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Best building toys for developing math, problem-solving, and spatial thinking skills - love that there are suggested age ranges

Gift Guide 2013: Best in Blocks and Construction Toys

We’re back with another installment of MPMK’s 2013 Christmas Gift Guides today. Building and construction toys, blocks in particular, are my absolute favorites for both my son AND my daughter. They are the ultimate open-ended creativity toy and I love that my children play with them for huge chunks of time, all while developing math, problem-solving, and spatial thinking skills.

Don’t forget – you can check out all 10 of our 2014 Gift Guides here!

Once again this year, I’m heading up each list with my favorites from all the picks – here, in no particular order, are my top 7 Building and Construction Toys (scroll down for full details on each):

  1. LEGO Duplo My First Set $24.14 (18 mos – 5 years)
  2. Magna-Tiles $120 (2 – 12 years)
  3. Melissa & Doug 60 Piece Standard Unit Blocks $50.99 (2 – 15 years)
  4. Battat Take-Apart Vehicle Series starting at $17.95 (3+ years)
  5. LEGO Creator 3-in-1 Kits starting at $11.24, (age varies by kit, most start around age 5)
  6. Green Toys Tool Set $19.59 (2+ years)
  7. Designed by You Doll House with Furniture $82.09 (3+ years)

Read on for 30 of my favorite building and construction toys, broken down into:

  • Best Blocks for Open-Ended Play
  • Take Apart & Build Again Toys
  • LEGO Sets for Every Age
  • Dramatic Play Construction Toys

Special Note: In an effort to help you out as much as possible this year, I’ve included both prices and age recommendations for each item.  Please take the age ranges as just that – recommendations – you know you’re child best after all!  

Also, this time of year prices can fluctuate quite dramatically.  So if you see something a little outside of your price range, it might not be a bad idea to click over and check  it out anyway – you may get lucky and catch a sale.

Along those lines, I’m doing my best this year to keep our readers up-to-date on any sales I see on our gift guide items.  To be in the loop, be sure to follow us on facebook and subscribe to our newsletter.

Ready for the big list? Here we go…

Blocks are the ultimate creativity toy but they're not all created equal - best picks for hours of open-ended play


Blocks are my all-time favorite toy. They’re wonderful for creativity, spatial thinking, and so much more. Each of the sets below have a unique feature that sets them apart from the rest and they’d each be a valuable addition to your toy closet.

  • Tobbles $24.26 (babies and young toddlers) – Even though these aren’t traditional blocks, they top our list because they prove that babies can be builders too.  These weighted spheres are fun to stack, tilt, spin, and wobble.
  • Magna-Tiles $120 (2 – 12 years) – I discovered magna-tiles last year and they were the big present under the tree for the kids. They’re definitely more of an investment, but have been totally worth it. The kids have played with them multiple days a week for the last year straight. Teachers absolutely rave about these blocks and the play possibilities are endless. Because they join together using magnets, kids can create elaborate structures (often taller than they are) without becoming frustrated by crashes. They’re also great for use with other toys. They can be used along with blocks and LEGOs to make elaborate structures, with marbles and cars to make tunnels, bridges, and marble runs, or even with dolls to create doll houses.  We splurged for the 100 piece set and got hours of rainy day fun with these. If you have the space/budget for a personal light table to use them, the translucent pieces would look fantastic lit up from underneath.
  • Melissa & Doug 60 Piece Standard Unit Blocks $50.99 (2 – 15 years) – If I could buy my children only one toy, a large set of basic wood blocks like these would be it! They are the ultimate creativity toy.
  • Bristle Blocks $34.92 (2 – 5 years) – The “fingers” of these blocks make them easy to join together and the perfect starter block for younger kids.  When S was 2 years old, she especially loved them.  We have the basic set but there was a spinaroo set at her toddler group last year that she beelined to every time we went. These are also great in the car or on a plane.
  • Queircetti Tubation $19.15 (2 – 7 years) – I was made aware of this pipe-like set when I asked our facebook fans about their favorite building toys. They get rave reviews and one clever reviewer on Amazon suggested briging them into the bath to extend the fun.
  • WEDGiTS Deluxe Set $29.50 (3 – 7 years) – I put these in our gift guide the last two years and had to return them again for 2013. I once talked to the owner of a local toy store about them for over 30 minutes. He couldn’t stop raving about what great, open-ended building toys they are and he totally sold me on them.  If you have younger kids around, get the Wee WEDGITS (1+ years) – they’re softer and don’t hurt when stepped on. For bigger kids, be sure to spring for the design cards to help extend the quiet time play even more!
  • Music Motion Marble Railway $77.00 (4 – 15 years) – This award-winning toy combines classic block building with both music and a marble run. set is crafted with heirloom quality birch and rubber wood with metal xylophone keys for long-lasting musical marble fun. Hape Toy finishes are all non-toxic, child safe and this set can be combined with other Hape Marble Run sets as well.
  • Tinkertoy Pink Building Set $35.99 (3+ years) – Tinkertoys are a total classic (my grandparents had a set I used to play with whenever I would visit them a little girl). There has been a lot of debate about whether pink and purple building toys are a good way to entice girls to build or to reinforce gender stereotypes. My stance is that you know your child best and you know what will work for her.  If the color pink is the only thing that will entice her to start constructing, then go for it.
  • Imaginets $26.22 (3 – 6 years) – These flat building toys promote fine-motor skills, visual thinking and are great for travel.  They can be used along with the included pattern cards or open-endedly to make limitless new creations.

Best take-apart and build again toys for hours of independent play

Take-Apart & Build Again Toys

These toys do a great job of giving kids practice building something that can be used for dramatic play: cars, airplanes, and even doll houses. When they’re done, the toys can be taken apart and stowed away to be re-constructed and played with again another day.

  • Superstructs BIG Builder $32.05 (4 – 8 years) – My son got these for his 4th birthday and loves them.  The set, which kind of resembles larger and more durable tinker-toys with a few more bells and whistles, comes with instructions on how to create several working vehicles. C’s favorites are the forklift and tow truck.  He’s amazed at the working parts of his finished creations and I was blown away that he could follow the visual directions and put most of it together all on his own at 4 years old.
  • Magformers Cruisers Car Set $43.96 (5+ years) – A friend from toddler group recommended these to me when I mentioned what a big fan we are of magna-tiles. They work in the same way but allow builders to create cars of various design, including classic cars, wacky cars, space cars, underwater cars, dragsters, and hot rods.
  • Erector Super Construction Set $44.99 (6 – 14 years) – The age range on this set is actually 8 – 14 years but our son got his first Erector set at age 4 and loves building these creations with his dad.  Now at age 5, he’s almost ready to take on some of the projects alone. This highly-rated and comprehensive set comes with a 6V battery-operated motor as well as 640+ parts and a handy carrying case.  It can be used to create 25 different models.
  • Automoblox $35.22 (3 – 6 years), have been a favorite at our house for several years. Part racing toy, part building toy, they’re pretty much irresistible to both my son and daughter. I recommended them for socking stuffers in the past and their flying machine counterparts, Manhattan Toy Airplane Vehicle, are another way to extend the fun beyond the cars. New this year are the larger sized automoblox Rescue SUVs: the Fire SUV,  Police Car, and Rescue Truck.
  • Battat Take-Apart Vehicle Series starting at $17.95 (3+ years) – One of my mom friends got one of these sets for her son last Christmas and said it was a big hit. Kids are sure to love the working drill that is used to take apart the vehicles and put them back together again.
  • Designed by You Doll House with Furniture $82.09 (3+ years) – Whenever I make a big toy purchase for my kiddos, I obsess about it a bit.  I research (a lot) to find the train table, play kitchen, etc. that’s not only going to hold up the best, but will also offer up the most beneficial play experience.  When my daughter indicated that she wanted a doll house for her birthday last year, my research led us to purchase this one and we’ve been really, really pleased with it. The rooms are easy to access and it came with a bizillion pieces of furniture that both my son and daughter use for lots of dramatic play.  What I love most about it, though, is that instead of one permanent structure, the house is modular and can be reconfigured a bunch of different ways. This really extends the kids’ engagement.  I would recommend this for both boys and girls (if hubby gawfs at buying your boy something pink, just paint over those two walls with chalkboard paint to add to the fun).

LEGOs are wonderful for fostering creativity and innovation - picks for kids of every age


No building toy roundup would be complete without an entire section devoted solely to LEGOs. Now that we have a 5 year old boy in the house, we are becoming more and more familiar with the almost magical pull of this iconic toy – as well as the myriad of options available.  Below is our guide to the best sets on the market for each age range. (P.S. If this list looks familiar, you may have already seen this section in this year’s “Best Toys for Fostering STEM Skills” gift guide.)

  • LEGO Duplo My First Set $24.14 (18 mos – 5 years) – A great introductory LEGO set. Larger bricks are easier for young children to manipulate and it comes with a handy storage case – every child should have one.
  • LEGO Ultimate Building Set $25.97 (4 – 12 years) – Around age 3 or 4 is a good time to transition from the duplo LEGOs to the standard size.  This 405 piece set contains everything your little ones will need to start creating, including a building plate, minifigure, windows, doors, and wheels.  It also has a storage container and building instructions for 5 models as well as photo inspiration for 25 more.
  • LEGO City Kits $6.36 – $116.95 (4 – 12 years) – I used to think the LEGO kits were more for school-aged kids.  Until my son received a few for his 4th birthday, that is.  I was absolutely astounded to witness him sit down with his first LEGO City Kit and spend about an hour putting it together COMPLETELY BY HIMSELF. Seriously, these kits come with like 50 steps and ridiculously small pieces but that didn’t phase him one bit. Since then, he has curated quite the collection of these kits and I even snuck him into a week long LEGO summer camp last year even though he didn’t technically meet the age requirement for another 2 months (I know, I’m bad to the bone).
  • Friends Adventure Camper $29.97 – Like with the pink tinker toys, when I first heard LEGO was coming out with LEGO friends (a dramatic play themed version of LEGOs for girls) I was a bit torn.  On the one hand, girls can – and do – play with regular LEGOS, they don’t need to be pink and purple!  On the other, it’s not such a bad thing that toy manufacturers are developing products aimed specifically at girls that build STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills.  In the end, I decided I’m for it just as long as no LEGO stilettos or hair extensions enter the picture but my 3 year old daughter loves the original LEGOs and that’s what we’re sticking to so far around here.
  • LEGO Creator 3-in-1 Kits starting at $11.24, (age varies by kit) – This is another series of kits, much like the LEGO City collection with the difference being that each kit can be used to create 3 totally different things.  My son thinks this is especially awesome and will probably ask for some of these instead of the LEGO city kits from Santa this year.
  • LEGO Minecraft $32.79 (10 – 15 years) – I admit, this one is a little beyond where we’re at right now but I have certainly heard of Minecraft and how incredibily popular and addictive it can be amongst kids (and adults) of a certain age.  This 450 piece set takes the phenomenon from the screen and puts it into your child’s hands.
  • LEGO Life of George $19.57 (8 – 15 years) – I really love the concept of this TOTY eTech toy of the year because it’s the world’s first interactive game combining LEGO bricks with a mobile device to bridge the physical and virtual building play worlds. Download the app to your iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or Android device and build the models as fast as you can. Place them on the play mat and use the app to scan and score your model. Reviews are a little mixed on the execution on this one but I think the concept is amazing!


Dramatic Play Construction Toys

Building toys don’t have to be just for developing math and spatial thinking skills – they can be great for creative dramatic play too.  Here are some of our favorite toys for playing construction worker or repair man.

  • CAT Digger $85.69 (2+ years) – The aunties bought this for my son two Christmases ago, when he was 3.  I have to say, I had my reservations. C of course thought an excavator that he could actually sit on, drive, and manipulate was just about the coolest thing ever but I was concerned about the space it would take up in our yard, especially with a non-rainy season of only about 3 months here in Seattle. What I failed to realize was the versatility of this toy.  Yes, it’s awesome for digging in the sandbox or bark in the summer, but it’s also great for picking up leaves in the fall and snow in the winter (see here).  This thing gets played on year-round and is often the one of the main things that lure my kids out to play on a rainy day (they put out buckets to collect the rain water and use the bucket shovel to scoop it out).  This one’s definitely a big ticket item but return on investment is high.
  • Educational Insights Design & Drill Activity Center $23.99 (3 – 8 years) – I like how this particular toy combines fine motor skills with pattern recognition AND adds a great dramatic play element. We got it for our son last Christmas and he still plays with it all the time (yesterday most recently).
  • Green Toys Tool Set $19.59 (2+ years) – A tool set is another “must-have” toy in my book. They’re fantastic for dramatic play (my kids love finding new things to “fix”) all by themselves. Add in some working nuts and bolts and you’ve got fine motor practice to boot.  We bought a wood tool set for C and have been happy with everything except the durability, so far we’ve had a wrench and pliers snap.  I think this set from green toys would be a lot more durable (there are sets available in blue, yellow, and green or brown, red, and blue as well).
  • Melissa & Doug Wooden Project Workbench $61.17 (3+ years) – If you’ve got a serious tool lover in the house, and have the space, this deluxe tool bench is another great option and the price is pretty good when compared to dramatic play toys of similar size, such as play kitchens and stores.

*Post contains affiliate links.

If you like these recommendations, I encourage you to pin or bookmark them for later when you’re ready to start shopping.  I would also love it if you forwarded the list on to your parenting friends or shared it on facebook – trust me, your friends will thank you for the help and you get to be the cool mom (or dad) with all the best resources. It’s a win-win.

Also, don’t forget to follow us on facebook and subscribe to our newsletter for even more recommendations and alerts when we spot our gift guide items on sale!

*Post contains affiliate links.

If you like these recommendations, I encourage you to pin or bookmark them for later when you’re ready to start shopping.  I would also love it if you forwarded the list on to your parenting friends or shared it on facebook – trust me, your friends will thank you for the help and you get to be the cool mom (or dad) with all the best resources. It’s a win-win.

Also, don’t forget to follow us on facebook and subscribe to our newsletter for even more recommendations and alerts when we spot our gift guide items on sale!

P.S. See all 10 of our 2014 Gift Guides here.

P.P.S. If you’re really looking to have the holidays in the bag early this year.  Check out our new eBook, Hands-On Holidays, packed with low-prep and low-stress ideas for make memories crafting, cooking, reading and adventuring with the kids!



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