The Hape Robot Factory Domino raises the bar for toys in 2019. It’s one hell of a domino set: Simple and beautifully designed, with just the right amount of moving parts. It has everything a toy should have — no more, no less. It’s not a toy that offers STEM promises or, frankly, one that your kid even asked for. It’s not created or commercialized in that way. It doesn’t need to be. It is simply an affordable, extremely well-made toy that does what all great toys do — engage and entertain your child. And we love it.
There’s no wrong way to play with the right toy. As Nancy Schulman, the head of Avenues: The World School learning centers and author of Practical Wisdom for Parents: Demystifying the Preschool Years puts it, “A great toy is 10 percent toy and 90 percent child.” This was her guiding principal as a toy purchaser for 92nd Street Y nursery school, which she ran for 21 years. “If there are many different ways to play with it, there’s more creativity and excitement,” says Schulman. “A block can be a phone, a cake, a brick.”
In other words, the best toy is an open one. When it comes to buying stuff for your kids, you want toys that inspire creativity, encourage exploration, and foster the development of crucial physical and social skills they need to be able to function in the world. The American Academy of Pediatrics found in a January 2019 report that the very best toys don’t have flashing lights or screeching sounds. Instead, they’re toys that encourage social interactions and imaginary and pretend play, without being overstimulating.
“Toys have evolved over the years, and advertisements may leave parents with the impression that toys with a ‘virtual’ or digital-based platform are more educational,” said Aleeya Healey, MD, FAAP, a lead author of the report, said in a statement. “Research tells us that the best toys need not be flashy or expensive or come with an app. Simple, in this case, really is better.”
Another way of thinking about it: Toys should be fun. How do you know a toy’s fun? You get that full range of emotions from kids. They concentrate, laugh, keep at it, pull it apart, put it back together, and transform it into something that the creator of the toy never envisioned. Ever seen a kid playing with a box of Legos? Lincoln Logs? Magna-Tiles? No two play sessions with these every look the same, with the exception of a kid’s engagement. These toys are Hall of Famers for a reason.
We here at Fatherly know toys. Every year we go through boxes and crates of toys and try to whittle that down to a list of the 50 best toys of 2019. Some are obvious losers because even in the box, they hold zero appeal. Others? Well, it’s a matter of taste. It’s as hard to get all the great toys in there as it is easy to leave some out (think, toys that are too loud, too obnoxious, overly-complex, or under-designed).
This year, we asked ourselves, what’s the perfect toy on this list? Which one here is 10 percent toy, 90 percent child, and 1000 percent fun?
It didn’t take us long to zoom in on the Hape Robot Factory Domino. The Hape set is simple. It’s little more than a fancy box of dominoes. There’s no goal, no specific directions to follow, no desired result. Kids do something that’s been done since Rube Goldberg showed us the joy that can be gained in a cascading scene of cause and effect. Stack the wood blocks, set up the tunnel, release the catapult, and let it all fall. No two setups will be the same. You can stack blocks however you want, in whatever formation you want, and do it over and over and over again. You can guarantee they’ll bring in foreign objects — cutting up boxes and throwing in some dolls and maybe a stuffed animal or two.
Hape’s Robot Factory Domino is a simple toy, but also one that has all the right parts. Kids get a tipper car, a ball track, a tipper arm, and a series of ramps that they use to form a robot production line. There’s no limit to how many ways you can play with this toy, which is entirely the point.
The Hape Robot Factory Domino is a perfect toy. It's also only $30.
“The most important feature of a toy is that it be open-ended and provide opportunities for exploration,” says Keith Sawyer, a Morgan Distinguished Professor of Educational Innovations at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill school of education who has spent his career studying creativity and learning. “It should be something where there isn’t one linear path, where every child does the same thing and there’s the same solution in the end.”
What does a linear toy look like? Think of the original Hatchimals. Yes, there’s some fun to be had in the initial “surprise” of hatching the beast and seeing what emerges. But once it’s out of its egg, what’s there left to do? We can tell you what: Buy more of them. Because the most engaging part of the toy is the actual hatching process. Want another example? Take the entire category of ball-popping toy for babies, which has little kids drop and roll balls down a ramp to get shot back up. It’s a repetitive task fit for a lab rat, not a developing child.
Instead, a toy should invite open-ended exploration. Construction toys like Hape and Legos and Magna-Tiles do that, allowing kids to create something that that maybe even the toy creator didn’t conceive of. But so do dolls and action figures and puppets, where the character is provided, but the kid must create the world. Transformers, or Calico Critters, or Schleich stables full of horses. These are all non-linear toys, to coin Sawyer’s term, because they require a lot of your child.
Great toys — toys like Hape’s Robot Factory Domino — don’t have to push the fold and make us rethink play. They shouldn’t. Kids already know how to play. They’ve been doing so since gravity and will be doing so as long as human brains take two decades to develop. Because play is about growing our brains, engaging our curiosity, and imagining how the world works — and then testing it. Toys are tools of this wild era of growth. What’s more fun than that?