The Best Toys for Independent Play at Any Age

LEGO blocks are classic and will unlock your kiddo’s creativity

We independently research, test, review, and recommend the best products. Healthcare professionals review articles for medical accuracy. Learn more about our process. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

Boy playing with dinosaurs figurines

JGI / Jamie Gill / Getty Images

When children play independently, they entertain, educate, and inspire themselves—all without the guidance of a parent or peer. This type of playtime is not only a breather for parents, but it’s an essential part of little ones’ development

Reviewed & Approved

The Lego Classic Large Creative Brick Box is a classic toy that opens the door to open-ended and independent play. The Little Passports subscription service delivers fun, engaging activities to your door on a regular schedule.

“Independent play encourages children to have agency or take charge of their environment and interaction with it,” explains Rebecca Mannis, PhD, a learning specialist at Ivy Prep. “It also gives kids the space to experiment and make the experience their own.”

The best way to encourage independent play is to give kids time and space to engage in their surroundings without intervening or trying to lead them towards a certain goal, according to Alanna Gallo, the founder of Play. Learn. Thrive., Montessori-inspired play spaces that promote independent play. “Let them explore, give them open-ended toys, try not to interrupt them when they are in the flow of play, and trust that they know what to do,” she says. “They are born knowing how to play—it is how they learn about the world around them.”

With feedback from child development experts, we looked at the toys on the market to come up with this list. Based on our research, here are the best toys for independent play.

Best Overall: LEGO Classic Large Creative Brick Box

4.7
LEGO Classic Large Creative Brick Box

Courtesy of Amazon

Pros
  • Timeless

  • Universally appealing for a wide age range

  • Comes with a storage box

Cons
  • Potential choking hazard for younger kids in the house

Who else recommends it? The Strategist, Today, and The Spruce all picked the LEGO Classic Large Creative Brick Box.

What do buyers say? 89% of 20,400+ Amazon reviewers rated this product 5 stars.

Legos are a timeless classic, and this large box with nearly 800 pieces ticks all the boxes our experts recommend in independent play toys. Rather than a prescriptive instruction manual (which can be both limiting and frustrating), this box encourages kids to build their own creations entirely using 33 different colored bricks, plus toy windows, doors, wheels, and more. Bonus: The box serves as its own toy storage solution.

Age range: 4 and up | Materials: Plastic

Best Budget: Stomp Rocket Ultra Rocket

Stomp Rocket Ultra, 4 Rockets

 Courtesy of Walmart

Pros
  • Affordable

  • Popular and highly reviewed

Cons
  • Actual launch height is probably lower than advertised

This affordable, lightweight STEM toy is outdoor fun for kids of a wide range of ages. They’ll run, jump, and then stomp on these rockets to launch them up to 20 stories high (according to the packaging, but your mileage will vary). They require no batteries or fussy assembly. Each kit includes a stomp launcher and four foam-tipped rockets. 

Age range: 5 and up | Materials: Foam, plastic

Best for Toddlers: Green Elephant Home Sensory Wooden Building Blocks

Green Elephant Home Sensory Wooden Building Blocks

Green Elephant Home

Pros
  • Handmade

  • Unique and beautiful

Cons
  • On the smaller side

This 24-piece set of wooden building blocks adds a colorful twist to the timeless toddler building activity. We love that kids can overlap the acrylic blocks to create new colors. The hues also make magical reflections when the sunlight shines through. The set comes with six shapes and four translucent colors to encourage learning and exploration.

Age range: 18 months–3 years | Materials: Wood, acrylic

Best for Preschoolers: My Felt Toys My Little Farm Interactive Playhouse

My Felt Toys My Little Farm Interactive Playhouse

My Felt Toys

Pros
  • Collapses flat

  • Reversible for more play options

  • Multisensory

Cons
  • Pricey

My Little Farm takes kids on a self-guided adventure through farm life while helping them learn developmental language and abstract thinking skills. Plus, it’s just plain fun for kids ages 3 and up! The playhouse set comes with eight colorful panels that attach with Velcro. 

The whole set is fully reversible: The red barn exterior flips to reveal a barn interior. It comes with 32 matching felt pieces that teach concepts like quantity, colors, shapes, and sizes. Our favorite part is that this toy is designed by a speech therapist, and according to the brand, it's endorsed by the Center for Autism Related Disorders and Autism Live.

Age range: 3 and up | Materials: Felt

Best Doll: Ahsen Toys Personalized Doll

Ahsen Toys Personalized Doll

Ahsen Toys

Pros
  • Fully customizable and unique

  • Antibacterial and anti allergenic

Cons
  • Longer shipping and delivery times

This fully customizable doll is totally unique. Make it in your child’s likeness (or any style you choose) for inspired, self-esteem-building independent play. Just send this Etsy maker a photo, and you’ll get a doll that can be personalized with features like eye color, hair color, and specific features like curly hair, dimples, and glasses. Plus, you can even get your child’s name embroidered on the doll’s clothes.

Age range: Any | Materials: 100% cotton yarn

Best Puzzle: Little Likes Kids Joyful Carousel Jumbo Puzzle

Little Likes Kids Joyful Carousel Jumbo Puzzle

Courtesy of Little Likes Kids

  • From a Black-owned business, founded by a mom

  • Budget-friendly

  • Not challenging enough for older children

This puzzle has 24 pieces, just right to aid in brain development and memory, as well as motor skills. The charming carousel depicts families of mixed races and ethnicities. We like that the box features a rope handle, making it a travel-friendly toy.

Age range: 3-5 years | Materials: Cardboard

Best for Pretend Play: Melissa & Doug Wooden Chef’s Pretend Play Kitchen

Melissa & Doug Wooden Chef’s Pretend Play Kitchen

Amazon

Pros
  • Easy to assemble

  • Includes room for toy storage

  • Sturdy

Cons
  • Large

A play kitchen is a perennial favorite for kids, with endless potential for pretend play. This wooden version contains an oven, stove, microwave, sink, refrigerator, freezer, and even a play version of an ice dispenser. In this set, the dials really turn and the microwave plate really spins. It also includes a grocery checklist, movable hooks, and doors that open and close.

Age range: 3-6 years | Materials: Wood

Best for Sensory Play: CMY Cubes Color Cube

CMY Cubes Color Cube

CMY Cubes

Pros
  • Great for autistic kids

  • Multisensory

Cons
  • Stand sold separately

CMY Cubes appear to create a continually changing spectrum of color. This unique and colorful sensory toy is also non-disruptive and a favorite among the autism community for the way it uses color therapy to help regulate moods and anxious feelings. Researchers have found that fidget toys like the CMY Cubes help to improve focus and relieve cognitive fatigue in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Age range: 5 and up | Materials: Acrylic

Best Mess-Free: Buddha Board Water Painting

Buddha Board Water Painting

Buddha Board

Pros
  • Mess-free

  • Promotes mindfulness

  • Good for all ages (including adults)

Cons
  • Pooling water can shorten the longevity of the board

This screen-free toy also guarantees a mess-free experience, so it’s a joy not just for kids, but for parents, too. Think of it as a blank slate: The painting set uses only water and a drawing board on which kids can use the included bamboo brush to create all their works of art, which fade away soothingly as they dry.

Age range: 2 and up | Materials: Bamboo

Best Educational Game: Educational Insights MathShark Game

Educational Insights MathShark Game

Educational Insights

Pros
  • Converts to a full-function calculator

  • Portable and travel friendly

Cons
  • Requires two AA batteries (not included)

This toy turns math into a game for the school-aged set. It has settings for eight different skill levels, covering addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, and percentages. It gives immediate feedback that helps motivate kids to keep learning while having fun.

Age range: 6–10 years | Materials: LCD screen

Best for Social-Emotional Learning: Slumberkins Dragon Book and Plushie

Slumberkins Dragon Book and Plushie

Slumberkins

Pros
  • Facilitates social-emotional growth

  • Super soft

  • Machine washable

Cons
  • Pricey for a stuffed animal

Slumberkins is all about promoting early emotional learning through toys that are fun and cute, encouraging growth and expression through affirming messages. This dragon-themed book, plush toy, and affirmation card set are meant to encourage creativity. 

Other toys in the line focus on developing such skills as conflict resolution, gratitude, and self-acceptance; you can take an online quiz to find out the best one for the little in your life.

Age range: 0 and up | Materials: 100% polyester plush stuffed with hypoallergenic fiberfill

Best Subscription: Little Passports Animals Wild

Little Passports Animals Wild

Little Passports

Pros
  • Designed in conjunction with professional educators

  • Inspires global awareness

  • Free shipping

Cons
  • Auto-renewal can be stressful

Little Passports dispatches creative, hands-on activities for kids, all meant to encourage their curiosity around geography, culture, science, and art. Subscription kits include books, games, puzzles, and other fun accessories like stickers and trading cards. The latest version in the series, Animals Wild, has just launched. It transports kids around the world to learn about the wild animals of the Serengeti, Amazon Rainforest, Pacific Ocean, and more, featuring more than 100 animals in all.

Age range: 3–5 years | Materials: Various

Final Verdict

We love the classic, open-ended aspect of the Lego Classic Large Creative Brick Box. For a totally distinctive encouragement of a global perspective, Little Passports subscriptions are also delightful.

How We Selected

After consulting with child development experts on what to look for in toys for independent play, we researched products at a range of price points and age categories that aligned with their feedback. Our picks are popular, well-reviewed toys in their respective categories, or exhibit uniqueness or newness that distinguishes them amid a crowded marketplace.

What to Look for When Buying Toys for Independent Play

Open-Ended Toys

To encourage lasting, stimulating independent play, look for toys that help kids use their creativity and imagination without too much rigidity or structure. That means the best toys for independent play can be “anything open-ended,” according to Gallo. “[That] just means that the toy has many varied opportunities for play.” 

Bethany Cook, PsyD, MT-BC, a licensed clinical psychologist and the author of “For What It’s Worth—A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0–2,” says: “[LEGO sets] or building blocks instead of a car” help to inspire their imagination. “Give them a variety of materials they could use to make the toy, like buttons, an old toilet paper roll, string, and glue,” she suggests.

Age-Appropriate Toys

Keep your child engaged and stimulated by matching the toy to their developmental stage. For babies and toddlers, Gallo recommends simple toys like stacking rings, nesting cups, blocks, dolls, and basic cars or trucks. Older kids might move on to puzzles, building toys, or academic challenges. 

Toys Aligned With a Child’s Own Specific Interests 

The most stimulating independent play will be different for each kid. So watch what naturally inspires and engages your child based on their unique interests or aptitudes. 

“Whether we are talking about some time at the piano, using watercolor paints, or experimenting with a photo-editing app, all of these are opportunities for engagement, reflections, critical thinking, building a unique template, and [capturing] a sense of accomplishment or wonder,” Mannis says.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • At what age should you encourage independent play?

    You can start actively encouraging independent play around 3 months by giving your baby time and space to discover, according to Gallo. “What’s amazing is that children start engaging in independent play so naturally, so it’s really about following their lead,” she says. “Think of your infant who is lying on the floor following the shadows or discovering their hands. That’s play!”

    At this age, Cook says, “It’s more about exploring their environment and offering access to sensory experiences that are age-appropriate.”

  • How do you encourage independent play?

    “Make sure your child has slept, is fed, and you’ve spent some quality time with them before you put them in a safe space with a few curated toys or things to explore that are age-appropriate,” Dr. Cook says. “Children are naturally curious—they just need to be given direction and space to explore.”

    Mannis recommends leaving just a few items out from which kids can select, but “not too many or they will overwhelm. … Pick toys and materials that are easy to use or master on their own, and that can be used in various ways, so your child won’t be frustrated or need to call upon you.”

  • Why is playing alone important?

    The benefits of independent play are many and varied. Among them, Dr. Cook lists relaxation, self-confidence, increased independence, increased problem-solving skills, education, creativity, and imagination. This also helps kids find out what really interests them. 

    Gallo further underscores that playing alone helps children develop a sense of confidence, self-reliance, patience, and autonomy, and these aren’t just short-term benefits. “Longer term, it paves the way for them to develop a sense of internal satisfaction and happiness,” she says.

Why Trust Verywell Family

Alesandra Dubin is a professional product reviewer in the parenting and lifestyle space. She’s also mom to boy-girl twins with years of in-home, hands-on, kid-tested experience.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The Only Toy Gift Guide for a 9-Year-Old You’ll Ever Need. The Strategist. https://nymag.com/strategist/article/best-gifts-toys-games-for-9-year-olds.html

  2. 41 incredible gifts that'll capture your 4-year-old's imagination. Today. https://www.today.com/shop/best-gifts-4-year-olds-our-2017-holiday-gift-guide-t118881

  3. The Best Lego Sets for Kids and Adults. The Spruce. https://www.thespruce.com/best-lego-sets-4150694

  4. Sharp MR, Davis UC. Toy or therapy device? Researchers study effectiveness of fidget tools. UC Santa Cruz News.