Have you ever given your child a shiny (and expensive) new toy only to have him play all day with the box it came in? How can a simple cardboard box entertain your toddler long after those fancy playthings are forgotten?

To answer that question you need to go beyond bells and blinking lights and discover what drives (and holds) a child's interest. Toys that stand the test of time share four fundamental qualities: simplicity, creativity, consistency and "open-endedness".

Dr. Stevanne Auerbach, author of Smart Play Smart Toys: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ, says, "It's important to find a balance of toys that encourage activity, creativity and learning." Classic toys, she adds, are durable and well-designed, but simple to use. A good example would be a basic set of blocks. With blocks and construction kits a child can succeed early on and then "grow" with the toy—using it in more complex ways when he's developmentally ready.

Open-ended toys encourage creativity because the result is different every time; there's no "right" way to play with them. This is the reason a cardboard box can capture your little one's interest for hours—the box is a plane or a fort or a race car—there are no limits but your child's imagination!

Simple doesn't mean that you're stuck with a piece of string or a box, however. Try these classic toys with a twist to capture—and keep—the interest of your growing learner:

  • Citiblocs Original Wooden Building Block Set (ages 2+): This bright, multicolored bucket of blocks has an edge on similar systems due to its simple design. The blocks are easy to snap together, and they're all the same size, so your child won't be overwhelmed by too many pieces or overly complex instructions. These toys are incredibly durable and simple enough for a 2-year-old, but flexible enough for older children to build towers, castles and even cities. A great choice for a toy that lasts.
  • Melissa & Doug Reusable Sticker Pad-Habitats (ages 3+): Help your child learn about animals and their environments with these reusable stickers and stamps. Your three-year-old will love arranging and rearranging the adorable critters at the farm or African oasis. As your little learner grows, the stickers can be combined for dazzling science school projects or provide a visual complement to your budding author's one-of-a-kind tales. Extremely flexible and open-ended, this kit will be useful from toddlerhood through the elementary school years.
  • Alex Toys My Giant Busy Box (ages 2+): From confetti and buttons to cloth flowers, this veritable "grab-bag" contains everything your child needs to create art masterpieces—perfect for rainy days! Toddlers can create simple dough animals or paper bag puppets, and as your tiny artist grows, he can use his imagination to create collages, sticker art and more. The ultimate art kit to entertain your child from ages 2 to 12, perfect for honing fine motor skills and stretching the limits of imagination.
  • Plush Happy Kids Hand Puppets Set Multi Ethnical Collection (ages 2+): It's no secret that young kids love faces, so captivate your toddler with this set of colorful puppets. As your child grows, you can use these diverse puppets to teach tolerance, create elaborate stories or explore friendship, community and family issues. Easy to use and durable, these fabric friends will become favorites in your kid's toy collection.
  • Toobers & Zots Bend & Build Foam structure set (ages 2+): These brightly colored, moldable soft foam sticks can be bent, twisted and stuck together to create whatever your child dreams up! Perfect for prepping muscles to begin writing, your little learner will love manipulating the pieces into different animals, objects and shapes. The kit comes equipped with over 100 pieces, so there's no limit to your kid's open-ended creativity.
  • Crayola 3D Chalk Set (ages 2+): Give your science enthusiast a peek into a different dimension with this amazing kit. Your child will be amazed when his artwork comes to life with this chalk set, complete with "hot" and "cold" colors, 3D glasses and instructions. Follow super simple instructions to help your little one scribble away and delight as their pictures pop off the sidewalk. Older kids will love the challenge of intersecting warm and cool tones to create a 3D masterpiece. This toy box essential's perfect for experimenting with and learning about basic scientific principles.
  • Rory's Story Cubes (ages 6+): Unleash your kid's inner storyteller with this creative game. Images printed on the dice are used as inspiration to create a one-of-a-kind tale, making it perfect for family game night. These imaginative cubes are excellent for literacy development, early reading and comprehension, and flexing your child's imagination.
  • Crayola Pencil Design 'N Sketch Set with Story Studio (ages 3+): Crayons and coloring books are a classic toy—but this sketch set takes it one step further with a high-tech addition. Follow instructions on the box to create a customized coloring book with a picture of your child (as a cartoon) and his favorite characters. This personalized activity's bound to capture your little one's imagination as he and his adventures develop. When your child's the star of the story he'll never get bored!

Dropping a pretty penny on the latest toys won't guarantee your child any educational leg-up come classtime. By providing your tiny explorer with imaginative, simple playthings, he'll reap developmental benefits for years to come—without breaking the bank!