Retro toys and games are all the rage, and with good reason: Decidedly un-tech and built to last (often out of natural materials), retro-inspired toys evoke a simpler time, free of screens and Snapchat. More importantly, old-fashioned playthings connect kids to the unplugged here and now while building vital motor skills, spatial reasoning, executive functions and even physical fitness.
“I’m a big believer that kids need to exist in the physical world, not on an iPad,” says Sarah Furstenberg, owner of Ballard’s 10-year-old toy store Clover Toys.
“All of the things we do as humans — pushing, pulling, sorting — we do for a reason. When kids don’t get enough of those activities, it affects learning later on.” Read on for the best retro-inspired playthings for every age. You might be tempted to scoop up a few for yourself, for old times’ sake. Note: Prices will vary and are subject to change.
Toys for tots [AGES 0–2]
There’s something distinctly retro — and completely adorable — about a tot pulling a toy on a string. This one from Hape (pronounced hah-pay) features a shape sorter, a spinning shell and bright nontoxic colors. Made from maple, birch and rubberwood from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)–managed forests, this sturdy plaything will entertain generations of crawlers, new walkers and confident toddlers. Hape toys are known for quality and are a safe bet when parents want a timeless toy that lasts, says Nancy Chamberlain, assistant manager at Learning Sprout Toys in downtown Tacoma’s historic district.
Corolle baby doll, $42
Classic dolls that may remind you of the babies you once cradled, Corolle dolls are safe for 18 months and older, and feature a soft cloth body and a sweet “baby” scent. The limbs can be posed like a real baby, and the 12-inch size makes it easy to find doll clothes (made by Corolle and other brands). This doll is built to last — little mamas and papas might be able to hand this plaything down to a real baby of their own someday.
Radio Flyer Soft Rock and Bounce Pony, $140; stick horse, $20
Horse toys are as big a hit now as they were back when you rode off into the proverbial sunset on a rocking horse. The Radio Flyer Soft Rock and Bounce Pony is like the bouncing ponies of the past, but better: Scaled down to a toddler-friendly size and free of potentially pinchy springs, this toy has a washable cloth body, easy-to-grip handles and a rubber suspension for a quieter ride. If simple is more your style, check out Radio Flyer’s classic stick pony.
Part of Fisher-Price’s line of re-released classic toys, including the Classic Two-Tune Television and the Classic Record Player, the Classic 1959 Radio gets Clover owner Sarah Furstenberg’s vote for best of the bunch. All of the reproductions are cute, Furstenberg says, but the radio is easiest for little fingers to manipulate. “Toddlers can easily turn it on, and kids want to be able to actually work a toy.” Parents — and grandparents! — will get a kick out of seeing Junior bopping along to a toy they knew and loved.
Toys for preschoolers [AGES 3–5]
Fastrack board game, $21.99
The Fastrack board game is a wooden tabletop version of air hockey; though the manufacturer recommends it for ages 5 and older, kids as young as 2 could use it with parental supervision, says Clover Toys owner Sarah Furstenberg. “It’s very simplified and fun, and great for fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.”
Hopscotch mats, $25–$50
Hopscotch mats bring a timeless physical game of jumping from square to square on a small numbered course indoors, and are ideal for the cool Pacific Northwest winter. “We carry interlocking foam puzzle pieces that form a hopscotch mat, as well as a mat. They’re great for rainy days,” says Learning Sprout’s Nancy Chamberlain.
The Gymnic/Rody hop ball offers timeless fun reminiscent of the old-fashioned bouncy horse parents grew up with — but this one is mobile. A scaled-down version of the big-kid hop ball, the Rody ball features a pony head with ears that serve as handles for little hands. These bouncy balls of fun let stir-crazy little ones burn off winter energy while building balance and motor skills; get more than one, and kids can race/hop across the house (giggles ahead).
Preschool is an ideal time to introduce children to the timeless fun of Lincoln Logs, since they’re recommended for ages 3 and older. Whether building a log cabin or something more creative, little ones learn how to solve problems and polish fine motor skills. Perfect for family playtime (parents love them, too!), these classic building blocks are made of high-quality wood, and the retro tin has huge nostalgic appeal.
For schoolkids [AGES 6–10]
Perennially popular with kids and adults alike, the yo-yo invites sustained concentration and builds hand-eye coordination as kids learn to master tricks from basic to advanced (visit yoyoexpert.com/learn for a list of tricks and instructions). But beware cheap versions, says Furstenberg of Clover Toys — they won’t unspool smoothly and may break, frustrating would-be yo-yo gurus. “I like yo-yos from Yomega and Duncan. Plan to invest about $12–$15 in a good yo-yo, and look for one with a ball bearing inside.”
Original Spirograph, $15
Remember the tool you used to create page after page of spellbinding circles? Introduced in 1965, the Spirograph combines art and geometry and builds mathematical awareness (the technical names for those curved shapes are epitrochoids and hypotrochoids) along with hand-eye coordination and focus. Kids can create beautifully intricate patterns with the classic Spirograph tool in a slightly revamped set; this one includes new Spiro-Putty to hold the tools in place during use.
Simple and timeless, marbles are once again a must-have for the school-age crowd. “There is not a day that passes in my store that I don’t sell marbles. Kids are getting rule books to play and collect them,” Furstenberg says. No blacktop available for marble play? No problem, “We sell a marble mat by Channel Craft that’s great for indoor use.”
Another retro toy with fresh appeal, stilts strengthen core muscles and build gross motor skills — and they’re just plain fun. Stilts offer age-appropriate challenge for kids ages 5 and older, and stilt extensions can keep the fun going once veteran stilt walkers are ready for more. Gripping stilt handles can be tiring for small hands, so look for stilts with round handles (instead of square), padded grips and shoulder supports. Because the appeal of stilts never fades, look for adjustable legs to this toy.
For tweens and teens [AGES 10 AND OLDER]
Classic Simon, $25
Remember Classic Simon, the circular toy with primary-color-hued lights? This game-night staple is back and a great game for both teens and adults. The deceptively simple concept — copying Simon’s light sequences — provides a mental workout. With one and two player modes, this is a game kids can play when they’ve got a few minutes to kill, but it’s even more fun with a roomful of friends.
Pogo stick, $60
Pogo sticks have enduring appeal, even for too-cool teens outgrowing “toys.” A good way to stay active during the cool winter months, the sticks also pack a core workout and heart-pumping fun that never goes out of style; this isn’t something that will end up in the junk heap next year. National Sporting Goods and Flybar produce heavy-duty versions appropriate for kids in
elementary, middle and high school; be sure to check weight and height limits before you buy.
Cribbage, backgammon and bridge sets, $30
Classic games such as cribbage, backgammon and bridge score high marks for play value along with major retro appeal: Cribbage was invented in the 1600s. Teaching your teen to play one of these timeless games has multiple perks: You can enjoy the game as a family, teens and grandparents can play together, and later, your teen can take it to college and teach roommates. You may even spark a lifelong interest.
Crosley Nomad Turntable, $89–$399
Got a vinyl aficionado in the family? Or maybe an attic full of vintage records just waiting for a spin? The three-speed portable Crosley Nomad Turntable (one of a line of modern turntables with retro appeal) brings vinyl into the digital age with built-in stereo speakers, RCA outputs, a headphone-jack and a USB port to convert vinyl albums to digital files using included software. The sleek retro design and an easy-to-tote briefcase style make it easy for on-the-go teens to take their music anywhere, but the Nomad is equally at home in a busy family room, spinning Grandpa’s favorite record for the whole brood.
Been a while since you sat down to a game of Monopoly? You might be surprised by how little the classic version has changed. Of course, if you’re looking for a twist, revamped versions such as Electronic Banking, Monopoly Empire and Monopoly Millionaire keep the fun going. Known for games that stretch on for hours, Monopoly is a great way to tear kids away from cell phones for an evening. Bonus: The game builds focus and attention span, and might even offer a financial lesson or two.
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.
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