What do one year olds really play with? The best open-ended toys for 1 year olds and toddlers are toys that will “grow” with them. Toys that capture their imagination and creativity. Toys they’ll still play with in a few years – just in a different way! Read on for ideas of the most popular open ended toys we loved from 12 to 24 months – that we still play with years later!
Around their first birthday, babies start gravitating toward more toy-ish items, vs random objects and baby things. As a parent you start feeling like you already have sooo many toys and baby items and it’s time to pair down and get ready for the next toy stage. The good news as you pass on the baby rattles and spinners, is that after age one, you really can keep most of the next stage toys for awhile. So it’s time to start thinking about toys that will grow with your child and not just be one and done. Here are our favorite open ended toys for 1 year olds. In this post:
What are Open-Ended Toys vs “Closed-Ended” Toys?
So what are open ended toys? While many Montessori and high-end toy brands would have you think open ended toys means – wooden and expensive! Open ended simply means that it has more than one use. Whereas, closed ended toys have a specific purpose and “finished” end goal (like a puzzle or a shape sorter) and open-ended are more creative or free form play. Examples of open ended toys are a block set, a play barn, dolls, or vehicles. And the great thing about kids is that almost anything can be an open-ended toy to them. Kids are the masters of re-inventing how to play with something in a different way.
That said, there are certainly toys that are more “open ended” or multifunctional than others. Those toys that they just want to play with for ages and you’re like wow, they’re still over there creating! Open ended toys teach our children creativity, independence, and to use their imaginations.
But it’s important to remember that not everything needs to be an open-ended toy! “Closed ended” toys are also great learning opportunities for kids. For example: puzzles, shape sorters, stacking. These types of toys are really satisfying to children. It teaches them perseverance, mastery of a task and self-control.
In summary, the two big take aways for me for open ended toys are:
1. The item will “grow” with them and they’ll still want to use it in a year or two.
2. The toy doesn’t just have one obvious completion or solution like “oh it lights up” and done. Or “the flat puzzle is now assembled”!
Note: Now the only tricky part of open-ended toys for one year olds is that they are still in the baby almost-toddler phase. So small parts, choking hazards, and things they might be mouthing still are a concern. You of course know your child best, but some of these items can still be too small, depending on the kid to play with solo. So use your best judgement.
15 Open Ended Toys for Toddlers: 12-24 Months
What do one year olds really play with? Here are some ideas of the most popular open-ended toys for 1 year olds that we still play with years later! The best part? Most of these items are $15 or less!
1. Barn or farm playset
Most babies and young toddlers are very familiar with animals and farm animals especially. It’s mostly exposure, as we read to them and make animal noises etc. So a play barn can be a really fun open-ended toy. Around 12 or 14 months, our little one started getting interested in vehicles as well, so this barn from Green Toys was a hit!
Plus the animal pieces are large enough that they’re safe for younger ones and not sooo tiny and precious, so they can actually maneuver them. Remember at this age, they’re not yet going to be doing full on pretend play scenarios of the farm. But they’ll love it if you play and pretend and make silly noises.
How a one year old might play with this barn: Our one year old loved to open and shut the barn doors, move the farm truck in, move the animals around and out etc. As he got closer to two, he started using the barn more for pretend play and had the animals and truck doing imaginary things. And even at three and four, he would use this barn at the edge of a train track or having it out “in the country” with pretty elaborate stories! Green Toys Farm Playset Amazon $15-50
2. Wooden people or peg popups
Most toddlers start being interested in little figures around 18 months to two years old. Think like the Little People sets etc. So what’s nice about the wooden peg popup toy is it’s affordable, simple and the little “people” may not be as appealing at age one as the pushing down and springing up aspect. And by age two, they might start seeing these wooden pegs as their “people”, and playing with it in a whole new way. Galt Pop Up Toy Amazon $17
Between 1 and 2, most kiddos are pretty excited about vehicles and things that go. Some of them stay in this stage for… ever? Ha! But this is definitely peek “things that go” season. Especially vehicles that they see in real life. So getting some vehicle toys that are large enough for them to handle are a great toy. Think Green Toys ferry boat, car transporter, or school bus. Or Daniel Tiger Trolley or Little People vehicle. And it’s especially fun if there are a few people or animals they can fit in the vehicle. Note: the Green Toys brand are often some of the best toys deals on Amazon or Target and heavily discounted at random times! Green Toys School Bus Amazon $30, Target $30. Green Toys Recycling truck Amazon $22
4. Palette of pegs
As they get closer to 16 to 18 months, many 1 year olds are interested in “posting”, putting in, taking out, and transferring type activities. While there are many toys you can find to fit this need, I really appreciated that the HABA palette of pegs was an open-ended version of this. There’s no one “right” way to use this toy and it has gotten a lot of use! They can use it to stack items, make patterns, sort by color, put pegs in holes, match the rings on the pegs etc.
My only concern with this toy was the smaller parts. While HABA says it’s not a choking hazard, they still seemed pretty small to me so we used this toy with our child for a few months (and would gather the pieces and put away after use), until we felt comfortable that he wasn’t going to put the pieces in his mouth! HABA Rainbow Pegging Board Amazon $25
5. Basic train set
The IKEA LILLABO 20 piece basic train set is simple enough to not be overwhelming for a one year old. With a short track and only 3 trains it’s a great learning item. They will need help assembling at first, but be delighted with a simple circle or oval track and watching how the trains can move along the rails. The Duplo train set is also another great “first train” type toy that they’ll continue to use as start building more with Duplos over the next few years.
Tip: Skip the train table. Most one year olds do like to stand at a short table to play, but it doesn’t need to be a dedicated train table that they tire of in a few months! Check out my IKEA hack LEGO table DIY which is a great way to have a “train table”, Lego table, and work table all in one. IKEA Lillabo Basic Train Set IKEA $10, Lego Duplo My First Number Train Amazon $20.
6. Pretend play tea set
A pretend play tea set is nice for this age range. They’re just starting to understand more about eating and drinking and the social aspect of dining. They’re probably already mimicking you drink your coffee! So a tea set is a great way to delve into pretend play and also learn some toddler manners. ;) Plus, pouring is infinitely exciting to them at this stage. So tea sets are fun bath toys too if you’re not ready to play with water inside. Future use? at a play kitchen or mud kitchen outdoors! Green Toys Tea Set Amazon $20, Plan Toys Tea Set Amazon $30
7. Small handled basket or net
I know I’ve mentioned a few times the putting things in and taking things out. Around 18 months they get super excited about collecting things. So a small basket that’s easy for them to carry around is a great toy. We had a mini woven market basket (like the Ghana mini bolga basket). And our little one would carry it all over the neighborhood collecting leaves and rocks. He would also use it in the house to cart things around. A small net with a handle is also very fun for this age! Mini woven handled basket Etsy $15+
8. Chunky animal puzzles
While puzzles don’t usually seem like an open-ended toy, the chunky puzzles for babies and young toddlers are great for open-ended play. Since they are essentially wooden painted animals, trucks etc. but that also come with a puzzle board. Our little one got a lot of use out of chunky wooden puzzles not only completing the puzzles but using the pieces as animals to go in vehicles or his barn or other vehicle toys etc. Great for imagination and budget friendly! Melissa & Doug Chunky Puzzle Amazon $11
9. Stacking or nesting toys
Whether you get stacking or nesting cups or a lighthouse or other stacker, this is the age that they’re getting into how things work from a stacking or putting on a stick (pegging) perspective. And while some stacking or peg type toys are more “closed ended” – meaning there’s really only one way to play. The stacking rings lighthouse has a lot of variety and can be used many ways! And if you’re beginning to feel like all the rainbow colors exploding around your house is just too much. There a few brands making more muted colors as well – like Mushie stacking cups. But chances are your kiddo will love the brightly colored ones! You’ll also find this style of toy in Lovevery Play Kits and Kiwico Panda Crates. Stacking cups can be used for stacking, nesting, hiding and guessing games, bath toys and more. Stacking Rings Lighthouse IKEA $10, MULA Stacking Nesting Cups IKEA $3, Mushie Stacking Cups Retro colors Amazon $15.
10. Doodle board
While art supplies are great open-ended play items, they come with more of a need of constant supervision and not much independence for your little one. Around one years old, we got a draw and erase doodle board. It was a hit and is still played with 3 years later. What’s great about these, is it lets your toddler “draw” and have some independent art time. And they feel very important being able to use a pen. I liked the Fisher Price one that has the pen on a string so it doesn’t get lost and isn’t being carried around. Safety-wise: there is a cord on this and a pen that could be sharp if fallen on. But most kids can use it safely with a grown up around, before the stated age of 3! Fisher Price DoodlePro Board Travel Amazon $5-19
11. DIY push box and “loose parts”
And speaking of push and posting. Around 9-12 months, babies are super into pushing things into small holes. Whether you make or buy a toy that does this, it is a hit and can take up a lot of their time as they concentrate. It’s also great for building those fine motor skills as they pinch and push and grasp things. While some Montessori shops sell some beautiful wooden items labeled “Loose parts”, we just went with items we had around the house.
Around age one, I made a pom pom push a la Busy Toddler with round holes in a box and second box with cylinder oatmeal can lid. I cut a slit in the lid and then assembled a bin of items that were safe enough for out little one to use. For example – paper straws cut into 3 pieces, pipe cleaners, playing cards, large 1.5″ round felt furniture pads, pom poms etc. He would then use his tray or basket with the smaller objects contained and push them into his drop can or box until it was full, dump it out and start all over again.
Closer to age one we had to watch him to make sure he didn’t eat the pom poms! But as the year went on, he could do it more independently, and kept coming back to this DIY toy! DIY Pom Pom Push Box $ Free
12. Ball ramp
One year olds love to see things roll. Another of their top priorities is putting things in, and taking things out. So this wooden ball ramp by Melissa and Doug is an awesome budget-friendly item that they’ll get a ton of use out of! They also love that they can pound away at these balls with a hammer. Great for building that hand eye coordination and giving them something that they can use some brute strength on without being redirected all the time. We also got a much longer life span from this tower than the “pound a peg” toys that they then flip over and hammer again. Many kids will find those interesting for less than a week.
After the newness wears off, you can use these for other play. We added a bell on a wire to the bottom shelf of it which was a delight. The balls and hammer can be used with many toys. While Montessori ball tracker ramps look great for this age, it just isn’t in a lot of families budgets. So this ball ramp is a great alternative. Don’t worry, your kid still has a chance at college if they use a $15 ball pound tower instead of a $100 Montessori ball tracker. ;) They’ll still manage to “track” where the ball goes. Melissa & Doug Deluxe Pound and Roll Wooden Tower Toy With Hammer Amazon $14
13. Balls & block set
Speaking of balls, the ball sets from Infantino are great starting around 6 months when they’re learning to grasp things. We got a lot of use of them especially in the house as they are wanting to throw things! It was great learning for our little one to understand that he could throw the light balls and not the wooden balls. Also helps them start to understand some concepts of light vs heavy even though a ball can be the same size (when compared to the wooden balls from his pound tower etc.) And the Infantino blocks are the best baby blocks! They’re the same material as the balls and easy for young toddlers and babies to grasp and stack. Infantino Ball & Block Set Amazon $14 or Infantino 6 Ball Set Amazon $11
14. Push cart walker wagon
And the biggest and most expensive item on my open-ended toys list for one year olds is a push cart! There are a lot of options and price ranges for push carts. We had a late walker with serious heft, so we went for a used heavy duty push cart. These carts come with a big price tag, so look used first! (I found one on Facebook Marketplace for $40 and resold it for the same price several years later). But if you have a more confident early walker who is on the lighter side the IKEA push carts are great budget options! At almost 12 pounds, the HABA walker wagon is great for hefty toddlers. Compared to the IKEA wagon which is about 5 pounds. HABA Walker Wagon Push Cart Amazon $190, IKEA UPPSTA Walker Wagon IKEA $30 (just redesigned! Amazon carries similar)
15. Cardboard box
And as usual, the cardboard box always makes an appearance on my toys lists! Box road, pretend car, train background – a large cardboard box is one of the best creative open-ended toys. And it’s free so win win for the whole family! Cardboard Box $ Free!
Note: This list leaves off dolls and stuffed animals, which are great open-ended toys. But by age one, most children have quite a collection already of animals and dolls that have been gifted!
Best Open-Ended Toys for 1 year olds and toddlers
So in summary, here are our favorite toys for the one year old to 18-24 month stage.
- Barn playset
- Wooden peg popup toy
- Palette of pegs
- Basic train set – wooden or Duplo
- Tea set
- Handled basket
- Chunky animal or vehicle puzzles
- Stacking or nesting toy
- Doodle board
- DIY push box & loose parts
- Ball ramp
- Balls set
- Push cart
- Cardboard box
I hope this list has given you some ideas for what toys to get your one year old to encourage open-ended play for years to come!