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The Best Toys for Teaching Creative Problem Solving

Toy shopping? Learn how to choose toys that teach creative problem solving.

Choose toys that allow your children to develop critical creative and problem solving skills this holiday season.

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I’m married to a computer scientist, who specializes in artificial intelligence. Thanks to his job, I see just how smart computers are getting. Computers and robots have been taking over human jobs for years. It’s really nice that they can do this! I love that my washing machine washes my clothes. I love the way my Kindle stores many of the books I want to read without my having to make room for them in our home. The internet brings knowledge to our doorstep and allows me to freelance from home instead of working away from my children.

Thanks to artificial intelligence, computers are getting smarter and smarter, but there is one critical human skill that they lack: creativity. And so, if you want your child to thrive in our 21st working marketplace, creativity is one skill that they absolutely must have. If you teach your child one academic skill, teach them the art of creative problem solving.

How do you Teach Creative Problem Solving?

Honestly children do not need any toys to learn creative problem solving. In fact, removing all of their toys is an excellent way to promote creative problem solving in your home. One of my sister’s friends did exactly that a few years ago. Bereft of toys, her daughter stacked a stool on a chair on her toddler bed to retrieve a wooden initial from her wall. She dressed the letter up in her own clothing. Such resourceful problem solving! My sister’s friend brought back the toys.

How do you choose toys that teacher creativity and problem solving? This post has some great tips.

How to Identify Toys that Teach Creative Problem Solving

If you’re going to have toys in your house, let them be educational! Rather than give you a specific list of toys, I’m going to share what I look for in a toy – along with a couple of examples for each section.

Don’t Own Too Many Toys

Confession: I love toys. I would quite happily own and run a hands-on toy museum, where kids could come and play with all of the (high quality) toys in the world. Sometimes I dream of doing exactly that. One of the many things I love about being a mom is that I now have an excuse to own toys.

We have awesome toys, and my kids are really good at making use of them. I know we have crossed over the “too many” line when my kids start to complain about not knowing what to do with their time. I go through and donate a few toys, and suddenly they have plenty of ideas. Too many toys can be overwhelming; they can also make kids feel like they have to use more toys than are really fun to play with. I remember worrying as a child about not giving all of my dolls and stuffed animals receiving equal attention (the toy obsession started young).

Look for Toys That Are Open-Ended

Many of the best creative problem solving toys don’t have a “right way” to play. Instead, children have a range of ways in which they can use the toy. Wooden blocks can be used for building towers, but they also make excellent make-believe cars and pretend food. Play silks can be used to create dress-up outfits, baby doll blankets, and playscapes.

Craft materials are my favorite open-ended toys. My kids LOVE making their own toys out of clay. We use Sculpey clay, but if you aren’t comfortable giving your child art supplies designed for adults Crayola clay and Model Magic make excellent substitutes. Cardboard boxes, paper, markers, tape, and scissors are also favorite crafting materials. I give my children clothes that are too worn out to donate, and they transform those into all sorts of interesting creations.

Buy Toys that Can Be Shared

This is a great idea even if you have an only child. Friends will come over, and your child will benefit from the creative ideas of a friend as they play together. I wrote an entire post about toys that are easy for kids to share if you are looking for recommendations.

Pay Attention to Their Interests

My son adores LEGO sets. Sometimes he builds a set and then takes it apart. Other times he builds a set and uses it as a backdrop for pretend play for months and months. He saves up to buy them with his own money. Last Christmas I decided it was time for him to branch out, so I didn’t get him any LEGO sets. He is an incredibly polite person, so I didn’t hear any complaints, but he also didn’t really play with the toy I got him. I would have done better getting him some sort of resource that would encourage a higher level of LEGO creativity, like this LEGO book.

Structured Toys Have Their Place

As much as I celebrate open-ended toys, structured toys – from LEGO set instructions to board games – play an important role in teaching kids creative problem solving. A LEGO set can show kids how to put pieces together in a way they might not have come up with on their own. Board games teach children to think ahead, plan, and problem solve. Because I believe that we can learn a lot working together, I am a big fan of collaborative board games. Puzzles teach spatial awareness, while creating an atmosphere that promotes quiet reflection and thoughtful discussion. Single player games like Rush Hour and Laser Maze create a similar reflective environment.

What are your favorite ways to teach creative problem solving?

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MaryAnne is a craft loving educator, musician, photographer, and writer who lives in Silicon Valley with her husband Mike and their four children.

7 thoughts on “The Best Toys for Teaching Creative Problem Solving”

  1. I’m especially partial to open ended wooden toys. We got a ton of milage from wooden fruit that can be cut up and a kitchen set for imaginative play. Computerized toys or tablets never seemed to work for my kids. They were immediately bored after using it twice. I like open ended blocks too. Pattern blocks got a lot of milage. Also Magna Tiles. But, at the end of the day, sticks were always an inspiration to go outside and then to build with them. https://www.pragmaticmom.com/2013/08/stick-toys/

  2. Elisa | blissful E

    Oh I agree with this! I’m very grateful too that you wrote what happened with the family that got rid of all their toys! I’ve been tempted to do that, but I think I will stick with having some after all. :)

  3. I think I’m bordering on too many toys. Scratch that I probably already have too many toys, I am having a hard time figuring out what to clear out of the house.

  4. Natalie PlanetSmartyPants

    Too funny. You wrote about creativity as a much needed skill, and I chose critical thinking. We even profiled some of the same games. Great minds think alike :)

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