If I’m being honest, I’m not great at playing WITH my kids, but I am great at setting them up to play by themselves or with each other. One of the biggest things I focus on when purchasing toys or activities for my kids is making sure that they are open-ended and allow for A LOT of creativity. Kids play best when they are allowed to create games and explore ideas. I compiled this list of toys after wandering around our house and considering what gets played with the most. These toys and activities are the ones that have been around the longest and allow me the most time to get something else done while they are playing! I call that a win every time. I tried to include some ideas about what we like to do with each of the items I listed below, and if you want more ideas and information, check out my blog with awesome printables, activities, and games for your preschoolers and toddlers.
I would rank these as our favorite toy overall. Both of my kids love them and have since they were tiny. They play with them together nicely, and since we added a second set we have plenty to go around. They love to build castles, garages for their cars, and barns for their animals with them. I am seriously considering getting this racecar track for my son for his 4th birthday. A quick note about why I have both here… We started with Magna-tiles, and when it was time to add a second set, purchased PicassoTiles. I can’t tell the difference between the two, but the PicassoTiles are much less expensive.
Part of what I’m doing online is providing book and play-based preschool activities to caregivers. These Pocket Cubes are a foundation in my activities because they are so versatile and provide a hands-on activity for the kids to do. The activities you can do with these are endless- I put different exercises or yoga moves in the pockets, and when the kids roll them they have to do the activity (I linked a free printable below!) I’ve also used them for number and letter practice. For the smaller kids, it would be cute to put pictures of family members in the pockets! The possibilities really are endless!
Yes, paint. I know it can be messy and stressful, but it is mostly fun, creative, and more importantly, keeps kids occupied for a long time! I like to cover whatever we are painting in paper to make cleanup extra easy. Recently, my kids have had so much fun painting some of their cars and trucks (and then washing them off!). If the weather is nice outside, go outside on your driveway and paint. Much less mess to pickup! Also, I don’t give my kids access to ALL the colors. Depending on what they are doing, they can pick a few and I squirt some onto a pallette for them. Also, get creative with HOW they paint- you don’t always need paintbrushes. Just last week I gave my kids spatulas, forks, and other kitchen utensils to paint a cardboard box with. They were thrilled and had so much fun!
Some parents love Kinetic Sand, and others hate it. I’m firmly in the “love it” camp. I like the particular brand we buy- it doesn’t come apart and get spread everywhere, it doesn’t dry out, and most importantly, my kids LOVE it. I am replacing Play-Do with Kinetic Sand because it doesn’t dry out and since I only buy one color, I don’t have to worry about it getting mixed together. We only play with it on a tray or cookie sheet, so it’s not too messy, and it’s easy to pick up. I bought a set of sand toys to go with our first bag of sand, and it’s been a hug hit.
We have the pink one that is linked, and we purchased it used from another family that had outgrown it. The best part? It was already assembled. If you decide to get one, seriously consider purchasing a used one. It will save you time and money! My daughter uses our play kitchen almost daily. We have some simple pots and pans, a coffee maker (of course!) and some play food. My daughter loves to play restaurant and it’s a nightly activity for her to come take our order and then make us food. Sometimes she even uses the kinetic sand to make cookies! We particularly love Hape wooden toys for our kitchen, and these fruits that can be cut in half have been one of our biggest hits for the longer! No matter how elaborate or simple you decide to go, a play kitchen is a great tool for imagination and creativity.
Our first set of counters were the bears with the sorting cups. My son in particular loved them so much, I decided to add the transportation-themed ones to our collection. I’m so glad I did! The kids absolutely love them and use them for all sorts of activities- including in the play kitchen. They are the perfect size, colorful and interesting for both of my kids- and they have liked them since they were toddlers. I love when toys can hold their attention and get them to play creatively, and these definitely do the trick! There are all sorts of sets with different themes available, so find one that your toddler or preschooler would like!
There is no limit to the amount of creativity and imagination you can introduce with dress-up clothes! For my daughters 4th birthday, we got here an entire chest of different dress-up outfits I had collected. She and her brother both love to find creative ideas and play fun games while dressed up. She particularly loves to be a doctor, but she has plenty of princess dresses as well. buy the clothes a tiny bit big so they can wear them longer… dresses can be tied up if they are too long! If you have the ability to sew, find some patterns or just get creative. Dress up clothes are such a perfect gift for your littles!
Both my son and daughter play with their cars and trucks endlessly. We use the matchbox cars for school activities and games. They use them with the counters and kinetic sand, and as I mentioned earlier, they even love to paint them, Inexpenisve cars and trucks are easy to find- and I even have had a lot of luck buying them used on Facebook Marketplace. For the bigger trucks, our favorite brand is Bruder, and even though they are pricey, they are worth it for the quality (and I often find these used as well!)