Sunday, December 22, 2013

Toddler Gift Guide: If you build it... (Building Toys for Toddlers)

What a joy it has been to write this section of the Gift Guide!  I started out with Toddler X's favorite building toy (the Cubanimo nesting block set, described below) firmly in mind, and I expected to supplement that with a few basic suggestions from my SV Toddler fans (maybe solid wood blocks, Duplo sets -- you know, the classics) and be done with this section in no time. I mean, come on -- how exciting can blocks be?

Turns out, they can be very exciting -- exciting enough that this section has taken me weeks to write, because I find myself wanting to research all the cool and innovative products available to toddlers today, read every review, and (uh-oh!) actually buy them to try out with my own toddler.

Thank you to all the toddler parents who offered suggestions and introduced me to new and innovative building toys, and also to those who reminded me why solid wood blocks and basic Duplo sets are popular generation after generation -- those classics are classic for a reason. I'm so excited to watch Toddler X build and grow with these great companions!

Toddler X's Toddler Favorite

Djeco / Cubanimo 17-Piece Nesting Block Set with Animal Friends. The Cubanimo nesting blocks are one of the Top 10 -- maybe even Top 5 -- toys in the X household. Toddler X received this set for Christmas last year, and we still play with it daily. Here's my description from last month's Top 10 Toys list:
Another gift from Grandma (she really is amazing!), these adorable blocks are absolutely charming. Made of a sturdy glossy cardboard-ish material covered with cute, colorful designs related to the cow, dog and cat that come with the set, these blocks are easy for little hands to stack and build with, and oh so fun to knock down. Toddler X takes them out (and I clean them up) several times a day...and they're so cute that I don't even mind.
These are well-made blocks -- Toddler X has put them through the ringer over the last 10 months, including standing on them, and they've held up just fine. And boy, they have been carefully stacked and then manically swatted down more times than I can count. I don't see any end in sight to our family's enjoyment of this great set. 
The Cubanimo blocks are without a doubt my top pick in the blocks category -- this is another one of the toys that I genuinely enjoy using with Toddler X. 
I didn't mention it in my original review, but one of the things we especially love is that the blocks are hollow (obviously, as they nest), and they're sturdy enough to build with on their sides. Toddler X builds his towers with the open sides of the blocks facing in all different directions, then goes around the room finding cars, stuffed animals, kitchen utensils, etc. to "live" in each of the little cubbies.

Magnetized Building Toys

This is a whole category of builders that I wasn't even aware of -- where have I been hiding? A dozen different toddler parents wrote to me with suggestions of awesomely magnetic toys that allow toddlers to build up, out, down and around, enhancing their motor skills while simultaneously nurturing their creativity. The toddler of today is the engineer of tomorrow with these exciting toys! Here are the top picks:

Tints Original Set
52 pieces
Tegu Building Blocks. Tegu blocks are my new obsession. These were recommended to me by several moms, and their endorsements were so positive that I just had to check out the company and its products. Our first box of Tegu blocks -- the Tegu Jungle Endeavor 22 Piece Set -- arrived the other night, and I can't wait for our family to play with them together on Christmas Day.

Jungle Endeavor
22 piece set
While your initial reaction to Tegu will almost certainly be pure sticker shock -- a set of blocks for $100?? -- the more you learn, the more you understand that these really just aren't comparable to a normal building block set. The sustainably-harvested hardwood blocks have internal magnets that allow kids to engineer and build gravity-defying structures. Toddler mom Joy, who introduced me to Tegu, says that her family -- and particularly her son -- loves using the blocks to build three dimensional objects that pivot, spin or rotate, as well as simply playing with them on the fridge -- after all, they're magnets. Other moms have told me that they love Tegu for travel -- with their magnetization, they're harder to lose -- or for entertaining toddlers in restaurants. Tegu even makes 8 block "pocket pouches" for on-the-go kids. These are toys that kids will play with well into their school years, so I'm sort of viewing it as an investment.

Mahogany Discovery Set
26 Pieces
The other impressive feature of Tegu is its social mission. The company is heavily invested in improving the well-being of the people of Honduras, with initiatives in several areas. For the past few weeks, I've been following the "Tegu Elf" on Facebook (#TeguElf) as everyday the company gives away its products to schools, shelters and families in need. This really seems to be a company with a conscience.

Nelson Pocket Pouch
8 pieces
Anyhow, the basic breakdown is that they make six different sizes of sets -- the Original (52 pieces), the Explorer (40 pieces), the Discovery (26 pieces), the Endeavor (22 pieces) and two kinds of "pocket pouches", the standard one with 8 pieces and a Prism pouch with 6 pieces -- in five different finishes -- Natural, Mahogany, Tegu Tints, Nelson and Jungle.

Here are links to a variety of the sets (one of each size and color scheme) -- once you're at the product page, you can explore a bit more. I dare you not to fall in love with these things just like I did! :)

Magna-Tiles Clear Colors
100 Piece Set
Magna-Tiles. "Seriously?!", you're thinking. "Another $100 set of building toys??" Yep, that was my thought too. But so many moms recommended them to me, and the reviews on Amazon are so universally glowing (4.9 stars out of 5, with 413 reviews), that I'd be remiss not to include these incredible toys on my list.

Several moms have told me that they and their kids love these cool magnetized geometric tiles because the creative and educational options are limitless -- building skyscrapers, creating patterns, learning which tile combinations create which shapes. Having read many of the Amazon reviews, what jumped out to me is how many people said their children used Magna-Tiles in combination with their other toys (to build garages or ramps for cars, for example, or houses for dolls or Little People) -- something I consider to be a key characteristic of a perfect toy. People mention over and over that their kids, both boys and girls, can play with these toys for hours, day after day, year after year. So, like the Tegu blocks, these are expensive, but an investment in long-term, worthwhile fun -- unlike that Tickle-Me Elmo that everybody else is buying.
Magna-Tiles Clear Colors
32 Piece Set

Though these toys are geared for ages 3 and up, toddler mom Rebekah says her 3 year old has had them for 1 1/2 years, and plays with them daily, and many of the Amazon reviews say their great for 2 year olds and beyond.  If you're considering these -- or, on the flip side, if you're wondering why on earth anyone would pay so much for building tiles -- I'd recommend reading the Amazon reviews. The enthusiasm that all the reviewers show for this toy says a lot about how much their kids enjoy it! We'll be asking for these from the grandparents for Toddler X's birthday in February.

Options include:
The same sets are also available in solid colors (as opposed to the clear), but a couple of people have specifically recommended the clear, as it's fun to see what is inside the structures you build.

Magformers 62 Piece Set. Yep, there's another strong contender in the magnetized building toy category. I received a couple of suggestions from toddler moms for Magformers set, which like the Magna-Tiles, encourage creativity and impressive engineering feats with cool-colored geometric shapes that use magnets to stick together. The suggested age from Amazon from most of the Magformers sets trends a bit older, but if you have a more "mature" toddler (hah!) these may be worth looking into. Like the Magna Tiles, these have exceptional reviews on Amazon and have lots of different cool expansion sets, like the Magformers XL Cruisers Car Set that toddler mom Laura recommended to me.

The Classics

Guidecraft 76 Piece Unit Block Set. Even with all the cool new developments out there in the building toy world, it's tough to argue with a classic: simply, sturdy, well-made, solid wood blocks. Toddler mom Mary recommended these to us for just those reasons, saying that Guidecraft's blocks will take a beating and last forever. Mary isn't the only one lauding these blocks -- they have a perfect 5 star rating on Amazon, with rave reviews across the board. One review I really liked said that these blocks get the whole family down on the floor, playing together. What more could you want in a toy?

Melissa & Doug 60-Piece Standard Unit Blocks. Another set of solid wood blocks with similarly great reviews (4.8 stars out of 5), this Melissa and Doug building toy is a favorite of Toddler X's at grandma and grandpa's house. Everything great that people said about the Guidecraft blocks above is equally true about these -- simple, creative fun for the whole family with blocks that will truly stand the test of time. This set is a bit smaller, quantity-wise, than the Guidecraft set, and less expensive, so if you're interested in wooden blocks, check both out and make a determination of what works best for your family. Thanks to toddler mom Laura for reminding me to include this great set.

LEGO Education DUPLO Brick Set (144 Pieces). Did you play with Duplo blocks as a kid? I sure did. In fact, my aunt, remembering how much I adored them when I was a child, got Toddler X a set of these as a baby shower gift -- she knew it would take him a year to grow into them, but figured I could enjoy them myself in the meantime! Thanks to toddler mom Laura for suggesting that I include these simple but oh-so-fun classic blocks in the gift guide. If Toddler X's delight at the Lego Funfest earlier this year is any indication, our family has a lot of Duplo, and later Lego, blocks in our future

Tinkertoy 100 Piece Essentials Value Set. If the category "Classic Building Toy" were to come up on Family Feud, what do you think would be the number one answer? My guess would be Tinker Toys. There's a reason these fun creative pieces have been on the market since 1914 (no joke -- I looked it up!). Kids love creating and imagining with these simple colored circles and sticks. And at half the cost of the newest block inventions, these are a good option for families who want to encourage their little engineers without spending a fortune.

Miscellaneous Building Toys

E&M Labs Skallops Junior Set with 1 Deck of Playing Cards. Toddler mom Britt recommended these truly unique building toys to me and shared that they are made by a local company. It turns out that E&M Labs, the Mountain View company that created Skallops, has actually won a Parents' Choice Award for the design, as well as multiple awards at the 2013 Bay Area Maker Faire. For a relatively reasonable price, these lightweight and easy-to-store toys apparently offer up tremendous building potential. Perhaps your toddler will be winning his or her own Maker Faire awards sometime in the near future...

TOMY Gearation Refrigerator Magnets Building Toy. Straight from Toddler X's Top 10 Toys list:


Toddler X discovered these on a magnet board at the Los Altos State Street Green this summer, and enjoyed them so much that I got on Amazon that night and ordered a set. The brightly colored interconnecting gears (one of which is battery operated -- you move the others by attaching them to the powered one) arrived two days later, and have been a source of fun, creativity and interest ever since.
This is one of Mr. X's favorites -- he loves building all different configurations on the fridge with Toddler X. Toddler X turns these on at least once a day, and it's been fun to watch him develop an understanding of how they work (I hear less and less "Uh oh! Gear stuck!" each week). Excellent way to entertain a toddler in the kitchen while you cook or clean. I'd recommend for 18 months and up (well up -- I imagine that these will be on our fridge for years to come).

So there you have it! Hope this is helpful!

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