Graphic round-up of the gifts for kids of all ages for imaginative play.
Credit: Photos from Left to Right, Top to Bottom: Nordstrom, Uncommon Goods, Lego; Design: Cubby

The Best Toys for Imaginative Play

updated Nov 7, 2023
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From an early age, many kids are already pros at using their imagination. Give them a big cardboard box and it becomes a space station, a top-secret fort, or a super exclusive new restaurant. Pretend play relies on kids tapping into their imagination, and it’s incredibly important that they do so, as flexing their imaginations helps kids process the world around them and positively tap into their own creativity. To help foster an imaginative environment, we’ve rounded up a few of our favorite toys that encourage imaginative play.

Credit: Hearthsong

How to Choose Toys for Imaginative Play

The good news is that kids can use their imagination to play with just about anything, and the best toys for encouraging kids to pretend can be simple, battery-free, and affordable. In general, look for toys and games that are open-ended, with less formal structure, rules, and objectives than, say, a board game. These toys don’t provide all the answers, so kids are pushed to come up with their own ideas.

Quick Overview

Our Top Pick

Our top pick, the LEGO Creative Suitcase, is $13.79 and perfect for kids of any gender, ages 4 and up for solo or group play. Building toys like LEGO stimulate imaginative play while strengthening hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and problem-solving, and this suitcase gives them a place to stow their bricks when they’re done creating.

Toys Under $20

1 / 9

It’s a hero’s cape, it’s a conqueror’s flag, it’s a baby doll’s first swaddle. A simple playsilk can be one of the most surprising ways to bring out the creative side of any child as they imagine a piece of fabric to be so much more.

2 / 9
was $18.99

Celebrating the creative process itself, To Make is a beautifully illustrated book about the patience it takes to make something worthwhile. The words have a lovely lyrical rhythm, making this an excellent book to read aloud.

3 / 9
Fat Brain Toys

Working with clay is such a wonderful, tactile way for a kid to explore their imagination and end up with some pretty cool sculptures in the process. Hey Clay’s sets include high-quality, non-toxic, air-dry clay and an app that teaches kids the fundamentals of working with clay, including professional techniques to set kids up for success.

4 / 9
was $18.99

In this picture book, Milo passes the time on a long subway ride by using his imagination to create lives for the people he sees. The vivid illustrations by Caldecott-winning illustrator Christian Robinson help bring Milo’s imagination to life right on the page in a book that kids will want to read time and time again.

5 / 9

Whether you call them pipe cleaners or chenille stems, a bag of these crafting stalwarts is an open invitation to see what a child can create. Encourage hours of mess-free creating with these superbly versatile, brightly colored pieces.

6 / 9
was $14.99

If your kids’ imagination has them cranking out some side-splitting jokes, it might be time to introduce them to the world of Mad Libs, where their quips will fit right in. Available in every conceivable interest, hobby, or movie franchise, from Frozen to Pokemon, there’s truly a Mad Lib out there for everyone.

7 / 9

One of the all-time best open-ended toys, LEGO lets kids build whatever’s in their heads. This handy yellow suitcase comes packed with 213 brightly colored pieces for them to create their latest build with, plus a handy case in which to, theoretically, put them all away.

8 / 9
Uncommon Goods

If your child was born to spin a yarn, this gift will give them a place for all the stories in their head. Inside this book-shaped box, kids will find ten blank mini books to write and doodle in, plus 40 double-sided tokens to prompt their writing should they need the extra push.

9 / 9

Encourage creative couture with a pack of fabric markers, and throw in a few blank t-shirts for kids who have their own idea about what fashion can be.

Toys $20 – $40

1 / 7
was $13.99

For kids who see the world in vivid color, get a paint set that sparks their creativity. With 48 colors and three brushes, this paint set will help them put their visions on canvas.

2 / 7

Dress-up is a huge part of imaginative play, and these shoes will have your child dressing up in sparkly style. These super popular shoes (as in, sold out online in 5 minutes when they debuted) give the kind of Cinderella-gone-glam vibes that will make them a treasured part of any dress-up chest.

3 / 7

This is the perfect choice for kids who love stickers as much as they love dollhouses. The 3-foot tall dollhouse comes with ten sheets of reusable stickers so kids can build their own worlds as often as they like.

4 / 7

Magic has a way of capturing our imagination at any age, and this set helps kids make the magic for themselves. With tricks like exploding dice and sliding coins, plus a magic wand, and detailed colored instructions, kids as young as 4 can start dazzling audiences after just a little bit of practice.

5 / 7
Art of Play

This clever, open-ended card game wakes up kids’ imaginations as they find similarities between disparate images and discover repeated shapes and patterns that they might not expect. Because players build their cards off of one another, the also game fosters a sense of collaboration over competition.

6 / 7

There are so many ways that children can enjoy a cash register, whether they’re setting up a pretend grocery store or using it for a very real lemonade stand. This register includes a scanner that makes authentic beeping sounds, plus play money (which helps kids learn about math and money while they play).

7 / 7

Kids spend a ton of time imagining what they might be when they grow up, so let them get into the role with a dress-up set complete with tools of the trade. This doctor set includes a realistic lab coat and scrubs, plus a stethoscope, thermometer, and syringe.

Toys Over $40

1 / 5

This lovely little play kitchen is our top wooden play kitchen pick. It comes will all the accessories you see here, so you really get a lot for the money. Plus, it's just such a charmer!

2 / 5

An artist’s easel is ground zero for creativity, and this kid-friendly version features a chalkboard on one side and a whiteboard on the other, plus a roll of paper at the top and two giant clips to keep their works of art from sliding around. The built-in trays on each side will keep chalk, markers, and other supplies close at hand.

3 / 5
was $74.99

We’ve had several shopping carts in my house over the years, and this one is my favorite (and more importantly, my kids’ favorite) because it looks like a real grocery store shopping cart. Perfect for playing store, this cart is sturdy and easy to maneuver for hours of play.

4 / 5
was $189.00

Bring the magic of a tree fort inside with this massive cardboard fort with plenty of space for kids to play, read, or just spend a few hours daydreaming.

5 / 5

Caring for babydolls is a way that kids model the behavior they see around them while using their imagination, and this hand-crafted rattan stroller is just their size and positively adorable, whether it’s being used as a pram, a shopping cart, or a vehicle for transporting toys.

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