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The 9 Best Building Toys For Kids That Aren’t Legos

Legos (and their little-kid sidekick, Duplos) are not the only STEM toys in town!

Erica Silverstein · 8 months ago

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From the early days when I’d build towers for the kids to knock down to today when our floor is covered with elaborate mansions, spacecraft, and the oft-repeated “car hotel” (where Hot Wheels go to vacation?), our blocks and bricks are always in use.

While the Lego brand gets all the glory, families should know that Legos (and their little-kid sidekick, Duplos) are not the only STEM toys in town. If you’re looking for toys to inspire your kids’ creative and hands-on play, here are the nine best building toys for kids that are not Legos.

1. Magnetic Tiles

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Whenever we discuss family gift lists, I inevitably say, “We could use more magnetic tiles.” No matter how many Magnatiles, Magformers, PicassoTiles, or Playmags we own, the kids always need more to finish that tower, castle, or spaceship.

The see-through shapes attach via magnets (secured inside the plastic casing), providing junior architects the flexibility to build complex structures that aren’t all 90-degree angles. On the flip side, your buildings will never be as sturdy as ones built from Legos or other snap-connecting blocks. Use your creation’s inevitable collapse to teach resiliency and the joy of rebuilding, while you wipe the tears away.

Buyer beware: Not all magnetic tile brands are compatible with each other. If the magnets don’t line up, the tiles won’t attach to each other.

2. Foam Blocks

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Foam blocks are ideal for toddlers and preschoolers, but I can attest that my school-age children still build with ours. The lightweight, colorful shapes can be stacked into all kinds of precarious towers that won’t cause owies when they fall. Look for foam blocks that are BPA free if you’ve got a teether, or ones that float in the tub for extra play time. Creative play with foam blocks tends to expand beyond building; the long tube-shaped blocks are likely to become baseball bats and light sabers.

3. Wooden Blocks

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Melissa & Doug

A nice set of wooden blocks is a gift that will last — and that your kids will never put away because they are not strong enough to lift a box full of blocks. Choose from painted or natural-finished sets, depending on your playroom aesthetic. We love the Melissa & Doug set because it comes in a solid wooden box that my kids use for their play as much as the blocks within. Just keep fingers and toes out of the way when Angry Child decides to destroy the block castle.

4. K’Nex

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K’Nex sets are perfect for elementary and middle-school age children who want to build elaborate vehicles and machines. Each set includes plastic rods, connectors, and blocks, with some offering specialized pieces, such as wheels, gears, and even motors. The basic sets let you build trucks, planes, and whatever your imagination can invent; the more complex models create roller coasters, a motorized crane, and even the Golden Gate Bridge.

5. Marble Runs

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Marble Genius

Marble runs are slightly less open-ended than Legos because you are specifically building a bobsled course for marbles. However, the possibilities for how to build your marble run are endless, and not only can your family try out a variety of designs, but they can test the speed of their tracks and race marbles once they’re complete. Budding physicists and engineers can test their skills, and accessories like jumps, swings, and chain lifts let you add to the set over time. If your family likes healthy competition, in addition to building challenges, a marble run would be a great addition to your toy collection.


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Confession time: My kids’ ZOOB creations are some of my favorites, but the pieces are also some of the most fragile we own. ZOOB is a cool and unusual building toy because of the way the rods are shaped and attach to each other with ball, jaw, and body connections. The designs gain a more organic structure than blocky Legos, making ZOOB ideal for building monsters and robots. Just keep solo pieces off the floor because the jaw edges snap off a bit too easily.

7. Bristle Blocks

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Bristle Blocks

Bristle Blocks were some of the first building blocks my kids loved in preschool because the shapes can be easily manipulated by little hands. (It took much longer for my kids to be able to snap and unsnap Duplos.) The colored pieces interlock via plastic bristles when you push two blocks against each other — like sticking a comb onto a hairbrush. Your little ones can build or indulge in sensory play as they work on their fine motor skills.

8. Brain Flakes

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You gotta love a toy called a Brain Flake (alternatively, kid flakes, snowflakes, and building chips by copycat brands). The quarter-sized round plastic discs are notched, so they can click into each other at right angles. The flakes are ideal for building more whimsical and less angular objects; think unicorns, magical trees, and Excalibur-esque swords. If all your building toys are a series of rectangular blocks, brain flakes are a fun way to shake up STEM play.

9. Straw Connectors

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My kids love anything they can climb inside: blanket forts, laundry baskets, large cardboard boxes. Straw Connectors (aka Straw Constructors) are the one building toy that’s big enough to let your family engineer creations that are kid-sized, rather than toy-sized. The concept is simple: drinking-straw sized plastic, bendable straws with holes in the end, and jacks-like connectors that snap the straws together. Build a cage — um, we mean fort — around your little ones or construct an airplane your preschooler can sit inside and pretend to fly.