Every parent, if they're really honest, wants their child to be a bright spark. And we want toys to encourage their intelligence while remaining fun and holding their attention for more than five seconds.
There are a lot of toys out there that fit this brief, coming with all sorts of promises. It’s a minefield for parents. The toys we have chosen all aid the developmental stages in childhood through play, which is important for supporting brain development and cognitive skills – play allows children to use their creativity and encourages imagination, physical and motor skills, be that by giving them instructions to follow in a fun way, the ability to process information, express emotion and solve problems, or opportunities to create.
Of the many new and popular toys we’ve tested, these are our best brain-boosting buys available to buy right now for every age and stage.
1. LeapFrog LeapStart: £34.99, Toys R Us
This is one of the best early learning systems we tested. It not only encourages skills from reading to problem solving but is also really fun and grows with your child, making it suitable from age two right up to seven- year-olds. The book-shaped device works with LeapStart books (sold separately but you do get one sampler with it). Children use the stylus to read and trigger audio, which works by reading invisible dots on the page. Through this they’ll cover basics like counting, phonics and animals and you can build on your package by buying more books to suit your child’s age and stage of learning. From nursery-level reading to covering specific subjects such as space science and maths, you connect your LeapStart to a laptop, register your device and download the audio companion to the physical book and your child is set to go. It sounds complicated but really isn’t. Then there’s the fact that the LeapStart looks like a laptop or tablet – so kids feel like they’re playing with a grown up toy, which makes it all the more appealing. Another bonus is you can turn the volume down to a non-annoying level or kids can plug in earphones, making it a fantastic travel companion.
2. Primo Toys Cubetto Coding Toy: £195, Amazon
There’s currently a strong educational focus on teaching children coding, and as a result, lots of new toys, apps, and games are available to encourage and assist with this. The Cubetto is a premium product but it’s the best we’ve found, teaching children the basics of coding in a simple, age-appropriate, playful way. Montessori-approved for children aged three and up, it takes coding off screen and into the real world using blocks and a wooden control panel to create programmes. They use these to navigate Cubetto (a little wooden robot) through magical worlds. It does require a bit of adult help for children to get started but they find it fascinating. We think it would be great for primary school children of any age and we loved playing with it too.
3. Lamaze Stacking Starseeker: £24.99, Amazon
Babies love Lamaze toys and this new spaceship has all of the usual bright patterns, textures, crinkling, squeaking noises and teething toys to stimulate the senses that Lamaze is known for. But, it also separates into four parts that baby can stack up, take apart and put back together again, encouraging fine motor skills. It fascinated our baby testers, holding their attention for longer than any alternative toy. Suitable for babies from six months.
4. ELC Little Senses Lights and Sounds Shape Sorter: £20, ELC
Shape sorters promote hand-to-eye coordination and problem-solving skills – they’re one of those toys that every child should have or play with at some point. We love this new one from ELC as the shapes come in a variety of easy-grip textures and make different rewarding noises as well as lighting up when the shape is slotted into the correct hole, all of which stimulate senses for younger babies too. Suitable for ages six months to three years.
5. LeapFrog Scoop & Learn Ice Cream Cart: £39.99, Smyths Toys
Who doesn’t love ice cream? LeapFrog’s popular push-along ice cream cart offers hours of role play fun but also encourages learning with numbers, colours, memory and sequencing skills. Children follow the orders for six animal customers using cards provided, which, when slotted into the till, speak their order and a “magic” ice cream scooper that recognises colours and flavours, naming them as the child scoops. The cart plays sound effects and music when It’s pushed and also has a cute little bell to press when an order is completed. This occupied our young testers for hours. It’s recommended for ages two to five years but we think younger children will also be fascinated by it.
6. Fisher-Price Little People Caring for Animals Farm: £25.99, Smyths Toys
This new Little People play set focuses on developing emotional intelligence. From feeding chickens to placing a blanket over the cow for bedtime, children learn about the importance of kindness and helping others by taking care of the animals on the farm. Developmental points aside, it’s also a great little set-up with lots to do – doors to open, bells to ring, songs and noises which aren’t too loud or annoying to listen to. Our little testers, aged 15 months and three years, both adored it and it was actually big and interactive enough for them to play alongside each other. It folds up for easy storage and requires barely any assembly. Suitable from 12 months.
7. Magformers 26 piece Rainbow Set: £33, AlexandAlexa
These colourful magnetic shapes enable little ones to build constructions, shapes and patterns using their imagination. They encourage independent creativity as well as developing hand-to-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Available in different pack sizes, neon LED sets, with wheels and in various themes, this is a good starter set to then buy add on sets for if required. For ages three upwards, our three- and four-year-old testers were absorbed by Magformers and played in companionable silence for almost 45 minutes – unheard of.
8. Fisher-Price Think & Learn Teach 'n' Tag Movi: £39.99, Smyths Toys
After initially being a little freaked out, our three-year-old tester became obsessed with Movi. For pre-schoolers aged three- to six-years-old he encourages children to follow directions, get moving through games, play and pressing buttons and asks questions to engage critical thinking (for example: “What shape is a ball? Press red for circle or green for square”). Movi’s facial expressions change during play and he can move 360 degrees. He’s educational, entertaining and fun.
9. Melissa & Doug Lacing Beads in a Box: £13.99, John Lewis
This is an excellent product for encouraging motor skills. Threading beads onto string is a milestone development for young children and these come beautifully packaged in a wooden crate. The bright wooden blocks are also excellent for stacking and the numbers and dots make it easy to throw in some casual counting and numbers work. Our mini-tester spent a good amount of time playing with the beads before threading them through the string to make “necklaces”. The only negative is that the box doesn't have a lid, and it’s all too easy for everything to fall out when you’re tidying up. Suitable from age three.
10. Orchard Toys Flashcards: £6.99, Amazon
Recommended for ages three to seven, we actually think these are suitable from around 18 months when children are saying first words and starting to develop their language, number, reading and recognition skills. This pack contains 50 large double-sided flashcard featuring pictures, words and numbers. Our young testers (aged 18 months to four years) enjoyed making games with the flashcards, hiding them around the room and then finding the one the adults named. A great-value, fun and educational product.
11. Baby Clementoni Interactive Football Table: £64.99, Amazon
This is a new toy that will go down well with football fan parents as well as kids. It is an interactive football table that also works as an educational toy teaching numbers through scoring goals and featuring mechanic and electronic activities – they can learn words, songs and nursery rhymes, all in English or Spanish. It develops language skills, hand-to-eye coordination and the understanding of cause and effect. That’s all before little ones use it as an actual football table. Suitable from 18 months.
The Verdict: Best developmental toys
The LeapStart is a cool, fun, educational, interactive toy that kids are desperate to get their hands on. In our opinion, it’s a reasonable price for a great product that sets children up for school-style learning. Lamaze is a great first toy for young babies to stimulate senses and the Primo Cubetto, though pricey, deserves a mention for its clever way of teaching coding without screen time.Reuse content