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The Pros and Cons of Building Toys

‘Tis the season to pick out the toys your kids will play with in 2018 and like always I’m going to say that you should go with classic solid educational toys that don’t beep every five seconds. Building toys are an obvious win, right? Turns out not all building toys are alike and a whole lot of them end up being just as cluttery and annoying as the rest. Now that I’m fairly certain we’ve owned just about every building toy out there, I can tell what to look for as you make your toy lists.

The pros of building toys are that they encourage creativity and many can grow with your kids. My nearly-one-year-old loves stacking the same heavy wooden blocks that my four year old uses to make castles and zoos. There are also a lot of very solid building toys that can take quite a beating so you don’t have as many broken pieces laying around.

Of course, on the con side, the fact that they’re solid can be a problem if they end up being used as weapons, sports equipment, or general poking devices. (What? Just my kids?) Also, not all building toys are solidly built so when you’ve got kids who are used to getting a little handsy with fitting stuff together, you are going to get chips and cracks and stuff like that.

My biggest beef with building toys, though, is that they’re sort of annoying to store and they tend to multiply when you aren’t looking. We had bins and bins of sets at one point and suddenly I realized that if the kids wanted to build a castle out of blocks they had about twelve variations to choose from. And yes, they mixed them together like a wild and wonderful Sesame Street montage and it was all the creative joy my heart could handle but inevitably they failed to put them away or they all got mixed up and lost and suddenly mom is up at midnight sorting out the toy bin because nobody can find anything.

Not fun.

I would say you don’t need more than six building toys in your house. Total. I’m including any toy that involves a kid sitting down to put something together with the intention to eventually take it apart. I’m also saying that age doesn’t matter on this one EXCEPT to the extent that little pieces should stay away from little mouths until littles know better than to chew on anything.

If you already have some building toys but your kids don’t really play with them, I’d consider adding different sets to the holiday list even if it seems silly to replace an old set with something that’s almost the same. Maybe the set your kids have doesn’t have enough pieces to be much fun or maybe the material isn’t easy to build with. Maybe they only turn into one or two things so there isn’t a lot of space for creativity. Or maybe (BIG maybe here) the colors and type feel too babyish for your big kid even though the toy ides is still fun? Believe me, there’s a big difference between a brightly colored plastic Thomas the Tank Engine track and a classic wooden train track to a third grader.

Here are some of my picks. There are more than six here because I just can’t help myself and we spoil the kids a little but I can personally vouch for the playability of all of these:

/// Classic Wooden Blocks: There are a ton of wooden block sets out there and a lot of competition but the basic set from Melissa and Doug is super solid, has a ton of pieces, and the round edges make it less likely that an injury will take place. They’re also neutral so you can keep them in any room of the house and they won’t be a glaring pile of kid crap. We have ours in a big basket in our front room so there’s something easy to grab if someone stops by with their kids.

/// Wooden Train Set: I mentioned it above because this is one of those classic toys that kids can use for a long time if you keep adding to it. You want a big starter train set to begin and then you can add to it as you go. Get the little branded trains if you want to (Calvin LOVES his battery operated Thomas) but stick with the solid wood track because the plastic tracks just don’t hold up. I’d also recommend adding at least a few interesting features like bridges and tunnels and it’s worth investing in quite a few pieces of track if you want your kids to get creative.

/// Magnet Blocks: There’s lots of competition out there for these now, considering I never really saw these when I was little, but our kids are all pretty obsessed with them and this brand is well made enough that I don’t worry about them cracking and dropping the magnets somewhere that the baby can find them.

/// Building Bricks: LEGOs still win against all other brands but not all of those LEGO sets are the same. I’d start with a big bin of classic bricks when your kid is past the point of putting them in their mouths and then move up to the smaller sets. (Basically, don’t buy your kid one of the super complicated LEGO sets to start out with because you’ll just end up building it and when you’re finished and the kid wants to break it apart and you’re yelling NOOOOOOO…just buy yourself that LEGO set and get your kid the bin of bricks.) Also, I’m not a huge fan of DUPLO blocks but if you want to go that route, I’d get one basic set and leave it at that. Even if you amass a giant collection of DUPLO, there’s really only a one year window where the kid is old enough to build with bricks but not old enough for LEGOs and when they hit that LEGO stage they’ll never touch the DUPLOs again. I would know. We have four million.

/// Construction Role Play: We have lots of different building sets for making things like tents and tunnels and forts, etc., but most are either too complicated or ended up being more trouble to store than they were fun to play with. The only large scale blocks they use to build things like forts and furniture are the cardboard bricks from Melissa and Doug. Beyond that, go with the classic chair/table/pillow/blanket combos and skip the official fort-making sets.

/// Building with Tools: I’m not a big fan of any of the building toys that come with tools because they usually only make a couple of the things but our kids like the Melissa and Doug workbench (lots of nuts and bolts) and they occasionally play with their little design and drill toys because they like using the play drill. Personally, I’m still a big fan of the classic Erector sets but my kids haven’t aged into them. (No, I don’t like K’NEX because the pieces break.

/// Funky building toys: Lincoln Logs, Gears! Gears! Gears!, and marble runs all fall into that category of super fun toys that get stale quickly because you can’t really do anything with them beyond the one way they’re designed to play. So, if you have the space and patience, sure, but if you’re only going to entertain one funky set I would go with Tinkertoys. The idea is still the same connections of sticks and blocks and you can buy the classic toy you remember but the new sets have sticks that bend and other funky connectors so you can get pretty creative and all three kids find ways to play.

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