1) LEGO Bricks: LEGO has been around for decades and hav always encouraged kids' imaginations with simple building blocks that can be made into practically anything. You can even go to their website and find their mission statement which is, "Inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow." Although LEGO has a wide range of themed brick sets (Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.), I've always enjoyed the basic brick sets. Sets can be bought that have various numbers of bricks in them and you can even build your own set if you go to their website (www.lego.com). You need to be mindful of the size of the blocks when buying a set as the smaller blocks would be a choking hazard for very young children. In my opinion LEGO makes some of the best educational toys out there, even if they are a pain to pick up. A set of these bricks will last a lifetime and can be enjoyed by every age group, even adults. Alternatives include Erector Sets, Bristle Blocks, and Lincoln Logs.
2) Puzzles: They come in all shapes and sizes from basic wooden block jigsaw puzzles tothose that have hundreds of pieces. Just buy the appropriate puzzle for your child's age. These make perfect toys for kids as they just don't teach, they acutally exercise their minds. The number snail wooden puzzle to the right was found at 1888Toys and is perfect for learning numbers, colors, and concentration.
3) Video and Computer Games: A lot of toys nowadays come in bits and bytes. I won't go into the game systems as there are several and always changing. Parents need to look at specific games and decide if they benefit or educate their child in any way. I will say that I believe these games can be a good thing in moderation as you have to apply reasoning and concentration in most cases. A few places to start would be Oregon Trail, Zoo Tycoon 2, Sim City, New Super Mario Bros, and Okami.
4) Play-Doh: Finding educational toys for kids got a lot easier when Play-Doh found its way into stores, although parents probably didn't realize it. Created in the 1950's this product allows children (and adults) to easily create things from their imaginations. It also exercises the hand muscles and teaches kids about colors. Many parents avoid Play-Doh because of the clean up factor, but as long as you designate a certain area for playing with it, the clean up isn't too bad. It will dry out if you leave it outside of the can, but it makes up for this in its affordability in my opinion. Alternatives include Brain Food by Fat Brain Toys (no latex or wheat compounds) and Soy-Yer Dough by BioGreene (gluten and wheat free).
5) Board Games: There are several board games available for children of various ages that can teach them a variety of subjects, especially when played with their parents. A few include Twister, Candyland, Settlers of Catan, Chutes and Ladders, Operation, Connect 4, Memory, and Clue Jr.
6) Alphabet Blocks: Many don't just have the alphabet on them anymore. You can find some that also have numbers, pictures, colors, and are even in different languages. They are great for children 2 years and up. Have fun teaching them how to spell their names and names of other family members. You can find them in all shapes and sizes and made out of many different materials. Kids that already know their letters can really jumpstart their education. You probably shouldn't wait too long to get these; the older a child gets the less interested they may become in blocks. An alternative would be magnetic letters that can be put on metal surfaces. Every time my niece comes over she loves playing with any magnets on the fridge.
7) Children's Books: Some would say that books are not really a great choice for educational toys (for kids at least), but I would absolutely disagree. They open up whole new worlds to the child and can teach them a variety of things. One thing I like to do is talk about the book with the child after reading it, sometimes they do have questions. A few books include Where the Wild Things Are, Harry Potter series, Green Eggs and Ham, Everyone Poops, Goosebumps series, and Charlotte's Web.
8) Digital Devices: These are becoming more and more popular as time passes, but many may be too complicated for your young child so be sure to do a little research. These aren't exactly cheap, either. Below are a couple of choices. The V.Reader Animated E-Book from Vtech helps kids build up their vocabulary and spits out sounds, voices, and music. The Fisher Price iXL does roughly the same thing. I guess we're just going to have to realize that toys like these will probably get more and more expensive.
9) Classic Soundmaker Toys: Many of us had them when we were little and they're just as fun for kids today. You pull a string or lever and make animal sounds or you press buttons to make music. Educational toys are always more fun for kids when they don't know they're learning. There are lots of choices out there like The Farmer Says by Fisher Price, Little Tikes Pop Tunes Big Rocker Keyboard, The Alphabet Apple by Vtech, or The Teaching Cash Register by Learning Resources.
10) Crayola: Best known for their crayons, but also offers other items for the budding artist including colored pencils, markers, paints, and coloring books. All products are marketed as non-toxic and safe for children. A good artistic alternative is Window Art by Klutz which lets your child make stained glass like artwork which they can stick to any glass surface.
11) TAG Reading System by Leap Frog: Many call this one of the most effective educational toys for kids that has come out on the market in a long time. Children discover that words and pictures can talk as they follow along in a wide range of books (Disney characters, Dinosaurs, SpongeBob, Scooby Doo, Toy Story, etc). The child points a pen like camera to a picture or word and it plays sound bites or words. Although a great alternative to TV, it is somewhat expensive. This gets great reviews but does require a computer and internet hookup to uncap its full potential.