We are a block-centric family here. Partially because I was block-building obsessed as a kid, Raines is (now) block obsessed (yay!)...and partially because we've been totally committed to staying far, far away from licensed character anything and crappy, plastic toys that light up/make sounds/etc.
But I don't mean to sound smug - a large reason we have to be so careful about the kind of toys we have is because we are severely space-challenged. We are small apartment dwellers, so any toy we buy (or allow to stay in the house) has to be multi-purpose and open-ended. Hello, blocks.
According to the educators behind Childhood 101 (one of my fav blogs), blocks and other types of construction/building materials can help promote problem solving skills, basic science concepts (form a hypothesis/guess and then test the concept), perseverance, and good collaboration skills - all key lifelong skills any little boy (or girl!!) will need. Read Childhood 101's full article on the topic of Constructing here.
You certainly don't need any fancy toys to promote constructive play (Childhood 101 has a wealth of low-cost construction activities on their website - here's a few examples)...but it is the holiday season, and sometimes it's just fun to buy toys. So if you are looking for some gift ideas, ones that will last for years and years (really!!) here are our well-tested favorites, as well as a few that underwhelmed, and a few that we have high hopes for.
Blocks for Baby
Soft blocks are surprisingly tricky. At least for us. I find that soft blocks typically fall into one of two categories:
1. Too soft, more stuffed animal-like, and don't actually stack (I'm looking at you, IQ Baby Knock-Knock Blocks)
2. Strangely like bath toys, and consequently fill with bathwater without leaving you any way to clean them properly (which is GROSS, B.Elemenosqueeze blocks!!)
So my favorite soft blocks, hands down, are Edushape's Wood-Like Soft Blocks, $20. These babies stack, are soft (so you don't have to worry about anything falling on little baby's head) and can be used in the tub. They also stick nicely to tub walls and can be completely wiped down.
The downfall with soft blocks, however, is that the kiddos tend to tire of them quickly. For that reason, I love the Melissa & Doug Deluxe 50-piece Wooden ABC/123 Blocks Set. The blocks are tiny enough for small hands to pick them up and throw them stack them. Each block has a letter and a picture on it - we've had endless baby fun with both baby R (pictured) and now P where they show me the picture and I say, "Pineapple!" and they giggle. So adorable.
Not sure why this set is classified for 24 months and up - both boys used these in their infancy. These blocks really aren't small enough to pose a choking hazard...unless your kid has a really big mouth. Hunh.
My only issue with the Melissa and Doug blocks is the fact that they are made in China. While the company does adhere to high testing standards and state, “All Melissa & Doug* products are carefully crafted by hand, using non-toxic coatings, and meet or exceed all U.S. toy testing standards.”...they are still made in China. However, I couldn't find another set of blocks that are nice and tiny, like these. But if you don't mind going a size up, I love the Uncle Goose brand - made in Grand Rapids, MI!
Uncle Goose Blocks
Both R and P were fascinated with Uncle Goose's ant blocks, $23. Frankly, they kind of gross me out. The size of the blocks is standard size, 1.75" cubes, and the wood is fairly lightweight. The size of the set is small - only 16 blocks, which is perfect for tiny ones.
If your little one is a bit older, Uncle Goose makes some amazing ABC blocks (in just about any language you could want), nursery rhyme blocks, patterned math blocks and some super-nerdy-cool blocks that have elements from theperiodic table. I heart chemistry.
Almost two years ago, Mike and I hired Laura Barr, a dear friend and educational consultant in Denver for a parent education consultation (check out her Ain't No Mom Jeans article on letting kids dress themselves). Top on her list of must-have items were unit blocks. At the time, I didn't question the value of unit blocks, we just set out to find some. And we did. And they are pricey. So what is the big deal with unit blocks? Are they worth the cost? Early Childhood News thinks they are:
Although there are numerous types of blocks on the market, unit blocks offer the most learning value. What is it about unit blocks that make them such an important part of any early childhood classroom? To begin with, unit blocks are proportional in size to develop mathematical concepts. Unit blocks are made of hardwood with a natural finish and can therefore be expected to last many years.
I finally found a set of unit blocks that were made in the USA, have a non-toxic, all-natural finish, and didn't skimp on the larger pieces. This non-skimping was key - so many block sets will include only one or two of the big, fun pieces, with the rest of the set being made up of smaller blocks. Snore.
Hello, Beka Blocks.
This set of 68 blocks (Beka Deluxe Set) is roughly $150.
BUT - check out the pic. This set of unit blocks includes pieces that are both half the length and pieces that are half the width of the larger ones.
You want proportions, people? This is IT.
These blocks, since (um..Grandma purchased them) has been played with nearly every day for the last two years. They tower. They are roads. Train tracks. Hospital beds. They are ramps and jumps. And now R is just starting to use them to build complex structures - garages, huge houses with secret, hidden rooms. These were so well-used that we actually bought a second (smaller, 30 piece ) set. For another $70. Snort.
But these blocks, gang, are serious blocks. These babies are heavy. Like if they fell on your toe, they'd probably hurt.
Maybe I'm wrong. Because for some reason, R never seems to mind.
I do know that he learned pretty quickly that throwing these blocks around usually resulted in some minor injury. But we're pretty live-and-learn over here, so I'm totally OK with that little lesson.
ps. Like the tree blocks? You can totally make them. I, of course, did not. Monkeys on the Roof (Etsy) sells them.
I always held off on buying giant blocks primarily because it just bugged me that most are cardboard. That you have to fold into block shape yourself. And that, according to Amazon reviewers, never really fold correctly and wobble when stacked. And that the sets came with too many smaller giant blocks, so you needed multiple sets to even make a really good wall, much less a castle, which I think is the whole POINT of giant blocks. Right?
Then we wandered into Nuture, a local boutique. They have this fabulous playroom for the kiddos. Note the giant blocks stacked up against the wall:
These blocks are amazing! They are lightweight, stack a bit like legos, and let both R and P play happily together. No easy feat. And I'm impressed with how well they've held up - Nuture's set is several years old, and is played with (by many children) on a daily basis.
Nurture doesn't sell them...but after a bit of research, I found these babies online for about $150. They're
called Chenille Kraft Gorilla Blocks.
(My link is to Amazon, but Sears marketplace currently has the best price).
They are made from non-toxic, high-density foam and come in a pack of 66. They are waterproof, so you can bring them outside in the summer.
Like the unit blocks, these babies would make a great gift from the grandparents.
Oh my how we love our Magna Tiles around here.
Magna Tiles are basically translucent plastic shapes that have magnets on the edges. Magnets that are surprisingly strong, and support some serious structures.
In addition to the myriad of building possibilities, because these things are translucent, you can do some cool things with light. I'm showing Raines and his "rocket ship" on the light table, but we've also built structures around flashlights and lamps, too. The mirror adds a fun dimension. I'd love to take credit for all of this creative play, but the magna tiles-on-light-table-with-mirror came from the amazing ladies over at Play At Home Mom. A must read. Their series on Playing With Light is not to be missed.
The best place to get Magna Tiles is Discount School Supply. (At the time of writing, they are completely sold out, but try the company's locater to find them locally, or Ebay.)
Whatever you call it, this set rocks. This 100 piece set retails for $20, comes in a surprisingly small plastic container, and R has been using it now for almost a year to create all sorts of guns stuff. For some reason, this product is for "ages 7 and up". And Raines started playing with it when he was, um...3. Initially, we would have to show him how to snap some of the pieces together, and we'd have to help him un-snap some of the tighter pieces...but he has loved it. I mean OK - the kid isn't going to whip out a Jawbones dog per the manual anytime soon:
But still. He (and his neighbor buddy, age 4) have had a blast making various guns, planes, an occasional flower for me. And this set gets thrown in the suitcase whenever we travel, and has even come along to a few restaurants.
This ingenious set by Haba contains basic blocks....with rubbery orange clamps that can hold the blocks together in various shapes. You can also attach axels and wheels to these clamps to make things "go".
And R is serious about making things "go". I think he's going to love it. And Haba's marketing material promises that this set will, "stimulate the builder, engineer, architect, designer within!"...which means my husband will also love it. And Haba only uses reforested hardwood so my hippy self loves it.
Love, love, love all around.
But seriously - the age range on this set? 36 months - 10 years. Wow.
Here's a link to Haba Technics - Large Vehicles Set (49 pcs) on Amazon.
Is there anything more fun than picking out toys? Especially toys you still like to play with? I think not.
ps. In the spirit of full disclosure, I've included some links to Amazon, where we are affiliates...meaning we get a small % if our link results in a sale. But check prices - Amazon isn't always the cheapest game in town when it comes to toys.