With three kids, toys are not hard to come by in our apartment. However, there are only a handful of toys that entertain a special needs 11-year-old, an almost-3-year-old and a 16-month-old in equal measure. When we see the kids playing with one of the toys on this list, my husband and I will often say to each other. “We really got our money’s worth out of that one,” to which the other usually responds, “and then some.” Several of the toys on this list cost less than $10, but in order to be on the Top 10 you can be sure that they have worked some serious overtime.
All of the toys listed below meet the following criteria: 1) They are played with at least 3 times per week. 2) They entertain all three children, together or separately. 3) We have made the “money’s worth” comment at least once.
1. Duplos: Not Legos. With his limited fine motor skills, James prefers the larger sized Duplos, which works well with toddlers in the house. We have a few big duplo bases and 2 buckets of blocks. The kids play with these almost every day, and can keep busy building for an hour (a long time in Mommyland). They are easy to clean and practically indestructible. And, they can be fun for adults too, so the potential for quality family time is an extra bonus. Yes, they can be a little expensive—want an expert tip? Try eBay (we have struck gold there)!
2. Discovery marble maze. I know that marbles and 16-month-olds don’t generally mix, but with proper supervision this toy entertains all three of my kids for hours. To keep them out of each other’s hair (the baby can really “Godzilla” the marble towers) I usually build three separate mazes, individually tailored for ability (and height). It’s not as hard as it sounds; each maze takes less than five minutes to put together, and what’s 15 minutes when you’re talking about hours of fun? Again, sets can be expensive. Same tip: try eBay before purchasing new.
3. Balls. My children are not ball snobs—any ball will do. I think they might be partial to balls that bounce (especially if we’re somewhere inappropriate like the doctor’s office), but size doesn’t matter. One of our current games is taking cardboard boxes of various sizes and lobbing lots of balls across the living room into them. Kind of like a loose, giggly version of beanbag toss.
4. Leapfrog Fridge DJ. We spent $7.99 on this item two Christmases ago and it’s still a daily-use item. The magnetic radio sticks to the fridge and plays about 15 songs in 3 categories: numbers, letters and classics. Most of the songs are now in our daily repertoire and it isn’t uncommon to catch someone in there jamming to “Birdie, Bye Bye.” Yes, including James.
5. Hot Wheels retractable race track. Got this for less than $20 for James’s birthday 3 years ago, still going strong. The racetrack rolls in and out like a tape measure with two tracks, so no big race track all over your little Manhattan apartment. It works with most Hot Wheel type cars, doesn’t require batteries, and can extend 12″ or 4 feet depending on who is playing. Best part, IMO? There are little flags at the end of each track that indicate the winner, which really cuts down on the “I won!” “No, I won!” arguments.
6. Crayola Dry Erase Crayons. These have been used and cleaned up successfully on dry erase surfaces, car and house windows, highchairs and subways (seats and windows). No joke. At less than $7 do I really need to continue?
7. Train table. After reading a lot of reviews and doing some serious price shopping, we settled on the Imaginarium brand, but there are lots of nice options out there. The Imaginarium City Train Table takes up a lot of space (around 3X5) and at $140 it was our most pricey purchase on this list, but since Christmas the kids have logged at least 100 hours on this thing (remember, I’m not exaggerating numbers this year). The set includes a bunch of cool pieces like a crane, bridge, train station, and tunnel, all with cool sound effects. It comes with a couple of trains but is also compatible with Brio, Thomas and generic wooden trains. So we’re at a cost of $1.40 per play hour so far—at this rate it won’t be long until the thing pays for itself.
8. Little Tykes indoor “fold away” playground (folds up for compact storage, New Yorkers!). With a toddler-sized slide and steps it is perfect for my younger two. Add in the mini basketball and soccer net and James can join in their fun. Great, amazing fun for rainy, cold days (or weeks). Easy to put away, fits into our foyer when open. Paid around $99, worth every penny.
9. Fisher Price toy laptop – “Fun to Learn.” I can’t say that the Fisher Price brand is better than any of the other toy laptops out there right now, but for the last 3 years it has captivated all of my children in one way or another. There are a variety of skill levels so that my 16-month-old can play tunes, my 2-year-old can work on phonics, and my 11-year-old can try out math games with a “mouse.” No, not at the same time.
10. Nintendo action figures. Random, but surprisingly successful, these little characters have been carried continuously by one child or another for the last 6 months, and if they get lost we actually have to take the time and look for them. We have collected Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi and Toad so far—they run around $8 for a pack of 2. Two of my children are sleeping with one in hand right now.