On the list of awesome jobs I want to have some day is Gift Concierge. (PS Did anyone watch this Lifetime Christmas movie? Adorable. I want her job. Lifetime Christmas movies for life.) I love the hunt for just the right gift that suits that person. Something that won’t get lost in the shuffle. Something that means something to them as much as to you. That, my friends, is not always an easy task. I am still stuck on a couple people myself. But when it comes to children’s gifts, I am never short on ideas.
Christmas is two weeks away. There is little likelihood that you are still in need of another gift guide. Especially since every single web address from Buzzfeed to NPR is offering up the perfect gift to get your family and friends. So let’s not call this a gift guide. Instead I like to think of this list as an Essential Toy Pantry, if you will. New and improved toys are coming out all the time. And you can make yourself crazy trying to keep up. There will probably be a time in your gift hunting life that a child will want that very toy that each and every other child in his or her class has put on their list. Boring. I am not looking forward to that moment. But for now, I am enjoying filling our toy shelves with items that are classic, essential for child development, well made, and leave room for endless open ended play.
First a few rules to pay attention to:
- Do not focus too much on the age guidelines. These are generally placed on toys for safety, and only occasionally developmentally. But I firmly believe that all toys, aside from choking hazards, can be adapted for children of all ages, with the right creative nudge. Also, even if the child might not be able to play with the toy the minute they rip off the paper, they will grow into this gift. I often give babies and one year olds gifts that seem way out of their developmental stage because children grow sooo quickly (have you heard that before?) and I hate to imagine them outgrowing something, like a rattle, too quickly.
- I gravitate towards wooden toys over plastic. Wooden toys are better made thus last longer. Although I know you can find chemicals in EVERYTHING I like to think that using natural materials is better for the environment and my children. But also, the wooden toys we have in our home are so lovely I keep them out for display. They are beautiful art. And if I am going to have to stare-at/trip-over something all day, I at least want to enjoy looking at it when it actually is placed neatly on the shelf.
- To cut back on “stuff” and for the child who has “everything,” choose gifts that are consumable. No matter how cautious you are, children’s toys can overrun your life. I am trying so hard to choose gifts this year that are either part of the essential list, or can be used up. Art supplies are the perfect example of this. Have you ever met a child who doesn’t like stickers? Kids go gaga over that stuff. Trader Joes knows all about this. Stickers may seem obnoxious when they end up stuck to every surface of your home, and body, but they take up minimal storage space. Kids also get excited about things they need like toothbrushes and eating utensils and underwear. It’s true. Well, for now at least.
- Never underestimate the power of a book. There is no book shelf too small to add more books. I think the greatest way to give a gift is to pair a book with something small. Every little child in my life is getting a gift this way. Even Santa gives books with his toys. A book inspires play.
So what should be filling your Essential Toy Pantry?
These are developmental toys that should be the first toys for a child. Every evaluation and assessment tool uses these for measuring milestones because they lay the foundation for cognitive, language, and motor skills.
Ring Stacker – Everyone has seen the classic plastic rings. These wooden ones are more colorful, and double as great donuts later in play.
Nesting Cups – This toy is great not just for nesting up but it can also be turned into a ball. I love a toy that can be played in multiple different ways.
Cause/Effect Toy – There are many toys that meet this milestone but I love these little ball and hammer sets.
Shape Sorter – Matching shapes is a great activity, but the beauty of this one is the interesting sensory blocks for each shape.
Instruments – What starts as simple rattles can turn into a musical performance.
Balls – I don’t need to explain this one. Any ball will do. Back and forth play is so important and nothing does that better than a ball. But, as already mentioned, sensory experiences are brain builders so these are especially great tools.
If I could recommend any gift for anyone it would be a construction toy. Not only does it promote problem solving and fine motor development, but it also allows for open ended play for any child from age 0-99.
Sensory Blocks – First blocks to intrigue the curious learners as they learn to stack.
Wood Blocks – Nothing fancy here but that is exactly ow I like it. The blocks are easy to use, stack well, and you can create as big as your imagination.
MagnaTiles – These may be expensive, very very expensive, but for a good reason. They are addictive, at any age. Durable and easy to manipulate. I think there is a calming effect with these blocks. We have knock off version which is just as good and we got for a better deal. Check out used sets on craigslist. Just trust me on this one, this toy is one of my favorites in the whole house.
Tool Kit - And you know what makes an essential piece of a good construction? Your own tool set. We got Caroline this one for her birthday and it come out all the time for that important fixing need, or for really tall tower building.
I have heard people say before that their child does not enjoy imaginative play. Not. True. This is a child's most important tool for learning, developing, growing, and interacting with the world. This is how they process what they understand and also what they do not. Whether it's a doll, a car, or a rock, a child uses imagination to grow beyond their abilities. I like imaginative play toys to be simple to allow for the child to fill in the gaps.
Doll – Every child, boy or girl, needs a doll. These cloth ones are sweet, cuddly, and come in all sorts of colors to encourage diversity.
Animals – Many of the first sounds a child makes are animal sounds. These great big animals are fun to hold and you can take them anywhere.
Doll House/Farm – Before Barbies take over your world, this is a wonderful way to spark story telling. If your little one is less into little people, a farm is also wonderful for acting out social stories. We have both of these and use them interchangeably. The doll house is awesome because the different rooms can be reconfigured how ever you want, taking a ranch to a skyscraper with a few easy steps. Great for budding architects.
Kitchen Tools – If there is anything a child loves to do, it is to eat what THEY create. I am always tempted by the different food sets out there. A Sushi set would be so cute! But really a few pots and pans and one food set can complete a kitchen. The rest comes from imagination.
Doctor Kit – Kids are immediately drawn to the doctor kits because it is a frequent yet somewhat confusing experience during young childhood. Pretend play is the best way to work through this and prepare when worried.
Trains – We are jumping into this world, and not just because we have a boy. There are so many different sets but we are really loving the quality of Brio. Santa has his elves busy making a tunnel and bridge set to add to the collection. The great thing about train sets is they are constructive but also imaginative, covering both styles of learning.
Cars and Trucks – Another world I am trying to add more to our collection. Of course, any will do, I love these because they are made from recycled plastic and sturdy to manipulate.
Games and Puzzles
Both games and puzzles create structure and rules for a child to follow, which is obviously important at any age. But this is also where you get to find what interests your child specifically.
Wooden Puzzles – Puzzles are important for math and spatial skills. And these chunky piece puzzles can also be added to pretend play.You can get puzzles in whatever interests the child, animals, cars, numbers, letters, shapes, colors. It doesn't really matter, the matching and spatial awareness is the learning opportunity here.
Big Piece Puzzles – With a little guidance, Caroline is becoming interested in these really big piece puzzles. The point in which the picture finally comes together is so excited, for any kid or adult.
Games – By age three, games become more interesting and following guidelines is easier for a child. All the great ones we grew up with are still out there. But I am intrigued by this collection of games that encourage cooperation by all people playing to a final ending together. No, we don’t all have to be winners, but encouraging working together is so important.
Bath toys are a great option for any child because regardless of age or personality, a kid has to take a bath, why not make it fun? These are some of our favorites or some I hope to add to our collection.
There are plenty of choices here for any great Toy Pantry and hopefully gifts that can keep every child in your home entertained and learning. Then again, you could always just give them a box. They always seem to enjoy playing with a box.
Happy Playing to You!