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11 best development toys that make learning fun

From gadget building to puzzles and games, inspire your little one's imagination

Rebecca Miles
Tuesday 11 February 2020 16:15
The best toys create huge scope for learning through play, without kids even realising they’re learning
The best toys create huge scope for learning through play, without kids even realising they’re learning

From encouraging tummy time – an important activity for the development of growing neck and shoulder muscles – to inspiring budding coders and gamers, the range of developmental toys available for all ages is vast.

While they have an admirable reputation for encouraging our kids to spend less time glued to screens, a growing number of developmental toys increasingly embrace the wonderful world of technology and teach children to push its boundaries, explore its limitations and most of all, have fun with it.

The best toys create huge scope for learning through play, without kids even realising they’re learning. Whether that be a simple toy that supports baby’s cognitive development or more complicated STEM projects that demonstrate mind-blowing principles, the aim is for kids to have a whole lot of fun exploring the world around them.

When choosing developmental toys, consider first your child’s age and aptitude. Anything too complex won’t engage them. But also consider if it’s something that can be left out for your child to pick up whenever they wish, or if something requires adult supervision and playing together; both have their merits.

While some toys – especially for babies – can be incredibly simple, others can be expensive. But consider price per play, and the longevity of the toy – some of the products featured here will grow with your child, and can be played with in different ways as they age.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

Sphero specdrums

Initially a little skeptical about the scope of the Specdrums, the whole family (young and old) has grown to love this simple-looking ring, regularly returning to it to play either alone or together.

This ring uses an accelerometer, light sensor and LEDs to turn colours into sounds. Connect the ring via Bluetooth to your phone or tablet, open the Specdrums MIX app and create your own beats, sounds and loops by tapping the ring’s sensor against anything with a strong colour, or against the included pad.

The potential is limitless – each colour can be set to play different sounds from a huge range of pre-loaded noises and samples from every musical genre, or you can record your own, and we were pleasantly surprised with how intuitive it was, even for our four-year-old tester. The ring works best when tapped against the colour mat – using it on colours around the house produced entertaining but with very random results. Suitable for ages five and above.

Infantino pat and play water mat

Fill this whale with water and blow into its border to inflate with air and this simple piece of kit becomes a sensory delight, encouraging that all-important activity for young babies: tummy time. The brightly coloured underwater creatures that bob in the water in the whale’s tummy are fascinating, and the water gives the whale a great squishiness. Use it either on the floor or on the tray of a high chair and encourage plenty of prodding and poking. Suitable for ages six months and above.

SkipHop tropical paradise activity gym and soother

Making a change from the usual primary colours, this activity gym from SkipHop has aesthetically pleasing pastel tones with splashes of coral. There’s plenty for little ones to look at on the mat to encourage tummy time, and the squishy leaf pillow is a nice addition for cajoling reluctant tummy timers. The various dangling toys can be moved easily around the poles and cover all the necessary chimes, crinkles and squeaks with a great variety of textures. Our baby loved the surprise of finding the mirror tucked away under the screen.

The soothing sloth with jungle background noise and white noise is subjective – our baby ignored it, others may be fascinated; if it’s a hit it can be clipped on to the pushchair, car seat or carried around.

The mat, leopard and pillow can be machine-washed while the rest are wipe-clean only but the fabric is fairly resilient to stains and marks. Assembly is a little fiddly but once the poles are attached to the mat it’s very solid and secure. It can be folded in half to slide behind the sofa when not in use. Suitable for ages six months and above.

Le Toy van petilou activity walker

An adorable alternative to some of the brash plastic ones available, this walker has plenty to keep little hands, eyes and ears happy. We loved the sling underneath to wheel favourite toys around the house, and it’s well balanced to support budding toddlers. There’s a lot of features to keep kids entertained – the weather blocks, woodland creatures, colours, counting and additional activities on the sides were popular.

Assembly was straightforward and took about five minutes. It’d be nice if the little wooden doors on the front snapped open and shut more decisively, but otherwise this is a very charming walker. Suited to children aged one and above.

Muro mega pack board

A fantastic toy for small hands, the Muro board provides plenty of bits and pieces to tinker with. Available as a cube or a board, we opted for the board as it takes up less space – it comes with fittings to attach it to the wall, or it can just be propped up or laid flat on the floor.

The board is made from birch-plywood and the toys are made from rubber wood – everything is exceptionally well finished and sustainable. The mega pack is aimed at children who are starting to be able to stand by themselves, but additional and alternative toys are available, including letters and numbers, which extend the life of the board to children aged about five.

Our three-year-old tester loved pushing the toys into the board and deciding where they should go – younger children would struggle to move the toys around on the board, but it’s interesting to see the way they play with it change as they get older.

It is expensive but we haven’t seen anything else like it, and the quality is excellent. The mega pack comes with nine toys to plug in, further toys start from £10. Suited to children aged one and above.

Kapla 280 chest

Deceptively simple, this box of Kapla planks is a gateway to unlimited building possibilities for all ages. The box contains just 280 identical pine planks, yet the range of structures that can be built with them is incredibly impressive, including bridges and intricate buildings. They rely on just gravity and balance to build – no glue, screws or clips are needed.

Our young tester was initially a bit nonplussed, but is increasingly returning to the box and is getting more inventive with what she builds. This needs patience as the structures can quickly become inherently fiddly or complex, but the uniform size of the planks makes them more versatile and adds to their appeal. Precision-cut so each plank is the exact same size, they are stable and provide good counter levels in whatever structure you’re building.

There are other sets available including options with coloured planks, and each one includes an age appropriate book for model inspiration. The planks are made from 100 per cent untreated wood, sourced from renewable pine forests in the southwest of France and are supplied in a wooden storage box. Suited to children aged two and above.

Vtech kidizoom duo camera

A great toy, not just for budding photographers but also for kids who are fascinated by photos on grown ups’ phones, this camera from Vtech is a brilliant offering. Really robust, it withstands knocks and drops and the buttons and controls are big enough for little hands.

It’s a decent camera – there’s a 5MP front camera plus a rear camera for easy selfies, and both take stills and video. Then there’s a ton of fun effects to make silly pictures sillier, plus a three-times photo burst mode, zoom and auto-flash. Its internal memory stores 140 photos, which can be transferred to a computer, and it has a microSD card slot (card not included). Our young tester loves photographing her toys, and it’ll grow with her until she’s nine or 10. The only downside is the several built-in games this has – kids love them but they do distract from its primary function as a camera. Suitable for ages three and above.

Alice in Wonderland story box

Let your child’s mind wander with this beautiful box of double-sided puzzle pieces that can be placed in any order to tell a story loosely based on Alice in Wonderland. Illustrated by Anne Laval, all the classic characters are there, but with a twist – the Queen of Hearts drives a pink limo and the Mad Hatter runs a cake shop. Our tester loved describing what Alice was getting up to on each card and deciding what her next steps would be, and we appreciated the variety of tales possible. A vague knowledge of Alice in Wonderland is handy to get the most out of this, but other titles are available too, including Fairy Tales and Spooky Tales. Suited to ages three and above.

Orchard Toys magic maths

A fun game to develop addition and subtraction skills and encourage basic multiplication, this requires a bit of adult supervision to get started but once under way, the “magic” involved to reveal the correct answers to the sums is enticing enough to keep the players involved. Developed in collaboration with teachers, magic maths is designed for KS1 maths and is best for kids aged five to seven. The answers require a lot of “magic” rubbing to be revealed (or maybe we just need warmer hands), but that all added to the overall appeal of the game.

Djeco zig & go 27pcs

So much more than a basic domino rally, this set from Djeco is a great introduction to STEM concepts like gravity, force and momentum. The possibilities for various chain reactions are almost endless, and it leads to very open-ended play. The suggested age is seven and up, but our younger testers also enjoyed playing with this, figuring out how best to lay out a circuit and explore different possibilities. The wooden pieces are beautifully made and it encourages precision, perseverance and problem solving. Other sets are available, with up to 48 pieces, and they can be combined to make super-sized circuits.

Tech Will Save Us future inventors club monthly subscription

Launched towards the end of last year, the future inventors club is a monthly subscription box bursting with technology. Each box builds on the previous one, and uses the BBC’s Micro:bit (a pocket-sized computer) as its coding base. So far, we’ve had the coding, AI, and gaming box, and to come are themes including wearables, music, autonomous vehicles and robots.

You’ll need a laptop or tablet that is connected to the internet to complete projects, but apart from that each box has all you need. Each project is broken down into manageable, bite-size chunks with gradually more complicated levels.

Complicated concepts are explained simply without being patronising, and it’s been great fun building our own games in the latest box – the hardest bit was letting our tester do it alone! Suited to children aged 11 and above.

The verdict: Development toys

The Specdrum ring has proved the biggest hit for all ages – its scope is limitless and it uses technology in a really fun, creative way. For a more reasonably priced toy, the Djeco set is a brilliant introduction to various concepts of physics, and for something completely different, the Kapla planks work as well for three-year-olds as they do for eight-year-olds.

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