Inside: A minimalist mom of five shares the top seven types of toys that have the most potential for inspiring quality imaginative play, based on twelve years of parenting. Complete with a discussion about what actually makes minimalist toys, well, “minimalist”.
Every parent wants the secret to better play.
But you know what? There are no magical toys that will solve all your parenting problems, not even “minimalist” ones.
Building a quality minimalist toy collection can certainly help. But ultimately, toys fall short in a lot of ways.
Kids still need regular interaction with other children of various ages and caring adults, books galore that will likely need to be read to them for years, changes of environment, nature and yes, dare I say it, screens.
Toys are just one piece of childhood, and are far from the most important one, as much as Toy Story (and toy companies) wants us to believe otherwise.
What Makes a Toy “Minimalist”, Anyway?
It’s a good question, and anyone who has anything toys – brands, parents, educators – has a slightly different answer.
In the toy brand world, I’m pretty sure they think “minimalist” means wooden or muted colors. They’ve caught on to the trendy “minimalist” term parents are loving and are trying their best to present toys that fit that definition.
To others, minimalist toys are sustainable and eco-friendly – not plastic junk that are quickly forgotten and take years to break down. For me, this is definitely a factor, but not the only factor (we wouldn’t have LEGOs if this was the only factor).
In the world of parenting experts and influencers, minimalist toys seem to be toys that involve a lot of imagination, ones that require being acted upon instead of listened to or interacted with. And another key selling point for this group is if it offers “hours of screen-free entertainment”, a selling point I do not love because I don’t think screens are bad.
This rules out a ton of electronic toys and pretty much any toy that makes noise (why, oh why, do grandparents love to give these?!).
But even with all these definitions trying to say what is and what is not a minimalist toy, I’ll let you in on a little secret: there really aren’t toys that are definitively “minimalist” or not minimalist, as fellow minimalist blogger Rachelle says so well in THIS article.
You could have the most “minimalist” toy in the world (I’m looking at you wooden blocks), but if your kids don’t play with them, or your collection is constantly a mess on your playroom floor, requiring hours of clean up, it doesn’t really matter how minimalist they are.
Even so-called “minimalist toys” can end up being clutter.
7 Types of Minimalist Toys that Will Last for Years (with recommendations)
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This list represents our current toy collection (minus random grandparent gifts). And we are pretty much done with buying our kids toys.
We might swap out an old puzzle for a new one, replace a broken scooter or buy new art supplies when the old ones run out, but for five kids, this is a healthy “enough”.
We also keep about half of the toys put away on a regular basis and rotate toys in and out.
Most of these toys grow with your child, and can last through the end of their “toy years”.
Side Note: Although I didn’t include our Nintendo Switch or iPad here, you could probably make a good case for them being “minimalist toys” (despite the noise) simply because they require no clean-up, take up very little space and offers hours of creative – and even educational – play.
1. Building Toys
The best part about building toys is that they have the potential to be open-ended. They are designed to inspire hours of creative play.
Noticed I said “potential to be. Sets and directions tend to stifle the creativity a bit.
While there will always be the child who prefers to build and rebuild LEGO sets, carefully following the directions from start to finish, if you’re just starting out with building toys, try to keep them as open-ended as possible for as long as possible.
LEGO Assorted Bricks
LEGO sells just assorted bricks in several size boxes. I would recommend the largest box with 1500 pieces, especially if you have multiple kids who will be playing with them together.
Make sure to grab a platform or two, and people as well!
We happened to inherit a ton of LEGO from my younger brother, so these we will likely keep long-term.
There are also two assorted boxes of Duplo bricks, and if you’re starting out, I recommend the biggest assorted set with 85 Duplo bricks.
This set comes with people, and you can purchase Duplo platforms separately.
I do confess, however, that I have a fondness in my heart (probably more than my kids do) for the animals we’ve accumulated over the years from adding onto this set. So add on as you see fit!
These were a great addition to our building toys collection. We purchased THIS set first, as a Christmas gift years ago now.
We quickly realized that with four kids who wanted to build at the same time, one set wasn’t enough for our large family. So we quickly acquired a set second-hand via Facebook Marketplace.
Finally, we added on this set of unique pieces to complete our collection.
Everyone enjoys playing with these age 11 down to 2 (watch for marbles in mouths, however) – so long as they are kept fresh via our simple toy rotation.
2. Dress-Up Accessories
When you’re building a dress-up collection, make sure to build it with pieces, not character costumes, if you want it to last as long as possible and offer maximum creative play potential.
If your kids are really into characters, that’s fine. Just know that if you get the costumes, they can quickly grow out of them. Try getting them just the mask, or just the accessories for that character.
What do I mean by “pieces”? Here are some possibilities…
Hats & Masks
- Top Hat
- Superhero Capes & Masks
- Construction Hat
- Cowboy Hat
I can’t express what a wonderful addition these were to our dress-up collection. The kids use them for EVERYTHING – capes, dresses, “hair”, spinning.
We bought a non-silk version like THIS set of five, and I’m glad I did because they’ve taken a serious beating. I also read that the actual silk ones rip easily.
The sky’s the limit here. You can add several versatile pieces like:
- Stethoscope (a real one, not the toy)
- Wands (they each have a Harry Potter wands – THESE ones)
Bottom line? Mix it up with lots of different pieces, leaving room for creativity and imagination, and you’ll build a “minimalist” dress-up collection that will last for years.
3. Active Toys
I think we can all agree that any toy that gets kids to MOVE is a good toy. Can I get an “amen”?!
But as with anything else, it is possible to overdo it or to buy active toys that don’t actually get used.
Here are the “active” toys my kids actually use:
We love our bikes and scooters, although we use them less now that we’ve moved, simply because our driveway isn’t in great shape.
Razor scooters are cheap and easy to fold up and transport (if you keep them rust-free).
We love the Strider bike for helping little kids learn how to ride bikes and never need training wheels when they transition to big bikes.
Almost every kind of ball inspires activity, but if I had to choose one, I’d choose the average ball you can find at any supermarket.
Again, it can be used multiples ways in multiple spaces. Those kinds of balls can be played with inside or out the house.
We have few different bouncy balls for inside the house or using at the pool or outside.
We also keep permanently outside:
- soccer balls,
- wiffle balls,
- baseballs, and
- tennis balls.
This was a 2021 Christmas gift, and it was definitely worth the investment.
- use it as a see-saw with one kid on each end,
- flip it over and jump off of it,
- use it with pretend play and hide people under it,
- rock back and forth on it,
- turn it on it’s side and hide behind it
- use is as a mini slide
So many options (versatility is a key trait of minimalist toys). We got the 36 inch board that can support more than 250 lbs., so everyone in the family can use it, even the adults.
The one we bought is currently unavailable, but THIS one looks even better, a similar size that claims to support up to 450 lbs!
I’m pretty sure no one in my generation grew up with a trampoline, but now they’re a staple in suburban and rural backyards. If you have kids, you have probably at least considered buying one or already did.
They are pretty awesome for getting kids (and parents, too) blood flowing and heart pumping in a fun way!
We love our outdoor trampoline so much, I will likely get THIS indoor trampoline to make it through the long winters with our sanity intact.
4. Art/Creative Supplies
We probably invest most of our “toy” money in this category. I realize it’s not necessarily a toy, but it functions SO much better than the average toy from Target, trust me.
The key is to keep the art supplies easily accessible, so kids can feel free to pull them out anytime.
Bonus points if you have a separate table to dedicate exclusively to art.
This is where grabbing an extra free or super cheap kitchen table or coffee table is perfect. Since we moved into a bigger house and have a separate table for art, it is SO much less stressful for me.
And we can eat at the kitchen table again. Hallelujah!
If you’re just starting out with art supplies, here’s what we use the most:
Watercolors are relatively easy to use.
We like THIS set of 36 colors. If kids want to graduate to a more professional version later one, they can.
Books can be helpful for older children, too.
We appreciated Watercolor With Me In the Forest, which is part of a series with two more books.
Clay or Homemade Playdough
We love THIS homemade playdough recipe, and it lasts so much longer than store-bought playdough. Add a simple set of playdough tools, and you’re good to go.
As kids get older, they might appreciate clay. We recently purchased THIS clay and hope it will see a lot of use when combined with Stop Motion this winter.
Sharpies or Colored Pencils
Most of my kids prefer sharpies, but colored pencils can also work.
Crayons just never got a lot of use in our home and broke quickly.
Plain Paper – Printer and Multipurpose
We have two types of paper:
- Amazon Basic Printer Paper
- Mixed Media Paper
That’s pretty much all you really need!
Puzzles are the perfect solitary or group activity for long winter months.
The Baylor College of Medicine claims they have great health benefits, too!
“The act of putting the pieces of a puzzle together requires concentration and improves short-term memory and problem solving” (source).Baylor College of Medicine
If you are choosing puzzles for small children, wooden sets like THESE are a great investment and can last for years. The wooden case with compartment helps keep it organized.
We had a similar set with Disney show characters that last 5-6 years.
For older children, pretty much any thrift store will have puzzles on sale for $0.99 each.
Just be sure to count the pieces before you buy a second-hand puzzle because there’s nothing worse than a puzzle you can’t finish, right?
6. Board Games & Card Games
There is something for everyone when it comes to board and card games.
If you’re into short games (less than 30 minutes to play), I recommend:
It can feel like hit or miss when you’re collecting board games because every family and every child is different.
Collect them slowly over time, and don’t be afraid to let go of the ones you don’t end up using. Pass it along to another family who will be happy to give it a try!
Our most-played games that take more time to play include…
- Ticket to Ride
- Settlers of Cataan
7. Pretend Play or Role-Playing Toys
Pretend play and role-playing toys are usually anything you can use to role play.
- Little People
- Rainbow Dolls
- Stuffed Animals
We don’t have a lot of these types of toys in our home at any on time, but over the years, we’ve rotated them in and out.
At times, we’ve overlapped this category with building toys as LEGO and Duplo blocks usually include miniature people and animals.
I’d highly recommend choosing just one thing from this category. If you are tight on space, let LEGO handle this one.
I try to choose stuffed animals that do not have a sound box. That way you can easily wash them regularly because: kids.
Don’t go stuffed animal crazy though. Each of my kids has 2-3 stuffed animals a piece, and they put on puppet shows and pretend play with them.
Wooden Rainbows & People
In January, we got rainbow blocks with rainbow wooden peg dolls as a birthday gift for my youngest child, mostly because I was curious. I see them in so many homes on Instagram – surely they must be a good toy, right?
So do they really inspire pretend play mom bloggers rave about? Mmmm…somewhat.
I wasn’t super impressed. They’ve been a fun toy to have around, and my kids do use them.
But they aren’t magical.
We bought the knock-off brand, and I’m glad we did because my boys are crazy. We’ve glued three back together so far.
We’ve had a few different variations of these over the years.
Actual name brand “Little People”, complete with a house for them. Then Playskool Knights with Castles.
Character sets related to certain movies like Inside Out or Despicable Me (these were not my favorite, but other people purchase them for our kids, so what can I say).
My kids typically use them with the Magnatiles for pretend play.
One wasn’t necessarily better than the other. We did give away the Little People set when my oldest outgrew them, and while we do still have the knights and castles, my kids are definitely outgrowing them as well.
My youngest doesn’t seem attached at this point, so long-term, we will probably stick with the rainbow people, plus the people and animals that come with LEGO and Duplo, for simplicity’s sake.
For baby dolls, I try to stick to dolls that can be put through the gentle cycle of the washing machine. We asked for THIS doll for Christmas, and it’s been my toddler’s favorite companion for the past few months.
Sometimes extra clothes can be great…a lot of the time, though, they’re just more stuff. Some kids get really into changing doll clothes into different outfits all day long.
It’s a judgement call.
Personally, we never dipped our toes into Barbie’s, although my oldest did request a few for Christmas last year. They sat on the shelf.
Her American Girl type Target doll saw a little more use, especially when it came to brushing and styling her hair. But I probably wouldn’t buy it again for my youngest daughter.
If You Really Want to Go Minimalist With Your Toys
I’ll never forget hearing the story of Ruth Soukup taking her kids’ toys away.
She got A LOT of negative feedback from that article. People were horrified that her kids were denied playing with toys, even if it was temporary.
But guess what? Her kids adjusted. They found out life without toys wasn’t that bad.
They colored (so I guess she didn’t take them all away, technically), played outside in nature and with cardboard boxes.
And they didn’t really mind having less to clean up.
We’ve been trained to believe by society in general that kids need toys. But when you see kids in other countries playing with so little and being grateful for what they have, it makes you reconsider having even a modest minimalist toy collection.
I’m not saying you need to take your kids toys away.
But it’s definitely something to consider, especially if you’re starting a toy collection from scratch. It’s much easier to slowly add things, one at a time, than to need to do a massive toy declutter later.
Less is definitely more.
Read Next: The Best Way to Declutter Toys