In a celebrated anecdote from his autobiography, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright credited his childhood maple wood blocks (similar to these Standard Unit Blocks) for sparking his creativity. Wright wrote, “The maple-wood blocks are in my fingers to this day. These primary forms and figures were the secret of all effects which were ever got into the architecture of the world.”
It doesn’t follow, of course, that giving your child blocks guarantees brilliance, but it DOES follow that every kid should spend some time doing some serious building. Building with blocks is open-ended play that encourages kids to exercise all of their creative and problem-solving skills and experiment with the world around them. And all of these superb building sets provide slightly different opportunities for exploration. Plus, they come with plenty of pint-sized thumbs-up ratings!
Brio Magnetic Wooden Building Blocks, $19.99; ages 12 months and up
You’ll see a lot of magnetic blocks in this list, and there’s a reason for that: not only are they wonderful for early building exploration, but kids also loooooove them. All of these magnetic block sets are designed with safety in mind, so there’s no need to worry about the magnets, either; these are built baby-tough!
The Brio Magnetic Wooden Building Blocks are the simplest magnetic blocks on our list, and a good place to start with magnetic building, since it’s a small set and will attract your toddler with bold colors and shiny surfaces. You get two round globes and 6 cubes, just enough for the earliest stacking and clicking.
The magnets are strong enough to hold in place for easy stacking, but weak enough to be easy for toddlers to knock down! Also, that glossy coating is hard-wearing, so you won’t have to worry about your child losing interest in her blocks because they aren’t pretty anymore.
SmartMax Basic 25-Piece Magnetic Building Set, $49.99; ages 12 months and up
The SmartMax building system is a little more sophisticated: kids can start just by experimenting with how the magnetic bars and balls stick together (“warm” and “cool” colors stick together), and then start creating actual structures. The instruction booklet is loaded with play suggestions, so you and your child can play and learn to build together. This is definitely a toy that grows with your child, too – add more sets for more and bigger structures as your child’s building know-how gets more sophisticated!
Tegu Magnetic Blocks 24 Piece Tints Set, $64.99; ages 12 months and up
The appeal of Tegu Blocks spans all ages from toddlers to adults – as you can see in their series of video tutorials, the more blocks you have, the more sophisticated building play can become! Since these “curiously attractive” magnetic wooden blocks stick together at multiple angles, you can build up and out at the same time, and the possibilities are endless.
Kidoozie Build A Road X-Track, $29.99; ages 3 and up
And now for something entirely different: unlike the previous building sets, there is exactly one thing you can build with this toy, and it’s a road. But with 225 pieces of colorful, flexible track, that road can go to a lot of different places, and with two battery-operated cars, there are many imaginative voyages for kids to create!
Magna-Tiles Clear 100-Piece Set, $120.00; ages 3 and up
A lot of these block sets are truly beautiful, so we’ll leave it up to you to decide which one is prettiest. However, clear Magna-Tiles have an unfair advantage over their brethren in the construction aisle, which you’ll see if you try playing with them on a light table! Their glorious stained-glass look makes clear Magna-Tiles alluring for all ages, and since they stick together at all corners and on all faces, the building possibilities are limitless. For true gift-giving impact (and especially if multiple kids will be playing with them at once), you’ll want to get this deluxe set, but we sell plenty of smaller sets as well.
A word to the wise holiday shopper: if you’re planning on getting Magna-Tiles for a holiday gift this year, snap them up as soon as you see them! They’re incredibly popular and they disappear fast. Also, if you want to try something a little different, Magformers are similar – read about why our store associate Chelsea loves them here.
Fat Brain Toys Squigz 24-Piece Starter Set, $24.99; ages 3 and up
Fat Brain Toys is all about the suction cups lately – their Teeter Popper, which we talked about a few days ago, puts them to some seriously creative use. Squigz are more basic: each Squig has a ball at the center with one or more suction cups, and you can stick them together, stick them to the wall, stick them to the table, stick them to the bathtub, stick them to your locker, build an octopus, build a rocket, build a person, build… well, anything! They’re unique-looking, the bendy silicone feels nice in your hand, and sticking and unsticking suction cups is endlessly satisfying. Start with this 24-Squigz set or just go for gold and get the set of 50!
Goldieblox Action Figure with Zipline, $24.99; ages 4 and up
Barbie has her place in the toybox, but if you need a problem solved, call on Goldie! This GoldieBlox set comes with a fully-articulated action figure of the heroine of the series, and all the pieces that kids need to make her a working zipline.
As you’ve probably already read (given that the GoldieBlox folks are great at getting media attention), these building sets are designed to get girls excited about engineering, and it works: girls love making working devices with these kits, and inventing their own. For instance, these two enterprising kiddos set up their GoldieBlox zipline so it sets off their GoldieBlox Dunk Tank!
HaPe Architetrix Constructor Set, $22.99; ages 4 and up
For the thrill of building TALL, meet Architetrix! It works a lot like the Tinker Toys you had as a kid, except bigger: the bamboo rods socket into the flexible rubber connectors to create large geometric shapes that connect together to build large structures. It’s a unique and different way to build.
Wedgits Wedgenetix, $49.99; ages 5 and up
Or, try a different angle: Wedgnetix blocks are a magnetic variation on Wedgits building blocks, utilizing rotating magnets to stick to pieces together. Use Wedgnetix to make stacking blocks in geometric shapes or free-form 3D art.
Laser Pegs Cars with 4 Models, $14.99; ages 5 and up
For another totally different take on building blocks: how about building with light? Laser Pegs blocks create a low-power circuit that lights up the translucent blocks, so once you’ve built a plane, or a train, or a robot (or in the case of this set, a car), it looks way cool in the dark! They’re LEGO-like blocks, and they’re compatible with LEGOs and all other Laser Pegs sets, too, so kids can get more sets and get more creative.
Mindware Keva Contraptions Catapult, $24.99; ages 7 and up
Finally, for the advanced builder: it’s time to combine learning, building, and a little lighthearted mayhem! This set is two toys in one: first, kids build the catapult with KEVA planks and wood glue. Then, it’s time to experiment with the working catapult, see how far it will fling light, soft projectiles like marshmallows, and maybe create your own games (who can hit the target the most times? Or, can your little brother catch the marshmallows in the air before they fall on the ground and the dog eats them?).
This is only a small portion of our selection of construction toys, of course – we didn’t even get into the LEGO or DUPLO blocks here, and we’ve got tons of ‘em! If you don’t see the perfect gift for your creative kid in this list, head over to our site and explore, and if you’re stumped, ask us! Our friendly toy gurus know what kids like, and they’ll help you select the toy that will be the biggest hit under the tree (or the Menorah!).