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Few toys have more play value than blocks. Blocks are versatile. Unlike a toy garage or farm setting, a set of blocks can become whatever your child wishes them to be— a farm one day or a skyscraper the next. They can be enjoyed alone or with a friend. They're also raw material for many kind of hands-on learning that build language and math concepts. As they play with blocks they also play around with symbolic thinking, making one thing stand for something else. This kind of thinking is a giant intellectual step taking the child closer to using more abstract symbols like words and numbers. Instead of asking what can this toy do...block invite kids to ask themselves...what can they do with these blocks today. Adding scaled to size vehicles, animals, and family figures will greatly enhance their block play.

There are all kinds of choices for different kinds of block play. Here are some of our favorites.

Lakeshore Wooden Blocks Starter Set

(Lakeshore $299)

These are the kind of quality wooden unit blocks that you'll find in a good nursery school. The hardwood is smooth and splinter free and the Starter Set with 108 pieces in 14 shapes offer children years of playful learning. Unit blocks are scaled to each other, so, for example, two squares will equal a rectangle, two triangles will equal a square or rectangle. (A little built-in math that they gain as they learn about symmetry and the need for adding one more and one less.) Ideally, a set should have enough blocks and shapes that kids can create a variety of structures and this one does exactly that. Although a set of hardwood blocks can be pricey, it's an investment that provides years of play value as children’s construction become ever more complex. Your young three-year old will start by building horizontally, long “trains” of block roadways. Before long they’ll be making enclosures and eventually vertical structures. Bridges, farms, forts, skyscrapers, whole cities laced with train tracks and more. For future birthdays and holiday, add more shapes and props. Unlike the licensed toys that go out of date every season, these have no season. Think of this set as an heirloom toy - for your children and maybe your grandchildren.

For less costly blocks consider a set of Lakeshore Soft Unit Blocks ($139) Foam blocks are a less pricey alternative to hardwood blocks. With this set you get the same number of pieces (108) and shapes (14) as the hardwood set and it’s less than half the price. These are made of dense foam and come in assorted colors. They also have an added plus of being a lot quieter than wooden blocks. Some purists will find the colors distracting, although it’s doubtful that children will be bothered.

Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal Award 2018

Fisher-Price Mega Bloks

(Fisher-Price $21.99)

For toddlers and preschoolers this bag of 80 colorful pegged blocks is a basic. It will take some learning time to figure out how to fit the pegs together and take them apart. They are marked for ones and up, but few (if any) one-year-olds have the dexterity make these fit together. This calls for eye hand coordination and fine motor skills. Toddlers will like the sheer number of pieces in the zippered storage bag. They are great fun to spill and dump. You’ll need to demo how they fit together. For older toddlers we like the opened ended-ness of this generous set with single and double pegged block of red, green, yellow blue and purple. These are easiest to use for horizontal stacking and fun to use together to see how tall they can go before they go

ka-boom or play a game by making some stacks together and connect them to make an arch a toy car can roll through. Or build some towers and play at knocking them over with a ball. These are all fun games with repetition that toddlers love. Marked for 1+, we’d say the sweet spot is more like older twos who have the skill to put them together.

Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal Award 2018

Petit Collage Safari Jumble Wooden Puzzle + Play

(Petit Collage $36.00) Nine jungle animals in natural beech wood come in a puzzle tray with images so pieces can be turned to match and fit into their space. That's just the puzzle part of this versatile toy. Preschoolers will use them with their blocks for pretend play or find ways to stack or line them up. A handsome set of props.

Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal Award 2018

LEGO Creator Modular Skate House

(LEGO Systems $39.99) LEGO is the granddaddy of all the construction sets. No one compares in the genius of their instruction booklets (believe us - we've looked at them all). The idea here is to find a theme that interests your child and buy the SMALLEST set to start them off. You want to build their sense of confidence about what they can build -- not watch you build their set. Starting with a smaller build will help them feel more accomplished. Let them grow into more elaborate sets. We love that there are sets that appeal to both boys and girls. The Modular Skate House is a fun new set with both a girl and boy skater -- but we encourage you to find the one that gets your child excited to build!

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