Sunday, February 22, 2015

Toddler X's Guide to Magnetic Fun


Two nights ago, I posted a photo (above) of Toddler X playing with all three of his magnetic building toy sets (Tegu blocks, SmartMax and Magna-Tiles) at the same time -- I let him dump them out en masse because, well, that's the kind of wild Friday nights we have here in the X household. Several readers expressed interest in the Ikea magnetic board that he was using as a base for his creations, so I posted a second photo (below) of a fun alternate use for the board -- a magnetic, SmartMax/ping pong ball plinko setup.


As the questions kept coming in about magnetic toys -- which just so happen to be our whole family's absolute favorites -- it struck me that perhaps a post was in order. So here you go: Toddler X's Guide to Magnetic Fun. I would definitely welcome your ideas and suggestions, as well as any more specific questions you might have as you try to choose the right toys for your family.

Please note that this post contains affiliate links to Amazon. If you do choose to buy any of these items -- or, really, anything at all -- I'd be grateful if you would do so via these links. Thank you!

The Building Surface

While the magnets of my childhood (plastic letters and numbers with dangerously swallow-able magnets on the back) were usually relegated to the refrigerator door, these days toddlers can play with their magnets anywhere in the house, horizontally, vertically or at an incline, thanks to Ikea's awesome Spontan magnet board, pictured in both shots above. I bought ours at the East Palo Alto store in the kitchen organization department. Usually, our magnet board is covered with letters and numbers, but on occasions when we want our structures to be super secure, we pull it out as a building base as well.

If you're planning to use the magnet board on the ground or leaning against a wall (as opposed to mounted), I strongly recommend some bumpers for the corners, as they can be sharp. I bought the Ikea Patrull corner bumpers, which are darling little rubber hands with sticky stuff on the back. They come eight to a pack, so I put two at each corner, facing both front and back. They look cute and are super functional, both for protecting Toddler X from sharp corners and for helping stabilize the board when it's leaned at an angle against our shelving unit or a wall, with hardwood floors underneath. They stayed on for about 9 months, and now need to be replaced, but the protection in the meantime was totally worth it.

We've also had lots of fun building with Tegu blocks on our metal baby gates -- Toddler X devises whole houses which, he explains, have two bedrooms, eight bathrooms, and thirty-six smoke alarms. The magnets are strong enough that you can build horizontally out from a vertical surface.

Building Sets

Ah, my happy place. There is nothing I enjoy more than sitting on the floor with Toddler X, either watching him play contentedly or playing alongside him. No toy has brought me more of those special moments over the past year than our magnetic building sets by Tegu, SmartMax and Magna-Tiles.

As you probably know if you've followed my toy recommendations, I'm a big proponent of high quality toys that stimulate toddlers' imaginations and have a multitude of uses -- toys that will be enjoyed over years, rather than months, and that the whole family can play with together. We have a tiny house, so my focus has always been better toys, rather than more toys. And when it comes to better toys, magnetic building sets meet every criteria I have for a perfect toddler toy:
  • Promote Creativity/Imagination: I can't think of any toys that do more to encourage creativity and imagination -- there is no limit to the things you can build with these. Because they're necessarily abstract (you can't build a perfectly-shaped animal out of Tegus, for example) and there aren't instruction books showing you what it's "supposed" to look like, there's a ton of room for interpretation, inventiveness and originality. I love it when Toddler X explains to me what he's just built -- it's usually something hilarious, like a pirate ship for dogs.
Tegu horns? Why not?
  • Experiential Learning: I don't believe in "book learning" for toddlers, but I definitely do believe in learning by touch, feel and discovery. Toddler X has learned about gravity and magnetization/polarization from his Tegu and SmartMax blocks, and now is getting an introduction to geometry from the Magna Tiles. They promote problem-solving and require kids to seek alternative solutions when an attempted design doesn't work -- skills they'll need throughout their lives. 
  • Use with Other Toys: We don't have a ton of toys, and instead work to have toys that may be radically different, but can be used together to expand the range of play. Toddler X has been using his Tegu blocks and Magna-Tiles this week to build dog houses for the figurines from his firehouse set, a garage for his cars, a swimming pool for his firemen, and more.
He declared he was building a wheelchair ramp, after I
showed him one at the park. Absent a wheelchair,
he used a train to test it out.
  • Durability: While I can't yet speak to the Magna-Tiles, as we've only had them for a week, the Tegu blocks and SmartMax are remarkably durable -- Toddler X plays hard, and these building sets come through just fine.
  • Whole Family Play: Basically, we don't allow toys in our house that we wouldn't enjoy sharing with Toddler X, and we particularly like those that have us on the ground, actively playing with him. If our family is at all typical, magnetic building toys will provide hours and hours of whole family play. 
A joint effort by mommy and Toddler X to
use every Tegu block we have in a single structure
  • Longevity: We try not to buy any toys that Toddler X will tire of in a few weeks or months. Building blocks of all sorts, and especially these magnetic ones, are things he will love for YEARS. (This is obviously a critical attribute, as magnetic building toys are fairly expensive -- though when seen as a long-term investment, they're an incredible deal.)

Which sets do we have?
It all began with a Tegu 22 piece Endeavor set in "Jungle" which I bought for Toddler X for Christmas 2013, when he was just shy of two years old. During the course of 2014, I bought a couple other small add-on sets -- a set of 4 cubes in Green and a 6 piece Pocket Pouch Prism in Mahogany, both of which introduced new shapes to our collection and really expanded our building options. Last week, for his birthday, I gave him our biggest set yet -- the 42 piece set in Tints (scored on one of those Amazon Lightning Deals I posted about back in November!) -- and we've been having fun ever since.
Here's what all our sets -- a 22 piece in Jungle, a 42 piece in Tints, a set of
4 cubes, and a 6 piece Pocket Pouch Prism in Mahogany -- look like together.
Toddler X decided the small columns were a xylophone when laid out in a row,
and made the long columns into mallets. Pretty monotonous sound, but
really creative, right?
SmartMax sets were a more recent addition to our family. Toddler X received two sets for Christmas (just shy of three years old) from aunts and uncles -- the Basic 42 piece set and a Rescue Team set. He loved them so much that he got two more for his birthday last week from other family members: a Basic 25 set and a Lighthouse set, which includes two bars that light up. Mr. X feels about SmartMax the way I feel about Tegu -- he absolutely loves them, and will proudly call me in to see his "siege tower" or whatever his latest creation is. These sets have both of us thinking that perhaps we should have gone into engineering instead of law.

And finally, Magna-Tiles. We had seen Magna-Tiles at play places, friends' houses and school, and Toddler X always enjoyed using them, but while they came highly recommended from my readers, I just couldn't convince myself to invest in another expensive magnetic building toy when I had already declared my love for Tegu. A kind and generous friend, however, knew better, and gave Toddler X a Magna-Tiles® Clear Colors 32 piece set for his birthday last weekend. They were an immediate hit, and all week have been the first toy he asks for when he wakes up in the morning. And what did Toddler X choose to spend his birthday money from Papou (his grandpa) on today? Yep, more Magna-Tiles -- we now have two of the 32 piece sets, for double the fun.

Two 32 piece Magna-Tiles sets give you LOTS of
the small square shape, which is Toddler X's favorite
to build with (it seems the most stable). Here's an airplane
from last night.

Which set is right for your family?
While Tegu, SmartMax and Magna-Tiles are all, at the most basic level, magnetic building toys, they are totally different in their feel, appearance and uses. Fortunately, since we have all three, I can give you a head-to-head comparison so that you can choose the one that's best for your family. Hope this is helpful!

Tegu 42 piece set in Tints --
Toddler X's birthday present this year
  • What are they? Tegu blocks are solid wood planks, columns, cubes, triangles, parallelograms and more (depending on the set), with magnets embedded inside. The blocks are lovely to look at -- smooth sides, softly curved edges -- and feel solid and substantial in your hands. They're also very hardy -- like with any building toy, what goes up must come down, and our Tegu blocks have fallen from lofty heights onto hardwood floors for over a year now, none the worse for wear. There are various color schemes available, from Natural (light wood) and Mahogany (dark wood) to Jungle (wood shades and light green), Tints (fun bright pastels) and Nelson (mod-ish solids). Wheels and other special sets are available to broaden your building options.
  • What types of things do you build with them? Pretty much anything. We do a lot of houses/hotels/zoos (very open layouts -- you basically just build the frame, towers, etc., and then you can attach other blocks at magnetized points), animals (lots of fun!), even our family members sitting or skiing or climbing. Obviously there's a lot of abstraction going on, and lots of room for interpretation, which makes it even more fun (tonight, Toddler X declared that the structure I built was a set of diving boards into and, interestingly, out of the pond beneath -- that wouldn't have crossed my mind in a million years). Because the blocks pivot at the magnet points, you can change the whole look of a structure without actually detaching anything -- just pivot the "neck" down, for example, and a giraffe goes from eating food in the tree branches to smelling something on the ground. The magnets are very strong, so you can build gravity-defying structures, adding blocks out and down, not just up. They're pretty awesome.
  • What are the recommended ages? Tegu markets the blocks as being good for ages 1-99. While an infant might enjoy holding the blocks and parents can feel confident that they're safe, Tegu would probably be frustrating for a one year old who just wants to build without having to worry about finding the proper magnetization spot and considering polarity. Toddler X enjoyed his Tegu blocks when I bought them shortly before his 2nd birthday, but started enjoying them a lot more at around 2 1/2, and I foresee his enjoyment peaking at, say, age 55. In other words, he's enjoying them more every day -- and hey, so am I!
  • Pros:
    • Appearance and "feel". This company proudly markets their blocks as a premium product, and you'll understand why the first time you see and touch a set of Tegu blocks. Everything you build looks like a work of art, especially if you have a set with the Tints or Jungle color scheme. The blocks feel strong and well-made.
    • The challenge. There is so much "figuring out" to do with Tegus, as the different shaped pieces have their magnetic points in different locations, and of course you have to combine the proper polarities to get them to stick. It's exciting for both toddlers and adults as you begin to make things work, and after a while you can anticipate building challenges and avoid them. Toddler X will try something multiple times before finding the way that works, but eventually he'll figure it out and will commit it to memory for the next time he faces that challenge. It's awesome to watch.
    • Tons of options. There's always something new to discover, something new to build with Tegu. Just tonight, I found a way to suspend the columns that I'd never tried before, creating little swings that looked really cool (Toddler X's firemen figures loved them). Tomorrow, it will be something different. The possibilities are endless.
    • Movement: One thing these offer that the other sets don't is the ability to spin and pivot pieces without affecting stability. The magnets are strong, and once attached, you can rotate, twist or swing pieces around, making for even more fun.
    • Stability. Tegu structures are, for the most part, pretty solid and stable. The magnets are strong and the pieces are wide enough that whatever you build will not just topple over (with the exception that approaching a piece with a magnet of the same polarity could cause it to topple).
    • Sound. The blocks make a very satisfying "snap" sound as you click them together. And, as Toddler X discovered last night, they make a lovely (though extremely monotonous) xylophone!
    • Experiential learning. Kids learn a ton about magnets and polarity as they watch the pieces either strongly attract (the magnets are intense!) or strongly repel. The cool pivoting nature of the pieces helps kids learn about gravity and physical forces, and allows you to make fun structures like windmills and helicopters.
    • A cool company. Tegu is a really neat company, committed to improving the infrastructure in the Honduran city in which they're based, paying fair wages, sending kids to school, and using sustainable plants for their products.
  • Cons: 
    • Difficulty/Learning Curve. Tegu blocks can be harder/more frustrating for young toddlers to manage than, say, SmartMax for two reasons:
      • You have to search for the magnetized points. Each block has a certain number of magnetized points, and they're located at specific areas of the block -- the long plank, for example, is magnetized on both ends and in the middle, while the medium plank is just magnetized at the ends. If you try to attach one piece to another in a spot where one or both are not magnetized, nothing will happen -- it will just rest there if the block is horizontal, or fall right off it it's not.
      • You have to find proper polarity. If you try to attach two blocks at a place where they are both magnetized, but you don't have the polarization right, the pieces will actively repel, sometimes knocking down a whole tower (amusing for an adult, potentially frustrating for a toddler). It takes a toddler some time to realize that you have to search a bit for the magnetized point, and once you find it, you have to make sure your polarities line up properly to get it to stick. Toddler X gets it now and will immediately flip a block around if it repels, but there is a learning curve.
    • Cost. They're expensive. Worth it, for sure, but expensive all the same.
    • Which set do I recommend? If this will be your first Tegu purchase, my biggest recommendation is to buy a set that has the widest mix of pieces -- cubes and angled pieces, in addition to planks and columns, make for much more varied building fun. The 14 piece, 24 piece or 42 piece sets listed above all meet that description, and I'd recommend going with the largest set you're comfortable with, price-wise -- more blocks simply equals more options.

      Our first set was the 22 piece set, which just had planks (3 lengths) and columns. While it was definitely adequate to make us fall in love with Tegu, our play got a LOT more fun after we bought a Pocket Pouch Prism (angled pieces) and a set of cubes as add-ons. Knowing what I know now, it would have made more sense to buy the 24 piece set at the start.

      If you're deciding between the 40 and 42 piece sets (at the same price point), I recommend the 42 piece set, which we got for Toddler X's birthday -- it includes wheels, which TOTALLY ups the fun level and creativity. The 52 piece Original Set lacks the angles and wheels of the 42 piece set -- if you're willing to spend up to the price of the 52 piece set, I would recommend getting the 42 piece set instead and using the extra money to buy more wheels, cubes or angled pieces.

      For color, my favorites are Jungle, Mahogany and Tints, and our Jungle and Tints blocks look really nice together (Mahogany fits in too, it's just darker). I wouldn't mix Nelson with Tints, for sure -- massive clashing!

      And finally, on the cost: yes, they're expensive. Really expensive. I held off for a long time on buying them because of the price. However, I can tell you that we play with these blocks, if not every day, then every other day -- we have been for over a year now, and I can see us continuing to for years to come. It's high quality, open-ended, creative play. While I could have spent the same amount of money on many more toys, I feel confident that I couldn't have spent it on any better toys. 

    The Basic 42 -- Toddler X's first SmartMax set
    SmartMax
    • What are they? Basic SmartMax sets consist of two components: colorful plastic rods (two different lengths), magnetized on both ends, and plastic balls that are completely magnetized. The rods each have either a North or South polarity -- the same polarity on both ends, so a N rod can only stick to a S rod on either side, and vice versa. SmartMax has color coded them by "warm" and "cool" colors -- red, yellow and orange stick to blue, green and purple, but the colors within each family repel each other. (This is all reflected in the very basic instruction booklet with happy and sad faces as, respectively, suitable and non-suitable colors try to touch. Toddler X loves this illustration.) The silver plastic balls can attach to any of the rods, making them a great go-between connector as you start to build your structures.
    • What types of things do you build with them? I should really let Mr. X answer this question, as SmartMax structures are definitely his territory! He builds all sorts of things -- towers, pyramids, skyscrapers, cubes, as well as more abstract structures. (Note that Toddler X "helps" with these, but isn't even close to being able to build them by himself.) SmartMax are also fun for making letters and numbers on the ground, and Toddler X loves just creating chains of rods or just random, spiky figures. I haven't seen Toddler X and Mr. X use them to make animals or creatures or anything like that -- they're definitely more structural than artistic.
    • What are the recommended ages? Like Tegu, these are marketed as safe for even the youngest toddler. The silver balls are large enough that they couldn't really fit in a toddler's mouth (and even if they did, they couldn't get far enough in to block the airway), and apparently the magnetic rods embedded in the plastic pieces don't pose a risk of falling out and being a swallowing hazard. Even young toddlers will like the feeling of the rods in their hands, and the bright colors are great for all kids. While young toddlers absolutely will NOT be able to create impressive vertical structures with SmartMax sets (it really takes quite a bit of engineering to create a solid tall structure with these things, which is why Mr. X loves them so much), there is plenty they can do at ground level with them -- Toddler X likes to connect very long chains and wheel them around the room, or create pinwheels or letters or the like.
    • Pros:
      • Ease of basic use. The learning curve for connecting SmartMax blocks is a LOT shorter than with Tegu. The rods are magnetized at the two ends -- you just have to find another complementary rod (one from the other color family) and, click! You have a connection! Even easier, grab a silver ball -- they connect to any color -- and use that as a connector. Tegu requires searching for the magnetized spots, then determining polarity -- SmartMax eliminates the guessing game. Thus, the physics at play relate to balance/stability of the structure, whereas with Tegu the issue is how/where to connect the blocks.
      • Challenge of building larger structures. I'm listing the challenge as a "pro", and the instability that produces that challenge as a "con". Depending on your toddler's age and temperament (and engineering skills!), creating a three dimensional structure using the rods and balls might be an enjoyable challenge or an exercise in frustration. I'm not very good at it, Mr. X is excellent. It will probably just depend on your kid.
      • Toddler-friendly feel and appearance. The SmartMax rods and balls fit really nicely into little toddler hands, and the bright colors are, of course, toddler favorites. 
      • Sturdiness. While we've only had our SmartMax sets for two months, I've been impressed with their sturdiness under rough play.
      • Cons:
        • Instability when building up. Mr. X can make some pretty amazing structures with SmartMax, but it seems like everything I make (and, honestly, even the things he makes) are very unstable -- they need to be handled carefully, or the poles slide on the balls and the whole thing collapses (pretty dramatically, I might add). A toddler will NOT be able to build up much with these, though he or she probably won't care -- as I mentioned before, Toddler X is happy playing with them at ground level.
        • Limited options: While there are specialty sets that include car features or tubes, the basic SmartMax sets just have rods and balls. The rods are of two lengths, but they're all the same shape. From my perspective, you're just more limited in what you can build and create with these, versus Tegu.
        • Which set do I recommend? For SmartMax, I definitely recommend starting with one of the Basic sets. We got the Basic 42 first, and that seemed just right -- I imagine a Basic 36 would be fine, but a Basic 25 would probably leave you wondering what more you could do. Now that we have the Basic 42, the Basic 25 and the Lighthouse set (which also comes with basic rods and balls), we have enough rods to offer a TON of building options. Once you know you like SmartMax, then it's fun to consider the add-ons -- we have the Rescue Vehicles set, which provides clip-on wheels and truck attachments for the SmartMax bars, and the Lighthouse set, which includes two light-up LED bars. One thing to be aware of, as I saw it come up several times in Amazon reviews: if you're considering one of the SmartMax vehicle sets, know that the picture on the box shows all the vehicles that can be built with that set, but it doesn't mean that the set includes enough pieces to build all those vehicles at the same time
        Magna-Tiles 48 Piece DX Set --
        Maybe for Toddler X's next birthday?
        Magna-Tiles
        • What are they? Magna-Tiles are flat, plastic, brightly-colored geometric tiles with small magnets embedded along their edges. Shapes include various sizes of squares and triangles, generally with a 3 inch base that allows them to connect easily. All pieces can connect to all other pieces along the edges -- there's no need to determine polarity or find specific spots where the magnets are located. Color options include bright translucent, bright opaque and clear.
        • What types of things do you build with them? Buildings, structures, patterns and geometric shapes. Toddler X is loving making dog houses, parking decks and apartment complexes, and as I type, he's building an "airplane" for his Mickey Mouse characters, with different cube-shaped compartments for each character. 
        • What are the recommended ages? Magna-Tiles sets very clearly state that they're for ages 3+ due to the small magnets. Toddler X has loved them from the moment he opened them (on his 3rd birthday), and would have enjoyed them for much of the past year as well. However, a younger toddler might have difficulty getting the not-so-sticky magnets to hold together in the shapes he/she desires, so they could be frustrating. Over 3 is probably your best bet.
        • Pros:
          • Appearance. These things look very cool, particularly the translucent sets we have. The colors are bright, and with the light passing through, structures begin to take on a stained glass-esque appearance. (This doesn't apply to the opaque sets.) Even just stacked up in a pile, Magna-Tiles look pretty neat.
          • Easy connections. Magnatiles are magnetized all along the edges of every shape, and there are no polarization issues -- every magnet sticks to every other. It's easy to put two pieces together and get them to stick.
          • Geometry lessons. Again, I'm not a fan of overtly teaching three year olds, but if they pick up on the basics of geometry by experimenting with building sets, I'm certainly not going to complain. Toddler X has really started to understand the differences between the three different triangle shapes in his Magna-Tiles sets and which ones combine to form a square. Tonight, he realized that putting six triangles together allowed him to create a bigger triangle. Advanced math, here we come!
          • Sound. Like Tegu blocks, these make a really satisfying snap when you layer them together.
          • Storage: Of all the toys we own, these are by far Toddler X's favorite to...wait for it...put away! Not because he doesn't enjoy playing with them, of course, but because placing each shape in its specific area of the box is a game unto itself. Any toy that encourages Toddler X to pick up after himself is a winner to me.
        • Cons:
          • Instability. Magna-Tiles structures collapse really easily, perhaps because the non-polarized magnetic connections just aren't as strong as Tegu connections or the connections between SmartMax bars. I've spent a good amount of time building with these in the past week, and the tendency for structures to pancake in the midst of building (or if you try to move them at all) can be frustrating. I haven't been able to make anything particularly tall because of this.
          • Fewer options for building complex structures. This relates to the prior point, but one of my favorite things about the strong Tegu block connections is that you can build out sideways from the main structure. With Magna-Tiles, a tile will not remain horizontal unless fully supported by other tiles -- instead, it will flap down onto the tile below it. It's just a different set of features than Tegu blocks.
        • Which set do I recommend? I don't think you can go wrong with any of the Magna-Tile sets. Obviously, the more pieces you have, the more you will be able to build, but the 32 piece set is a perfectly fine starter set. We got the 32 piece set last Saturday for Toddler X's birthday, and he had a blast with it all week. Today, we bought a second one with his birthday money from Grandpa, and guess what? He had even more fun with 64 pieces than he did with 32. If you can spring for the 48 piece DX Set over the 32 piece set, its special features -- windows, door frame, car chassis -- sound like they'd definitely make the splurge worthwhile. And if you're up for going straight to the 100 piece set -- well, you're going to have a very happy toddler!

        Building sets are our favorite magnetic toys, but they're not the only ones we love! Here are two others that meet my "great toy" criteria.

        Letter and Number Magnets

        Toddler X has been really into letters and words from a very young age -- mama was an English major and a lawyer (read: constant talker), what can I say? We got him a set of Melissa & Doug Letter & Number Magnets for his second Christmas, and then another set of letters shortly thereafter so we could make longer words/sentences. The set we got is nice because it contains both upper and lower case of each letter. Ours take quite a beating (a common theme with Toddler X's toys) and have held up pretty well. The wonderful difference between them and the plastic sets of our childhood is that the entire backing of the letter or number is magnetized; there are no tiny magnets to fall off and possibly be swallowed.

        Gears

        I included the TOMY Gearation Magnets in my Top Toddler Toys list a year and a half ago, and they're still pretty darn cool today. Toddler X continues to love gears as much as he did when he first played with these, and I noticed that on a recent visit to CuriOdyssey, he not only gravitated to the gear exhibit, but also really got it -- he solved problems and moved things around to make his set up work. Clearly lots of practice at home!


        So there you have it: my take on magnetic toys for toddlers. Please let me know if you have any questions specific to your situation, and I'll try to guide you toward the right toy. While everyone will have their favorites -- mine is Tegu, if you couldn't tell -- you can't go wrong with any of them when it comes to long-term, open-ended, creative fun. Enjoy!

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