Toys for kids seem to get more tricked-out each year — and more hopelessly entangled with our digital devices. There are Hot Wheels tracks you control from a device. Robotic elephants that eat peanuts through a trunk and owls that turn into drones. Many of these toys are terrific, but many are also overcomplicated, confusing, or too expensive. And for all their bells and whistles, they don’t necessarily do what toys should: encourage exploration and experimentation, or boost problem-solving and creativity, through imaginative play. That’s why retro and classic toys stand the test of time. These things are engaging and fun and impervious to trends. There’s a strange alchemy to these products: Put them in the hands of a child and they’re golden.
No amount of blasting sounds, flickering lights, or robotic wizardry can beat thoughtful, open-ended design. All the more reason to looks for old-school toys that allow kids to play like kids without having to read a Bible-thick instruction booklet.
The Best Retro Games and Toys for Kids
These brilliant building blocks have been a crowdpleaser for 100 years. Before there were Legos, there were Lincoln Logs. Today, these constructive wooden cylinders don't get the love they once did, but they remain extraordinarily fun and more flexible — from a play perspective at least — than you remember. Don't want to build a house? Set them up like bowling pins. Want to make Jenga a little harder? Build a wall around the base of the tower.
Remember lying around the house or the backyard and clicking through slides of insects and apex predators on your bright-red View Master? Stereoscopes like the View Master were the height of home entertainment in the 1850s and they somehow still appeal to kids in our digital age. Because there's something romantic and imagination-boosting about disappearing into other worlds through a pair of magical binoculars that never die or need a recharge. This boxed set comes with slide discs of dinosaurs, marine life, and safari adventures.
A timeless toy that also doubles as a killer core workout tool. Hula hoops were the Peloton bikes of their era. Men bought them for their wives to encourage weight loss and push unrealistic body standards. Nice job, grandpa. Today, they are just toys and they remain excellent toys. Beyond the core workout motion core to the hooping experience, these plastic wheels make obstacles and lily pads and throwing rings. (Pro tip: Roll hoops forward while pulling back to get them to return and then tell kids to try to run through them. It's a very fun game.)
This classic puzzler teaches kids that gameplay is mostly about reading an opponent. Kids games are, more often than not, about pieces or rules or the way those things collide (and the inevitability that such a combination will end in tears). What makes Battleship a standout is that it's about reading other people. The Hasbro classic teaches kids to inspect the face of an opponent and draw conclusions. It teaches kids to be tactical. Think of it as an MBA course for second-graders.
A deeply stupid waste of time, this farmhouse timesuck is addicting as hell. These days, the classic Ball in a Cup game is billed as a 'coordination toy.' This is ridiculous. The point of the game isn't to test proprioception. The point of the game is to endure frustration in service of the pursuit of a totally pointless aim. No game better prepares children for modern employment.
Despite the onslaught of video games, this classic pastime never loses its charm. Jacks have a limited half-life. They lead nasty, brutish, and short lives before winding up under the couch. But that's fine. The game is fun and easy. Kids get obsessed and focused — parents get drawn in. Is there anything particularly special about this set? Not really. It's a fine one. It is what it is. That's enough.
Budding entrepreneur in the house? Time to learn how to count. A plastic cash register shouldn't make a good toy. It's weirdly technical and weirdly consumerist and weirdly outdated (a plastic version of Square would be less fun). But the Fisher-Price cash register is still in production all these decades later because the mechanics retain a profound appeal for young learners and counters and hoarders. It's a Montessori-style toy without pretensions. Cha-ching!
Like an SUV for grade-schoolers, this classic wagon guarantees fun (but probably not safety). For a generation of children, Calvin & Hobbes transformed the Radio Flyer into a symbol of freedom. Viewed from the right angle, it remains exactly that. Playing together, kids can pull each other and push each other and, given a driveway with just a bit of a tilt, do serious damage to themselves. That's a feature not a bug. Just hand out helmets.
For fearless kids, the most deliciously spooky game ever created. These enchanted boards have been popular since a more spiritual age when not every American claiming to have the ability to speak to the dead had a show on Bravo or TBS. Why? They're spooky fun — ideal for middle-schoolers living at the edge of their childhood fantasies and eager to understand those things that can't be understood. Really want to freak them out? Show them the movie 'Ouija'... it's deeply terrible.
You never need to worry about limiting screen time with an Etch-a-Sketch. Kids (and adults) are still strangely entranced by this simple, analog drawing toy. And turning those little knobs to write and draw is a legit challenge that boosts coordination and imagination.
Arguably the ultimate retro toy, the kaleidoscope has been dazzling kids since its invention in 1816. Though what matters is the psychedelic scene on the inside, Schylling's classic tin toys, like this one, add a layer of pleasing nostalgia to the outside. Sure we can all look at trippy things on our phones, but there's something about the beauty a few crystals, some mirrors, and a little light can create that still captures our imaginations.
Stretch it, bounce it, and watch it walk up and down steps. What more is there to say? Everyone loves a slinky. And for good reason. Not only do these things go downstairs, they make freaking out to EDM music (or Imagine Dragons, if you must) a lot more fun. Show the kids some slinky dances on YouTube to inspire their creative then turn up the bass.
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