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What Kind of Toys Should You Buy for Your Child?

Researchers have identified three qualities that you should look for in a toy.

Key points

  • A decade-long study conducted by researchers at Eastern Connecticut State University examined how preschool children play with over 100 toys.
  • The researchers found that simple, open-ended, non-realistic toys seem to be linked to higher-quality play.
  • Researchers have also identified blocks and miniature toys as the types of toys that are most likely to stimulate high-quality play.

As a parent, it can be overwhelming trying to find the "best" toys for your children among the many options available online and in stores. So many toys are marketed as “educational” or beneficial in some way for children's development, but how do parents know if these claims actually true? How do parents determine which toys actually promote development, or which toys will keep a child's attention for more than five minutes?

What the research says about kids' toys

Fortunately, research can provide some guidance. Researchers at Eastern Connecticut State University have spent over a decade studying how preschool children play with over 100 toys. This study called the TIMPANI (Toys that Inspire Mindful Play And Nurture Imagination) examined how toys maintain children’s attention and allow children to develop skills of problem-solving, creativity, social skills, and language.

This study included 60 children from 3 to 4 years old in typical preschool classrooms. The researchers coded the quality of children’s play with different types of toys. From these observations, the researchers were able to determine which toys were the most high-quality and identify three key qualities that these toys shared that make them likely to promote high-quality play.

What were these three qualities?

  1. Simple: The more simple a toy is, the more children have to use their imagination and problem-solving abilities to determine how to play with it. For example, a simple wooden block could be used for many different play purposes while a pretend phone can only be used in one way.
  2. Open-ended: An open-ended toy is a toy that can be used in many different ways and does not suggest to children exactly how to use it. Good examples of open-ended toys include play kitchen sets, figurines, blocks, and toy trains and cars. These types of toys inspire children to be more creative and flexible and play in different ways. They also tend to hold children’s attention for longer periods of time.
  3. Non-realistic: A non-realistic toy is a toy that is not just like something in the real world. These types of toys inspire more creativity and problem-solving in children. They also often require children to have conversations with others about what the object is and its use. For example, a unicorn stuffed animal may stimulate more conversations about what unicorns can do and more creativity in play than a horse stuffed animal.

The researchers also identified two types of toys that seem to be most strongly linked to high-quality play:

  1. Blocks: Examples include LEGOs, wooden blocks, magnetic tiles, etc. Blocks seem to inspire the most creative play and are best when they are open-ended (that is, not designed to make a particular product) and have enough pieces to build many different structures.
  2. Miniatures: Examples include small people, animals, or vehicles. These types of toys encourage children to engage in pretend play and cooperative play with others.

The researchers also identified 10 specific toys that seem to inspire the most high-quality play:

  1. Toy cars, trains, and trucks
  2. Wooden train sets
  3. Painting easels
  4. Magnetic tiles
  5. Animal figurines
  6. Tinkertoys
  7. Duplos
  8. Wooden cash registers
  9. Magnetic bottle-shaped blocks
  10. People figurines

In summary, the types of toys that you buy for your children really matter and "educational" toys may be more simple than you think. Happy shopping!


Trawick-Smith, J., Wolff, J., Koschel, M., & Vallarelli, J. (2015). The effects of toys on the quality of preschool children: Influence of gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Early Childhood Education Journal, 43, 249-256.

Trawick-Smith, J., Wolff, J., Koschel, M., & Vallarelli, J. (2014). Which toys promote high quality play? Reflections on the five year anniversary of the TIMPANI study. Young Children, 69, 40-46.

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