As I’m writing this, October is drawing to a close. Though it’s not Christmas season yet, it is time (or maybe past time) to be thinking about what to get the kiddos. When you’ve got multiple children and a limited income (and two of the kids’ birthdays are less than a week after Christmas), buying at the last minute without a plan is fiscally unwise. Also, property taxes are due around here on December 1st. Merry Christmas!
I’m not a big fan of tons of toys. We have a tremendous amount of books and games, and the toys pale in comparison. That’s not to say, I’m anti-toy. I wholeheartedly believe kids should be playing and toys assist that. But I try to choose toys that serve some sort of purpose. I like those that encourage the use of imagination, require critical thinking or problem-solving, or maybe improve motor skills.
One category of toys we do have a lot of is blocks and building toys. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to go into all the benefits building toys offer, but they check-off just about everything I’m looking for in a toy. Furthermore, they are gender neutral and good for most ages (obviously little Legos aren’t currently for Tres). My girls and my boy all play with the same building toys.
With all of that in mind, I thought I’d share some of our favorite building toys in case you’re already thinking of Christmas or have some birthdays coming up (or all of the above, like me). The toys are generally listed from most to least played with. As with all other toys, the use of these building toys can vary based on my kids’ whims. And though all kids are different, I thought listing them this way might help you decide among them if you know what sort of use they are getting from some real children.
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Lego and Mega Bloks
Around here Lego is not a toy. It's a way of life. If you can't find The Boy, there's a 100% chance he's outside at his Lego table. In another article, I'm going to explain why it's outside and how wonderful that is.
We have assorted sets that come with a little of everything. We have specific sets based on a theme, which were put together "properly" one time before being comingled with everything else.
The best deal we've gotten on Legos, if you're just starting your collection, is a set like this from Wal-Mart on Black Friday.
The price for this 1,500 piece set at the time of this writing is $90.87 (real Legos are kind of expensive, by the way). We got our set for $15 or $20. I'm not a Black Friday shopper, but my parents went out that day and picked this up for me.
Do you need 1,500 Legos? Yes. Yes, you do. You're actually going to need 15,000 or more Legos. We have thousands, but it's still the only toy The Boy has requested for Christmas or his birthday. Plus, in fits of exasperation some may end up in the trash from time to time. It's good to have back-ups when you're throwing away the love of your child's life. I'm not being dramatic, folks. They are that important around here.
Rather than any specific sets or massive assortment of bricks, The Boy will be getting some pieces to use with what he already has.
Like these window and door pieces.
And this silicone, Lego compatible mat.
Goodwill is also a great place to find bags full of small or large Lego style blocks. There are usually always several bundles for sale at my Goodwill, so I assume it's probably that way every place.
If your child is too young for Lego, Mega Bloks may be a good fit. We got rid of ours before Tres was born, but she plays with them whenever we go some place that has them. Just to warn you, Mega Bloks are a gateway drug for Legos.
This is the set with which The Boy started. With the wagon, it's really two toys in one.
I can't say enough good things about Magformers. They are well-designed and much played with. These neat little magnets are also handy for showing the relationship between flat and 3D shapes, and they stick to each other no matter which way a connection is attempted. There is no polarity issue. It's like magic!
The Boy was given a couple of these basic sets from different relatives.
Little Mama also received this set from one of those relatives.
The older kids often use them to make things for their other toys. For example, Little Mama has made a horse stable for horse figures. Tres just likes to carry them around and see what she can stick them to. Window? No. Refrigerator? Yes. Or she uses the squares for bracelets.
After these basic sets turned out to be a hit, we got this gears set.
I know several children of all ages and personality types who have Magformers, and they all enjoy them.
A super cute log cabin set was recently released. The kids won't be getting it this Christmas, as I had already secured our building toys for this year before I saw it. But this is on my list for the future--maybe Little Mama's birthday.
Like Legos, Magformers are not cheap. And like Legos, there are some more affordable alternatives. I have the IMDEN brand on my radar for the future.
This is a personal favorite of mine. It's another magnetic building toy, but the design is sort of opposite from Magformers. Where they are flat, SmartMax are solid. They are rods and balls that connect. The cool feature with them is that the rods will connect to the balls no matter where you try to make the connection. The rods will also pivot around the balls while maintaining their connection. Imagine your shoulder socket, except the ball doesn't house the rod.
These truly are great for multiple ages and are super sturdy. Additionally, the company that makes them has good customer service. I've called their game division, SmartGames, twice about some lost game parts, and they promptly sent free replacements. I offered to pay and they wouldn't let me.
We got the kids this set as a joint present last Christmas.
I had been wanting to get it, and I found it on clearance from Timberdoodle. It was still expensive, but I took a chance. I have to say, I have not regretted the purchase.
SmartMax are tons of fun on their own, but there are also several add-on kits that turn the rods into other things. We have this nifty vehicle kit, which has seen much action.
This year Tres is getting this adorable set of animals.
I also would really like to get this huge ball run set sometime. I'm thinking next Christmas for Tres.
I have looked for cheaper alternatives, and I haven't come across anything exactly like SmartMax. There are some similar concepts, but they are pretty close in price to SmartMax and are not compatible with it's add-ons (as far as I can tell). If I find anything significantly cheaper and comparable, I'll update the article.
Like Magformers, our Bristle Blocks often get used to make something when playing with other toys. Little Mama also frequently makes a phone out of them when she's playing "grown-up". Tres just likes sticking them together (and then throwing them around the house or stuffing them in the couch). Sometimes she'll slap some of these together and proudly bring it to me and say, "Look what I do". So cute!
Bristle Blocks have hard bristles sticking out of them in all directions. When you put the blocks together the bristles from one block insert into the free space of another block and stay together by friction. These are great for babies and toddlers. Just be careful about what size pieces come in any set you get. Tres got this set last Christmas, and we had to take out a few smaller pieces.
This is one that really gets the brain working. ZOOB BuilderZ connect in several different ways, so playing with them requires a little extra thought as far as building toys go. What is the best way to connect what you want to make? Each connection type offers different functionality.
The Boy got this challenge set last Christmas.
It comes with ZOOB pieces and some extra things like string and rubber bands (and some other stuff I can't recall at the moment). There are also challenge cards that ask for something to be built, but there are certain conditions that must be met or specific pieces that must be used or excluded, as the case may be.
The Boy will play with these on his own, but I have to prompt him to take on the challenges. Once he does, he thoroughly enjoys figuring out how to solve the problem Though there are multiple and sometimes endless solutions to each challenge, they are not easy to reach. Thought must be put into satisfying the demands of each challenge. As a mom, I love a toy that is fun and requires problem solving.
Qixels and Simbrix
If a toy requires refills, I'm not a fan. This holds true for Qixels, but somebody got them for The Boy for Christmas one year and he loves them. They're little plastic cubes you place on a peg board and spray with water to fuse together. He will sit still for a while and tediously place each little cube into the right spot to make the perfect picture. Sometimes he uses a pattern, and sometimes he free styles. From a kids point of view, it's an awesome idea. The Boy loves building his pictures and putting them around the house. I can't complain about the creativity it inspires. But, oh, those refills.
I've debated the Qixels 3D Maker for a while, but I haven't brought myself to purchase it yet. I think I've decided that I'll get it for The Boy this Christmas if I find an amazing deal between now and then. I absolutely know he will be crazy for it.
I discovered what I thought was a great alternative in Simbrix. It's the same idea of building pixelated pictures, but Simbrix slide into each other. You can keep them together or take them apart to reuse. The Boy likes them, but prefers the quick permanency Qixels offer. He can spritz his design with water and let it dry. If he wants a Simbrix design to become permanent, he's got to get me to iron it. He'd rather do it all himself.
Marble and Ball Runs
A marble run is a classic toy requiring planning to get everything to work together correctly. A couple of years ago the kids got this wooden set.
To increase the fun factor, they also got ramps with propellers and buckets, tunnels, a drum, and some extra long rails. By the way, I love all the Haba accessories for marble runs. I'm sure my kids would like more of them, but they are quite expensive. We have the more economical pieces (or I found them on sale).
For a while, Little Mama and (especially) The Boy were very interested in trying to make all kinds of mega runs. But their interest slowly waned. There was some frustration , mainly on Little Mama's part, over keeping the blocks stacked as a run was being built.
Later on, we gave them this music set.
This renewed interest in the run for a while. It's a cool set, but they again lost interest in building those amazing runs I imagined.
Now, I most often find very small scale runs on the Lego table being used, I think, as some sort of obstacle or trap for the Lego mini-figures.
When I was debating which set to get them, I had considered a plastic set. I now wonder if it would be used more often to make those grand runs since it stays together. The wooden set is good quality and nice, but the interlocking plastic might be better for small hands.
If you don't have a ton of space but think your child would like a marble run check out this magnetic run.
The kids also have this and it's a fun little set. They don't use it on the refrigerator, as I know the marbles will end up underneath it. They have a magnetic dry erase board in their room and a magnetic sheet in the barn (more on that another time) they use with this set.
I had a collection of Lincoln Logs as a child, and I loved them. I think I probably played with them past the socially acceptable age. A few years ago for his birthday, The Boy received a set like this from his great grandfather.
I was thrilled that he got them, and there was something satisfying about PawPaw being the one to give them. In my mind, he walked up and down the toy aisle at Wal-Mart looking for a gift and spied them, sparking a memory of many years ago from his boyhood when he enjoyed his own set. A little grin appeared on his face as he reached down to get them. I have no idea if that really happened or not, but I like to think so. And it makes me a little happy sad.
Lincoln Logs go through phases. Months might pass and they see no action, and months may pass in which they are played with nearly every day. The Boy and Little Mama seem to enjoy Lincoln Logs to the same degree.
Squigz are suction cups connected by stems. You can connect one Squig (I guess that's the singular form of Squigz) to another by pressing the suctions together. Because of their shape, it's not really feasible to construct an actual building or recognizable object. The gratification of Squigz is in seeing how large a thing you can build and the pop from joining or releasing them from one another.
We don't have the classic Squigz. Little Mama has a tub of mini Squigz, which are smaller versions of the standard size (obviously).
They're a cute boredom buster.
Tres has the jumbo version, called pipSquigz.
They come in a set of three. In addition to having some really powerful suction cups, each one does something else, like rattle. I HIGHLY recommend these as a baby gift. Tres loves them.
Pinblocks are another pixelated image making block. They are larger than Qixels or Simbrix, and can be used to make flat images or 3D objects. The Boy has a set like this. He likes having the option to make pictures or objects.
He doesn't use it as much as I'd like, but that is partly my fault. I had to store them away from Tres, and where I put them created an "out of sight, out of mind" situation. Because of this, I've recently decided to relocate them and have high hopes they'll become a more regular part of the toy rotation.
(Update 11/3/17: I am happy to report that I moved the Pinblocks to a more visible location and they are getting more attention!)
I would describe Playstix as modern, plastic Lincoln Logs. They work using the same concept--fitting grooves together. However, Playstix are more bumpy, have more connection points, and some pieces are flexible.
The kids got this set as a joint present and really enjoyed it.
Then I put them with the Pinblocks. You can figure what happened. Needless to say, they are also getting moved.
From a mom point-of-view, I like toys that come with their own sturdy container. You can see that Playstix does that. As I'm writing this, I realize this seems to be a common trait among several of the building toys we have. Mega Bloks, SmartMax, Lincoln Logs, mini Squigz, Simbrix, Rainbow Pebbles, and Brain Flakes all come with with a tub or pouch that makes clean up and storage much easier.
Rainbow Pebbles are a very unique, yet simple building toy. They look like rocks, but they're very colorful and have a rubbery texture.
I got them for Little Mama because I knew she'd enjoy the bright colors. I also knew she'd never use them with the included challenge cards, and I was right. She uses them while playing with other small figures, particularly her family counters.
I guess something about the bright colors makes her think they go together.
The Boy has tried some of the challenges, and it's much harder to stack rocks than you'd think!
This toy was another victim of my attempt to keep Tres from choking on little pieces. Like the other items I accidentally hid, it will be moving in the near future. Before I put them away, they were played with quite often.
Gears! Gears! Gears!
Gears! Gears! Gears! are just what they sound like--a bunch of gears that can be arranged in all kinds of configurations. They come in various themes to appeal to wide variety of interests.
The girl received this cute set for Christmas one year.
It received a lot of play time for a while but now sees the most action at the end of the year. I think something about the particular set we have (candy) makes the kids think of Christmas. Perhaps a different design would see more consistent use through the year, but I don't have an issue with the kids dedicating a few toys for specific occasions or moods.
Speaking of toys for a particular occasion, I gave the kids this Candy Construction set last December so they could make a gingerbread-esque house or whatever else they wanted to display during the month.
They thought it was fun and enjoyed changing it out every few days. Our Elf on the Shelf, Herbie, spent the night in one of the houses they made. They found that really exciting.
I'll pull this back out this Christmas for some more candy fun.
Brain Flakes and Wedgits
That wraps up the building toys I can recommend from experience. The Boy is getting Brain Flakes for Christmas this year.
I'll be able to give more information about them in the new year.
Roominate and Build and Imagine
Perhaps you can help me out for the future. I'm interested in a Roominate set for Little Mama. In particular this town house.
I also have my eye on a Build and Imagine set or two. I think the Creativity Castle looks fun.
Do you have an experience with them or any of the other building toys on this list? What are your thoughts? Please share in the comments!
See my Pinterest board for all gift guides and lists.