I have been intrigued by what toys and books engage my two little girls' for years and realized that there are two critical features - being truly open ended and breaking down complex skills into manageable steps. Here is a list of 10 of our favorites.
Open-ended (instead of recipe-based)
Marble runs - These are classic and never grow old.
Balls, bicycles, things that move or help you move
these are truly timeless. A special note for those buying gifts for
girls - it is specially important that you give girls things that move
or fly. Research shows that girls are typically given static toys such
as dolls. Boys on the other hand are given toys that move and so from an
early age they develop a better intuition for forces and motion -
fundamentals of physics and many types of engineering. So please give a
little girl a remote controlled helicopter or car and see her light up!
- With simple magnetic pieces and wheels, you can make an astonishing array of creations.
- This is a board game that teaches children (as young as 3) logical thinking and ostensibly programming. It is hard to start, but once everyone understands all the rules, then it is absolutely addictive and very fun for both the adults and children.
- There are different sets that help you understand architecture from civilizations around the world. Each set comes with a guide that is clearly written by someone who loves architecture and teaching.
Lego education bricks
- Get the open sets with lots of roofs, windows, doors, wheels and motors. The minifigures are also a lot of fun, especially the historical ones
Being open-ended (or constructivist) is such a critical part of being able to engage a child as she grows. This is in contrast to many toys that are popular due to media, but do not truly support a child's creativity.
Breaking down skills into steps (tolerant of failure, start in a sandbox)
The Pocket Paper Engineer by Carol Barton - helps children demystify pop up books.
Ed Emberley's Drawing Books
- break down how to draw an incredible variety of things in the world and give such a sense of fulfillment to children.
The Big Book of Draw by Usborne
Andrew Haslam's books
on Flight, Time, Body, Photography, Japan etc are also good. Not all the projects are open-ended, but they are a start and some of the experiments are very good.
Just remember, don't differentiate between a girl and a boy. Focus on giving them gifts that will develop their curiosity, creativity and persistence. Isn't that important for both girls and boys?