After my son was born I was obsessed with reading articles about milestones and how to boost baby's brain development. I wanted to do everything right and give him the best leg up that I could (oh you, beautiful naive first-time mother). Eventually, I realized I was putting a lot of pressure on myself and my son, and that he didn't need that much to grow and succeed. In fact, one of the best things I could do for him was just to let him play.
So I eased up on the stress and gave into the fun. I found that open-ended toys held his attention and had the most longevity as he grew from stage to stage (he still plays with the same blocks he played with as a baby, even now four years later!).
The best part? You don't have to break the bank to find quality toys.
Here are some of my favorite open-ended toys under $30:
Don't underestimate how amazing the simple wooden block can be. In this mere set alone lives skyscrapers, balancing acts, platforms for dolls, walls to keep bad guys out and so much more. (I also love this, if you're looking for a slightly larger set.)
My son has had endless amounts of fun "slicing" these up and making elaborate meals. He loves to feed us or drop these into a real pot or pan (we give him one or two to play with while we make dinner) to cook alongside with us. We've learned colors and practiced hand dexterity with these vegetables.
I couldn't love play dough more if I tried, and I especially love this brand because it's made with 100% non-toxic ingredients. The sensory experience of play dough is great. You can squish, squeeze, shape, roll and cut with this, and if you add in simple things from your kitchen that you already have like cookie cutters, a plastic butter knife or a rolling pin, it can keep your kiddo occupied for awhile.
I think there's room for more than one set of blocks, especially if you incorporate a new shape. These blocks become ramps for toys, slides, little hammocks that figurines can sit on, or rainbows. I love seeing how they ignite his imagination.
I have to admit: At first, I think my son was a bit too impatient with these. It takes a lot of concentration for his little fingers to get the shoelace into the shapes and he's not one for patience. But eventually, we built up his attention span, and now he can just sit in heavy concentration trying to lace up all the blocks. I love these for helping to develop fine motor skills, but also because the separate components themselves can spin off into other types of play.
My son loves music and whenever he gets tantrum-y or frustrated, we can usually play a song that will soothe the tears or incite a dance party. But what he especially loves is when he can make his own music. This wooden drum is simple enough for even younger toddlers and has a rubber head on the stick to soften the sounds (whoever thought of that must have been a parent!).
For younger ones, this stacking ring is a great multitasker. It can be a rattle, a stacking toy or taken apart to provide endless fun rolling around the individual wooden pieces. My son loved getting close down to the ground to watch the wheels as they weebled and wobbled around.
Warning: These little pieces can get everywhere and if you accidentally step on one of those bolts, expletives will surely shoot out of your mouth. Okay, if I haven't lost you yet, my son is super mechanical and loves watching how things work, so he can spend hours (seriously) tightening these screws and making little creations. Your kiddo can make all sorts of objects with these—from little things that go to hinged objects to the beginnings of buildings. It's a great toy that helps them practice and expand their building brain.
Stay with me here. Figurines might seem like the most boring thing, but the fact that they just are means they can become anything your kiddo imagines them to be. They can be a mama and baby going on a trip to the library. They can be pirates sailing across the salty sea or they can be superheroes climbing the skyscraper your little one built out of the blocks. I love how simple and non-descript this pair is because it means they can transform into anything.
This is definitely one that has grown with him. When he was younger, we mostly used this for stacking and identifying colors, but as he's gotten older, we use the clock function more to talk about time and numbers. I love that it fully deconstructs to its individual elements (gives you more options that way!) and it's super durable.
We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.