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My philosophy of toys is well represented in the book Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne. I just discovered he has a website and blog too. We prefer fewer toys of mostly natural materials that encourage open-ended, multi-age play. Here are some of our favorites:
Elves & Angels — Gorgeous, fairly-priced wood and handmade toys. Our kids have Abbie’s Kitchen Deluxe and the real mini baking set. I look forward to buying the winsome fairies and elves when my daughter is a bit older.
For Small Hands — Montessori-style tools and toys for woodworking, kitchen, sewing, outdoor, music, and more. My son delights in his toolbox full of functional tools.
Melissa & Doug — Available anywhere including Amazon and Target, these toys tend to be higher quality, made of natural materials, and encourage open-ended play. We have the Stacking Train and Latches Board (both such a hit with 1 and 2yo Arthur!), Chomp & Clack Alligator Push Toy (for a baby learning to walk), Deluxe Wooden Railway Set, and a sturdy floor puzzle (similar).
Magnetic Builders — Pricey but endlessly entertaining for one year olds and forever after.
LEGO Duplos — Just right for 18 months to 5 years, but even my baby loves to play with them.
Kinetic Sand — Sand perfect for indoor use because it sticks together almost magnetically and has a mesmerizing feel and flow. Amazon has many brands; we happened to buy Waba Fun.
Sand/Water Table — We have the simplest kind (similar), and we fill it daily with water throughout the warm months for hours of play.
Play & Early Learning Resources
TinkerLab: A Hands-On Guide for Little Inventors — If you buy only one book for having fun with your young children, buy this one! It’s especially perfect if you have no idea where to start with “crafts” and really you just want your children to enjoy tinkering with different materials.
Little Pim — Fun, accessible, practical foreign language education for 1-5 years old. It’s everything I hoped for and worth its price twice over. Languages offered include everything from Spanish and French to Hebrew and Mandarin.