35 Toys That Encourage Learning & Independent Play

Toys are everywhere this time of the year  – and yes, toys are a wonderful way for children to play, learn and discover. But so many toys get opened up, children play for a little bit and then the toy sits in the corner, forgotten….So which toys really capture children’s attention?

Often it is the simple, non electronic and “open ended” toys and play items that most encourage children to express themselves freely, discover, learn, create and explore and play independently.

Here are  35 plus of our favorite, kid powered, time tested playthings that offer young children a chance to play with a parent or independently and  become immersed in play, learning and imagination:

Cardboard boxes

What’s not to love about a giant cardboard box? It can be a fort, a train, a race car, a space shuttle…the possibilities are endless. When my first was eighteen months old we started a tradition that the youngest child is gifted with the biggest cardboard box we can find inside of which we place a flashlight and a box of crayons. Every year since this has been the “toy” that has gotten the most play time on Christmas day and many days & weeks afterwards. Boxes of every size can be fun!

Flashlight

The flashlight is the only one on this list with batteries, but it’s an awesome discovery toy.  For reading in a fort, to going on a evening treasure hunt to making a shadow show it’s a really great play thing to have from toddlers on up! The picture below is of my 2 year old discovering with stuffed animals and sheets to make a shadow show!

Tunnel

One of the first toys I ever purchased for my first born was a nylon pop up tunnel when he was just starting to crawl. We still own the same tunnel and have used it nearly daily for six years. We use it for obstacle races, crawling games, to build forts and walk like monsters…A bonus is that it can be folded and stored away so easily.

Blocks

Large or small construction blocks (lego, unico, mega-blocks etc..), magnetic blocks, foam blocks or wooden blocks, really any type of construction block can be a fantastic toy for babies, and beyond. Last year we also added giant foam blocks to our collection and these are simply fantastic!

Kitchen Items

Many kitchen items are inexpensive and provide excellent learning opportunities for children. Colorful cups have been a huge hit here, my daughter loves to stack them, make shapes, hide animals under them, scoop water, beans, macaroni and more.

Other great kitchen items are pots & pans. It’s a classic… letting the kids bang on pots and pans to make noise! Another great way to play that is a lot quieter too is adding some dry pasta, rice or beans to the mix, throw in some measuring cups, a funnel, mixing spoons, colander, plastic spoons, plastic plates, corks, jar lids  and letting little ones scoop, measure, pour, mix and so on! Plus, Containers  of every size, great for simple water play, stacking, hiding things, putting in things to make noise, sorting, tracing = lots to do.

Blankets & Sheets

My children enjoy using a large blanket to take a “magic carpet” to take rides, to shake like a parachute, to fill with cotton balls and make snow, to sit on and have a teddy bear picnic, to play ghost and peek-a-boo. My two boys love creating forts with blankets or sheets and spending a lot of time together reading books and playing with various toys.

Cars

Small cars are such a fun toy, they can be used for driving around, sorting, stacking and more. Some fun ways to set up children for independent play is setting up a road with painters tape on the floor or a table. Setting up a ramp made out of a box, or sketching out roads with side walk chalk.

Play mats

A wonderful way to spend some one on one time with a child can be to roll out a play mat and invite them to play along. Driving on the mat is great for learning to give and listen to directions too and sharing space. This is also a great activity to set up, play for a while together and then step away and encourage independent play to continue.

Doll House

A simple wooden doll house makes a great play space for dolls, lego dudes, playmobil and more. A doll house is also a great toy for playfully role-playing family situations like welcoming a new baby, visiting relatives, moving house, defiant moments sharing toys and so on.

Play Kitchen

A small play kitchen or just a few boxes set up to look like one can provide lots of independent play opportunity, creating soups, stews, chopping up play food, mixing up cut up paper or dry pasta, mixing invisible cookie dough…I find this too is a great opportunity to first play together and then step away.

Rail Set

Wooden tracks and small trains can provide hours of fun play. All three of my children have spent hours building tracks in many different patterns, driving the trains around, loading cargo and so on. Adding in figurines like lego dudes, or playmobil dudes, small animals and so on keeps the fun going. My middle child also often has his Dinosaurs invade the tracks and create disasters!

Musical Instruments

Maracas, rhythm sticks, tambourines, small drums, all make wonderful noise and are great for learning about music, rhythm as well as following and giving directions. Plus children can explore sound and texture, making their own music, playing follow the leader and many more games. Other great musical and rhythm play items are musical scarves, rhythm eggs,  and ribbon sticks.

Dress Up

Although costume specific clothing may seem like it restricts play, I often find that children enjoy mixing and matching different parts of many outfits and coming up with their own style. What’s more, dressing up as pirates, princess police officers, fire fighters, fairies, often lead to fantasy filled play time that stretches for a long while!

Alright, what would you add to this list or what has been your child’s all time favorite toy?

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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a B.S. in Communication, is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator, and has completed several graduate courses in child development, psychology and family counseling. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

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5 thoughts on “35 Toys That Encourage Learning & Independent Play

  1. Salt dough! We discovered while making ornaments that my three year old adores it. Squishing, kneading, cutting, he loved it all.

  2. I would add Lego (or some block in that nature). My tactile son has had many hours with Legos, locking them into place and morphing amazing buildings, robots, and all kinds of structures through his imagination.

    • Tracie – yup lego is awesome, my kids spent hours with lego as well, I did mention “small construction blocks” and lego dudes but I could have been more specific! great point!! thank you.

  3. a box of fabric scraps … they can be used a blankets for teddies , dress for dolls, head scarfs, tails, nests for toys, etc, my kids have a box of fabric that they can cut up and use as needed and i often keep my eye out for bags of fabric scraps to keep the box topped up!
    The other is a cupboard of craft supplies… paper, pencils pens, stamps, cardboard, stickers, scissors, drawing mats etc which the kids can use when ever the need arises … whether is scribbling for fun, a serious art creation, or a surprise note to mum!

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