It sucks being a parent sometimes. Negotiating the minefield of toy-choices is a responsibility that lasts your child’s entire childhood; and if you have several kids, well, you’re pretty much destined to screw up along the way. The vast majority of toys on the market today are big on bells and whistles but small on creativity. Modern toys can walk, talk, flash and bust a move, yet an excess of levers and electronic parts mean that your child’s focus shifts to button-mashing instead of using his or her imagination. Indeed, the toys you give to your child could actually be hindering their development rather than nourishing it.
Yet fear not my friends, I am going to reveal my top ten ‘Alpha Toys’ – the best of the best. An elite collective of wholesome playfulness where quality trumps quantity. I have painstakingly hand-picked ten toys that are designed to be used continuously, over and over, and that stimulate the imagination of your child regardless of their age or gender. These Alpha Toys are self-initiated, self-paced and child-led. They encourage your child to create and problem-solve. Alpha Toys seldom come with instructions as there is no ‘right’ way in which they ‘should’ be used. Children don’t need to be taught how to use them – they just know. With Alpha Toys, play is up to the child’s mood and creative interpretation.
To achieve a place on this list, each toy needed to satisfy my strict criteria:
1. Be timeless – never go out of fashion.
2. Be genderless – you guys know I’m big on this.
3. Be ageless – must accompany the child from tots to teens.
4. Be open-ended – encourage child-directed free play.
5. Be screenless – no digital devices.
Excited? Well, before you need a change of panties, here are The Top 10 Alpha Toys (in no particular order):
1. Wooden Stacking Rainbow
My God, look at this beauty. A stacking puzzle, a tunnel, an arch, a cave, a bridge, a mountain, a house, a caterpillar, a balancing swing – this chameleon of a toy is as versatile as your child’s imagination. Whilst ultimately a little more expensive than the average toy, the durability and versatility of this stacker will see your child through to adulthood. It’s also ultra pleasing to the eye, a beautiful piece of art in its own right.
2. Marble Run
Remember the board game, ‘Mouse Trap’? Well, screw that! If you didn’t set it up according to the precise instructions on the box, aint no man diving into no bathtub!
Yet, when you buy a generic marble run set like what I’m suggesting here – you call the shots! The chutes can be arranged in a million different combinations, and you can make the marble’s journey as short and peaceful or as long and hazardous as you like.
Marble Runs are a fun way to get to grips with physics and can have quite a mesmeric effect on the user. There’s nothing as therapeutic and satisfying as spending an hour constructing an elaborate skyscraper and then proudly watching your marble go on its merry way. All while filming it and putting it on YouTube (I don’t really do that, honest).
Lego has topped the toy charts since the dawn of plastic – and there’s a reason for that. This toy is versatility personified. Your child can use Lego to count, sort and measure; they can make car mazes; they can dip pieces into paint to print patterns; they can use them as jello or chocolate moulds; they can write letters on pieces to practice phonics; oh, and they can build stuff with them. Almost makes you forget how much it hurts to step on one of the fuckers.
The humble button. Scoop and pour, sort by color and size, count, stick to crafts and paintings, thread. Heck, I could write a whole post on what you can do with buttons, maybe I will.
5. Wooden Blocks
Good ol’ blocks. Give a child some wooden blocks, and they can use them as musical instruments, they can build a tower or a road, or they can knock out their brother. I like this particular set as it contains cones so you can make castle turrets.
Wooden blocks are the epitome of open-ended materials. Not only are they a feast for the senses, they require your child to think creatively, problem solve, negotiate and invent. He or she learns the concepts of balance, stability and symmetry through trial and error as they construct their buildings. The instability of these blocks when stacked demands a different sort of skill to Lego, which makes them a great complement.
6. Pipe Cleaners
Little hands find pipe cleaners much easier to thread than yarn or string, and they can be strung with a varied of sized items — big or little beads, Cheerios, pasta noodles, et al. Pipe cleaners are a toy that will grow with your child (not literally, obvs). For instance, toddlers can practice their threading skills or glue the pipe cleaners to pictures; Preschoolers can learn the concept of measurement by twisting the pipe cleaners together to create varying lengths; Older kids can construct three-dimensional shapes, buildings, animals, people; Grown-ups can, umm, clean pipes with them. It’s allllll good.
Do you want to know 100 other things you can do with just a pipe cleaner? Then you need to check out: ‘100 Things To Do With Just A Pipe Cleaner’. (Dayyyyymn! Don’t say I never gave you anything!)
7. Wooden Train Set
A sight to behold. From Brio to Thomas, wooden train sets are classic, durable toys that can be passed from generation to generation. Fuelled by your child’s imagination (and perhaps an AA battery or two), many brands are inter-compatible (Brio, Melissa and Doug, Tesco, Imaginarium, ELC, Bigjigs, John Crane, – all work together).
Then, as your child ages, they can discover more and more complex ways to integrate the train set with their everyday environment. For instance, they could use their wooden blocks and Lego to create vast cities and structures for the trains to navigate; or they could use the rainbow stacker to create tunnels; or the pipe cleaners to create forests.
8. Tessellation Shapes
Tessellations are a neat way to integrate math, art and thinking skills. Tile the shapes together to create mosaics; draw around them; construct geometric pictures; sort and stack. What’s not to like?
An oldie, but a goodie. Children learn best through manipulation of materials in which they can see the effects they have on the world around them. What kid doesn’t enjoy the sensory experience of squishing, rolling, and manipulating playdoh? This bad boy begs to be played with. You can create shapes, people, animals, letters – anything at all. There’s no need to add cookie-cutters or other ‘tools’ as these tend to constrain play to prescribed limits; instead, your child can use their wooden blocks, pipe-cleaners, Lego, buttons and tessellation shapes to add extra dimensions to their playdoh creations.
10. Dado Cubes
The fuck is this?? Well, let me tell you, these award-winning geometric beauties are the next generation of nestling blocks. I’ve added them to this list alongside wooden blocks and Lego as they offer a different, four-dimensional approach to construction, allowing your child to actually see inside the structure they have created – Eeeeeek, cudya die!! With Dado Cubes your child can build not just up, but also sideways and diagonally – all while they explore architectural principles . . . proportion, balance, structure and color.
Does your child own any of these toys? If not, WHY NOT?!