The ‘best’ baby toys don’t do anything


This holiday, give little ones a gift that lasts a lifetime—imagination. Here’s how:  

Parents instinctively want to provide the best toys for their little ones, but what makes a toy the “best”?

Most early-childhood educators agree that when it comes to choosing toys for developing young minds, the simpler the better. Child experts frequently recommend simple “open-ended toys” that can be used in an endless number of ways, encouraging a child’s imagination. As a bonus, many of these toys are intended to grow with your son or daughter—from babyhood to toddlerhood and beyond. 

Examples include wooden blocks, which help babies develop fine motor skills—and later, encourage toddlers and young children to build any number of shapes and structures. Colorful play silks make excellent additions to a game of peek-a-boo for infants—and later, can be used as anything from a princess veil to a pirate belt to a lake in a play. A handmade Waldorf doll with a simple face or a stuffed animal offers comfort for younger children and acts as a catalyst for storytelling and imaginative play as they grow older. 

By contrast, complex or closed-ended toys include most electronics, which deliver a specific result when pushing a button; and rigid plastic talking dolls with fixed expressions and building sets that can only be put together to create one thing.

Never a dull moment 

Children won’t become bored with open-ended toys because there is always a new way to use them. As a teacher I was constantly surprised at the creative ways children would transform the simple playthings in our classroom: a wooden block would become a cell phone, seashells would become tea cups, acorns would become money exchanged at the play store.

Open-ended toys stimulate a child’s imagination and help kids develop fine motor skills as they explore new ways to enjoy these toys. Long after complex toys have lost their allure (kids grow quickly bored pushing the same button), simpler toys are able to provide fresh fun.

It takes a team

Unlike complex toys that promote solo play as kids “cocoon” into their own push-button world, open-ended toys invite kids to work together and come up with fun new uses. These playtime interactions develop important social skills for later in life. Even toddlers quickly learn how to “negotiate” the ways in which an open-ended toy will be used. They learn the value of listening to other people’s ideas, and how to express their own ideas in socially appropriate ways.

Spend less, play more

Open-ended toys save parents money because one simple toy can provide countless ways to play. Some of the best “toys” are free, like cardboard boxes and string! Moreover, simple toys can be enjoyed for many more years than complex toys, which are usually targeted to a specific age group, because older kids find new and different ways to play with them. Finally, classic simple toys never go out of style or seem dated; a fine set of wooden blocks, or a beautiful handmade doll, can be handed down for generations.

My top 10 open-ended toys for inspiring imaginative play

  1. Set of wooden blocks (maple blocks, Kapla®, or blocks cut from tree branches)
  2. Basket of seashells* 
  3. Basket of pinecones*
  4. Smooth river stones*
  5. Colorful silk squares (play silks)
  6. Handmade doll
  7. Cups and bowls and pots and pans
  8. Cardboard boxes
  9. Dress-up clothes
  10. Art Supplies: crayons, paper, markers, watercolors, etc.*

* Those marked with an asterisk are geared toward children ages 3 and older.  


—  Sarah Baldwin, M.S.Ed is a Waldorf early childhood educator, the author of Nurturing Children and Families, and the owner of Bella Luna Toys.


  1. Great advice. Explains why Lego (for example) has stood the test of time, and is one of the best commercial toys of all time (IMHO)… A popular gift I recall from our first child was a key chain with a couple large plastic keys in a box. In/out/on/shake…

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