Toys build brain powerShh! Don’t tell the kids, but play, like leafy green veggies and reasonable bedtimes, is good for them. While they’re busy constructing Lego® castles and hosting tea parties for teddy bears, they’re building brain power, too. But which toys build which skills? This guide breaks it down for you, matching the brain-boosting power of toys with the skills they teach.

Imagination & Creativity

What do dress-up, finger painting, and action figures have in common? While your child is pretending to be a vet, painting her latest masterpiece, or telling a story using action figures, she’s thinking creatively, solving problems, and using her imagination—skills important for learning to read, write, and do math. Children can get creative with toys like these:

  • Puppets, dolls, and action figures
  • Coloring and sticker books, art supplies, and craft kits
  • Clothes and props for pretend play (dollhouses, playhouses, plastic food, toy 
vehicles, etc.)
  • Blocks and construction sets
  • Musical instruments

For younger children: Try age-appropriate versions of the toys listed above, including toys like Duplo® blocks, bathtub crayons, and magnetic doodle toys.

Critical Thinking

Doesn’t everybody think? Critical thinking means a person can analyze and evaluate a problem—and then solve it. Sounds complicated, yet your child does it every time he puts on his thinking cap to answer a riddle or make a move in a game of chess or  checkers. It’s the same type of thinking he’ll use to solve math problems or decipher unfamiliar words while he reads. Toys that encourage him to use logic, explore cause and effect, or experiment with different solutions to 
problems all teach critical thinking skills. Some examples include:

  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Brainteasers and logic puzzles
  • Strategy and guessing games like Clue, Chinese checkers, and Guess Who?
  • Marble runs and other construction toys
  • Science kits and chemistry sets

For younger children: Try shape sorters, nesting and stacking toys, and busy boxes.

Reading & Writing

When it comes to building language skills, reading storybooks to your child is the most obvious choice. But would you believe a jump rope or CD of silly songs helps, too? Any type of play that encourages your child to talk, or play with letters and words (like chanting jump-rope rhymes or singing songs) helps her learn how language works. Here are some more ideas to try.

  • Puzzle books
  • Toy microphones
  • Costumes and props for putting on plays
  • Magnetic letters and poetry kits
  • Word games like Bananagrams or Scrabble Junior.

For younger children: Try alphabet blocks, puppets, playsets (such as farm, airport, garage) and toy telephones.


Many toys and games have math built right in. Remember, counting and working with numbers are just two small parts of learning math. Toys that teach your child to handle money, create patterns, compare sizes, or require him to calculate the score all teach math skills. Some examples of toys with built-in math boosts include:

  • Domino and dice games
  • Toys and games using shapes, like tangrams or Perfection
  • Games encouraging money-counting skills, like Monopoly and Payday
  • Card games like Go Fish to teach number recognition, and UNO for score-keeping
  • Blocks and other construction toys

For younger children: Try shape sorters, stacking and nesting toys, wooden beads, and number blocks.

Barbara A. Tyler is a freelance writer specializing in family fun, fitness, and education.