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What toys can you gift this season that build those critical problem solving skills in young children?
Toys for toddlers and preschoolers often light up, sing, and chirp. They’re designed that way to entertain children when parents want a moment away from playing, and they often throw in what look like basic pre-K skills (numbers, letters) to make you feel less bad about letting the sing-a-long number line babysit your kid. No shame. We’ve all been there.
But for those moments when you want a break from the bells and whistles, how can you (literally) cut through the noise and give your child toys that will challenge them to solve problems and have fun at the same time?
If you make it to the end of this list, you’ll see my #1 toy recommendation this year!
These are my favorite toys and games that teach problem solving. As a parent and an educator, these are also the toys that have multiple levels of challenge and engagement so your child can play with these for years and years as their cognitive skills grow.
This game is beautifully crafted with a circular wooden frame and 27 colored pieces. It comes with full color cards that your child can copy in the frame to work on spatial matching.
Your two year old might arrange the pieces in the circular frame, your three year old will copy the color cards to practice matching, and your four and five year old can begin understanding how fractions work. Because of the way the pieces are sized and colored, you can talk about how two red pieces make a whole but also four yellow pieces make a whole.
My daughter has been playing with this for three years and is now fascinated with the idea that different sizes fit into the same space. Such a long-lasting toy in our house!
Players take turns hanging the notched rods on the stand, but every time a rod is added the balance shifts. Kids have to use their critical thinking skills to decide where to place the rod when it’s their turn.
This game is used at my daughter’s Montessori school as a “work” that students use to build spacial awareness and fine motor skills as well as problem solving. The big crash that happens when the child miscalculates the balance is an exciting interruption!
Lay out all the cards, take turns flipping them over to find a match, and watch your child develop their memory and visual discrimination skills!
This set comes with a great Peg + Cat poster of our favorite scene from Peg + Cat and The Chicken Problem. What a bonus!
If books are your thing for gift-giving, come on over here to this post on 10 Feminist Children’s Books for the Next Generation. It features ten books with in-charge girls changing their world. Some of them are fighting for equality and some of them are just livin’ life, like Peg, solving problems and running things.
This kit comes with everything you need to build an incredible four-foot tall marble run. With 85 pieces and compatible with add-on kits, your child can use their creativity and problem solving skills to build a workable run.
After constructing the run, your child can then drop the marble into the top and see if the run works! Because the parts are see-through, your child can see the progress of their marble and immediately problem-solve to make the run more effective.
What I love about this is that it’s an open-ended toy, meaning your child can create something of their own imagination and play with it in many different ways. It’s not telling your child exactly how to “win” the game or play with the toy. However, it’s still goal-oriented, and kids will delight in the thrill of making a successful run and all the creative paths they can send their marble through.
Each of the four doors has a distinct doorbell sound, color, number address, and key. Figuring out which key opens each door involves problem solving skills, and your child can put each of the four people in their own door, matching by color. A combination of fine motor skills, visual discrimination skills, and number, shape, and color recognition skills make this an awesome toy!
This is another toy we have been playing with for three years. At 2, she loved matching the color of the doll to the door and ringing the doorbells (and carrying it all over the house). Now, at 4 she’s fascinated with “tricking” me about which doll is in which door, and going through each key to open the doors over and over again.
The house has a handle on top and sturdily attached keys that, in three years, are still attached. We haven’t lost one key. The dolls are another story, but one week we gathered up all the small dolls in the house and sorted them by color into the house, so #problemsolved.
With five boards featuring pictures of 10 designs created from geometric shapes, your child matches the 120 wooden shapes to each picture. Utilizing problem solving skills, kids will match shapes to the mosaic or make open-ended designs of their own.
The whole thing is contained within a wooden box with two sides: one for the boards and one for the shapes. This makes it a perfect addition to any home, but it especially fits in with a Montessori environment where each “work” is self-contained and can be put back neatly in its box.
These tiles snap together and can combine to make incredible structures, including flat stacks of color combos, animals, houses, villages, and bridges.
This is a great example of open-ended play because your child can direct the play, use their imagination to create structures, and develop spatial, tactile, and construction skills. My daughter likes to place items inside that can be seen through their translucent sides, and the challenge of creating these fragile structures grows with your child’s imagination.
These are perfect when your child is ready to go beyond blocks and wants to create structures that float in mid-air!
The GoldieBlox sets are unique: each set features the construction of a simple machine at the center of a story as our engineer heroine Goldie solves the problem! Your child can read the story and then use step-by-step pictures to solve the key problem at the center of the story by building the spinning machine
In this set, you get 34 pieces that make the spinning machine as well as 9 other possible build ideas. Your child doesn’t need to know how to read for this to be a meaningful experience, but she will probably need your help the first time she creates the machine. Once she understands the concept, she can make the machine in a myriad of ways, teaching her about the concept of a belt drive.
We love this set, though it is complex. If you’re interested in a simpler machine, try the GoldieBlox Girl Inventor Zipline Action Figure Set which includes either Goldie or her best friend Ruby and instructions and materials to make a zipline. When we got this set, my daughter set this zipline up in the bedroom, off the back porch, and through the chicken coop. Watching her create new ziplines all over the house meant she understood the concept of the pulley, and was able to internalize this slightly advanced concept for a three year old. What fun!
I love the GoldieBlox series as a parent and an educator because it includes so much for kids to engage with. The story includes a real-world problem that is solved by a machine, and your child will internalize this machine’s function and concept by building it. Along the way, you get to know the characters of Goldie and her friends, which enriches the play and the fun.
Though not open-ended to start, this kit does what very few toys can do: it teaches your child how to make something that then expands what kinds of open-ended play is now possible for your child.
Check out this list of all the best GoldieBlox kits and get your kids started building and inventing today!