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17 Toys that Occupy Kids the Longest, According to Their Parents

published Oct 15, 2020
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We love our little ones with every molecule of our being, we savor the one-on-one time, but sometimes we just want five (or 50) minutes of peace. And those are the times when we’re deeply, eternally grateful for the toys that not only grab our kids’ attention, but also hold it. 

There’s seriously no need to feel bad about it. “A toy that can give parents a moment of peace is a worthwhile investment. Kids discover the world and learn about themselves and others through play,” says Lindsay Powers, author of You Can’t F*ck Up Your Kids: A Judgment-Free Guide to Stress-Free Parenting and mom of 7- and 4 1/2-year-old sons. 

So engrossing toys are a definite win-win. We asked moms and dads for the play things that always get the job done. Consider these a half hour for yourself, found.

The Baby and Toddler Years (0-2)

At the baby stage, keeping them occupied means keeping them safe and engaged so you can buy yourself a few minutes to check email. Take it from a mom trying to manage a staff from home while caring for an infant: You want a Jumperoo. “Back at the beginning of quarantine when Rose was around six months old, she spent a lot of time in the Jumperoo, a.k.a. the ring of neglect,” says Christine Mattheis Allyn, editorial director of and mom of now one-year-old Rose. Activity jumpers like the Rain Forest Jumperoo stimulate the growing brain, help build leg strength and hand-eye coordination, and are just plain fun. (You still need to keep an eye on baby in it, naturally, but luckily parents rock at doing 10 things at once.)

Discovering Duplos was a game-changer for Jaime Harkin, an editor and mom in Inwood, New York. “Nico is 2 1/2, so hardly anything holds his attention but this was the first toy to do it. They’re the perfect size for him—more engaging than the Mega Blocks and not dangerously tiny like the regular LEGO sets.” While she plays too sometimes (“I hook up a mean submarine town!”), Harkin most appreciates that they occupy her son when she can’t. “During lockdown he would sit by himself and build, doing that adorable thing toddlers do when they quietly talk to themselves while playing alone.” Duplos and other LEGO-like blocks are more than fun and games: They build motor skills and encourage pretend play.

The thrill of rolling out Play-Doh never gets old—even though the toy is almost three-quarters-of-a-century old. And the obsession starts young, according to the dad of an obsessed 2-year-old. “Ivy wakes up in the morning asking to play ‘pee-doh’—Play-Doh. It keeps her totally occupied, especially with the little tools like the rolling pin,” says John-Paul Pagano, an IT consultant in the New York area. (Play-Doh sets, like the Sweet Shop, are officially marketed to the 3-and-up set and there are some small pieces, so consider that if your 2-year-old will be playing too.)

The Preschool Years (Ages 3-5)

Could a toy that is low-tech, old-school, and costs less than $10 possibly hold a modern child’s attention? Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie swears this one can. “Last spring, a neighbor who was going away to college passed this down and now all of my kids are hooked. The 4-year-old is the biggest fan, but my 7-year-old and barely-2-year-old play with it too.” She loves that it packs down to the size of a book so you can take it on the go. It was such a handy surrogate babysitter, in fact, that Mackenzie bought a second version: Maisy’s Farm.

The Toy You’ll Want to Play with After Bedtime

This is a physics lesson that feels like pure fun. You build and watch the marbles make their way down the track. “They can be built in any number of configurations. I found this one with glow-in-the-dark marbles for my 4-year-old, Ben, and we all think it’s cool,” says Ellen Seidman, an editor and mom of three in Maplewood, New Jersey.

The Brainy Workbook Chrissy Teigen Loved Too

Homeschooling? Leading a pod? Make learning fun with this workbook plugged by none other than Chrissy Teigen, on her Instagram. She shared that her 4-year-old, Luna, is hooked. “Finished her K Brain Quest! Parents, you must get these, especially with quarantine times. They’re so good for them, and Luna really retained so much. Hooray”!

These magnetic building sets got the most mentions of any toy on this list. And it entertains preschoolers through middle schoolers equally well. “Being a working mom and having two toddlers 16 months apart in quarantine for months on end—I’m always looking for non-gender-specific toys that hold their interest for more than 5 seconds at a time,” says Megan Levinson Bottiglieri, a public relations executive and mom of two. “We have tower building contests and make ice cream cones, all while teaching our 2-year-old about shapes and colors—the ultimate end goal. It’s been a worthy investment that my now 3 1/2- and 2-year-old can use with minimal supervision.”

The Early Grade School Years (5-9)

“Our Thomas train tracks have stood the test of time and age with my four kids (ages 1-8),” says Nicole Yorio Jurick, founder of a cooking school in Hoboken, New Jersey. “Whenever I need a solid 20 minutes, I send them to the train bin and challenge them to build me a track using every piece.” Train sets encourage imaginative play, and they help kids’ fine motor skills.

The Couch That Keeps Selling Out

If you have little ones, you’ve probably heard of this modular sofa that doubles as upholstered blocks. “I’m in a parenting group with parents of younger children and this is all anyone talks about,” says Melissa O’Neil Gunning, who works at Facebook App in San Francisco. It’s four foam pieces that form a comfy couch or sleepover bed—and come apart and double as building blocks (since who can resist building forts with sofa cushions?). Mackenzie’s three kids are also obsessed. “Someone in the know suggested it when we were looking for light seating in our old attic and it’s been awesome. The kids were vaulting over it in the living room for hours today!” (The only trouble is it’s a little too popular and is currently back-ordered until late October—you may want to get on the list now.)

The Big Bag ‘o’ Knights and Dragons

“My dad got our 7-year-old, Finn, a bag of knights and he spends hours setting them up in a huge battle. It makes me happy that he is getting his face out of a screen and using his imagination,” says Jim Cairl, an advertising director in the New York area. However, Cairl confesses, “I am less thrilled at the amount of small, sharp plastic knights that end up on my living room floor and, invariably, under foot.”

The All-Day Play

Kids pick and choose from user-generated games on this digital platform. “My 8-year-old, Logan, would spend all day on Roblox if we let him,” says Patty Adams Martinez, a Manhattan writer and mom. His favorite games are Sonic Simulator and Robot 64. According to Logan, “Sonic Simulator is a free-roam game/simulator of an upcoming game called Sonic Eclipse. It’s fun because as Sonic you can run and do spin dashes and crazy tricks.” Robot 64 is based on Mario 64. “Your mission is to save Earth by collecting ice cream cones. Sounds weird, I know,” explains Logan. “But you throw them at the sun to cool it down until it finally freezes and disappears. And then you create a new sun, which hopefully won’t fall.”

The Classic for a New Generation

The Switch is expensive, yes. But it will get more mileage than almost any toy—and it’s educational. Martinez was reluctant to let her son Logan play video games and asked his teachers for advice. Surprisingly, they were all for it. “They said they don’t like to discourage a kid’s interests and that as long as you limit the time played, kids can build eye-hand coordination and learn problem-solving skills,” Martinez says. You can’t go wrong with Super Mario: Super Mario 3-D All Stars. As her son Logan reports, “It’s a collection of three retro games that have been updated to be played on the best Nintendo console ever made, and the graphics are super-cool compared to the oldie versions.” Michelle Schmid, a consultant in Larchmont, New York, has twin daughters who also love their Nintendo Switch. “Super Mario Odyssey is their favorite game,” she says.

A sort of snaking, low riding scooter and bike in one, Ezy Roller keeps kids active and inventing their own fun since there are multiple ways to work it. “Hands-down, the best toy to distract my girls,” raves Kate Rope, a writer and mom in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s an outdoor toy, but why let that limit you? “I let my kids Ezy roll inside, but some parents wouldn’t.”

Swing after swing after swing, this batting trainer keeps the 8-year-old son of Lorne Teitelbaum, a Washington, D.C.-based speechwriter, immensely entertained. “Jake’s plan is to be the next Aaron Judge and I told him that Judge practiced his hitting every day when he was 8 years old,” Teitelbaum says. Kids like Jake can practice their baseball or softball swing two ways: Either use the swing trainer as a stationary batting tee or as a pitch simulator (choose from different speeds to control the level of difficulty).

The Tween Years (9-12)

This stop-motion animation app you use with LEGOs is all the rage in Patty Hoffman Brehe’s house. “My son, who is almost 10, figured out the basics and then he took a course on Outschool. He used random LEGOS that have sat untouched for years,” says Hoffman, a substitute teacher in the New York City area. The budding director added a green screen (lime green poster board from Michaels) and a tripod too (“we bought it for my older son’s ‘Zoom’ mitzvah”). It’s like film school in your basement.

Sometimes basic is best. “The toy my 9-year-old has been returning to for almost two years is a pair of stilts,” says Cara Harmon, a therapist from Montclair, New Jersey. “My son was 7 when he unwrapped them for Christmas. He didn’t even bother to change out of his PJs before dashing outside to walk up the block with them. Almost 2 years later, he has discovered video games and drones—but those stilts still come out at least a few times a week. It’s gratifying to see a non-digital toy get so much mileage.”

“At the beginning of all of this, my 11-year-old Googled ‘What video game lasts the longest before you get bored?’ The answer, thank goodness, was Kerbel Space Program, a rocket building/flying simulator,” says Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester and advocate for work-family equality. “It’s stellar (literally, I guess, but that wasn’t intentional).” You can get it for XBox One, PS4, or Steam.