Now I’m going to talk about my latest favorite kid’s item – wooden activity cubes. There was one of these in the baby room at my daughter’s daycare, and she was obsessed with it. When her big sister would come along, she’d get obsessed with it as well. Then our Early Intervention specialist showed us some different exercises and ways to play with it that would help work on the little one’s motor skills, so that tipped me over the edge and I need to buy one.
I’ll talk in a minute about different types of wooden activity cubes and what to look for, but one important message of this post is don’t buy a new one. You can always find them on a parents listserve, a local Facebook yard sale group or children’s items group, or even Craigslist if you need to. These things (the good ones) are as sturdy as anything, so you can buy one that someone else has used for years and barely be able to tell the difference.
There are three main types of wooden activity cubes:
Probably a misnomer, since these are perfectly nice. These are cheaper and plainer, and I’m not a fan since I think a kid would get bored with them pretty quickly. Tend to be primary colors, basic shapes, etc. These are great for babies but once kids get a little bigger there isn’t much else to explore – no alphabet blocks, things to line up for hand-eye coordination, etc. My four-year old still likes to play with my little one’s activity cube (one of the mid-range ones, next), and trying to find the letters in her name on the alphabet side. These aren’t that much cheaper, so you might as well go for the nicer one that will entertain the kids longer!
If you are going to buy one of these, the two most popular are the KidKraft Bead Maze Cube and the Maxim Learning Cube (also listed sometimes as the Maxim Activity Fun Box). Both have different shapes on top, not just beads, which is a nice feature. They both still are stuck with the same basic-play, primary color scheme best suited to younger children. Both have removable tops, which the mid- and high-end ones don’t, and I think it’s for good reason – the corners are sharp. The nicer versions all have rounded or sanded corners, which is a great safety feature. There are some differences in the activities (for example, the KidKraft version has a cute shape sorter tree), but the major difference between the two is size. The KidKraft cube is 10.6 x 10.5 x 19.6 inches and weighs 6.2 pounds, while the Maxim cube is much shorter and heavier at 13.4 x 13.4 x 13.4 inches and 11 pounds. I’d give the edge to Maxim here just for stability and the sunken screws, but remember that this means it’s only a little more than a foot tall – not as much fun for a toddler.
The most popular of these are the Alex Jr. series: My Busy Town, My Busy Farm, etc. The B. Zany Zoo cubes are a pretty close second. I’ll talk about My Busy Town as a representative of the Alex Jr. cubes, since they are all slightly different versions of the same thing. The Alex Jr. and the B. Zany Zoo cubes are almost interchangeable – bead maze on top with a wooden arch, one side of horizontal rows of spinning pictures/letters, one side of peek-a-boo doors, one side of curvy mazes, etc. The differences are pretty small – for example, Alex Jr.’s My Busy Town has peek-a-boo doors with different occupations while the B. Zany Zoo’s cube’s peek-a-boo doors have animals inside. We ended up buying My Busy Town but I looked at all of them and would’ve been happy with either of the brands. Very solid quality wood and attention to detail like round corners instead of sharp points.
This is where you go beyond the “cube” world into hexahedrons and beyond. These tend to be marked both to individuals and to day care centers, waiting rooms, and other high-traffic areas. Anatex has pretty much cornered the market here, going all the way up to the $500+ Sea Life Busy Cube, which has beautiful hand-painted panels and is certainly sturdy at a whopping 34 pounds. If your company just IPOed, go for it, but I personally can’t see justifying that much money for this toy.
The more modest of Anatex’s high-end offerings is their Six-Sided Play Cube. The Anatex Six-Sided Play Cube has more activities than your mid-range cubes and also more marketing – the spin-the-horizontal-blocks-with-random-letters-and-pictures panel is now known as the “Learn the Alphabet” game (the same cube also offers “self-contained” as a selling point on Amazon, which is sort of like offering “wood” as a selling point – it’s pretty much par for the course).
How to use a wooden activity cube for gross motor development (besides regular play!)
Tummy time: especially with spinning parts – When our youngest was a baby she would lie on the floor in front of the cube looking at the alphabet spin or the roller trucks come down.
Kneeling: we would put her in a kneeling position in front of the cube, holding her feet gently so she couldn’t just sit down. She would quickly become enthralled with the beads on top and not notice that her core muscles were strengthening.
Pulling up to standing: she would grab onto the top of the cube and pull herself up. Yes, the metal wires on the top are sturdy enough for this. No, the cube did not tip over – it is heavy enough.
Balance toys on top: as she got a little more stable on her feet, we would place toys on top of the bead maze on the top of the cube to encourage her to reach crossbody with her arms. A bonus is that when she was using one hand to reach for a toy she was supporting herself in standing position with just one hand.
Walker: we found that traditional walkers with plastic wheels went too fast for a child just learning to walk. Our PT suggested using our wooden activity cube and it worked. My daughter loved to push this around our kitchen floor instead of a walker – it was heavy enough that it wouldn’t more too fast.