We’d all love our kids to spend more time engaged in educational play and less time glued to screens. That’s not to say that screen time can’t be educational, of course, but it can be difficult to persuade children to put down a screen and focus on the kind of play that will boost their development or enhance learning.
That’s where educational toys come in. They create endless opportunities for learning through play and, these days, you can buy toys for all ages that are designed to boost different aspects of development. From baby toys designed to support your baby’s cognitive development to STEM stuff that engages pre-teens in a world of clever tech and learning, it’s possible to surround your kids with all they need to become the next Einstein, without them even realising it.
The secret to choosing the right developmental toy for your child is to think about your child’s age and aptitude, first and foremost. Anything too complex is unlikely to inspire learning, no matter how cleverly designed. Avoid toys that involve lots of hassle to setup, unless you can assemble it in advance – waiting on the sidelines while mum or dad wrestles with instructions isn’t a precursor to a positive play experience.
Developmental toys can be expensive but factor in the price per play. If it’s an item they’ll return to again or again or continue to use over a number of years, it may well represent much better value for money than a cheaper alternative.
Think, too, about whether you’d like a toy that can stay on permanent display so your child is free to engage with it whenever she likes, or if something requiring adult supervision and creating the opportunity to engage in play together might be more appropriate. Finally, remember that the best learning happens when a child is having fun.
Little Tikes wonder lab: £55.99, Little Tikes
Little scientists will love bringing the magic of science to life with this ingenious STEM lab. It comes with more than 50 accessories for use in 20 experiments, and plays lots of sounds and phrases. It’s a toy that needs quite a bit of parental supervision, so it’s brilliant for bonding with your little learner in an engaging way. Our five-year-old particularly enjoyed making the potions and wearing the goggles and white lab coat.
National Theatre Bookshop play in a box: £12.99, National Theatre Bookshop
Inside this box you’ll find everything you need to create, direct and act in your own play. With 30 character cards, eight setting cards, a plot twist book and a 32-page stagecraft handbook, it contains all the ideas and inspiration for budding actors and directors. Our testers particularly liked issuing the tickets and programme to their captive audience.
Lego ‘The Lego Movie 2’ movie maker: £44.99, Amazon
New to mark the release of The Lego Movie 2, this innovative play set contains everything you need to make your own version of the movie, including a stage, a double-sided backdrop with alternative scenes, and a camera stand for your smartphone. Also included are Emmet’s escape buggy and Rex’s rexplorer, three minifigures and four brick-built figures. For film-loving Lego fans, it’s basically hours of fun in a box.
National Geographic shark tooth dig kit: £9.99, Amazon
This kit lets you excavate three real shark teeth fossils from different species of shark. It comes with everything you need to dig and discover the fossilised teeth, as well as a glossy guide to help you identify the different species and learn fun shark facts. Our five-year-old, who wants to be a fossil hunter when she grows up, absolutely loved this.
Step2 deluxe workshop: £159.99, Step2
We found this toy carpenter’s workshop quite fiddly to build – so don’t attempt it with two impatient five-year-olds beside you – but once assembled it provides hours of imaginative play. It comes with a 50 piece accessory set including drill bits, screws, nuts, tools and realistic ‘wooden’ pieces made from durafoam which actually slot together.
Flights of Fancy all about bird watching kit: £12, Muddy Puddles
Take your learning outside with this fun bird watching kit. It’s recommended for children aged six years and above, but our five-year-old tester loved playing with the binoculars, notepad and pencil whilst trying to match birds to the ones on the identification cards. There’s a bird food recipe too, to extend play even further.
Rory’s story cubes: £9.99, storycubes.com
To our surprise, our 14-year-old tester claimed these as his own the moment they arrived. Designed to encourage creativity, develop social confidence, and enhance language development skills, the idea is that you roll cubes and use the images to make up your own stories. Brilliant fun.
My Fairy Garden fairy kitchen garden: £11.99, Argos
This isn’t something we’d have initially considered a developmental toy, but it’s actually great for teaching children in an engaging way about growing food. As well as a fairy figure with a cute house and picket fence, this comes with pea seeds so you can grow edible pea shoots. We discovered how food gets from seed to plate, including planting, germination, growing, patience and the basics of gardening, all in the space of a week.
Brio play & learn musical caterpillar: £34.99, Brio
Brilliant for teaching toddlers the basics of making music, this colourful developmental toy helps develop an understanding of cause and effect. Pop the wooden balls in place and when you connect the head and tail of the caterpillar, which can be done in ten different ways, you’ll make a melody. Our toddler tester kept coming back to play with this over and over again.
Ravensburger gravitrax starter set: £40, Amazon
Use your imagination to build your own STEM track system and set the gravity spheres shooting around it, according to your design. There are more than 120 pieces to this set and you can buy extra track packs and add-ons, so you can keep extending it indefinitely. Our 12-year-old tester had hours of fun experimenting with this, and it even lured him away from the Xbox for considerable lengths of time. We particularly like that you don’t need a friend to make this work, so it’s brilliant for encouraging independent play and learning.
Smart Toys and Games sleeping beauty deluxe: £24.99, Smart Toys and Games
We love that there are two levels to this game. For ages three to five, the goal is to rescue the princess by navigating through the maze to the magical castle, while older children (five to seven years) can play as the fiery dragon, obstructing the knight from reaching the castle. There are 60 challenges in total and it comes with an engaging picture storybook to encourage imaginative play.
Geosmart flip bot: £39.99, Bright Minds
This motorised magnetic toy is a remote control vehicle and wireless racing game in one, designed to develop motor skills and encourage STEM learning. You can assemble the magnetic frame in multiple ways and then troubleshoot adding the wheels, wires, RC receiver and turbo motors, before sending it zooming round the house in multiple directions at turbo speed. This provides literally hours of fun for all ages.
Play Hooray play prompt cards: £12.50, Play Hooray
We love this idea. Turn ‘mum, I’m bored’ into a play challenge with this pack of 100 promt cards, featuring endless play ideas and activities for toddlers and pre-schoolers. We keep ours on the kitchen table and have used it every day, sometimes several times a day. It’s a lovely way to encourage imaginative play at the same time as helping parents and little ones connect meaningfully through play.
Sphero BOLT app-enabled robot: £149.99, Amazon
This app-enabled robotic ball will enthral budding programmers. It has an animated LED matrix that displays real-time data and while it’s initially fairly complex to set up, we soon lost our teen tester to hours of intensive programming and problem-solving. He only re-emerged at lunchtime.
Tech Will Save Us electro dough plus: £25.99, Tech Will Save Us
This is a clever mix of play and learning, so it’s brilliant for encouraging educational play. The set comes with six pots of conductive dough as well as everything you need to create simple circuits – including crocodile clips and LEDs – so you can make your dough creations buzz and light up. It kept our five-year-old tester engaged at the table far longer than standard dough usually would so it’s well worth the extra money.
The verdict: Developmental toys
The wonder lab from Little Tikeswas by far the biggest hit with our five-year-old tester, providing hours of STEM fun and educational play. We particularly love it because it’s one of the few toys we tried that doesn’t need to be tidied up or packed away at the end of the day, so kids gravitate towards it again and again. The Lego movie maker is a really innovative, engaging educational toy for older kids (8+) and the Gravitrax starter set deserves a special mention for successfully luring our pre-teen away from digital distractions.
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