.

Toys for Birth to Age 3

small boy playing with blocks

Teaching Clock

Hear me out. I know a clock doesn’t seem like that great of a present, but this one is special because of something that seems super simple: it has “past” and “to” printed on the clock face. That may be a small thing, but it’s unusual, and it’s essential for teaching how to tell time.

✅ Check out the teaching clock on Amazon here.

Dimple Stack

The importance of stacking toys cannot be overstated. Babies and toddlers need to stack stuff. One little-known benefit is that stacking helps babies develop their core strength as they sit and move at the same time. It promotes visual and spatial awareness. It lets them practice their pincer grip (critical). I like this particular set because it lets you practice colors as well.

While well-made and with fabulous tactility, I don’t prefer wooden stacking toys because they become projectiles that can do real damage.

✅ Find the dimple stacking toy here.

Fine Motor Toys

I’ve written an entire article on how to develop your child’s fine motor skills (and why you should). That article has loads of recommendations for toys that do just that, so if you are looking for a few more ideas for a young child, my strong suggestion would be that you read that article.

scissors cutting paper with title how to develop your child's fine motor skills

Toys for Kids Ages 3 – 5

Play Knife Set

Cooking and working together in the kitchen is a powerhouse of playful learning, so this particular item is a gateway drug to all things kitchen for kids. It says ages 5 & up, so be mindful of your child’s manual dexterity.

✅ Check out the play knife set here.

Pattern Play Magnets

I’ve got two possibilities for you with this, but in my (not even pretending to be humble opinion), these give you a huge bang for your buck. Part toy, part math practice, part fine motor skill development, part fab activity for multiple ages to use simultaneously…you get a lot. Hold on while I go order one for my granddaughter.

I particulary like this set because of how many pieces it has (hence, loads of possibilities) and the design cards are really strong.

If you want a magnetic one (for the car or to decrease loss), I also like this option:

✅ Explore the larger, non-magnetic set here.

✅ Explore the smaller, magnetic set here.

Musical Desk Bells

If you can handle the noise, these are wonderful. My daughter-in-law Jennifer is an elementary music teacher, and she’s persuaded me to the joy and benefit of musical toys. This set of bells comes with sheet music that kids can use to play songs, but they can also derive a lot of pleasure from simply tapping the bells. They do double duty because they can be a part of pretend office play as well. They’re recommended for kids ages 3 and up, but I think that’s most because there’s a choking possibility. I’d definitely play these with my 18-month-old granddaughter.

✅ Look at this bell set more closely here.

KEVA

This is another toy that says it starts at five, but I have personally spent an entire day with kids as young as three playing this for the entire day. The entire day. They took over a room. It was when I was the Youth & Education Ambassador for Mensa, and it was something to behold. These are perhaps one of the few toys I feel like is an absolute must in a gifted classroom, and they’re just as great for a home. I’m linking to a small set, but the sky is the (literal) limit.

✅ Find out more about KEVA planks here.

Toys for Ages 6 – 10

Crayola Light-up Tracing Pad

Available in multiple colors, this light-up tracing pad is perfect for traveling or stay-at-home budding artists. I love this because it works for both learning and fun. I think this would make a great gift for an elementary school teacher, actually, because it allows kids to trace letters and numbers, not just images. (Note: It needs two AA batteries.)

✅ See the light-up tracing pad here.

Q-BA-MAZE Marble Run

You probably know about these, but just in case… I love them as much as I did when I first recommended them years ago. They’re great for budding engineers, they last and last in durability and interest, and they can be added to. I love toys that do that because it makes storage so much more simple. There are loads of sets. I’m linking to a basic one to get started.

✅ Look at how cool these are here.

Marble Run

The Q-BA-MAZE is an update of the classic marble run, so if you prefer the original, I recommend those as well. These have some different pieces that make it fun – like the spinners. Pro tip: Don’t have kids set this up on the kitchen table before it has to be cleared for dinner or you will have a reenactment of Mutiny on the Bounty.

✅ Find this awesome marble run here.

Ant Farm

Ant farms are underrated, and I’ve been recommending this brand for over a decade. Ants are incredibly fascinating to watch. I’d suggest combining this with the TED Connection I created about Dr. Gordon’s TED talk on ant colonies that you can find here (free) on the Mensa for Kids site. NOTE: You have to send in the enclosed voucher with a small postage fee to get the ants delivered (which makes sense because otherwise you’d have Amazon warehouses full of dead ants #nobueno).

✅ Find my favorite ant farm here.

Worm Farm

I love worm farms as much as ant farms. They’re incredible! Kids get to construct the habitat, and there’s some learning involved there. The included instructions are not complicated. They don’t come with the worms, but you can find worms locally (or even order them online).

✅ Look at the worm farm more closely here.

Magnetic Building Sticks

These are another option for kids who like Magnatiles. I like the sticks a lot because there’s something about the empty space that is attractive (no pun intended). They’re versatile, and they provide even more manual dexterity development than the tiles. If you have a child whose had the Magnatiles for awhile, these are a great next step.

✅ See why I think the magnetic building sticks are so cool here.

Spirograph

This oldie-but-goodie is still going strong. There’s something so satisfying about making beautiful designs with plastic disks full of holes. They last so long! When I went to get the link, Amazon told me I’d last ordered this set in 2014. It’s awesome. They’ve made a lot of variations, but this original deluxe set is still my favorite. If you teach a little geometry or color theory while playing, your secret’s safe with me.

✅ Take a look at the Spirograph here.

Pro tips:

  • Do not use cheap, flimsy paper. A lightweight cardstock is waaaay better and prevents the frustration of torn paper.
  • Get real pens, not the garbage pens it comes with. I’ve got two recommendations for you, both from PaperMate.

My first choice is the Profile pen (Use the link to see what I mean, even if you don’t have an interest in ordering them right now. The correct ones are tricky to find.) The don’t come in the same variety of colors as the Ink Joy, but the color saturation and ink smoothness is superior.

✅ See the Profile pens here.

My second choice is the Ink Joy. These actually do bring me joy. I’m sharing the smaller set, but if your budget allows, go for the bigger one. The variety of colors in this no-smear pen is astonishing. These are the pens I use every single day for colored ink.

✅ Check out the Ink Joy pens here.

Skeleton

This may seem odd, but this is something I always wanted myself as a kid. On this one, the spine is not articulated, but I wouldn’t expect that at this price point. If you have a child who wants to be a doctor or is interested in science, this is an unusually – and unusually cool – gift. 

✅ Take a look at the skeleton here.

Cell Model

There are loads of STEM-type toys that focus on the physical sciences, but the biological sciences are fascinating as well. Along with the skeleton, worm farm and ant farm, I recommend this cell model. There are loads of models available of all kinds of living things, but since cells are the building blocks of life, I think this makes a great place to start. This would also make a great gift for a science teacher.

✅ See the model of the cell here.

Breyer Horses

File this one under “not cheap, but worth it.” I collected these myself when I was a child, and they are the one toy I truly regret selling at a garage sale when I was about 12. I miss them. I had this Clydesdale that I have strongly considered re-buying because I loved it so much. These models are sturdy, accurate, and will fulfill the horse fantasies of all hippophiles.

I’m linking to the original size (now called the Freedom series), but you can find much smaller (and hence less expensive) versions as well. There are loads of options and accessories. They’re a blend of toy and collectible, and they are fabulous. Yes, there are other, cheaper brands, but this original brand is the king of quality of all the horses.

✅ Explore Breyer horses here.

Lite Brite

I usually recommend this toy for people who want to develop early reading skills because the fine motor development is excellent. Luckily, it’s super fun, too. It’s worth it to splurge on the deluxe set, although an inexpensive basic set is also available, as well. This is a good one for siblings because two makes this even more fun, promise.

✅ Check out the Lite Brite set here.

Magformers

These aren’t the original brand (see below for more on that), but I like the sets of these magnetic blocks available in this brand. I’m linking to the big set, but you can find smaller, less expensive sets as well. There’s something very satisfying about these. Put some pieces in a bag, and you’ve got a great travel toy. The magnets mean that pieces don’t have to be balanced or connected perfectly to stick. The big sets are so flexible and will last for years and years. This is one toy I think belongs in every toy chest.

Tip: The original company makes a glow-in-the-dark set that is amazing!!!

✅ See the regular set here.

✅ See the glow-in-the-dark set here.

Magna-Qubix

This is a marriage made in heaven. Magnatiles (the original maker of the magnetic building blocks) and Qubix together? Sign me up! I love the possibilities in this set, and they can be combined with regular Magnatiles (or the Magformers I mentioned above). If your child already has Magnatiles (or similar), this is a perfect “expansion set.”

✅ Look at this cool marriage of building toys here.

Toys for Ages 11 & Up

For kids over the age of ten, this becomes much more tricky. Some are still interested in traditional toys, while others only want gift cards to favorite stores or electronics.

Because interests vary so widely, I will share general ideas.

  • Gifted kids have early moral concern, and so your twelve-year-old may get a greater thrill than you may realize from having the opportunity to give to another child for Christmas. Consider gifting a shopping trip to choose a few toys to donate. Don’t worry that it’s going to be after Christmas. Shelters and other services can use donations year round.
  • Books. You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you? I’ve written about suggestions you can find here:
  • Experiences like sporting or music events. This can get pricey, and I’m not suggesting bankrupting the family. Our local theater offers rush tickets for $5, and there are also many options for budget friendly experiences.
  • Go old-school. Consider a record player or typewriter or Polaroid-type camera.
  • Try something unexpected. I bought this moon light for my best friend for her birthday, and it’s incredibly intriguing to stare at. For hours.

✅ Check out the moon light here.

You may also consider LED lights for their rooms or this cool book holder for a reader. These kinds of things can be fabulous because so often tweens and teens are so specific in what they want that it’s hard to surprise them. Take an interest they have and find an upgrade they didn’t expect!

✅ See the wonderful book holder here.

Types of Toys to Avoid

Yes, there are toys to avoid. I don’t just mean those that are made with unsafe materials or that will fall apart too easily. They may be worth buying, but it’s important to consider the downsides before purchasing them.

1. Single-Use Toys

There are types of toys that are less likely to result in an optimal experience and may even create a negative environment in the home or classroom. Single use toys are those that are only good for one-time play. The problem with these kinds of toys is the inevitable problem of what to do with them. They tend to hang around, no longer enjoyable. They are an inherent disappointment.

Not long ago, I read about a Japanese man’s theory that everything in your home is sending you messages, some of which are nice (“Please come relax on me” from a comfy couch or “Are you new here???” from those too-small jeans you’ve had hanging in the closet for ten years.). Single-use toys send messages like, “Why am I still here?” and fill you with guilt for keeping them or getting rid of them. You can’t win.

2. Toys that will Cause Fights

If two siblings want the same toy, and you get it for one of them, you’ll find yourself in danger of ending up on the BB & G list yourself. If you get a toy that is a marked improvement over a similar toy belonging to another sibling, trouble will undoubtedly occur. While some may say that these are great opportunities to teach unselfishness and the ways of the world, I say, “Pffft.” There’senough contention in the world to create opportunities for that. Play is frought with difficulty with siblings without deliberately adding to the dynamic.

3. Electronic Toys Pretending to be Learning Toys

Toys that purport to be educational toys are almost always a waste of money. The blinking lights and tinkling sounds may seem to be teaching shapes and letters and numbers, but they are ineffective in doing so, and may even do harm.

That is not how children learn, it’s not how the brain works, and no matter how tempting it may be to think that giving a child a blinking, clicking, glowing, squeaking piece of plastic (with four AA batteries) will give them a head start at school, these toys are far inferior to, well, nearly everything else.

Not only has there been a lot of research about this, there have even been lawsuits over it. You can read about the myth of educational toys in this Washington Post article, and you can read about the rise and fall of Baby Einstein in this article.

4. Toys that Need Replaceable Pieces

I’m not just talking about batteries, although that’s a consideration. I’m talking about toys that have pieces that are consumable or that frequently break and have to be replaced.

This can happen with toys that have small pieces that are easily lost.

The issue is that they end up not having their pieces replaced and become just dust collectors. Like single-use toys, there’s a disappointment danger inherent in them. If you are going to purchase these kinds of toys, go ahead and get some of the replaceable pieces at the same time.

3. Poorly Made Puzzles

Quality puzzles are an excellent purchase. Cheap cardboard puzzles are problematic because the pieces tend to separate on the edges, making them difficult to fit together.

Poorly made puzzles also tend to have inferior images.

Cheap doesn’t mean the actual price. You can find quality puzzles inexpensively at garage sales and online. “Cheap” means poorly made.

Invest in good puzzles. Get wooden ones with grippers for young children.

When you purchase a puzzle for a young child, take a minute to label the pieces. Trust me on this.

4. Toys Too Big to Store

Once, I bought my kids this enormous mountain for their toy cars. It was awesome, and it was huge. The size was part of its attraction, but it was also its downfall.

Before you purchase a toy, make sure you have space for it that really works. Sometimes, we think it can fit, but the ensuing movement of other belongings means that there is a lack of effectiveness in the way things are stored that can cause a daily drag on our mental health. That may seem like a wild overstatement, but toy chaos is a real drain on the psyche.

Just like a too-big sofa may be beautiful but not fit the space, too-large toys create resentment that outlasts the enjoyment they bring.

5. Toys More for You than for Your Child

We all have toys we loved as children. The most bizarre one I owned heated up very, very hot and melted rubbery plastic into different shapes. It was definitely not winning any safety awards.

Sometimes we think/hope our children will love the same toys we did. Sometimes we get them toys we hope they’ll want (like the very intricate chemistry set I bought one of my sons).

Toys should not be aspirational. Make sure that the toys are for the kids, not the kids for the toys.

Wrapping Up:

The past three decades have brought a seemingly unending supply of toys to the market, and finding the ones that will be enjoyable for hours and hours of play, be durable, and will fit the family’s lifestyle can be very difficult.

I hope these ideas have helped give you a place to start and things to consider, if not the absolute perfect toy!

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