How to Pick The Best Toys, According to Pediatricians

A new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics reveals what research says about what you should reach for in the toy aisle when looking for appropriate toys for infants through school age. Choosing toys for children is not all child's play. Pediatricians have recognized that play occupies an essential role in brain development and that early brain development plays a role in future academic success.

There is no one magic toy that will turn your child into a genius. However, from decades of research it is clear that children learn best through human interaction. It follows that the best toys are the ones that promote more interaction between children and caregivers. While there are more and more electronic toys and apps available, children just do not learn as well through interacting with a machine as they do with a human.   

It is important to note that many toys and apps make claims about their supposed educational benefits. However, many are not based on scientific evidence. This includes many electronic toys and apps that claim they will teach your child something without any proof to back up their claims. 

Does this mean that you should avoid toys that are not proven to be educational? Not necessarily. Sometimes a toy, while not an ideal choice for learning, is just fun and that's fine as long as the child is exposed to educational toys as well. Be aware that just because a toy lights up or talks does not mean it is doing anything other than providing your child with a little entertainment. Especially for infants, the main role of toys is not entertainment, but to promote interaction with caregivers.

It is also important to be aware that one of the greatest threats posed by electronic toys is their potential to interfere with the relationship between a child and their caregiver. So, should electronic toys be strictly off limits? Not at all. It may be okay for your child to use electronics for limited periods of time, but caregivers should be careful that time spent with electronics does not take away from meaningful interactions with people.

Pediatricians also recommend that caregivers ensure any electronic based toy is developmentally appropriate and that a caregiver be with the child while he is playing with electronics.  

According to pediatricians, the best toys are those that:      

  • Match children's developmental abilities
  • Encourage the growth of new skills
  • Support parents and children playing, pretending, and interacting together
  • Are not overstimulating
  • Encourage imagination

Some options to consider: 

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Coding and Building Toys

It seems unbelievable that the cost of 3-D printers has come down so dramatically that they are now being manufactured specifically for kids. ToyBox is a small, at-home 3-D printer designed specifically for children to use – with a parent's help. 


Legos and the larger, more toddler-friendly Duplos, are great to build skills and encourage imagination. Not only can kids use Legos to learn basic building and engineering skills, but once they finish building they have a new toy to play with that can keep them busy for hours, like this Lego City Police Station. Of course, once kids are done playing with the set as they built it, all they need to do is take it apart and build something new. Legos are great because kids can play with them on their own and they also make a great family activity.

Image via Amazon

To challenge kids even more, check out this Hubelino marble run set that is 100% Duplo compatible and allows kids to build with Duplos in a whole new way over and over again without buying a new toy.

Coding without a screen? It's possible. Check out these Coding Critters from Learning Resources. These adorable animals can be programed by very young children by pressing a few buttons. Even preschoolers can learn a new skill and use their imaginations and basic skills to get a dog to fetch a ball or a dinosaur to travel through a prehistoric forest. Parents and kids work together to complete these tasks and kids can work their way up to coding on their own. 

Another screen-free coding toy is Botley the Coding Robot. Botley can learn how to navigate paths kids create with oversized puzzle pieces and make its way through obstacle courses. Kids who have a creative streak will love Artie 3000, a coding robot they can program to draw.

Set sail with a pirate ship! Antsy Pants has a line of toys that kids and parents can build together, like this pirate ship that once built lets imagination take sail. Pirates not your thing? Try one of the many other options that use the same system to promote imagination like a lemonade stand or castle.  Kids will love the screen-free fun and parents will love that these toys can be easily taken apart and stored.  

Build imagination, quite literally, with this ultra-portable interlocking building system from Plus-Plus. With this building system, all pieces are the same shape but come in a variety of colors. It's possible to build anything from a duck to a castle. Or, get a set that guides kids to make everything from a breakfast feast to a garden with a picture puzzles set.  Plus-Plus comes in large and small sizes.  This toy promotes imagination but can be used differently as kids developmental levels grow over time.   


These Jumbo Cardboard Blocks from Melissa & Doug are also a great way to literally reach high. These blocks are very lightweight but allow for so much building fun in all kinds of configurations, with a parent's help or without. 

Building something that really works is guaranteed to be better than anything viewed passively on a screen. Younger kids can design and build their very own dump truck with this set from Educational Insights and then play with their own creation. This builds skills related to engineering and creates confidence.   

Image via Amazon

Older kids can tinker with a Tinkering Lab Stem Kit and can work with a parent or own their own to build a car that works, all while developing skills related to building and electrical circuits. Other kits good for building skills are those from Tech Will Save Us like this Light Racer Kit or Electro Dough Plus that allows kids to play with light-up play dough.  Kids who love Legos can add an extra creative element to their building with E-Blox that allows kids to build circuits as well as buildings.  


Sometimes going back to basics is the best!  Hot Wheels are always a hit and kids can engage in endless play with just their replica cars or Monster Trucks or they can expand their play with a play set. Kids also love toys that mimic what they see like these mini Hess Trucks  that include a toy truck and race car, box trailer, and emergency truck.

Dolls have been a staple of childhood for as long as there have been kids for good reason.  Possibilities for imaginative play are nearly endless and they can help kids build social and life skills as they care for their babies. American Girl dolls like Blaire Wilson are so popular because they come with detailed back stories that give kids a launching point for imaginative play or allows them to create their own stories – plus they are really durable. 


If dolls aren't your  child's thing, figures like these Melissa&Doug dinosaurs serve the same purpose. Pretend food like this Star Diner Restaurant Playset can also make for hours of fun pretend play with parents.  Reusable sticker pads are also a great way to promote imagination that is very affordable and portable.  

Image via Amazon

Reading together is always a great way to spend time with family. Read old favorites or go to the library to discover new ones. Don't overlook designed-for-kids reference books like the 2020 Almanac from National Geographic Kids that will not just keep kids occupied and entertained for hours but will also teach them endless facts about the world around them. They may even discover a new special interest!  


Board games and card games are always a great way for kids and parents to spend time together. Go for classics that even young kids can play like Uno or the alternative Uno Flip. Other fun family card games are Boom Goes the Dynamite and 3Up3Down.  Younger kids will delight in games by Holye, such as Mixed Emojis and Monkey May I? that are not just fun but create great memories.   

For outdoor play, check out Starlux Games that takes classics like Capture-the-Flag and turns them into glow-in-the-dark versions. Also check out this reusable, portable Hangman set that is great for kids learning letters and can be used as kids grow and become independent spellers as well. For heirloom quality games check out Across the Board Penny Basketball and Aggravation/Chinese Checkers.  There is nothing quite like playing a family game to create lasting memories and teach kids skills like turn-taking, strategy, and resilience.  


Music and Movement

Having a dance party of listening to a family-friendly podcast is always a good way for parents and kids to spend time together.  Pinna is a great way to get kids listening and engaged instead of watching. Find music, stories, trivia games, music and more.   

Kids everywhere love music. Check out Blipbox, a  kid-sized, kid-friendly synthesizer. It's safe for kids as young as three, is completely screen-free, and is so much fun for kids and grown-ups to play with together. Plus, it encourages imaginative play as kids pretend to be everything from a DJ to a rock star and host dance parties for their entire family.

Get musical!  The Loog guitar isn't an ordinary guitar for kids.  It's designed specifically for kids to easily learn how to play with no amp required, using songs they already know and like.  This is a great way for kids to learn a skill they can build upon and use throughout their lives!  Learning to play guitar is something that can be done as a family activity or that kids can practice on their own.

There are few more effective ways of getting kids away from screens and getting their bodies and imaginations moving than getting them outdoors.  This real working dump truck from KidTrax is great for getting kids excited to step outside and into the role of a construction worker. This leads to all kinds of building scenarios that can keep kids engaged for hours. 

For outdoor play that does not involve motors, this KidKraft Greenville Garden Station is a good choice that will last for years. Kids normally need little more than a bucket and shovel to stay busy in the yard and this complete gardening station will get them excited about digging, planting, and searching for backyard critters. Best of all, the mess is contained and everything stays outdoors.  

Allow kids to act out their favorite movies away from the screen and invent their own plot lines. Stock up on princess dresses or get some toys that are hot this summer like the Avengers Endgame infinity fist , Spiderman Blaster,or a Captain Marvel Nerf blaster.  

Image via Schwinn

Don't forget about good old fashioned bike riding!  With a one-time investment in a sturdy bike like the Schwinn Ranger you can spend quality time with your child, get exercise, have fun, and practice a skill that they will use for the rest of their lives. 

Try a more modern way of getting around. Electric scooters are the hot mode of transportation for adults and kids alike for good reason. The Cali Drift is a head-turning ride that is way more fun than an ordinary scooter because the unique design allows kids to swerve from side-t0-side and rides like a skateboard. It's a great choice for those who want to have more fun than just riding a scooter down the alley. The Swagger 5 Elite is another awesome option. It rides more like a traditional scooter and is great choice for families who want to ride together. Plus, both fold so families can take their scooters on the go. 


Motor Skills and Crafting

Have some go-to toys that are guaranteed to be fun to play together when screens go off.  Monster Bowling can be set-up in under a minute for endless play without having to rent shoes, reusable sticker pads allow kids to create dinosaur, princess, or fire station scenes over and over again for under $5.00. 

Image via Amazon

This kid-friendly loom helps kids develop their fine motor skills and create something useable. This School-Time!  Classroom Play Set is perfect for toddlers and preschoolers to learn all kinds of skills from writing to counting to how to listen to a teacher. Get crafty with Y'Art kits that allow kids to get creative, nearly mess free, and create art with sticky yarn. 

The 1-2-3 Build It!: Construction Crew set is another great toy that can be used over and over in different ways as kids take one set of three trucks, take them apart, and build new creations. Or, focus on practical skills like learning letters, but introduce it in a new way with the Kid O A to Z Magnatab that allows kids to trace letters over and over again, while providing a sensory experience as well.

{ MORE: Putting Play In Every Day with Kaboom }

Which of these toys will make it onto your shopping list this year? 

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How to Pick The Best Toys, According to Pediatricians

Jamie is a Beltway Insider who loves channeling her pre-motherhood love of traveling into spending time exploring all D.C. has to offer with her brood of two girls and two boys ages 9, 7,5, and a baby. She is a reformed lawyer turned full-time kid wrangler who enjoys photographing her everyday chaos and anything salted caramel. Since life is never dull, she loves writing about the issues and events going on in her life at any given time, including caring for a daughter with special needs and th ... More

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