Thursday, November 17, 2016

SV Toddler's Pretend Play Favorites

SV Toddler's Pretend Play Favorites

Pretending is a key feature of toddler and preschool-age play, as kids imitate the grown ups in their lives, develop social skills and empathy, and work on their imaginations in little worlds that they create and control.

We do a TON of pretend play in our house -- in the past week, it has included meals from Toddler X's kitchen diner (he makes a mean BLT and loves serving up buffets on the coffee table), setting up a furniture store with dollhouse furniture (he loads all my purchases into a bag and delivers them to the dollhouse for free -- great service!), making me sand milkshakes and banana splits at his sand table ice cream shop, and establishing a hospital for injured stuffed animals (I work triage as each animal comes in and explains its injuries, which include things like, "I was eaten by a dinosaur" and "I was walking along, walking along, and then my head just exploded!"). I love the creativity I see, the imagination, and the life skills he's learning (ordering at a diner, introducing himself to customers at his "store", setting a budget and counting money, etc.) -- and boy, do I love playing alongside him!

Below are a few of our favorite pretend play toys for various ages, starting from young toddlers and going up through preschool. While I give wide age ranges, please know that what's appropriate for one child at a certain age might be appropriate for another at a different time; it's up to you, as parents, to check the manufacturer's recommended age and decide whether a toy is right for your child. Keep in mind also that these are just the ages at which we introduced each toy -- most of them are still in use today, two or three years later.

As always, please consider shopping via the affiliate product links below -- it benefits SV Toddler at no cost to you. Thank you!

One Year (and up!)...

Djeco/Cubanimo Playsets: Toddler X received the nesting block set (above left) for his first Christmas (about 10 months old), and the whole family loved it from moment one. The blocks, which are made out of a thick, sturdy, slightly shiny cardboard-type material, are absolutely adorable, with whimsical artwork tailored to the three little rubber animals -- cat, dog, and cow -- that come with the set. The blocks and animals are easy for little hands to grasp, stack, and nest. With a few triangles for rooftops and ramps to connect the blocks (which are open in the center, allowing for "rooms" in each stack), the set lets kids build little cities for the animals. It's cute and tons of fun. (I included a photo of the related farm playset above on the right -- it's the same maker and same materials, but with a more specific set-up and extra animals -- I imagine it's equally fun.)


Folkmanis puppets. Toddler X received the hedgehog hand puppet (above left) as a gift when he was about 9 months old, and he loved it so much that two different friends got him the matching hedhehog finger puppets for his first birthday (he was delighted that the mama hedgehog now had two babies!). Folkmanis makes dozens and dozens of other animal puppets too -- almost any animal you could imagine -- in both hand and finger puppet sizes. The snowy owl (above right) is another favorite of ours -- it is the softest, most lovely creature and moves beautifully. I've given gifts of Folkmanis puppets to several different toddlers, and it's great fun to choose the right animal for each child (particularly if a child has a distinct favorite). These come at various price points and make perfect stocking stuffers. The hedgehog is still our favorite, as it rolls up into a ball and has little hands for puppet silliness, but I imagine you'd be happy with any offering from this great brand.

18 Months - 2 1/2 Years (and up!)...

Green Toys Tea Set. So much toddler pretend play centers around food and the kitchen, and this tea set by Green Toys is a perfect kitchen starter toy for a young child. (Green Toys is a Bay Area company that makes its adorable, durable toys out of recycled materials -- I love them on so many levels!) We actually don't have this set (we opted for the wooden Plan Toys tea set below because I thought it matched our kitchen better), but we have played with it many times and given several as gifts, including to both of our nieces last Christmas. This is a great set for younger toddlers because the pieces are large and easy for little hands to grasp, and also because this set can be used for actual (not just pretend!) tea parties -- unlike the wooden Play Toys set we have, these pieces are food safe and can be washed in the dishwasher. Of course, it's great for older toddlers and preschoolers too. The set is available in pastel and primary colors.


New Sprouts Food Sets. Of all the play foods I've encountered -- and between those we've purchased and been gifted, those I've seen at friends' houses, and those Toddler X has enjoyed at playspaces, I have encountered a lot -- these are, by far, my favorites. I've discovered that play food is one category in which I don't prefer wood to other materials -- these New Sprouts food items, made of a soft, pliable rubber, feel so much more comfortable and natural in the hand than the wood items we've encountered. They also sit better (less sliding) on plates, stack better for sandwiches, and feel better on the teeth if you take your pretend nibbling too far.

We got the three basket set pictured above left (with a few ingredient differences) from Costco in 2013, and we still have every single piece -- they form the heart of so much of Toddler X's pretend play, and we love them. They're in great condition too, far better than the Melissa and Doug cutting fruit set we got, which had paint chips within a week. While the exact set we have is no longer offered, the two shown above have almost all the same ingredients -- looking at these pictures makes me smile as I think of all the "sandwiches" Toddler X has prepared for me over the past three years with these adorable food items ("How many slices of tomato, mommy? Do you want cheese?"). If you're starting a toddler kitchen, I couldn't recommend either of these sets more highly.

Little Tikes Shopping Cart. Those who know my usual toy preferences may be surprised to see this Little Tikes plastic cart on my favorites list, but it's a fantastic toy that Toddler X loved in his toddler years, beginning around 18 months (this isn't a great pick for very early walkers because it can tip). I opted for this over the very popular (and more authentic) Melissa and Doug metal cart because I knew that it was likely to make contact with a lot of walls, furniture, and adult legs, so rounded plastic corners seemed preferable to metal. The best part of this cart is watching kids push their many possessions from room to room -- toddlers are hoarders by nature, and they love to load the cart up and take everything with them. (Another plus is that it makes for easy clean up -- just throw toys in and wheel it to an inconspicuous place!) While Toddler X has now outgrown the cart, it's still in great shape and is all ready for his sister to use next year.


KidKraft Retro (or Vintage) Kitchen (I've seen it called both.) Our KidKraft Red Retro Kitchen is the heart of Toddler X's pretend play universe. We got it when he was just shy of two years old, and he still enjoys it today at nearly five. He's gone through various phases with it, from actively "cooking" to simply organizing his play foods, but it has been a consistent favorite for almost three years. It's adorable, durable (we haven't had to so much as tighten a screw, and he plays rough), and functional. The same kitchen style is available in a two piece model, which a couple of our friends have and which allows flexibility in placement. Both pieces are available in a range of colors, including ice blue, pink, red and white. Highly recommend!

Green Toys Tool Set. As I mentioned with the tea set above, Green Toys is a fantastic, local brand that makes incredibly sturdy toys with eco-conscious materials. Their toolbox is a great toddler/preschooler toy -- no matter how hard they try, they will not be able to destroy the house with these recycled plastic tools. The screwdrivers, hammer, and wrench can be used with various nuts, bolts and screws to attach other pieces to the tool box itself. I've given several of these as gifts too, and they're always well-received.

Hape Playfully Delicious Kitchen Starter Set. Toddler X received this set as a gift when he received his play kitchen, and after three years of constant use, it is in perfect condition today. The set is adorable, well-designed, and very sturdy, and the pepper shaker makes a fun little rattle sound. I love Hape's wooden toys in general, and this set is as good as any I've seen. My one criticism is that the pot and pan don't hold very much play food at a time (one pancake or one egg from the New Sprouts set), but Toddler X hasn't minded that at all.

Hape Playfully Delicious Appliances. These aren't just among my top pretend play recommendations -- they're among my favorite toddler/preschooler toys, period. They are classic Hape quality and design, with fun features galore.

The coffee maker -- our first appliance from this line -- is of the Keurig variety, with a little coffee pod, a dial that turns (Toddler X will ask us how strong we want our coffee), and cream and sugar to add to your cup. If you have a Keurig at home and your toddler watches you make coffee each day, he or she will love this set.

The toaster ties with the coffee maker as my favorite kitchen accoutrement. Its great feature is the launch mechanism for removing the toast from the appliance; with a little practice, you can actually fling it out onto a plate (and trust me, your child will love to practice that!). The butter is of the cuttable velcro variety, and the honey is in a little bear.

The mixer is adorable too -- the knob at the top operates the spinning blade, and the upper part folds back at a hinge so you can remove the bowl. Toddler X loves making cookie batter with this thing, then baking the cookies in his oven (all pretend, of course).

2 1/2 to 3 years (and up!)...

Hape Gourmet BBQ Grill and Shish Kebab Set. I chose this category for the grill because I think this toy is better for older toddlers -- at least 3 years old and up. Toddler X got this last Christmas when he was just shy of four years old and loved it from the moment he saw it. It's a great kitchen-ish option if you have limited space but your child wants to play around with cooking, or if your family does a lot of grillng outdoors and your toddler wants to act it out, minus the open flame. The grill itself is cute and well-made, with twistable knobs, a lid that can be raised (and locked into place to avoid squished fingers) or lowered, and a grill rack that can be removed to see the coals undeneath. Even better, the food that comes along with it is cute as can be and fun for a child to serve -- two skewers with a variety of meats and vegetables that can be threaded on, as well as two fish, some pieces of meat, and bottles of ketchup and mustard. Again, this is a great, smaller-scale alternative to a kitchen (or addition to a kitchen) for older toddlers/preschoolers. Just be careful with the pointy skewers.

Learning Resources Pretend and Play Calculator Cash Register. This is one of the best pretend play toys I know of -- a cash register that includes a working calculator (Toddler X loves the calculator!), a drawer that pops open, fun sound effects, cash, and a credit card to swipe. It's perfect for combining with other toys and household items for so many pretend scenarios. Toddler X and I have played every type of store imaginable with this register -- pet store (using his stuffed animals), shoe store (using our shoes), grocery store and cafe (using play food), furniture store (using doll house furniture), etc. It's great as an educational tool in addition to pure fun. Note that the coins are choking hazards for younger kids; we put them away until after Toddler X turned three.

Plan Toys Tea Set. We got this lovely tea set when Toddler X was about 2 1/2 (it was a potty training present), but I'd recommend it more for a 3 year old and up, primarily because it has lots of small parts. I did quite a bit of research before buying this, and am glad I ended up choosing Plan. I love the high quality, unadorned, solid wood design of this set and all the fun little pieces -- the tea bags, sugar cubes, stirrers, etc. Toddler X gets very serious when he serves me tea with this set -- I think because of its diminutive size -- and his focus is adorable. The set is small (it fits perfectly on the righthand outer shelf of the KidKraft kitchen I mentioned above), is not intended for use with real liquids (like the Green Toys one), and has pieces that you'll have to keep away from younger toddlers, but of all the wooden tea sets I've seen, this continues to be my favorite

KidKraft Everyday Heroes Play Set. This is a fantastic pretend play toy, ideal for a preschool (which is where we discovered it before purchasing one) and or any family (including one with multiple kids). It opens outward on two hinges, allowing for more compact storage but also plenty of room for play (enough for two or three kids to play next to one another). The set is adorable, with detailed graphics both inside and outside the house. It comes with rubber firefighter and police officer figures that can be bent to ride in/on the included fire truck, rescue helicopter (complete with rooftop helipad) and motorcycle. There are also two dogs (Toddler X named them Phillips and Flat -- he got this gift the same Christmas that he got his Green Toys Tool Set) and a good variety of furniture. Toddler X wasn't so into acting stories out with the characters, as much as he was into trying to pile as much of the furniture as he could on the rooftop, but hey, play is play. It's a fantastic toy that has held up well over time.

Ryan's Room Home Again, Home Again Dollhouse. I love this simple, beautiful, wooden dollhouse, which Toddler X first enjoyed at Whimsy and received as a Christmas gift last year. It is well-made, spacious, and has easily-accessible rooms (we keep it on a storage bench so that you can see into the bottom level), with roof access to the two outer rooms on the top floor, a little balcony, and sliding doors to the bottom floor rooms. Plus, with its plain wood construction, it's very easy on the eye. I appreciate that the rooms aren't designated as having a specific purpose, giving kids more opportunity for imagination (the upper left room in Toddler X's house, for example, is usually an outdoor playground). If you're in the market for a dollhouse and prefer simple, wooden toys, this is a perfect option.

With the additional bottom level
Note that in addition to the basic, two story dollhouse, you can purchase an additional level (sort of a basement and garage), giving you more height and space. That's the set-up they have at Whimsy, and that's what we got because we wanted the lower level of the house to be accessible, as opposed to at ground level. (Again, though, we ended up putting it on a storage bench, so all levels are easy to access.) If you choose not to get the third level, the house itself still provides plenty of space, but you will probably want to keep it slightly above floor level so that your child doesn't have to lie down on the floor to use the bottom level.

Hape Doll Family. When we searched online for doll families, Toddler X immediately gravitated toward this one -- he declared that it was a good match for our family, with Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, Pops, Toddler X...and Avery, his best friend. (He has reluctantly allowed the little girl character become Baby X.) As with every Hape product we've owned, I'm very happy with the style and quality of these simple bendable dolls with yard hair and cloth clothing. In addition to the Caucasion family, they offer black and Asian families as well.

Ryan's Room Doll Furniture. What first attracted Toddler X to the Ryan's Room dollhouse at Whimsy was not so much the house itself as the furniture within it. He loves small pieces and Ryan's Room Furniture is full of them (definitely for the 3+ set!). We have the Children's Bedroom and Playground sets, both of which are fantastically detailed -- the Bedroom, with tiny cars that fit in the toy box and a table that Toddler X flips upside down and calls a sit-and-spin, and the Playground, with tiny sand toys and a seesaw that actually works with his doll family. The pieces are sturdy and well-made of wood, and again, the details are great. I'm planning to buy the Living Room for Christmas. The Hape doll family fits perfectly with all of these pieces.

Dream On Children's Bedroom
Play Around Playground Set.
Relaxing in Style Living Room.

Hape Doll Furniture. When we needed to choose a bathroom set, Toddler X and I sifted through the offerings from Ryan's Room, Plan Toys and Melissa and Doug before settling on Hape's. It's a fantastic set -- like every Hape toy we own, the quality is unquestionable. The toilet seat and the cabinet door open, the shower head comes down, and the tiny towel, duck, and rug features are just adorable. The kitchen is just as perfect - again, functional, well-made pieces with wonderful details. Highly recommend.
Family Bathroom.

The Kitchen

Plan Toys Doll Furniture. This was the most recent addition to our dollhouse -- as I was looking at other toys, this came up as a suggestion and Toddler X saw it and begged. Honestly, it's adorable -- like the sets from the other brands above, this is well constructed in wood with wonderful details, from an ironing board cover that slips off to a removable vacuum hose to a folding hamper. Again, I don't hesitate to recommend Plan's furniture.

Household Accessories Set

And more...

Melissa and Doug Reusable Sticker Pads.

This might seem an odd addition to the Pretend Play category, but as you move the stickers around on these great pads, you're creating imaginative scenes, no different than what you'd create with a dollhouse or any other pretend scenario. Toddler X went through a big phase with these pads when he was about 3 years old, and I think that if we had introduced them at 4, he would have been just as happy. At less than $5 each, they're great because they get lots of use, but you don't get too upset when stickers start to go missing.

They make several themes, but Toddler X's favorites, by far, were those with people/buildings -- Play House and My Town (this is my personal favorite -- scenes include a school, an ice cream parlor/pizza place, a hospital, and a grocery store). Other options include Habitats (various animals, including dinosaurs, in ocean, jungle, plains scenes -- Toddler X wasn't a huge fan), Vehicles (boats in water, airplanes at airport, construction vehicles, trains -- Toddler X enjoyed, but not top two), Adventures, Princess Castle and Fairies (we haven't tried the last three).

A big tip for these: before you hand the stickers and scenes over to your kids, take the time to peel off the backing around the stickers -- not the stickers themselves, but the open space surrounding them. It takes a bit of effort and you have to be careful not to pull up the smaller stickers by mistake, but once you do it, it's a piece of cake for little hands to take off and replace the stickers without your help.

So there you have it -- our family's favorite toys for pretend play! I hope you enjoy them as much as we do!

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