Are you searching for freeform ways for your kids to explore geometry, design and construction? Magnetic tiles are a great place to start. They’re a fun, intuitive way for children 3 and up to build three-dimensional structures.
What I'd read told me that magnetic tiles would be a great educational toy to get for my family. When I went looking for the best magnetic tiles to buy for my son and daughter, I couldn’t find reliable information. So I decided to run hands-on tests of the three most popular brands, with help from a review panel consisting of my kids, aged 3 and 6.
After more than 12 hours of careful testing and research I can recommend 3 brands of magnetic tiles: Magformers, Magna-Tiles, and Picasso Tiles.
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Magnetic tiles are colourful flat plastic shapes with magnets inside them. Those magnets are what make these tiles special. Place them edge-to-edge and the tiles magically “click” together. The magnetic connections are strong enough to allow children to build castles and rockets.
Because it’s so easy to connect magnetic tiles they’re great for toddlers who are still developing fine motor skills. Older kids also find magnetic tiles rewarding because they can quickly click-click-click tiles into complex creations.
The simplest way to use magnetic tiles is to build in two-dimensions -- either on a flat surface or upright on a fridge or other metal surface. Try starting with a skyline or a roadway for toy cars or airplanes to follow.
Building in 3D is only slightly trickier. Start from a flat surface to create structures that go up and up.
My daughter taught me a neat 3D trick she learned at school. Lay out a flattened version of the 3D shape on a flat surface -- that’s the “net” -- then lift and fold the tiles into the final 3D shape. It’s a handy way to assemble shapes and provides a fun, hands-on geometry lesson.
Researchers recommend open-ended play for healthy child development. Magnetic tiles fit into the open-ended style of play beautifully.
Be intentional about providing children with toys that let kids make choices about play, and support them in strengthening their cognitive, language and social skills in the process.
Michigan State University
Eastern Connecticut State University runs an ongoing research project called TIMPANI to select the best toys to promote child development. They study how each toy promotes children’s development in: thinking and learning, social interaction and cooperation, and self-expression and imaginative play.
In 2013 the prestigious TIMPANI award was awarded to Magna-Tiles, a leading brand of magnetic tile.
Magna-Tiles lend themselves to cooperative imaginary role playing. Children can use them independently or together. One little boy was making a house for his tiger. He needed a square and there weren’t any more squares left. He figured out that he could put two triangles together. So there’s a lot of problem-solving.
I've observed the benefits of open-ended play with my own kids. Given a toolkit like magnetic tiles they are free to take their play in whatever direction that feel like. Sometimes they start from a theme and work from there "I'm building a track for my sheep". I'm not sure why my three year old decided that we needed a sheep track but I admire his effort to making the best darned sheep track he could. Other times they'll challenge themselves to build something particularly tall or complex. Sometimes they just want to lay out the tiles and match colors. Magnetic tiles support all these varied modes of play wonderfully.
“Suitable for kids 3 and up” is the consensus of the major brands of magnetic tiles.
The bright colors and easy handling makes them attractive to kids much younger than 3 too. Many parents use them with toddlers quite successfully but It’s important to understand the particular safety issues of magnetic toys and small kids. This is a case where the “under adult supervision” rule should be taken seriously.
Kids from 3 and 10 years old all enjoy playing with magnetic tiles in their own ways. It doesn’t stop with kids either – Magnetic tiles, like Lego, are that rare kind of toy that adults also enjoy playing with.
High quality magnetic tiles are safe, but keep an eye on the small, powerful magnets inside them. Magnets can be dangerous of swallowed, but this isn’t something to worry about unless you have broken tiles. The magnets sealed inside the tiles are completely safe.
Magnets found by young children can be swallowed or inhaled. If more than one magnet is swallowed, the magnets can attract each other and cause intestinal perforations or blockages, which can be fatal.
The American Academy of Pediatrics
I use magnetic tiles with my kids all the time without any qualms. As with any toy, it’s good to know about any risks so you can avoid them. Properly used, well made magnetic tiles are safe and fun.
With any toy it's a good idea to look for a respected safety certification. This will reassure you that there's no nasty chemicals in the plastics used. Picasso Tiles, Magformers and Magna-Tiles all have one or more well respected certification. Look for the American ATSM certification or the European CE certification, both are solid.
Starter sets from the different brands contain 30 to 50 tiles. That’s a respectable number for a single child to get started.
The beginner sets contain three or four types of tiles. Multiple tiles with similar shapes will give your kids the most building options.If you’re buying for a more ambitious kid or for more than one then a larger set is a good idea. I’d suggest 50+ is a good number of tiles for two kids to play in parallel. Fewer than that and you risk squabbles or structurally unsound creations.
So you can get started with a smaller set and add to it later. As long as you buy the same brand the tiles will all be compatible. Larger sets offer more variety in tile shapes and accessories, including wheels, which were very popular with my kids. Different tile shapes like doorways or curved shapes give kids fresh creative options.
275g (9½ ounces)
145g (5 ounces)
130g (4½ ounces)
Magformers are the clear winner in the magnet strength contest. The attraction between Magformer tiles is nearly twice as strong as Picasso Tiles and Magna-Tiles. This isn't surprising as Magformers use superior rare-earth magnets while Magna-Tiles and Picasso Tiles depend on cheaper iron magnets.
Because of their superior magnets Magformers are excellent for creations that can be picked up and played with. Say a rocket ship or a truck. The weaker hold weight of the other brands means they're more suited to table-top building.
Magna-Tiles and Picasso Tiles have the edge when it comes to towering structures. Both tiles are designed with square edges. These work well for building walls and floors that meet at ninety degrees. With a steady hand and a large supply of tiles it's totally possible to build kid-height towers.
Magformers are the clear winner for building complex shapes. Most brands of magnetic tiles have flat surfaces and edges which are great for shapes with straight lines and right angles. But Magformers have rounded edges which allows them to connect together at any angle. Making sturdy connections at any angle is handy when you're building complex 3D structures.
Magformers encourage building complex forms with their tile selection and instructions. Magformers directions even show you how make a rhombicuboctahedron, which is a 24-sided shape made up of squares and triangles. (Thank goodness it’s easier to build than it is to pronounce.)
Magnetic tiles are easy to get started with. Kids take to them naturally and with small nudges they will learn lots of cool ways to build. Because magnetic tiles are so intuitive, instructions aren’t essential. That said, it’s nice to have some inspiration and guidance to get started.
Magformers include an instruction book with [XX] different creations. This is great for inspiration and figuring out some of the complex shapes that Magformers are particularly suited to building. However, the included booklet isn’t specific to the set you buy. Instead you need to use the key to see which shapes can be built with the set(s) you have. Magformer also offer downloadable, themed booklets.
Magna-Tiles come with a single-sided instruction sheet. This will get you started, but it’s a little disappointing since Magna-tiles position themselves as a premium brand.
Picasso Tiles get a thumbs down for inspiration. No instructions included in the box.
Good magnetic tiles aren’t cheap. But cheap magnetic tiles aren’t good.
There’s definitely a range of prices within the high quality brands. I tried some of the cheaper brands among the dozens of knock-off magnetic tiles available. But none met the minimum standards to earn a mention in this review. The lowest cost brand that I’d recommend is Picasso Tiles.
Starter set cost
$50 gets you around 100 tiles
$50 buys a 50-tile set
Just 32 tiles for $50
Magna-Tiles are the most expensive magnetic tiles. So for around $50 you only get a starter set of 32 Magna-Tiles will only give your kid a taste of creative possibilities. If they catch-on with your kids you're going to want to double the size of your collection. A 50-tile set from Magformers offers a good start unless you have multiple kids or a very ambitious child.
All three of the leading brands reviewed here are worth having. Magformers, Magna-Tiles and Picasso Tiles each have their own strengths and weaknesses. The favorite in our home are Magformers. Their super-strong magnets and flexibility for building all kinds of shapes set them apart. You can't go wrong with any one of these brands though.
If you're just getting started with magnetic tiles then you’re in for a treat! Based on my extensive research these three magnetic tile sets are worth your attention. Enjoy!
The Magformer brand was an excellent performer across all our tests. Perfect for hand-held and complex shapes. This 62-tile set is plenty big enough to start exploring the possibilities of magnetic tiles.
Magna-tiles are the top pick if your kids want to build up-up-up. kit 48 pieces including an ever popular wheeled chassis for DIY vehicle design.
Picasso Tiles are a very good deal for larger sets. The manufacturing quality is slight behind Magna-Tiles and Magformers but they're still a solid choice.
I love projects that mix technical and creative skills. Over a decade ago I worked as a timber framer, chiseling 10-inch thick oak beams by hand. More recently I worked as a creative technologist, applying the Maker movement philosophy to businesses and brands. Now that I’m a dad of two young kids, I try to nurture their creative tendencies through paper, pixels, and everything in-between. If you have questions, suggestions, or other recommendations, let me know!
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