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10 of the best playsets for children

Toy zoos, fire stations and dollhouses can make great pretend-play gifts for children aged 1 to 7 – not to mention erupting volcanoes and massive train towers. See which playsets our child testers rated as the best...

10 of the best playsets for children

Whether it's simple slow-play or whizzily electronic, a good playset will give your child hours of imaginative fun, from pretending to be farmer, pirate, or a superhero saving the day.

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We've been busy testing playsets for a range of ages and price ranges and, with the verdicts of our child testers in, we can reveal the very best buys...

Here's our pick of the best playsets, as tested and rated by children

1. Thomas & Friends Trains & Cranes Super Tower, £104.99

– Great for multi-level train action

Thomas & Friends Trains & Cranes Super Tower _

Age suitability: 3+ | Best for age: 3+ | Batteries: 2 x AAA (not included)
Awards: Gold, MadeForMums Toy Awards 2021

What it is: An 87cm x 82cm x 65cm multi-level Thomas & Friends train set with a motorised Thomas engine, non-motorised Percy train, Harold the helicopter and 4 cargo cars for loading and unloading. Also includes a spinning turntable and cranes. Compatible with other Thomas & Friends track sets (excluding wooden versions). Some assembly required.

Why we love it: This HUGE train set certainly has the wow factor once built – you need to stand up to play with it. Our testers loved all the interactive elements like the spinning turntable, switches at the stop points and the exciting Cranky the Crane who moves the bridge. Kaiden, 3, was a big fan of the motorised Thomas engine and said, "I like watching Thomas go chugga chugga choo choo up the track!" Though Kaiden’s mum, Pooja, did note it's a bit of a battery guzzler, so make sure to have some spare.

Available at: Very, Argos and Smyths Toys

2. Schleich Wild Life Ranger Adventure Station, £49.99

– Great for animal adventure play

Schleich Wild Life Ranger Adventure Station

Age suitability: 3+| Best for age: 5+ | Batteries: None
Awards: Silver, MadeForMums Toy Awards 2021

What it is: A 50cm x 30cm x 35cm playset that can be built in different ways and features a tree with a slide, a wobbly suspension bridge, a ranger station with a rope ladder, swivelling crane and flip-up floor panel and an earth mound with burrow to hide in. Comes with a black panther, a crocodile, 2 baby tortoises, a baby gorilla, a Ranger Steve figure and accessories including a satellite telephone, a torch, binoculars. leaves and a transport box.

Why we love it: The 'rotten' breakable plank on the suspension bridge is great fun, as is the tree slide (perfect for baby gorilla playtime) and we like how well articulated the ranger figure is – his arms and legs move and he can hold various accessories his hands. "Mya loves this playset!" said Emma, mum of our child tester Mya, 5. "I have never seen her so focused on a toy for such a long time. It's also made her ask lots of questions about the different animals and the job of a zoologist. It's such fantastic quality and offers so much play potential."

Available at: Smyths Toys and Schleich

3. Barbie Dreamhouse Playset, £249.99

– Great for dollhouse wow factor

Barbie-playset

Age suitability: 3+ | Best for age: 4+ | Batteries: 3 x AA (not included)
Awards: Editor's Choice, MadeForMums Toy Awards 2021

What it is: A 109cm x 104cm 360° playhouse with a layout you can customise by moving the 10 interchangeable living areas between the 3 floors. Comes with coloured lighting options, ‘soundscapes’ (including party music), a slide, a pool, a grass area, furniture and over 75 accessories.

Why we love it: It's massive and very pricey but there are endless clever touches to marvel over – a working lift, a fold-down bunkbed, even a pet play area. Our child tester Zadie, 4, was especially taken with the 'flushing' toilet and loved the real lights and sound effects in different areas (though mum, Caroline, was pleased the latter could be switched off). "It's my favourite toy ever," said Zadie. "I really like the pool, it's so much fun and my dolls can do swimming. I want to play with the Barbie house forever."

Available at: Smyths and Argos

4. Hape Fire Station, £69.99

– Great for clever details

Hape Fire Station _

Age suitability: 3+ | Best for age: 4 | Batteries: 2 x AAA (not included)
Awards: Bronze, MadeforMums Toy Awards 2021

What it is: A 60cm x 30cm x 48cm 3-storey wooden fire station with rooftop helipad, helicopter, fire engine, furniture, fireman’s pole, bell, light and a pullstring to open the doors and launch the engine from the garage. Comes with a firefighter figure and other accessories, including a little rescue dog. Some self-assembly required.

Why we love it: It's a really good size and we love the attention to detail –there's even a treadmill to keep the firefighters fit when they are not putting out fires! We do wish, though, that there was more than 1 firefighter figure. "There are so many features and details in this set," said Hayley, mum of our child tester Niko, 3, "that even after 3 days of having it, Niko hasn’t spotted them all yet! His favourite thing is definitely the alarm and lights on the roof. It’s a brilliant playset."

Available at: Wooden Toy Shop, Toy Street and Smyths Toys

5. Playmobil Family Fun Large Zoo, £59.99

– Great for extended animal play

Playmobil 70341 Family Fun Large Zoo

Age suitability: 4+ | Best for age: 5+ | Batteries: None
Awards: Bronze, MadeForMums Toy Awards 2021

What it is: A 68cm x 30cm x 16cm plastic zoo playset, featuring a visitors’ observation platform and souvenir shop. Comes with 6 figures, 6 penguins, 2 giraffes, a pelican, a butterfly, a mole, a mouse, rocks for the penguins, a tree with giraffe feeder, and smaller accessories including a camera, doughnuts and zoo maps.

Why we love it: This easy-to-set-up zoo is packed with brilliant little details: there are balloons to buy at the souvenir shop and a slide for the penguins, along with a bucket of fish to feed them with. Sarah, mum to our child tester Samuel, 5, said, "You can buy tickets and get a map at the entrance, feed the giraffe and penguins, and look through the telescope. There’s even a pile of giraffe poo to clean up, which Samuel found very funny!"

Available at: Smyths Toys, Hamleys, John Lewis and Amazon

6. Schleich Volcano Expedition Base Camp, £99.99

– Great for interactive thrills

Schleich Volcano Expedition Base Camp

Age suitability: 4+ | Best for age: 6+ | Batteries: 3 x AA (not included) and 4 x LR44 (included)
Awards: Bronze, MadeForMums Toy Awards 2021

What it is: A 45cm x 43cm x 35cm volcano playset that vibrates, smokes and erupts stones, as well as light-up lava. It also features a research station, an obstacle course, an escape slide and a secret cave. Comes with 1 dinosaur researcher figure, 2 dinosaur figures, a firing canon, a removable laboratory container, crystals, stones, plants, and a stalactite.

Why we love it: This certainly delivers on the erupting-volcano-effects excitement front: sounds, vibrations, flashes lights, smoke - wow! "The volcano is great," said our child tester Ted, 7. "I like making the rocks fall down!" The whole playset is extremely well-designed, with some great accessories and lovely detailing on the good-sized ankylosaurus and gigantosaurus. "If someone likes playing with dinosaurs, they will really like this," added Ted. "The best bits are the caves underneath and the laboratory at the top – and the firing cannon!"

Available from: Smyths Toys and Schleich

7. Playmobil Tiny Paws Pet Hotel, £59.99

– Great for nurturing skills

pet-hotel

Age suitability: 4+ | Best for age: 5+ | Batteries: None

What it is: A 76cm x 24cm x19cm 154-piece pet-hotel playset with a kitchen and an animal flap leading into the garden – which has a see saw, kennels and outdoor lights. Comes with 3 figures, 8 dogs, 2 parrots, bananas, carrots, dog food, chew toys and all sorts of other little accessories.

Why we love it: It's a well-made and well-thought-through playset that won us – and our child testers – over with its plentiful, wonderful, detailed accessories: our child testers particularly liked the dog leads and the pet see saw, and we're very taken by the string of sausages.

Available at: Playmobil and Uber Kids

8. Toot-Toot Friends Kingdom Pirate Ship, £39.99

– Great for interactive pirate play

bestplaysettoottootpirateshiprs

Age suitability: 12 months+ | Best for age: 3+ | Batteries: 2 x AA (not included)

What it is: An 45cm x 35cm interactive pirate ship that opens up to reveal a treasure island. Features a cannon that shoots cannonballs, a trap door and a spinning octopus. Comes with 3 characters, 3 MagicPoints that trigger responses when you place a character on them and 3 light-up press buttons.

Why we love it: There's so much to play with in this toddler-magnet playset: the shooting cannon was a particularly huge hit with all our child testers. We also like the fact that the noises can be switched off if you need a break from whistling cannon balls and exclaiming pirates! Samantha, mum of our child tester Tyler, 3, said, "Tyler loves spinning the octopus and shooting the cannons. This toy is really sturdy and the accessories are not flimsy or worryingly small. It's compact and easy to store – and excellent value for money, too."

Available at: Smyths Toys and Amazon

9. Sylvanian Families Grand Department Store Gift Set, £120

– Great for detailed features

sylvanian families grand department store

Age suitability: 4+ | Best for age: 4+ | Batteries: None

What it is: A 95-piece 2-storey department store for the furry residents of Sylvania, featuring 4 little shops, a working lift and revolving door, a balcony and lots of accessories. Comes with a Stella Chocolate Rabbit figure. Can be combined with other buildings from the series.

Why we love it: The attention to detail that has gone into this set is incredible: you really do get what you pay for – and – hurray! – you get an SF figure, too (you don't always with SF sets). Our child testers were transported into a little world of imaginative shop play, with the revolving door and the chocolate lounge featuring very heavily in all scenarios. Do be warned that it takes a wee while to assemble. We'll meet you by the macaron counter on the ground floor...

Available at: Amazon

10. Hot Wheels Corkscrew Crash, £49.99

– Great for car fans

best-playsets_214199

Age suitability: 5+ | Best for age: 5+| Batteries: 4 x D (not included)

What it is: A looped race track, with 3 30cm loops, crash zones, high-speed boosters and 1 Hot Wheels die-cast car. Race tracks are a dime a dozen, but this one's motorised, and your child can use the 3-speed boosters to make their cars go faster. Some assembly required.

Why we love it: This fires off the cars at a satisfyingly fast speed: we actually had proper screeches of excitement from our child testers. Be prepared to buy a few more Hot Wheels cars for maximum enjoyment.

Available at: Argos and Amazon

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About the author

Helen is Deputy Editor of MadeForMums, the author of Parenting for Dummies (Wiley, £17.99) and the Head Tester for our MadeForMums Toy Awards. She has written about parenting for Mumsnet, Pregnancy & Birth, Prima Baby, Boots Parenting Club and She Magazine and she's also been Consumer Editor of Mother & Baby. She has 3 boys and a heavy-duty washing machine.

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