Toy shopping requires serious strategy. Make everything too educational and they collect dust; go for all the shiny, flashy new ones with a thousand light-up buttons and guaranteed, the appeal will wear off and they, too, will sit abandoned in the bin.
But find the right one, with a good mix of sensory features, discovery elements, and a classic challenge, and they'll pick it up again and again, returning for infinite play sessions (while securing you precious minutes of free time!). Check out my favorite fun-and-brainy options:
Ages 6 months+: Oombee Cube
Shape sorters are common at this age, but the Oombee Cube does it better. Six shapes are tethered to the 100% food-grade silicone toy and offer tactile intrigue with varying grooves and patterns. The tethers are pretty genius, especially if you're always on the hunt for missing pieces. $17; amazon.com.
2+: Wood Bunny Family Dress-Up Puzzle
Many STEM or more learning-focused toys are geared toward boys. So it’s a delight to find variations that will interest more traditionally girl interests like playing dress up. This Melissa and Doug wooden set features 45 mix and match pieces that change the outfits of mama, papa, and baby bears. It’s a nice blend of both puzzle skills and creative play. $12; amazon.com.
Does your kid love to take things apart? Let them construct and deconstruct safely with this airplane. Perhaps best of all, the set is also an early introduction to more adult-like tools: there’s a cool power screwdriver with three different bits to experiment with. $20; amazon.com.
4+: Rose & Rex Cross-Stitch Friends
This might not be your typical “brainy” toy, but its simple design actually offers a wide open field of creativity. Also the needle-and-thread set-up is great for practicing hand-eye coordination. $15; roseandrex.com.
5+: Crazy Forts Glow in the Dark
Get ready for a serious session of pretend play when you help your kid set up these changeable build-a-fort sets. We particularly love the glow in the dark set for it’s lunar feel, and because "glow in the dark" doesn’t get old at any age. $42; amazon.com.
Work on your child’s concentration and spatial thinking skills with this ultimate of 3-D mazes. With 100 obstacles to throw your metal ball off the tracks, kids will have to reason through problems and use hand-eye coordination to boot. (Tip: It’s also a great toy for the plane—a pause from iPad time.) $25; thegrommet.com.
8+: Snap Circuits Jr. 100 Experiments Elenco SC-100
For your budding young engineer, this starter electronics set gets the National Parenting Center-Seal of Approval for good reason. With over 100 possible projects to complete (including a flying saucer!) and easy plastic modules to snap together, it’s a total time-suck but for all the right reasons.