We don’t coolest toys think there’s a right or wrong way for kids to play. For this kid-oriented gift guide, we focused on learning toys—open-ended games, kits, toys and crafts that promote lifelong skills like critical thinking, problem solving, logic, and even coding. To choose from the hundreds of toys available, we spent more than 30 hours trying 35 recommendations from experts, educators, and parents, including a reporting trip to the Katherine Delmar Burke School’s tinkering and technology lab in San Francisco, California.
And, of course, we spent some time playing with our picks at home with our own kids. Here are the learning toys we love. We think the kids in your life will love them too.
The types of toys featured in this guide are often called STEM toys because they can help develop skills that would be useful in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But we prefer the term “learning toys,” because, as the educators we spoke to told us, these toys and games promote creativity, logic, problem solving, collaboration, experimentation and other aptitudes that are relevant in all types of learning.
We didn’t focus exclusively on toys that are labeled “educational toys” for this guide, since that terminology on its own is largely meaningless. (Many companies make claims about the educational value of their toys that are often backed by little evidence, according to Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist specializing in child development and learning quoted in a New Yorker article about STEM toys.) Rather, we turned to educators and parents for leads to toys that have played well in the classroom and at home.
We’re not saying these toys will make kids into future inventors, programmers, or poets. Mostly we like these toys—and think the kids in your life will like them too—because they are open-ended, adaptive, flexible, provocative, and, most importantly, fun.
In fact, some research in child development has shown that kids have more fun with toys that help them learn. In a New York Times op-ed,1 developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik described how kids learn through play: “New studies of ‘active learning’ show that when children play with toys they are acting a lot like scientists doing experiments. Preschoolers prefer to play with the toys that will teach them the most, and they play with those toys in just the way that will give them the most information about how the world works.”
Whether a simple set of building blocks or a codable robot, the toys we recommend here can be played with, disassembled, reassembled, and interacted with in a variety of ways. Many of the games have no single solution and require the players to collaborate. These qualities spur kids toward creativity, exploration, and a deeper understanding of rules, patterns, logic, and how things work.
Accessible: We focused on toys that won’t require extensive adult help or supervision (though we think adults will find most of these toys equally as fun as kids do). The toys we recommend don’t force kids to follow a specific set of instructions, but rather encourage play through experimentation, exploration, and trial and error. “It’s very important to let kids take things apart,” Howland told us. coolest toys
Replayable: Most of the toys and games on our list can be enjoyed by a wide range of ages, either because they offer different modes or difficulty levels, or because they allow increasingly complex interactions as the player builds skills. This means kids of multiple ages can play together and that a toy can grow with a kid.
Fun: The fourth criteria, less easy to quantify but obviously the most important, is the “fun factor.” All the toys we chose have been vetted by kids—either enjoyed regularly in classrooms and the Makery lab at Burke’s, by our own staffers’ kids, or both. coolest toys