Most kids want to climb everything — couches, chairs, and kitchen counters included. Climbers are toys and structures actually meant for that. “Climbing toys are huge for development,” says Keri Wilmot, a.k.a. the Toy Queen, a pediatric occupational therapist and play expert. There’s the obvious building of strength and endurance, along with motor skills like balance, coordination, and agility. “But there’s one extra piece that kids get through engaging in motor play,” Wilmot says, “and that’s the ability to self-regulate and improve their attention and focus, especially on the activity that directly follows.” It’s good for kids to get these experiences multiple times a day, she adds, “because then you’re giving them the best chance possible to regulate all that energy.”
We asked Wilmot and a handful of other child and play experts for their recommendations on the best toys and play structures for climbing. They delivered their indoor and outdoor favorites for babies on up to big kids.
A Pikler Triangle can be an excellent early investment because it will last a child from 6 months to 6 years. Created by Hungarian physician Dr. Emmi Pikler around 100 years ago and now heavily associated with the Montessori style of learning, it’s essentially a few wooden pieces that make up a triangle ladder, a rock wall, a ramp, and sometimes an arch. Dr. Giselle Tadros, a physical therapist and the founder of In-Home Pediatric Physical Therapy of New Jersey, recommended it as one of the best active play toys for encouraging little ones to practice gross-motor skills and for being “really good for promoting concentration, independence, and grip and core strengthening.”
The Nugget is a climbing structure, playhouse (a Strategist-favorite playhouse, in fact), modular couch, and fort all wrapped up in one. Parents obsessed over it during the pandemic, and it seemed like everybody was trying to get their hands on one (certainly the case in the Facebook mom groups I belong to). The Nugget consists of four foam pieces — a base, a cushion, and two triangle pillows — and comes in a wide range of colors. “There’s a ton of versatility with it. You can use them with an 8-month-old and a 10-year-old,” says Wilmot. My 5-year-old son and his best friend spend hours reconfiguring the Nugget into a hideout, ramp, cave, crash pad, and whatever else their imaginations can think of. When they tire out, they chill on it for some quiet time.
Similar to the Nugget but for kids a little younger is the Foamnasium Blocky Mini, recommended by pediatric physical therapist Alexandra Buwalda as one of the best active toys for toddlers. She says playing on the Blocksy Mini will help them understand different levels and how to navigate them as well as build on gross-motor skills. Much like the Nugget and other modular block sets, this vinyl-covered foam set can be put together in several ways using the two wedge cushions and folding base.
Give kids their very own Ninja Warrior–style obstacle course and watch their fun, competitive spirits come out to play. Not only will kids have a blast trying to outdo their best time, but they’ll be flexing problem-solving skills, says Paige Hirsch, chief content editor of Plinkit and a former elementary-school teacher who recommended this set as one of the best outdoor toys. The Slackers course includes nylon ropes, gymnastics rings, and a monkey-bar hold, and there’s a climbing rope and climbing ladder that can be added to the NinjaLine or used independently. Parents can design the course to match the age and skill of their child (it’s suitable for kids as young as 5 or 6), but no matter how it’s configured, it will be a challenge that takes kids time to master. But that’s really the point, says Hirsch, because falling down and getting back up builds persistence and resilience.
The Gym1 climbing set is a compact indoor jungle gym that fits in the space of a doorway. Multiple experts recommended it as one of the best active play toys, and Wilmot agrees. “It’s perfect for people who live in apartments or small spaces and don’t have a big area for kids to climb in; they’re able to use a doorway and still get some of that energy out,” she says. The set has a pull-up bar and fun attachments like a ladder, a knotted climbing rope, a swing, gymnastics rings, and a trapeze bar. The pull-up bar attaches to most doorframes with secure vise grips, and it takes just a few minutes to put up and take down so you can move it from one spot in your home to another. It’s also safety tested to hold up to 300 pounds, so adults can have a little fun practicing their gymnastics skills too.
This portable climbing structure for toddlers and younger elementary-school kids can be used indoors and out. “What I like about the design is that you can add a blanket over the top, and now on top of its being a climber, you have a fort or an area where kids can create a new play space,” says Wilmot. This tower is made of durable plastic, and the interlocking tubes snap onto the connector hubs, so setting it up is straightforward. Its stable base doesn’t need to be anchored, and it can easily be picked up and moved from place to place, like from the playroom to the backyard.
The powder-coated-steel Lifetime climbing dome came doubly recommended as one of the best outdoor toys by former New York City educator and owner of the Little Gym of Roslyn Annie Young and by child psychologist Dr. Nicole Beurkens. “Kids love climbing it, hanging upside down, swinging, and making it into their secret clubhouse,” says Young. While they’re building strength and balance, they’re building confidence and taking risks, says Beurkens.
The Nerf Scout Defense Base is an interactive fort with an obstacle-course feel. It’s got a climbing wall (with two routes), a rappelling rope, a crawl tunnel, and targets and storage containers for Nerf darts. “It builds in climbing, but you also have something purposeful to do with all your Nerf blasters,” says Wilmot. “It gives kids more of a focus and brings two fun play patterns together.” Wilmot also likes that it will get years of use; kids from 3 to 10 can enjoy it, and you’ll get even more longevity out of it if you have multiple kids.
The StairSlide caters to the universal desire kids have to climb stairs, but instead of sliding back down on their bums, they get an actual indoor slide to play on. “It transforms the space you already have into something fun and different,” says Wilmot. A single slide section can affix to the couch for toddler play, and the pieces combine to form a large stair slide for big kids. Most kids can set it up independently, and each piece stays firmly in place with a self-anchoring bottom. They’re also stackable for easy storage. A word of caution: The slide goes really fast. Pillows to soften the landing are a good idea, but you may also want to consider purchasing the StairSlide landing pad or something like the Nugget or Foamnasium.
When Children’s Haus founder Janos Stone was asked about which playhouses he and his two kids loved (aside from his own invention), he recommended this multiuse sculptural wooden play structure that’s part gymnastics studio, part indoor jungle gym. He likes its ability to transform into different active play environments. The Wedanta Kids Ladder Wall mounts directly to the wall and includes a rope ladder, a swing, pull-up bars, a trapeze, and a multiuse bench. You can add a landing pad to complete the space.
Building an at-home rock-climbing wall was another pandemic project many people undertook. Climbing holds can add a lot of fun to kids’ play structures, too, “if you have the imagination and the engineering ability to be able to create something and use them safely,” says Wilmot, who stressed the importance of knowing your child’s abilities and being present to help guide them when needed. There’s not a lot of variation in climbing holds, but I use the 25-piece Topnew set in my son’s outdoor play space because it comes with three different shapes in five bright colors and all the hardware you need to install them (and the double-bolted holds make for a more secure installation). The plastic resin is pretty close to weatherproof, so the holds can survive years of outdoor use before they begin to wear down.
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