This is a blog post you would have never expected from me, I know. I'm totally anti-consumerism and hate shopping. When I do buy something, most of the time its pre-owned. Seriously, I think 80% of all of the gifts we give our kids are from thrift shops or garage sales. I can't help it. I love thrift stores!
But, it's nice to give a brand new, timeless gift once and awhile, isn't it? (I have to keep telling myself that...) Plus, this time of year, the second-hand pickins are slim.
With four kids aged 2 to 12 years (and one on the way), we've gone through a lot of toys, toy fads, and kid junk. These are toys that we have loved and that have helped us to actually own less toys, be more organized, and help our kids understand that it's better to invest in something of quality that will last indefinitely.
We've figured out that our kids enjoy their toys more if there are less of them, if they are toys that encourage creativity, learning and teamwork, and if they are visually and tactually pleasing for children AND adults. These usually don't coincide to be the most exciting presents to unwrap, though.... I think that's where the temptation to buy less meaningful or more popular toys lies. Resist!! It's only a momentary excitement!
And I used to think that those "only wood toys for my child" people were nuts, but now I get it! Wood toys are better. They really are. Ditch the plastic if you can.
Okay, here they are:
This isn't the exact toy, but all my babies have loved the pull-and-vibrate-plush toys. Each baby has also had personal favorites (especially specific to what they loved to chew on) but every single baby has loved these toys. It's not usually something they can do themselves at first, but I'll pull the toy and then let it vibrate on their neck or hand, and they loved it. Eventually, they learn to work it themselves and it's endlessly delightful.
This toy works for kids up to age five or six. We've had them for two years, and we love them. YES, it's plastic. But, its a bath toy, so too bad. I prefer these to stacking bath cups because they are easier to keep clean (lots of mold here in Hawaii), and I don't have to spend time figuring out which cup stacks in which. Plus, my kids like these better than stacking bath toys. They work as boats, cups, and a gentle way to pour water on baby's head.
TODDLERS AND PRESCHOOLERS
(since the dawn of time, every toddler has wanted a doll, a truck (well, since the invention of the wheel on that one) and/or a ball. I don't have favorites in those categories though, so no product endorsements from me. I have found that simple 12-14" dolls that have soft bodies and realistic faces are the usual favorites. Koosh balls are fun for toddlers. And simple trucks are better... we loved Hot Wheels...) Preschoolers also love dress-up, but I don't recommend buying dress up clothes brand new. Aren't dress-up clothes the whole reason thrift stores were invented in the first place?!?
A classic toy for good reason. Kids one year to twelve will actively play with good quality wood blocks for extended periods of time. Plus, think of all the good skills they are learning! When kids come over to play, they instinctively pull the blocks out again and again.
I strongly believe that these alphabet blocks are far superior to the many-sized blocks found in many preschools. We've owned all sorts of wood blocks and these are the only ones we have kept (with the exception of Citi Blocks, which I'll get to later), because these are the favorite again and again with all different kids who come over. I wish they came in a wooden storage box, but we just laminated (with packing tape) the cardboard box they came in and it's worked now for two years.
As a disclaimer, I don't actually own this toy. My sister-in-law Saren owned it when she lived next store to us, and we begged to borrow it all the time. I actually bought some other ball-based toys with the same concept, but this one is still the favorite. Kids of all ages will watch these cars go down the tracks over and over and over again and experiment with different variables. Great for boys and girls.
(Disclaimer: this toy will fade in the sun). Of all the stackers we've owned, this has been the best. Can't you just see how awesome this is? Plus, why spend nine dollars on a plastic or plush stacker when you can get this one with three for $13?! It may take awhile for your kids to learn how to stack in perfectly on their own, but they will love playing with it regardless of their adeptness.
This is my personal favorite. I actually enjoy putting it together when it's left in a mess on the floor. (It's so much better than those old plastic sorting balls that you have to put the shapes in and then try and open the darn thing to get them out.) It teaches sorting AND balance. They learned balance and how it works on their own, then we taught them the terms (balance, fulcrum,weight, shapes). Heck yeah!
This is another great stacker toy. It's also so visually pleasing.
Really, with a doll/truck/ball and these four wooden toys, you have more than enough toys for even an active toddler/preschooler. Maybe you want some books and puzzles around too, of course. And crayons. Oh, and one more thing:
Toddlers love something to push. I didn't include a push toy on the "babies" section because I've now had two of five babies who didn't get into pushing something around (but there are some great wooden push toys out there for babies). BUT, all four have loved pushing stuff around as toddlers and preschoolers. For boys, you could do a grocery cart or a small wagon or something if they are worried about pushing a stroller... but actually, it's a good life lesson for boys to learn to push a stroller. Plus, they can use their push toy to walk around and pick stuff up for you. You can even talk them into walking through public spaces without being worried about being coddled by convincing them that they need to take care of and push their baby or stuffed animal (works for husbands too).
ELEMENTARY AGE KIDS
I will not include photos or links of LEGOS on here because you probably already know that they are incredibly awesome, although a huge mess and painful to step on in the middle of the night (a good trick-- only allow Lego play on an old sheet or table cloth. Afterwards, just gather it up and dump it back into the bin). We have lots of Legos and they are played with nearly every single day by every single kid. If we were escaping a natural disaster, I would probably take Legos with us just so the kids would be entertained as we huddled in the storm shelter. I even have a small box of them in the car for errand down time. My advice for buying Legos is to try and find a bunch of them second hand rather than trying to build up from scratch because man, those things are expensive. Also, try and get as many minifigures as possible in what you buy-- they are the meat and potatoes of the magical Lego world. Also, don't get tricked into buying non-Lego sets. They don't work well with real Legos and are not as high quality.
Okay. This is another toy that I don't actually own right now, but we've played with something like it for hours and hours. We had a dumb plastic version that the kids love but parts kept breaking, so it went back the thrift store this past friday. This wood version is on the Amazon Wish List...
Any net with a strong handle will do. Kids will find all sorts of uses indoor and outdoor for a good net. My preschooler uses it to carry things around and my 1st grader tries to catch insects. I won't scare you with the things my older kids have done, but just know that nothing has died.
This is a great card game for kids from about 5-10. It's simple enough that kids can play with each without an adult supervising, but it's engaging enough that they will want to continue to play. There are many great board games out there, and I know everyone has their favorites, but this is one you may not have heard of... Plus, it doesn't take up much room or have lots of little parts.
Okay. Another plastic toy. Sorry. But I happened to buy this at a Thrift Shop to replace our old Guess Who game with lots of missing cards and this version has solved ALL of my Guess Who? grievances, except that the faces are a little TOO cartoonish. The whole game is self contained (great for travel... no loose parts) and there are a number of different themes to choose from. My plan is to make a sheet of relatives and/or historical people for them to guess about. (Check out Pinterest for ideas).
A great game that can be played between kids of different ages. My 12-year-old is playing with my 6-year-old as I type.
This is another toy I just happened upon second hand. They are fantastic and hold loads of interest for kids aged 3-12. Many things to build, very simple, easy to clean up. They are good quality as well. Again, I much prefer these all-one-size wooden blocks to the wooden blocks of varying shape and size.
This is where my expertise will end, but really, anyone older than 12/13 probably just wants money or something very specific.
Anyway, my middle school has very specific tastes because she collects model horses, so I won't get into that. She used to collect American Girl Dolls and she made loads of money reselling them when she "grew out of them" (she had bought them herself, so she got to keep the profit), so I'm just letting her roll with this next phase of toy collecting. It seems that middle schoolers do have individual tastes and interests, but here are some toys and games I would feel comfortable getting any middle schoolers AS LONG AS I was willing to spend a little time participating/using/playing with it with them to engage them in it (yes, they still need that... and really you will be giving the more important gift of time).
Nerf Guns (simple is better... they are plastic and will break)
Well, there you have it. Beyond that, I'm a horrible gift giver. Really horrible.
Oh, except a great gift for a college student is a popcorn maker.
I'd love to hear of other suggestions!