Magnetic Tiles Review

In a recent survey I asked you, our readers, if you would like help choosing toys. The response was overwhelming so here is the first instalment. Unexpectedly, given that we sold so many wooden toys, by far the most requested review was…

Magnetic tiles

I’d love a perspective on all the different magnetic tile shapes for a 4 year old, please The prices vary so much between brands.

Over the years, we have had many different magnetic tiles in the 100 Toys house. We tried Magnatiles when the children were very young and we have been given a variety of other brands for various birthdays along the way.

The basic premise is a compelling one – to rapidly construct geometric shapes in a foolproof way. The materials are didactic, that is they teach. If you have six squares, you can’t fail to make a cube. You won’t ever create a pyramid by accident.

And because the shapes are constructed in such a regular way, it’s obvious which pieces are missing. You make all kinds of discoveries: a cube with a missing side makes a box; a cube with both ends missing is no longer stable and can be squashed to make a diamond.

But this simplicity is also a drawback. You can only ever create regular 3-D shapes. After a while, all your constructions look identical: a house or tower with exactly the same pointy roof. It gets stale. Try getting creative and you discover that your irregular shapes won’t connect without leaving an unsightly gap.

I am wondering about magnetic tiles – my son has a few and on & off does some amazing building with them so I am considering getting more, like the Desire Deluxe magnetic building blocks. Does he need more though??

The big problem, for me, has always been that you don’t get many magnetic tiles for your money. And if you don’t get many tiles, there’s a limit to what you can make.

Like Lego, you need a lot of pieces. You don’t want to run out. You also don’t want to use every piece making the model described in the instructions, leaving yourself no spare pieces to play with. Children, quite rightly, are often reluctant to break their creations apart just to make pieces available for a sibling.

So what to do? Buying a giant set is prohibitively expensive and I don’t think you’ll get that much play value out of it.

I have a 4 and 6 year old who both love small world play (mainly putting figures in vehicles and houses. My six year old loves construction. They have grimms blocks but my older girl wants levels on top of each other and more complexity. She also generally wants to make castles and car parks.​I’m torn between magnetic tiles or Just Blocks smart lines.

My answer?

Just Blocks every time.

What’s interesting about your question is that you’ve noticed that the two toys are equivalent in some way. Flat magnetic tiles offer some of the same two-dimensional possibilities: roads, roofs and ramps. But as we’ve seen, magnetic tiles are expensive. You simply can’t get enough to make a usably large small world scene.

By contrast, look at the creative possibilities afforded by a big box of blocks. Do you see how you can ‘discover’ squares and rectangles, simply by laying out roads and bringing them back to the start? The rules are immutable: parallel sides of equal length. It’s impossible to go wrong. We’re back to didactic materials again.

See also, how those rectangular enclosures connect to lines, making letter-like forms. Writing a ‘p’ or ‘d’ becomes much easier when you have encountered the idea of joining shapes in your play.

Playing with light

I don’t have a photo to show this with magnetic tiles, but one of the delights of plastic tiles is the colour they throw across the room when placed near a light source, whether that’s a torch or a window.

You’ll have to imagine that these are Magnatiles, but you get the point:

This is a real plus for magnetic tiles

A quick Google search for ‘coloured acrylic sheets’ throws up some beautiful pieces, for just a few pennies each. I wonder what your child could make with a set of these? Prop them up between blocks to make windows and doors. Or a stained glass window. Or a cathedral.

With a bit of research, you might find sheets that fit into the Smart Lines bases, giving you beautiful coloured screens. You can also hold them up with bulldog clips or plasticine.

A word of warning. If you start going freestyle, buying fun materials that weren’t designed as toys, think carefully about safety. I doubt whether acrylic squares would pass a safety test for the under 3s for all kinds of reasons. And even if your child is older, things you find on the web aren’t always suitable for play. Use your judgement, and don’t take risks.

Magnets are dangerous

I had always assumed that this was because they were a potential choke hazard – which they are – but it turns out there is a further risk if two or more are swallowed at once. For this reason, I urge you to choose a brand that takes safety seriously. Connetix, for example, BPA-free plastic with rivets connecting the pieces for extra safety. What you want to avoid are tiles that are simply glued together. Then you run the risk of a toddler chewing or dropping them, exposing the magnets within.

I have a 4.5 year old boy who enjoys building but will often get a new set of something he can build with (Brio builder, LEGO, etc) but once built, he is very reluctant to take it apart again. We are thinking about getting him
A large pack of KAPLA (he already has a smaller pack but there is not quite enough to build something big)
Large pack magnetic tiles (he has a very small pack but again not a lot of option to build with just a few tiles)
Looking forward to hearing from you.

Blocks vs. Magnetic Tiles | Round 2

You probably know where this is going. A review of magnetic tiles that doesn’t recommend magnetic tiles…

Consider KAPLA.

If you want to extend your child’s thinking, impose constraints. An unlimited supply of every conceivable shape removes the challenge. If your set contains arches, you will never have to work out how to make a bridge. If your set contains long blocks, you will never have to work out how to span a large gap with smaller pieces.

Of course, much of this depends on the age of your child. KAPLA is no good for a two-year-old. For a toddler, a set of blocks with bridges and arches, steps and ramps is perfect. The various pieces introduce them to the creative possibilities.

But for deeper, more engaging play, a preschooler needs a greater challenge.

Here is an interesting way to make a cube:

And here’s how you create a bridge pier, ready to span a large gap using only short planks.

And how do you create a building with only thin planks? And small windows when all the pieces are long?

There’s some good thinking going on here.

Alternatives to magnetic tiles

OK, so I know we’re talking Christmas presents, but I hope to show you that you can get most of the learning from cheaper materials and things you already have lying around the home.

That’s incredibly liberating because it frees you to buy a present that is fun and different, even if it’s not optimal, educationally.

Do you remember polydrons from school? They are magnatiles without the magnets and, I suspect, the reason magnetic tiles were invented in the first place: brilliant fun but hard for small hands to snap together.

But because the connection is stiff, your constructions won’t collapse. They enable you to create shape nets and really understand how a 2-D shape folds up to make its 3-D equivalent.

Why is this important?

Spatial reasoning.

I am a baby. I hold a block in my hands. I feel its surfaces and edges. I note the curves and the corners. I feel its weight. I examine it from all sides. What can I do with it? Will it stack? Will it balance? Can I line it up with other blocks?

Now I have a picture of it in my mind, its properties and possibilities.

As I grow, I learn to manipulate this this mental representation of the block without having the real thing in front of me. I can imagine the possibilities.

What will this shape look like if I flip it? What if I rotate it? What if I reverse the order of these objects?

This is how mathematical thinking begins. Setting aside the obvious applications for geometry, playing with blocks teaches concepts like addition, subtraction and reversibility.

What I’ve tried to do with the courses is include activities where your child develops skills through play that one day become essential. Folding paper, for example, a favourite activity of Froebel’s, dovetails nicely with polydrons and magnetic tiles.

A baby holds a block, a toddler connects magnetic tiles, a schoolboy folds a net to make a cube and a teenager uses all this spatial reasoning practice to answer the following non-verbal reasoning question:

Q. Which net on the right can be folded up to make the cube on the left?

In a very roundabout way, I’m saying that magnetic tiles are great, but limited. They make a nice present but to really extend your child’s learning, consider augmenting her play with other materials and experiences. Tiles look ‘educational’ but their end of term report card says, ‘could do better’.

My recommendation

As long as you choose a set that is safe, all major brands are fine. Wheels are nice but when you start adding fancy extras like these, it’s not really a set of magnets anymore. Which is also fine, but the learning will be different: More trajectory schema than spatial reasoning.

I feel strongly that a Christmas present should grow with your child, offering further opportunities to play but – in the end – you want the present to be enjoyed on the day. If your child is set on magnetic tiles, they make a nice gift.
If the above review has inspired you to try something new, rather than blowing the budget on one large set, consider going for a smaller one and spending the rest on some blocks or other shape-related toys.
Was that product review? I’m not really sure. But I hope it helped!

Further recommendations

Now that the review is out of the way, I’ve got some plastic for you. Yes, I know it’s not very on-brand, and there are (inferior) wooden equivalents, but these products offer cheap fun throughout the year. Not fancy enough to put under the tree, but if you have a few pounds to spare, they will get you through the Christmas holidays and beyond – and spark a lot of learning along the way.

​Learning Resources Geometric Shapes​

Another modern take on a classic Froebelian activity – peas and sticks. You can also make your own with matchsticks and plasticine. Here’s my six-year-old making all kinds of discoveries about shape and engineering as he tries to make the structure stand up.

​Learning Resources Pattern Blocks​

Possibly the most-used resource in the 100 Toys house. All four children are obsessed with these simple, tesselating shapes. Make patterns or pictures – you can even build with them. There’s also a wooden version. Highly recommended.

Connecta straws

A variation on the peas and sticks theme.


It’s plastic. It’s offensively ugly. But it was by far the most popular toy in my nursery when I was teaching. Everyone loved it. Just make sure you buy a tub big enough to make something worthwhile.


We talked about these in a previous newsletter so I won’t go over their benefits again, but geoboards offer hours of learning and fun and are perfect for a rainy day when you need to offer something different to keep your child’s attention.

More reviews

If you have any products that you would like me to review, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below and let me know.

Have you run out of ideas?

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How would that change things?

Our coursesA Year With My ChildGet Set Five and 5 Plus are designed for parents of toddlers, preschoolers and the over 5s and they’re packed full of fun and sensible advice.

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