Toddler Toys That Encourage Imaginative Play

**NOTE: This post is purely based out of my own inspiration and desire to share.  It is not sponsored.

The holidays are upon us and along with oh-so-much joy comes the lesser-loved, inevitable feeling of stress. The holiday season means lots of love, family, fun, and connection, but for some people, it can also mean lots of planning, organizing, shopping, and… buyer’s remorse ( or some form of negative feeling associated with buying lots of things!!).

Of course I don’t want to dwell on the tangible, materialistic aspect of the holidays too much because, after all, our time and energy is much better spent focusing on the intangible experiences we endure this season; that said, if you are a parent and your kids believe in Santa (or if any part of your holiday season involves gift giving & children), I think it is safe to say you have at some point freaked out about the TOY SITUATION that coincides with the beloved month of December. My children are young (1 & 3), so I haven’t really been at this game for too long - and their birthdays BOTH fall within two weeks of Christmas - so, for awhile now, I have been trying to figure out the best way to budget for and purchase the best presents for them.

Now, let me preface the rest of this by saying this: I am not a big “toy” person (whatever that is), but as a special education teacher and a mom of two very imaginative toddlers, I do believe that P.L.A.Y. has a place in their little worlds, and research shows that young children learn best through discovery and play. While there is no doubt in my mind that nature the best playground, I have to admit that while I am the first to take two kids down to the beach in any weather, I am not the most adventurous mama when it comes to the winter season. Ok, or the end of fall. Aanndd maybe the beginning of spring. While I work on tolerating the colder weather and giving my kiddos more opportunities to play outside, I like to have some solid choices for inside play going on in my home as well!

Last year, I didn’t know any better and I searched through the best sellers and top toy lists on Amazon & Target for my daughter’s 2nd Christmas and birthday gifts (I was also very pregnant and had a bad case of scatter-brain). Sure, I got some good deals and she enjoyed most of them for some time, but after a few months the batteries died and the novelty wore off. Okay, honestly, the battery operated toys had no chance of lasting a few months because I either took the batteries out or my husband threw the actual toy out immediately after watching how frustrated our daughter would get when trying to use them.

It didn’t take long for me to start thinking that there had to be better options. I watched her try to figure out these immobile, hard objects making loud, repetitive and robotic noises and I quickly felt disappointed that these “best sellers” were not, in fact, fostering any type of PLAY at all.

This wasn’t just with toys that have batteries. Some arts and craft toys came with flimsy one-time-use materials, some figurines came apart when they were inevitably chewed upon, some stacking toys were made of paper and ruined with one step… We turned to washable crayons, stickers, blocks, kitchen and play foods, and books for most of our play throughout the past year and found much joy and experiential play in these options, but as the time for gifting comes around again, I set out to do some more thorough research.

Play-based learning fosters many important skills for young children. They include, but are not limited to the following:

  • gross motor skill development

  • fine motor skill development

  • sensory exposure, experiment and awareness

  • convergent and divergent problem solving skills

  • child-led imaginative play

  • creativity

  • social skills

  • early academic foundational skills (ie: number sense)

I had this list in mind when I was searching for toys. I asked around my local moms group for ideas and a few people mentioned looking up Montessori & Reggio Emilia inspired toys and that was all I needed to get me going….

While I have of course learned about Montessori in my education schooling, I hadn’t quite made the connection to its possible role in my “parenting style.” For those who aren’t quite “in the know,” generally speaking, these two approaches to learning lean in to the ideals of child/student-directed choice. When implemented in schools (and at home), children are encouraged to follow their curiosity and interests to investigate and explore and to construct their own course for learning. The children are guided/mentored by adults, but not explicitly directed. The ideals support the notion that children are excellent communicators and are capable of using language to direct their interests and investigations. Furthermore, the integration of the environment and real-life tools and toys arguably elevate a child’s understanding of themselves and their place in the world. Waldorf play is similar in its focus on the child and one’s relation to the environment, but it has a greater focus on imagination and fantasy play.

I started to find hope that I could implement some of these practices in my own home. My first searches on Google and Instagram led me to the beautiful world of Grimm’s wooden toys. Upon finding these incredibly unique wooden blocks, dolls, rainbows, stacking toys, and puzzles, I was on a search to find a way to get my hands (well, my kids’ hands) on some. From what I can tell, these toys are more widely used in Europe & Australia and these ones specifically are German made. I found a popular Australian company called Oskar’s Wooden Ark and loved their Instagram page for further inspo.

FINALLY, I found a US based company that holds space for ALL of these beautiful goodies. ENTER BELLA LUNA TOYS. Go. There. Now. If you are anything like me, you will be moved and inspired by all of the possibilities. Look at the colors and the options… the puzzles and the tiles, the indoor/outdoor play toys, the silks, the dress up section, the books, and more. It is a beautiful site and while some of these toys are more expensive than the typical plastic ones we see advertised, I believe they are worth it for the creativity, safety and longevity they’ll surely provide. I have my selections ready to put in my cart and I will follow up for sure!

I did also find some Grimm’s wooden toys on Amazon… along with some imitation ones (so be careful). From what I can tell, the prices are seemingly better over at Bella Luna on most.

Here are a few options I found on Amazon:

While I am covering Amazon… I also want to share some other great finds that I believe will lend themselves to great imaginative toddler play. HABA toys is different German brand that offers great options such as the following that I have chosen for my kids’ wish list this year:

Melissa and Doug continues to be a great option as well. Here are some of my top pics for creative play (there are a lot of choices!)

For Arts and Crafts and some fun bath toys (that don’t mold), I enjoy ALEX brand. They have a seriously copious amount of kits for toddlers and older children as well. They are super convenient because typically everything you need to complete the craft is inside the box - no need to find scissors or glue at home. Easy peasy… I like that. PLUS, they have these little mesh bags with “stickers” in them for the bathtub. My kids love these and they keep them busy in the tub longer than most floating toys.

OKAY, now. Another wonderful and, in my opinion, probably overlooked option for inexpensive, practical toys for play is IKEA! So, when I was looking for ways to decorate my children’s shared room, I stumbled upon many Swedish and other Nordic-type Instagram accounts that were stunning. I am not sure how I didn’t put the two together sooner, but when I got overwhelmed thinking about the amount of money I wanted to spend on gifts this year, IKEA suddenly popped into my head. (many of those accounts featured nurseries decked out in IKEA). I have to say, I honestly took out almost all of the stuff in my cart on Amazon last night and bought nearly the whole lot of IKEA’s toy department! Nearly everything is wooden or felt, simple and neat, practical and playful. Here are some of my picks:

And last, but certainly not least…there is always room for MUSIC and BOOKS. I could do a whole other post on them, but for now I’d love to share two of my favorite music options for kids that aren’t talked about much these days and I believe are true, solid music stapes….

Okay!! Well- I think that about wraps it up for now…. this has turned into a bit of a blend of my current favs and my wish list for my kiddos but either way- I hope you found it useful and inspiring!

If you enjoyed this post and found it helpful, please spread the word to your mom friends by tagging them in my original post on Instagram! Also, for playroom inspiration check out these Instagram accounts:

Play At Home Mummy

Little Life Long Learners

Let’s Play All Day

Happy shopping and, more importantly, HAPPY PLAYING!