BERKLEY, Mich. – At the Doll Hospital and Toy Soldier Shop in Metro Detroit, the options are seemingly endless. So an expert weighed in.
Dr. Stefani Hines, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Beaumont Children's Hospital, was asked to shop the shelves with education in mind. But with one request: We were looking for "sneaky" educational toys -- toys that were so fun, kids wouldn't even know they were learning.
For babies ages 6 months to 12 months, Hines loves stacking toys, like the Stacker by Green Toys.
Stacking and nesting toys are perfect for practicing basic eye-hand coordination and motor movements.
"They're exploring with their hands," Hines said. "They're figuring out how things fit together."
For children ages 18 months to 24 months, Hines suggested building toys with more shapes, more pieces and more options. She was drawn to the HABA Fit Together Wooden Building Blocks.
"(They have) a little bit more color to them, and there's more to kind of do here too, in terms of taking apart and manipulating and putting back together," Hines said.
For toddlers and preschoolers, Hines said a train table is right on track for practicing eye-hand coordination and playing with others.
But a word of warning to parents: Resist the urge to secure the tracks to the table.
"Our tendency as adults is to nail them down or to glue them down," Hines said. "Part of the play here is the creativity. It's the taking apart and putting back together again."
For early elementary kids, it's all about building. From Magna-Tiles to marble runs, children are learning the basics of physics while they're having fun.
"It can be taken apart, it can be put back together again," Hines said. "Working on visual spatial skills, eye-hand coordination and also creativity."
Hines also loves Lincoln Logs, but to increase the problem-solving potential, she suggests Keva Planks.
"These are just solid wooden planks," Hines said. "There's no grooves set into them, so it takes a little bit more in terms of being creative."
She's also a big fan of Kaleido Gears.
"Our future architects and engineers might benefit from this," Hines said. "How do I get these things to fit together? If I make this move, can I ultimately make that one move?"
While the box says "for ages 3 and up," this toy isn't just for preschoolers.
"I would love to play with it," Hines said.
For late elementary school to middle schoolers, LEGO building sets offer big benefits.
"You have to follow visual instructions," Hines said. "It's not written instructions, but visual instructions. And a different sort of skill to have."
For teens, there are much more sophisticated LEGO Architecture sets.
"These are architectural icons, and they are much more complicated to put together -- but again, you have to follow some visual instructions to do it," Hines said.
These sets teach patience and problem-solving skills.
"You can't learn that from flashcards," Hines said. "They don't even know they're learning. They're just learning."
Hines is also a fan of games. For younger kids, she likes the classic Candy Land.
"It's not a game of skill. Mom and dad can play this with 4-year-old Tommy," Hines said. "You don't have to be smarter or better. It's a game of luck. What kids are learning there is, how to take turns, how to play in a group, and also they're learning how to be a good sport. So, 'Daddy won this time, but let's see who can win the next time.'"
For a children a little older, Hines suggested a pattern recognition game called SET. It's a favorite in her family.
"We spent the whole Christmas evening playing this game, so it's a really fun game, and I find a lot of kids like it," she said.
Another family favorite?
"This is on oldie but a goodie," Hines said. "I still like Simon. It actually works on your auditory memory, your hearing memory and your visual memory -- what you see."
Finally, don't overlook the value of pretend play.
"Dolls may not look like they have educational value, but they do," Hines said. "Doll babies are a way of promoting children to learn how to provide nurturance and love."
To promote math skills, consider a toy cash register and play money.
"We're learning how to count, we're learning how to do addition and subtraction," Hines said. "'If I give you a dollar, and it's 50 cents, how much do you owe me?'"
Doctor or veterinarian kits, chef sets, or dress-up clothes also can help fan the flames of imagination.
"Again, it doesn't look at all educational," Hines said. "Children are learning imitation. They're watching people either in their home or out in the community, and they're picking that up and they're carrying that out at home."
Overall, Hines' picks were heavy on building eye-hand coordination, visual spatial skills, pretending, problem-solving and patience.
"If I can't get this to work, how can I go about figuring it out to make it work? How do I get this piece to fit together? I'm missing a piece, what can I do instead? How do I work with someone else to create something?" Hines said. "Toys can have educational value without looking educational. These are just fun."