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15 Top Toys for the Toy Box and Activities to Keep the Kids Busy

With Christmas around the corner and numerous displays of toys around, I’ve been pondering a lot about the toys we have bought for the boys and the sort of toys I would have bought if I could “do it all over again”. The thing about buying stuff as a first time parent is that you usually don’t really know what you’re looking for and just about everything looks good.

Through experience, reading up on early childhood programs like Montessori and Waldorf, and learning through books like Brain Rules for Baby and Bright from the Start, I have created a list of toys I would buy if I had the chance to do it all over again. Before I get to that list, I probably should add, for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with Montessori and Waldorf, that Montessori recommends parents to purchase quality toys, like those made from wood, rather than plastic and artificial materials; while Waldorf recommends creative toys made from all-natural materials.

Living in the world that we do, wood and all-natural are sometimes hard to come by and pretty expensive. I’ve never really believed in following everything right down to the dotted “i’s” and crossed “t’s”, so you will find that my list is not fully Montessori or Waldorf compliant. I admit that I am partial to wooden toys, simply because I think they look nicer, and I do like all-natural materials especially now that I have a son who puts everything into his mouth.

Recommended Toys for the Toy Box

And now, on to the list (in no particular order)…

1. Wooden Blocks

Toy box - blocks

If there is one toy every parent absolutely must have, I reckon it should be the wooden blocks. Children can develop so many skills with a set of blocks – stacking, balance, and creativity – just to name a few. I’ve always believed in stretching the dollar, so getting dual purpose blocks can kill two birds with one stone.  For example, Alphabet/Number Blocks can also teach alphabets and numbers, and “triples” as a pull-along toy.

Toy box - blocks

Alternatively, with an imaginative child, a set of coloured blocks like Melissa & Doug 100 Piece Wood Block Set can also double up as a make-believe food set. Gavin used to “cook” soup and make fruit salad with his coloured blocks. Blue blocks were blueberries, green blocks were kiwi fruits, red blocks were strawberries, and yellow blocks were bananas. In his soup, the blue blocks represented the water, the green blocks were veggies, the yellow blocks were eggs, and the red blocks were meat.

2. Shape Sorter

Shape sorters are probably also another regular feature in any household. It probably doesn’t even have to be on this list because I’m sure every parent has probably bought their child one of these. About the only thing I will say about shape sorters is that if I could get one again, I would get a wooden one and I would make sure that all the pieces fit only into their respective holes. You will find that with poorly made shape sorters, some pieces can fit into the same hole.

Toy box - shape sorter

Again, if you’re looking for a multi-purpose toy, then you really can’t go past the Melissa & Doug Shape Sorting Clock which teaches numbers and time as well.

3. Stacking Toys

Toy box - nesting dolls

Another given, as I’m sure lots of parents have these, too. But if you want to kill two birds with one stone, I would get the Fisher Price Stack and Roll Cups which also fulfills the “nesting doll” concept (see toy number four). These aren’t Montessori or Waldorf approved though, being plastic.

4. Nesting Dolls

Nesting dolls were one of the recommended toys for the toy box in Bright from the Start. The idea is to help your child learn about sizes, however, if you do get a set of nesting dolls, you should be aware that the smaller dolls can be choking hazards, therefore the dolls should never be left with a child unattended.

5. Toy Kitchen

Girl or boy, I think the toy kitchen is a really nice addition to the toy box. If the price of a kitchen is too steep, you can always settle for a toy stove or just a cooking set and some basic food items. You don’t necessarily have to buy toy utensils, IKEA has some lovely coloured bowls, plates, cups and cutlery that doesn’t cost an arm or a leg. The bowls and cups also double up as great toys for water play – your child can also learn how to pour water from one receptacle to another without you having to worry about cleaning up the mess.

You can let your child play with some old pots and pans – but a little supervision might be required depending on what the items are. However, if you want to let them go crazy, I still think toy replicas are safer.

And if you want to follow the Woldorf and Montessori concept, then Mother Garden by Creative Yoko makes beautifully handcrafted toys that are painted with non-toxic paint. This is the refrigerator set:

Toy box - play sets

Singaporeans and Malaysians can also buy it from HuiWearn Kids Store (I’m not sure if she ships to other locations but you can contact her to find out). If you’re local, there is a little store in Hartamas Shopping Center that sells this brand, but it is much cheaper from HuiWearn Kids Store.

Melissa & Doug, Kidkraft, Plan Toys, Step2 and Maxim are some other brands that also make wooden toy kitchen sets that you can take a look at.

If you’re adamant about your boys being “boys”, don’t worry. You can also find wooden “boys” toys, like the Maxim Everearth Workbench or the Melissa & Doug Wooden Take Along Tool Kit. Imaginarium, Voila and Step2 have some good ones, too. And if your child is anything like Gavin, he will also love a toy tape measure that he can use to measure everything.

6. Musical Instruments

Ideally, the best musical instruments to introduce to your child are the real ones. Understandably, that is a rather expensive practice. A more affordable alternative would be to take your child to a musical performance to see the real instruments being played by professionals and to get toy replicas for the home – I’ve seen toy drum kits for sale at Toys ‘R’ Us before.

Toy box - instruments

A simpler alternative is to get basic instruments like a harmonica, recorder, or xylophone, or noise makers like a drum, maracas, or bells to help your child get interested in making music. If you are keen to introduce your child to the piano, a toy keyboard might be a good place to start.

A cheaper alternative is to make your own noise makers. Fill empty bottles with rice or beans and you have your own maracas. Use empty tins as drums and beat them with a ruler or spoon. Pots and pans make a great drum kit, too.

7. Wooden Activity Cube

Toy box - activity box

These cubes usually come with a variety of activities. The bead maze is great for developing finger dexterity and fine motor skills which is important for self-feeding and writing later on.  The activity cube is probably not an essential item for the toy box, but it is a great way to get one toy with multiple activities on it. For instance, you can get a cube with an abacus, a clock, a shape sorter and a xylophone and you have already covered some of the toys on this list.

8. Wooden Train Set

Toy box - train set

There must be some undefinable quality about trains that has the ability to attract kids by the droves – not just the boys but little girls as well, otherwise Thomas the Tank Engine wouldn’t be such a famous little engine. And if you’re going to get a train set, I really advocate a wooden one.  We started off collecting the Thomas and Friends Take Along set and eventually ended up with the wooden collection.

9. Dress Up Clothes

When I was growing up, dress-up clothes for me were blankets and scraps of fabric from my mother’s sewing box. If you were luckier, your mother probably had a box full of old clothes that you got to wear. Now, you don’t need much imagination to dress up because there are lots of costumes you can buy.

Toy box - dress up

The benefit is that your child can also dress up as a pirate, a super hero, or a fairy – the sort of things you probably wouldn’t have in your box of old clothes. Nevertheless, regardless of where you get the clothes, or scraps of fabric, a dress up box is always fun to have. It is also great for developing your child’s imagination and creativity.

See also: The Importance of Imaginative Play

Make your own dress-up costumes:

10. Lego

In my humble opinion, Lego is one of the best toys for brain development. It encourages creativity, following instructions, and visual-spatial intelligence, among other things. You can help your child construct a structure following the instructions or you can let him create his own masterpieces.

See also: Amazing benefits of playing with LEGO

11. Jigsaw Puzzles

Peg puzzles with single pieces or chunky wooden puzzles like Melissa & Doug Farm Animals are probably the best ones to start with, slowing progressing to find the matching half to puzzles with more pieces. I am somewhat partial to Infantino Jigsaw Puzzles because I think they are pretty creative in their concepts. For example, the Infantino Matching Colours and Textures puzzle is a touchy-feely puzzle.

More about the benefits of jigsaw puzzles:

12. Board Games

With all the warnings about reducing screen time for children, board games would have to be one of the best ways to keep a child entertained on a rainy day without breaking open the DVD case. Not only are board games great for entertaining a child without using a TV screen, they also teach children about following a set of rules – which the Tools of the Mind program has shown to be beneficial for developing executive function – currently one of the best predictors for future success.

See also: The benefits of playing board games

13. Boxes, pillows and blankets

Like dressing up and the toy kitchen/workbench, these are great for free play. When my parents bought a new fridge, my brother, my cousins and I spent hours playing with the box. That box was a slide, it was a bus, it was a tunnel, and it was a well. It was the source of creative entertainment until it broke. Similarly, I’ve seen Gavin create some pretty interesting play scenarios with pillows and blankets. Once, he linked up our pillows and pretended they were trains. Another time, he piled up the pillows and blankets to make a slide. We’ve used the blankets for picnics, going camping, making hidey holes and cubby houses, too.

See also: Building a toy house from cereal boxes

14. Play Dough

Buy a set or make your own – play dough is great for encouraging creativity and fine motor skill development. Most kids I know love play dough. I remember having a lot of fun playing with plasticine as a child, but I also remembered disliking the smell and the feel on my hands after playing with it. Play dough consistency and smell is so much better!

15. Art Supplies

Keep an art box with paints, crayons, markers, stickers, glue, kid-safe scissors and all the other basic stationery items. Also keep old magazines to cut out and paste. It is a terrific way to help children learn basic skills required for school – cutting, pasting, writing and drawing. You can also help your child make birthday cards for family members and other significant people in their lives. Keep your child’s artwork – frame them up, make a scrapbook or stick them on the fridge. This is a great way to build your child’s self-esteem – as you value and show off his creations and accomplishments.

See also: The Benefits of Art on the Growing Child

And that’s exactly how I would fill my children’s toy boxes if I could do it all over again.

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Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

4 thoughts on “15 Top Toys for the Toy Box and Activities to Keep the Kids Busy

  1. Great list! Would be greater if you could tell us where you found some of these toys? Esp the Melissa & Doug puzzles. Only managed to find them at limited places in the past. Thanks!


  2. Hui-Wearn – Love the stuff from Mother Garden! Gavin goes nuts over it, too. Maybe when we move to our new place next year we can get him something 🙂 My ILs will kill me if we buy any more toys right now – whole house belongs to the grandkids already!

    Kimberley – Hahaha… I still love playing with Lego. When I play with the kids, I think I have just as much fun as they do!

    Whyelse – are you local? Melissa & Doug puzzles are available at Toys ‘R’ Us, but limited range. ELC also has a some wooden puzzles, too. I have also bought wooden puzzles online from before.


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