Brain-Powering Toy Guide

Do you get overwhelmed in the toy aisle?  You are assaulted by multicolored packages blinking, buzzing, and sometimes crying, to capture your attention, convince you to take the toy off the shelf and bring it home with you.  Avoid a frenzied experience in the toy aisle this year with the help of our in-house experts who scoured the Internet and toy fairs to recommend their top toy picks.  These curated selections are sure to inspire creativity, imagination and brain-building play for infants, toddlers and grade schoolers.

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When it comes to artistic exploration for children, Josh recommends time, space, a few supplies and getting out of the way.  As our Artabounds studio manager and lead educator of the Chicago Children’s Museum Arts and Culture team and an artist in his own right, he knows what he is talking about.




When the art supplies come out, do you begin with the list of restrictions…”Don’t spill…not on the walls, or the carpet or…”?  Why not create a space perfectly sized for them to let their imaginations run wild, without making you wild with worry.

Art Table



Try a table and chair set that is just the right size. Grab a roll of drawing paper and a couple of buckets for crayons and colored pencils, and you have everything you need for an art studio fit for your little Matisse. 

Collapsible Easel



Short on space?  Try an easel.  It is collapsible and keeps your little one standing up and stretching out to get to the tippy-top spot of every masterpiece.  Not to mention, it is proven that being upright while “working” helps a child use more brain power than sitting down and focusing at a desk. For even more space economy, check out a desktop version

SmartMax Blocks



If your little one is a 3D artist, I like SmartMax for its simple design and abstractness of the pieces.  It is more than just blocks—with the addition of magnet balls a child can create complex structures or, dare I say, sculptures. 

Laura R head shot 2010Laura

Simplicity in parenting is Laura’s philosophy as she raises her own preschooler. With more than 15 years of experience designing art-filled, playful experiences at Chicago Children’s Museum, Laura is always on the lookout for child-centered toys that foster a love of learning at every age.




When shopping for my son, I always lean toward toys that have a timeless beauty about them, durability (so I do not have to contend with pieces carelessly scattered all over my home that end up in the trash bin ) and allow a little one to lead every play experience.  

Shakers and Rattles



For babies, there is no better sensory treat than a rattle. In every culture, rattles are used to entertain and stimulate babies.  And the sensory developmental gains of rattle play for infants are invaluable.  I am partial to the wooden ones, but rattles come in every shape, color and material imaginable.

Jenga Blocks



Jenga blocks are great for all ages!  Preschoolers can use them as classic blocks for building and creative play.  As kids grow older, the stacking game promotes critical thinking skills and provides a great way to tune into each other and have some fun.  It can be played solo or with several others.

Lap Harp



I like real materials and real tools for kids. And believe me, kids appreciate real stuff too.  So why not give a child a real instrument rather than a toy sound maker? This lap harp is the perfect size for a preschooler to learn to discern sounds and fill your home with music.

Lauren is Chicago Children Museum’s early education math expert.  As she puts it, she “aims to meld formal and informal learning” in the traditional classroom setting.  As the manager of Playing with Numbers, the museum’s math training program, Lauren teaches K-1 educators how to integrate play into early education math curriculums.  

Make or Break Game



The biggest misconception about math games is that they must center on numbers.  For early learners, math is truly about concepts and vocabulary – front/back, circle/square and straight/diagonal.  I like Make ‘n’ Break, a game heavy on spatial development and reasoning.  In just a few minutes, children will be using spatial vocabulary to explain how each block has to be placed to complete the card formation in the allotted time.




Inchimals explores numerous mathematical concepts from measurement to algebraic thinking.  Using different lengths of animal blocks, children discover which combinations of blocks are equivalent in size to others. I really like this game because it involves abstract and critical thinking, as well as language development, as children explain the thinking and reasoning behind their animal measurement.

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