Best Picks for Non-Electronic Toys Kids Actually LIKE

Best Picks for Non-Electronic Toys KIDS ACTUALLY LIKE // (plus WHY YOUR KID might not like these & what you can do about it) //
In this frenzied toy-buying season, let me offer our recommendations for kids up to elementary-ages. We have seven kids, ages thirteen and under, so I’ve got a little more than a decade, and many different personalities’ worth of “experience,” invested in this advice. These are the non-electronic toys kids actually LIKE.

(In fact, if you add up my kids’ ages separately, this advice has nearly 50 years’ worth of day-in, day-out kid-play “cred” behind it. Which makes me sound WAY old– I’m “only” 36, for the record.)

Here are our TOP Non-Screen Toys (that actually get played with):
  1. LEGOs– Hands down, this is the most-beloved toy set enjoyed by our 5-and-up crew. (This is a great set our kids have and love using.)
  2. DUPLOs These are MUCH played with in our home! This is a better choice for kids 5 and under, as Legos can be maddening for little hands that aren’t quite, developmentally, ready for them (don’t say I didn’t warn you, too-eager-mama– you will end up spending an inordinate amount of time putting together the creations your child isn’t yet developmentally ready for and gets frustrated by!). Duplos are a much better pick for the 5/6-and-under crowd. I always leave our big box of these out, and they are our go-to toy when we have another family over. Everyone can enjoy building with a huge tub of Duplos! (Make sure you have some boards to build on– we have this set of 2!)
  3. Nerf Swords and Shields(Under $10 for these great swords is a steal!) In case you don’t know, I have six boys. So, yeah. These are perennial favorites around here. Thankfully, with Nerf, they can play fight but I don’t have to worry about injuries. Win-win. :)
  4. Play Kitchen and Dishes– This is another classic toy set around here, that I depend on and continually update. I regularly prune busted old pieces and add new dishes and foods, because it’s just that good of a toy– for all ages and both genders. All of my kids, up to about 9-10 years old, LOVE to cook and bring me “meals” they’ve made. We have come to prefer wooden play food because they stand up against the test of time, whereas the plastic ones get busted up by teething babies, rough toddlers, and the demands of children’s play.
  5. Best Picks for Non-Electronic Toys Kids ACTUALLY LIKE // jessconnell.comMatchbox cars and play roads. We like play roads like this one that have enough roads for multiple children to play side by side. We got this car/train table last year and my 2-7 year old boys love it! Simple play with cars and roads is a classic boys toy for a reason.
  6. Large-style Wooden Blocks– I love this set of larger building blocks; it has enough blocks for them to really get architecturally creative! We have a big tub of these that the kids love playing with.
  7. A good quality dollhouse like this with Loving Family people– You can follow these links to buy them new from Amazon, or if you don’t mind used, you can find fairly good deals for sets of them on eBay. I like the Loving Family set of people in particular because they are great everyday-looking people who fit dollhouses and teach children to play in family settings (rather than the dating-type/fashion scene sometimes promoted in other dolls). Our 9 year old daughter, Maranatha, has played with these for 7-8 years, and still enjoys them with friends.
  8. Playdoh and great cutting tools. We have a big bucket of rollers, cutters, shapes and texture-makers the kids use for playdoh creations. They have cake-making and masterchef-style competitions, make luxury jewelry for me to wear, and more. This is a great, creative way to let your kids kill an hour or more at a go. (Even better, have them agree before they start that they will clean up any mess that is made!) :)
  9. MagFormers— these toys are seriously amazing. NO matter how you use them, these magnetic pieces never “repel”– only attract. They are colorful, interchangeable, and sturdy (we’ve never had even one break!– not even with 7 kids’ daily use!). We see gifts like these as an investment in their understanding of science, engineering, and as fuel for their creativity. We’ve found that toddlers, older children, and adults all enjoy building with these amazing toys. While they are an investment, we made these the main gift for our kids a few years ago, and it was a total hit. This is one of the few toy sets we keep out 24/7 for our children.
  10. Magnetic Dolls– We have several varieties of magnetic dolls for my daughter. It’s a nice quiet activity. {We also have a Melissa and Doug magnetic cars set that works the same way, where you can redesign the car — body & wheels– all different ways. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a link for it online. Our sons in the 2-5 years old age range have LOVED it.}
  11. Baby dolls (our daughter has a variety of dolls and clothing), baby doll cradle & stroller- the quintessential little girl toy (yes I know boys can enjoy them, too). These get played with all the time here, even with “just” one little girl in our home. 
  12. Bath toys with plenty of cups for pouring and nets to scoop. While this may not seem like a great “Christmas toy,” I think they are, especially for the 1-3 year olds! (We just bought this unique waterpipes bath set for our 2 year old.) These are oft-used toys in our house that help to lengthen bath time & make it more enjoyable. These last YEARS and are worth the investment!
  13. Scooters, skateboards, ripsticks, and skates. These are great ways to get your kids outside and get them ACTIVE– even if it’s just on the deck or driveway.

One final note: If you’re looking at an item on this list and thinking, “I’ve got that, and he/she doesn’t play with it.”, I would bet that 90-95% of the time, it is not a toy problem but a toy QUANTITY problem.

  • Having a set of 40 small wooden blocks is not NEAR as creativity-inspiring as having a huge plastic tub of 250 of them. For a child to be able to build a fortress all around them is a totally different experience than building one small tower on a table in front of them.
  • Having one set of four plates, bowls, cups, and forks is not the same as having a variety of foods, dishes, and a play kitchen or small table for them to work at and “cook.”

I’m not advocating (necessarily) that you go out, today, and purchase 4 new Lego sets. Buy a set or two, and then watch at garage sales, on eBay, and more, to add to the sets you have, expanding them in number and in options.

Basically, what I’m saying is, don’t “try” one Duplo set and then decide that “they don’t like them” because they didn’t play with the 18-pc set. Pulling from a tub full of Duplos, people, animals, and vehicles and carefully constructing a world of your own imagination on a grass-green Duplo building board, is a completely different experience from having one small set with one one tree, one wall, a dog, and one little guy all by his lonesome.

Having enough *quantity* of a toy will encourage and allow your children to get “lost” in creative play that can’t happen when they only have a few random pieces.



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Jess Connell

Jesus-follower, Happy wife, Mom of 8 neat people. Former world-traveler, now settled in Washington. Host of Mom On Purpose podcast ( I write and wrangle kids.

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11 Responses

  1. Katie says:

    Yes to all of these! I would add dress up clothes to this list. A simple hat, vest, skirt can immediately place a child into an imaginary world for hours of creative play.

  2. Charisa says:

    Jess, How do you deal with Legos and your littlest kids? My littlest guy puts everything in his mouth, so I’m a bit paranoid that he’s going to choke on Lego pieces left around. Even when the kids clean them up, there is always a piece or two that goes astray. And with another baby on the way, we’re not nearly done the “putting everything in my mouth” stage. Any tips?

    • Jess Connell says:

      We choose a place in the house where they can leave them out, and then use baby gates/doors/planning to always keep the baby/toddler away from that area.

      In apartments overseas, that was on enclosed balconies. In Texas, we had a non-heat/non-airconditioned small “sunroom” that served this purpose, until that got taken over by another purpose, so then we let them keep them out in one part of the office floor. In one house, we put them in the under part of a loft bunk bed.

      Here in this house, we’ve partitioned off part of our basement expressly for this purpose. They have about an 8 foot by 12 foot area where all kids over 5 are allowed to go in and play.

      It IS tricky, no doubt, but it’s been SOOOO worth it for my big kids to have the freedom to go and create and build for hours on end. The worlds and ideas they’ve come up with are truly incredible & I’m convinced that engineering/building toys like this really develop their ability to think creatively and image God in those ways.

      So for us, finding a place where they can leave these things OUT and continue coming back to work on and improve their ideas has been a priority. Hope this helps! It is tricky, but worth it, I think, to find a way for the big kids to be able to enjoy them without having to always clean up afterward.

  3. I totally agree with having a lot of building toys, like Legos. We really enjoyed K-nex and Playmobil sets, as well. Our son would save his money to buy more Playmobil things. We also enjoyed creative art supplies: markers, colored pencils, watercolors, cross-stitch supplies, etc. Another “toy” that’s great for creativity is a camera. A point and shoot camera will train children to look for beauty and find small things, as well as take photos of their friends, family, and pets.

  4. Jenn says:

    Do you leave these toys all out at the same time or do you rotate them? We have roughly the same categories for our 4 and 2 year old and I feel like I’m constantly drowning in toys. What suggestions do you have to reduce the mess/allow them to focus on certain items? (in a given day, they might play just with dolls or kitchen stuff… Or they may empty every bin and shelf for an elaborate game of who knows what! We try to encourage them to clean as they go but most days I feel it’s a losing battle)

    • Jess Connell says:

      Definitely do a toy rotation! And we teach the kids to only play with one thing at a time. Before pulling out something else they need to pick up what they were playing with. This helps keep the chaos under control.

      The only exception is that we usually have one toyset that always stays out (usually Duplos, right now it’s our play kitchen).

  5. Dawn says:

    Too many toys creates over stimulation. 2 year olds shouldn’t have access to more than 3-5 pieces, per toy, set or lesson. Their brains aren’t capable to handle all the stimulation. I do not suggest buying more. I suggest giving more of yourself to your child.

  1. December 18, 2015


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