As a mom of four, I know how hard it is to determine which toys are passing fads and which are really worth the splurge. Buying toys can both add up fast and create a lot of clutter. I learned the hard way that spending more on fewer quality toys is a much better investment than buying a bunch of small toys that are quickly tossed aside or break without much use. I've got the top toys that are worth their weight in gold because they hold kids' interest, teach them new skills and stay in good enough shape to pass down to siblings. Keep this list handy for big occasions like birthdays and holidays or for when your playroom needs a refresh!
Splurge-Worthy Building Set
I had seen Magna-Tiles on toy store shelves but doubted they were worth the cost until my son started nursery school and couldn't wait to go to school just to play with them. I wanted my son to enjoy himself on the weekends too so when his birthday rolled around we got him an original set of Magna-Tiles ($110) and built our collection from there. Our Magna-Tiles have been everything from an ice castle to a multi-level parking garage. More recently my kids have really liked Magna-Tile's newer CreateOn sets including this fun School House ($84.95) that can be built into multiple configurations with school-tiles that flip over to reveal the ABCs.
Realistic Ride-On Toy
If your little ones are anything like mine, they can't wait to grow up and ride a horse or get behind the wheel of a truck. When we first moved to a house with a garage, a ride-on toy was one of my first purchases for my kids and it's been in heavy rotation for years. Kid Trax is known for making ride-on toys that are realistic and that last. My horse-crazy child loves Josie the Rideamal ($399) since it not only feels like she is riding a horse but she loves feeding and grooming Josie too. My son absolutely loves trucks and feels like the king of the neighborhood in his Recycling Truck ($140) that has a real working level to dump out his accumulated paper and empty boxes. It's the first thing his friends want to play with when they come over!
Few toys in our playroom allow for as much creativity as Playmobil. Playmobil's 1.2.3. sets are aimed at those chubby little toddler fingers while still being durable enough to withstand anything a preschooler can throw their way. The Playmobil 1.2.3 My First Train Set ($62.99) comes with everything they need to get going on pretend play. I love that Playmobil sets always come with plenty of props so my kids never get bored and so that siblings or friends can play together. I also appreciate that small and big sets can be combined so that every time my children receive a new Playmobil set interest in the ones they already have is renewed.
Love Your LEGO & DUPLO!
LEGO sets are legendary for a reason. After parenting four kids I have learned that no other toy can be played with for so many years in so many ways. I also appreciate that LEGO accurately gives age ranges from DUPLO sets for toddlers to Junior sets for preschoolers all the way to expert sets for older kids. Toddlers can start with larger DUPLO sets like the My Town Family House ($124).
After too many summer days wondering how I would keep my kids happy and entertained, I gave in and ordered an insta-worthy huge sprinkler. This pretty PoolCandy Gigantic Rainbow Sprinkler ($50) makes our yard look like a scene from Oz and cools us all down quickly. My kids enjoy running back and forth under the colorful arches and I enjoy the colorful photos. (Note, these are not meant for play without adult supervision).
A Better Bike
When my daughter was in Kindergarten, one of her friends had been struggling to ride a bike for a couple of years, only to hop on my daughter's and take off effortlessly. Her father is convinced the reason is that my daughter has a light, well-made bike with some bells-and-whistles that makes riding so much easier than the inexpensive clunker he thought would be a good starter bike. The lesson learned is to always invest in a quality bike that will not just make it easier for kids to learn how to ride but will stay in good enough shape to be passed down to siblings.
A sturdy balance bike is perfect for toddlers getting used to the idea of gliding and balancing before learning how to pedal. Balance bikes have been shown to teach skills that help kids learn how to ride bikes earlier and my toddlers have always started off on the same Strider balance bike ($150) that is still going strong on kid number four! When they graduate to training wheels and big-kid bikes, my family sticks with Schwinn, the same tried-and-true brand I had as a kid and still ride today. My daughter has ridden her Schwinn Krate Evo ($211) with training wheels and without, on sidewalks, in alleyways and through parks, and it is no worse for the wear.
After having four toddlers I can assure all parents with nearly 100% certainty that your child will go through a dinosaur phase. Lean into the desire to learn about the big creatures who once roamed the earth. While we love the Schleich Dinosaur Research Station ($90) the recommended age is 4 and up, so for your tots, invest in a dino-themed playmat like this one from BAODLON ($25.99) that little ones can pretend play on and you can gradually add the included toys as kids reach that stage.
All of my kids have spent many happy hours playing with trains; investing in a good set early on helped ensure that our set would last through heavy usage and would be in good enough shape to be passed down to siblings. Since trains are a classic toy with universal appeal, our set is one of the few toys I am going to keep to pass onto any grandchildren I may have one day. This Hape Wooden Railway Mighty Mountain Mine Set ($155) is a great option because multiple levels add to the fun and interest. My kids have also really enjoyed having a train table to use for trains, art projects, and building with blocks. An alternative is a Train Table and Train Set ($115) that comes with everything you need to get your child started on the rails! Both sets are compatible with other Hape tracks and trains so your collection can grow over time.
I like for all of my children's toys to be fun and games with at least a little skill-building thrown in. Some toys are heavier on learning than others. I like Skoolzy's Montessori Set ($58) because the colorful pieces draw my kids in and they can choose from lacing beads, stacking pegs, and more, plus toys like this help with fine motor skills. I also like that all of these activities pack up well into an included tote bag so it's great for travel or to bring when I know the kids will need to wait at a restaurant or doctor's office.
Cook Up Creativity
There is something all kids do every day without fail—eat. That means that kids naturally have an interest in what goes on in the kitchen. For my kids, that definitely meant wanting to help cook and chop. As toddlers, my solution is to encourage my kids to explore from a safe distance and let them "cook" anything their hearts desire in their own toy kitchen. Nearly all toy kitchens will be around for years so I like having a neutral style that can withstand toddlers slamming the refrigerator door like the Guidecraft Compact All-in-One Kitchen. ($325)
A Darling Dollhouse
I love watching my kids play with their dollhouse which serves as a blank slate for them to act out anything that is on their minds, from what it will be like to bring a new sibling home to not wanting to go to sleep. The HABA Little Friends Dollhouse Town Villa ($99.99) has withstood hours of play. I really like how my kids can change this dollhouse from a family home to a Ninja hideout just by changing the figures and accessories they use from their existing toy stash.
I learned early on as a Mom that blocks create endless possibilities for play and learning. Babies can use them to stack, toddlers begin with the simple structure building and preschoolers build houses, castles, and race tracks. A big, sturdy set of blocks should be in every playroom! Guidecraft Unit Blocks are made of real wood that can stand up to toddlers who like to knock their towers over. I like that these blocks are not painted so they offer more possibilities for building. I also like that this set comes with a good amount of non-square pieces like arches, curves, and ramps to allow for more creativity. Cost ranges from $49.95 for a 28-piece set to $275.95 for a 135-piece set.
—Jamie Davis Smith