While the benefits of techy toys that teach kids basic programming and engineering skills may be more immediately apparent, experts say it’s important for them to play with toys that nurture their creativity, too. “Kids are going to live in a world that’s changing and has problems that we can’t anticipate,” explains Julie King, co-author of How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen. “The way we’re going to solve them is by being creative.” Toys that encourage creativity help kids learn how to problem solve, according to Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making, because they teach them to “hold information in their mind, to think flexibly as things change, and to use self-control.”
Finger paints and pint-size musical instruments might be the first things that come to mind when you’re thinking of creative toys (and they’re certainly great options). But there is a much wider range of toys that inspire creative thought in children, including building blocks, magnetic doodads, and other more whimsical playthings. “Being creative is not just about being artistic,” King explains. According to child psychologist Dr. George Sachs, “Any toy that allows the child to use their imagination and gives them structure, but not necessarily rules or instructions, is helpful to fostering a child’s creativity.” Below, our panel of child psychologists and development experts recommend the best multiuse, open-ended toys to spark kids’ imaginations.
Best building toys
Nearly everyone we spoke to said classic Lego blocks are perfect for fostering creativity. Sachs says playing with Legos “allows the child to develop their own creative ideas and fosters spatial awareness.” Both he and Galinsky like that even though kids often begin with building models based on a kit’s instructions, they’ll soon want to build their own creations. Joanna Faber, the other co-author of How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen, agrees: “Kids love Legos because you can endlessly make wild and crazy things with them.”
For kids younger than four, Sachs likes Lego’s Duplo line of blocks, which are easier for tiny hands to handle.
Sandra Gordon, founder of baby-gear review site Baby Products Mom, recommends these wooden blocks for toddlers. Like any good creative toy, they “inspire pretend play, building, [and] creating something,” she says.
This set of magnetic building tiles helps “spark a child’s budding imagination and inspire endless creations,” according to Gordon. Clinical social worker Joseph Sacks, who is also a play therapist at Tribeca Play Therapy, is another fan of magnetic toys and uses these simple cubes in his practice. “Figuring out how the magnets interconnect in different ways is very fun, stimulating, and creative,” he explains.
Best art toys
Setting up an area with lots of blank paper and other materials where kids can make art is essential for fostering creative development, according to Dr. Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, a psychologist and co-author of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children. “I recommend that all kids be given art materials, whether they’ve expressed interest or not.” Sachs explains that art supplies “give [kids] the opportunity to express themselves in their own unique way,” and that if there’s a dedicated art-making space at home, kids will naturally “go there when they feel they want to create.” He especially likes these washable paints — because child artists aren’t known to keep their materials confined to a canvas. Gordon also likes Crayola’s washable finger paints.
“Research shows kids love to wield crayons,” says Golinkoff, “and while what they do might not look like much to you, it may be that they’re thinking about something that [their art] represents, and that’s a wonderful thing.” This set has plenty of colors for youngsters to choose from, and its vintage-inspired tin is nice-looking enough to keep out after playtime ends.
If toddlers need a bit of guidance to get their creative juices flowing, Sachs recommends this kit, which features different art activities. “It gives you collage or picture frames, and then you can create different scenes and different art inside the frames.” This set “provides a little bit more structure — because you don’t want the child to be making a mess at that age — but also allows for some creativity and expression in the different pieces they can use,” he says.
Sachs loves these Hay Clay kits for the same reason he loves Legos: They come with instructions for kids to follow but also offer them endless opportunities to experiment on their own. And playing with clay doesn’t just provide a tactile creative experience, it can also be emotionally therapeutic. “This is actually a part of play therapy, in that children are given clay and they can create whatever they want. Often it’s an expression of what they’re thinking and feeling,” he says.
Kids who love telling stories through their art — or just enjoy a good book — will surely be thrilled by this make-your-own comics kit. Sachs likes that it “provides a kind of pathway to creativity but allows the child to really develop what’s on their mind in the form of the comic book. It doesn’t tell them who their superhero is, it allows them to really come up with their own ideas.”
Best imaginative play toys
Practically any stuffed animal, action figure, or doll can inspire a type of imaginative play in which kids will “have whole conversations and play out scenarios with the toys,” according to Faber. Sacks finds that transformer toys are especially good at encouraging this type of play in younger kids. These, which change from dinosaurs to cars (and make very realistic sounds in both forms), are among his favorites.
If kids show an interest in any hobbies or careers, they’ll probably enjoy make-believe toys like kitchen and doctor sets that let them play different roles. Gordon says you can also use creative toys like these “to build a bridge” between kids and the adults in their lives. “If your child will be spending time with Grandpa or Grandma, you might choose toys that feed into Grandpa and Grandma’s interests — if Grandpa is a cook, a toy kitchen set could be just the thing to inspire an interest in your child.”
Several of our experts suggest mini cars and trucks as toys to encourage imaginative play. Enhancing that experience with a mat or rug featuring a city scene will give kids a setting for their adventures, according to Golinkoff. “Even if they aren’t saying stuff out loud, what they’re doing in their mind is composing and making up scenarios.”
While kids can certainly dream up stories using any toy (or even household objects), Faber says “it’s nice to have puppets and a little puppet theater” to give little ones another way to create and tell new tales.
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