Classic Toys that Encourage Creativity

As a preschool teacher and now mom, I have long been passionate about play. As Mr. Fred Rogers so wisely said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

Knowing that, it is our task as parents – as our child’s first teachers – to help our children play! This is one of the key things we do as I homeschool our preschooler. We play.

I am a firm believer in the importance of open-ended play. I want to encourage my son to think for himself and be a creative problem-solver. I don’t want to see him locked into one mode of a play because a toy limits him. I want toys that are going to last and won’t break easily. I want toys that are open-ended and encourage multiple forms of play.  I want to own classic toys that encourage creativity. For that reason, I am trying to be selective about the toys that come in our house.

Oh, I know. It is easier said than done! Between birthdays and Christmas and just-because gifts, toys accumulate far more quickly than I would like. That said, there are certain toys that are classics that have a lasting place in our house. These are the toys I will happily accumulate for our children and that I use to teach our son. We have also made these suggestions to Grandparents and Aunts and Uncles when it comes gift time. They appreciate the ideas and I appreciate adding classic toys to our home.

Classic Toys that Encourage Creativity - Great resource list! Written by an early childhood teacher & mom. Great list on the value of play!

Here is a list of 10 classic toys that encourage creativity.

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1. Books, books and more books!

One can never have too many books. I am working hard to build a lasting home library full of classics that engage my children. Here are a list of some of my favorite rhyming board books for children. That is a great place to start! Add in lots of fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and Caldecott award winners, and you are off to a good start. Shop Half-Price Books, garage sales and school book orders to add to your library. Of course, visit the library regularly to read new books, too.

Nathan reading books with Daddy

2. Uncle Goose wooden blocks

Wooden blocks are wonderful because they last. There are 3 stages of classic wooden blocks for your child to enjoy. Start with these Uncle Goose classic alphabet blocks. They are larger than normal alphabet blocks and made in America, which is always a plus. Not only do these blocks have letters on one side, but they also have numbers and animals for your child to learn and identify. Another bonus is that you can buy these blocks in any foreign language (Spanish, Chinese, Hebrew, French, and countless more) which is perfect if you are bilingual. You can even buy a periodic table set of blocks or a set of President blocks!

3. Wooden unit blocks

After your child has advanced from the stacking of alphabet blocks, unit blocks are the next logical step. Unit block sets are not cheap but are worth the investment. Unit blocks are made of solid wood in a variety of shapes: squares, rectangles, triangles, arches, and semi-circles. They are sanded smooth with rounded corners which make them the perfect building block for toddlers and preschools. Unit blocks can be added to over time. Here is a great beginner set of unit blocks that is actually reasonably priced for quality unit blocks.

4. Kapla blocks

Finally, when your child is ready for more advanced building, consider investing in a set of Kapla blocks. This would be a good investment for Kindergarten and beyond. Kapla blocks are simple wooden plank blocks. While they are all the same size, that is the beauty of Kapla blocks. They are open-ended and encourage building creativity. I have boy cousins who were building with Kapla blocks for years – and building amazing creations!

5. Duplos and Legos

If you are unfamiliar, Duplos are for little ones and Legos have smaller pieces as you grow older. Yes, there are generic versions but having used them, they simply do not work as well. I know Duplos and Legos can be expensive, but the quality is excellent and it’s worth the investment. I’m not a big fan of the themed kits. Rather, if you’re going to invest in Legos, go for the boxes of classic blocks so your child can build anything. We ask for them for Christmas gifts for Nathan and my husband watches for deals on Ebay. I once lucked out to find an entire paper sized box of Legos for $10 at a garage sale. I snatched those up quickly!

Nathan playing with his ever favorite Legos!

6. Counters

Counters are a staple in every early childhood classroom – and for good reason. Counters are simple (often rubber or hard plastic) objects. They are different colors and shapes, which gives children the opportunity to sort. Some counters are different sizes and weights as well. Not only can you use counters to sort by color or shape, but counters can be used to count and create patterns. Eventually, children can use them for addition and subtraction, too. Counters are simply fun for young children to play with! Whether transportation, bugs, or any other theme of the hundreds of counters available, these are all great for young children. These new “All about Me Family” counters are adorable for sorting, counting or doing a variety of other games.

7. Puzzles

Puzzles – at all ages and stages – work our brains. Puzzles also improve fine motor movement, hand-eye coordination and problem solving. When children are young, start by building a collection of puzzles that last. We like the chunky Melissa and Doug puzzles at our house. The next step up is peg puzzles, followed by simple interlocking puzzles. By preschool, your child should be able to solve 12 to 24 piece interlocking puzzles. The dollar store is a great place to stock up on these puzzles so it’s not a huge loss if you lose a piece. Floor puzzles (by Melissa and Doug or Ravensburger) are also a lot of fun to work on. As your children grow, make puzzles a family activity, working on hundred piece puzzles together. It encourages creative thinking for everyone and is a good family activity.

8. Dress up clothes

Don’t think dress up is limited to just girls! Dress up is fun for boys and girls alike and encourages great creativity. Dress up clothes don’t have to be bought in special kits from the store. Look through your closet and see what your kids can play with. Add to your dress up collection by shopping garage sales or kids consignment sales. Simple props such as aprons, elastic waist skirts, vests, capes, hats, and jewelry can provide hours of fun. I store our dress-up clothes in a suitcase so they are easy to pack away and pull out.

9. Play food

One of a child’s favorite activities is to copy adults. Children learn by doing! It’s for this exact reason that my son now has a drawer in our kitchen where he keeps his play food so he can cook when I cook. You can buy sets of food (such as this one) to get you started. Then, start washing and saving containers of food that you normally use – especially those with lids. Spice jars, juice concentrate containers, applesauce cups, and cottage cheese containers are all great food props. Add some kitchen utensils from the dollar store and you are set! If your child is really interested in cooking, consider surprising him or her with one of these food sets that can be cut or cookie sets that you can flip.

Nathan cooking in the kitchen with his play food

10. Snap circuits

As your child grows older, you still need creative toys that encourage creativity – perhaps even more than when little. Snap circuits are a great way to encourage scientific thinking and open-ended discovery. Even the basic snap circuit kit, with 30 pieces, can build more than 100 different projects! There are instructions for your child to follow or simply turn them lose to explore. The nice thing about snap circuits is that you can add to your basic kit with larger ones, making it another good birthday or Christmas gift idea!

These are ten toys that I truly believe are classics and encourage endless creativity. What would you add to this list?

We use all these classic toys as I homeschool our preschooler. Be sure to check out this amazing ebook on how to homeschool your preschooler – on a budget and using classic toys you already own – written by a fellow teacher mom. I love this book!

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  1. Love these ideas! I would add Art supplies (crayons, markers, glue, play dough), and something cheap is cardboard boxes of various sizes have become school buses, fire trucks and small boats and are often decorated.

    1. I agree completely, Rachel. Art supplies are definitely classics and something that should be in every home! Thanks for that addition!

  2. Great ideas! I would also add dolls. My kids make up so many great stories and practice nurturing skills through their play with dolls. I know that, as a child, I spent hours writing elaborate skits to act out with my dolls. This helped me discover my passion for writing!

    1. Dolls are good classic addition to the toy list, Sarah. Even my 2 year old son is starting to carry an Amish baby doll around to take care of, just like we care for his baby sister. I love seeing the creativity children exhibit when playing!

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