Construction Toys and Building Blocks for Toddlers and Preschoolers

Young boy playing with a traditional building blocks set. Photo © Monika Adamczyk.

Construction toys suited to children of all ages and tastes create powerful, imaginative and creative play experiences. Building toys are true, non-gender specific toys, though toy makers have created some specialty toys for both boys and girls.

What do I mean by construction toys? Construction toys are toys that usually come in sets, and are used to make things. Traditionally, construction toys have included simple building blocks, alphabet blocks, Legos, and erector sets, but modern construction toys come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and are built from many different materials.

Alphabet blocks have a consistent, small size that is easy for toddlers to manipulate. Photo © Jaimie Duplass.

"Play is the work of children. It's very serious stuff."

—Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo) 

Why Construction Toys?

At any age, construction toys can provide hours of stimulating, old-fashioned, non-battery-operated fun that offer these additional benefits:

Benefits of Construction Toys

  • Construction toys appeal to a wide range of ages, so they make a good investment over time. Kids don't grow out of them.
  • They appeal to children of different ages. My 11-year old continues to enjoy playing blocks with her 2-year old brother.
  • They are great for grandparents to keep on hand for grandchildren because they won't be quickly outgrown.
  • They require physical manipulation.
  • Most construction toys don't require expensive batteries.
  • They use imagination and problem solving skills.
  • They can be used over and over.
  • They aren't gender-specific.
  • They can be used in imaginitive play and cross over into play with other toy sets. For example, my children use blocks to construct houses for their Littlest Pet Shop and Little People figures.
  • You can collect multiple sets or purchase a basic set and then add to it over the years. We have done this with my son's wooden train tracks.
  • The durability, usually low levels of packaging, and long-term aspects of these toys make them an environmentally sound alternative to toys that will be used a few times and thrown away or donated when the batteries die.

Giant foam blocks are easy for toddlers to manipulate and they come in a variety of appealing shapes and colors.
Giant foam blocks are easy for toddlers to manipulate and they come in a variety of appealing shapes and colors.
Alphabet blocks are a popular time-tested choice for older toddlers. Check for paint toxicity.
Alphabet blocks are a popular time-tested choice for older toddlers. Check for paint toxicity.
This young toddler is playing with giant building blocks (larger than Lego Duplo or Megabloks).
This young toddler is playing with giant building blocks (larger than Lego Duplo or Megabloks).

Photo © Jose Manuel Gelpi

Construction Toys for Toddlers (Ages 1 to 3)

Toddlers are exploring their world. Children of this age are drawn to bright and colorful toys in larger sizes that are easy to handle. Safety is a concern for toddlers, for whom the smaller classic-sized Lego toys and other building sets designed for older children are a choking hazard. Construction toys for toddlers should be easy to stack or link because it is unusual for toddlers to develop sophisticated small motor skills until after age three.

Toy-Buying for Toddlers

  • Look for construction sets that are bright and colorful
  • Avoid small pieces and choking hazards.
  • Look for large sizes and different shapes that are easy to stack and snap together.
  • Exploration is an important part of play. Giant foam blocks can be used as part of parent-child play. Imagine building a fort or a castle with blocks that are as big as your child!
  • Young children may be prone to throwing wooden blocks. You might want to avoid wooden blocks if you have a toddler in the temper-tantrum stage who has innocent bystander siblings.
  • Buy basic sets that you can build up over time.
  • Buy construction sets for toddlers mader from washable materials. For example, plastic Duplo-type toys can be washed in the dishwasher or sterilized in a sink full hot soapy water that has a few drops of bleach in it. This is an important consideration for toddlers who often put toys in their mouths.

Foam Stacking Blocks

Foam stacking blocks come in a variety of shapes and colors. Foam stacking blocks come in large and super-size! They are lightweight and versatile, and can even go into the bath. Active play with foam blocks doesn't pose the same safety concerns that wooden blocks do. Foam blocks are excellent choices for older siblings who have younger baby brothers and sisters.

Oversized jumbo foam blocks can be used to make forts and castles and can be used in other imaginative play.

Alphabet Blocks

Most alphabet blocks are still made with wood and are an appealing alternative to the battery-operated, button pushing musical toys on the market for toddlers. Sold in a variety of colors and alphabets, you can purchase alphabet blocks with both lowercase and uppercase letters. Most alphabet blocks also have pictures printed on them. Alphabet blocks are available in different languages. You can also purchase alphabet blocks in Hebrew, Greek, Spanish, German, Russian letters.

Remember the 2007 Chinese Toy Paint scandal? Look for blocks that use non-toxic paint, or even blocks that are unpainted, but instead carved (these are very special, think silver spoons).

Mega Bloks

Megabloks is a super-size brick building block system with interlocking pieces. The benefit of these blocks is that they are about three times the size of "normal" Legos so toddlers won't choke on them. Megabloks come in an affordable 200-piece duffle bag set that is quite a bit cheaper than the Lego Duplo system. Mega Bloks founders use an enhanced production method that reduced the cost of making the toys and this toy manufacturer has passed its lower production onto the customer. Mega Bloks has emerged from being considered an off-brand maker of Lego blocks to Lego's major rival, and is headquartered in Canada. Mega Bloks Inc. also features smaller sized building bricks that are exactly the same shape and size of standard Legos.

Lego Duplo

Building bricks made by the Lego company especially for toddlers through age 5 are marketed under the Lego Duplo name. These toddler-friendly building bricks are about three-times the size of the Lego blocks sold to the age 6 and up crowd. Lego Duplos are sold in large buckets, but since the toy bricks are larger than regular Lego blocks, the bulk buckets feature fewer bricks. Lego Duplo also creates specialty sets marketed to different age groups, including sets that are marked for ages 11/2 to 5 and sets that are created for ages 3 to 6. Be sure to check age recommendations on these specialty sets to avoid choking hazards with youngsters. Some of the toddler-themed accessory sets with posable figures feature characters such as Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine. Other specialty sets feature community helpers and toddler-friendly themes Lego Duplo Fire Station, and Lego Duplo Farm.

Construction Toys for Preschoolers

Bristle blocks can be assembled like Legos but are easier to manipulate.
Bristle blocks can be assembled like Legos but are easier to manipulate.

Construction Toys for Preschoolers (Ages 3-5)

Preschool-aged children have generally moved beyond the oral stage so choking isn't as much of a hazard. Children at this age are developing their fine-level motor skills and their play is inclusive of other children and includes a strong imaginative element. Kids will often use their construction toys as part of an imaginary play schema that includes figurines, matchbox cars, and even plastic dinosaurs!

Toys for Preschoolers

  • Look for construction sets such as Step 2 Wooden Building Blocks that include figurines.
  • Look for a wide assortment of geometric shapes and sizes, including arches and domes.
  • Wooden and plastic toys are ok at this age.
  • Begin building Lego collections at this age with good basic building blocks, bases, and basic brick shapes.

Bristle Blocks and Krinkles by Battat

Bristle blocks are unusual building blocks that are covered with tiny bristles that interlock at virtually any angle. These blocks come in many shapes and colors. The 300-piece deluxe set comes in primary reds, yellows, and blues, while another version marketed by Parents Magazine at Target is in more muted pastels.

Krinkles, also by Battat appear very similar to Bristle Blocks and come in a set of 113 different blocks in different geometric shapes and also include figurines imaginative play.

Wooden Building Blocks

Basic building blocks come in assorted shapes and sizes to stretch children's imaginations. At this age, children can play for hours building castles, forts, and any building they can imagine. Children often will build cities for toy cars.

Wooden building blocks are much less of a safety threat at this age since most children have outgrown the throwing blocks at siblings' head stage of childhood by now.

Building blocks come in a basic assortment of cylinders, cubes, and specialty shape. You can buy large 100+ sets of non-toxic unpainted wood blocks from KAPLA, HAPA, Melissa and Doug, and other toy manufacturers. You can supplement your building blocks with wooden door knobs and other interesting found wood objects like wooden sewing spools.

To save money, look for these toys in thrift shops, garage sales, and estate sales.

Wooden Block Specialty Sets

When you are ready to add on to a basic set of wood building blocks, consider adding an architectural set. A Russian or Middle Eastern architectural set adds graceful curves to your child's fanciful creations. These sets usually come with pillars and curved domes, or specialty pieces for castles with play figurines. Expect to pay a bit more for these special interest sets.

Gears

The Gears line of building toys was created by Italian toymaker Quercetti, who in recent years has had more success marketing the toys over the internet. These toys are marketed to a 5 and up age group, because they have many small pieces which are choking hazards. These toys are very interchangeable and come with interlocking peg-board shapes that can form a 2-D base or 3-D cubes, mounting pegs (these are the choking hazards) which fit into the base pieces, and the gears, which fit on the mounting pegs. Additional small accessories help expand the gears into a complex building toy set that can be used to make complex creations. The Quercetti gears are quite difficult to find but I still occasionally see them at close-out stores. They come in a variety of colors and some of them glow in the dark.

My friend's 3-year old son Alex, discovered our collection of gears and spent two hours in fascinated wonder sorting, categorizing, and building gears creations. These are becoming increasingly difficult to find, but appeal to youngsters with mechanical minds.

Lincoln Logs

Lincoln logs are log-shaped blocks that interlock via notches at either end and can be used to build log cabins and buildings of various sizes. Lincoln Logs were first designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and later marketed in the 1950s to the parents of the Baby Boomer generation, which makes this construction toy a popular choice of Baby Boomer grandparents who remember playing with these toys when they were children. Lincoln Logs is both a brand name and a generic name for log-shaped toy blocks.

For such simple-looking toys, Lincoln logs really stretch a person's problem-solving skills. Try building a large cabin with windows, porch, a doorway, and a pitched roof!

The newly updated play sets now come with plastic roofs and other upgrades not previously found in the basic Lincoln Logs Toys. We found a recent set at a thrift store with over 100 pieces. The set came in a sturdy wooden box with a slide-in lid. The box is on wheels and can be toted around using the pull-string handle. My small children, ages 2, 4, and 6, enjoy building cabins with me.

© Joanna Szycik - Fotolia.com 

Other Toy and Game Reviews by Wannabwestern

Legos

Legos have arguably become the poster child for building toys. These small, interlocking bricks have been made almost since the invention of plastic. Legos come in a three sizes.

Legos can be purchased in bulk or in specialty sets that come in many different themes. The bulk sets are better for children in the 4 to 8 year old range. At this age it's difficult for kids to keep track of specialty pieces. In fact, many parents shy away from purchasing Legos because the pieces tend to show up in some strange places (like in the washing machine or the bottom of a cereal bowl). I think that is a mistake, because Legos can provide hours of stimulating fun for kids.

Legos can be purchased in many different specialty sets, on a variety of themes, including a Star Wars. These sets are sold at different price points and marketed to different age groups. Legos designed for preteens and teenagers sometimes have hundreds of specialized small pieces, and are more like models than toys. These sets offer the Lego play that preteens may have enjoyed at an earlier age with a collectible aspect that appeals to teens and preteens.

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Comments 4 comments

Humma 5 years ago

Imagination is magicial! From wooden building blocks,legos, duplo or foam give it to a child and they begin a never-ending journey of buiding, creating, inventing and imagination.


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Beelady 5 years ago

I think it is very important that you stress the importance of using construction toys to support other play activities. Many adults seem to be afraid of encouraging children to 'mix things up' largely I suspect because of the mess it can create. However, in this way children learn to transfer ideas and skills from one area to another.


htodd profile image

htodd 5 years ago from United States

Thanks for the post!


hanwillingham profile image

hanwillingham 5 years ago

All toddlers must play with this type of toys.

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