Every year around this time we assess the toy situation around here and donate the things the kids have outgrown or no longer play with. During this year’s clean-out, I realized that there are some clear favorites that have survived the purge year after year. These are the things that our boys (ages 9 and 7) pull out again and again – the go-tos when friends come over, and the things we are most likely to repurchase as gifts because the boys have had so much fun with them. Enjoy our first ever Tried and True Gift Guide – I hope it gives you some helpful ideas for the little ones in your life!
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- Cash Register ($37) – When our kids have friends over, this is the first thing they want to play with and it’s been a consistent favorite of the boys for years. You can never go wrong with buttons, but this also has a scanning feature that is a big winner with the under 8 crew.
- Grocery Basket ($20) – From playing store to collecting toys that need to be put away, this little basket comes in handy in so many situations.
- Wooden Tea Set ($24) – We’ve had this since our youngest was a toddler and it still looks new. The tiny wooden tea bag is my personal favorite part.
- IKEA Play Kitchen ($79) – I’ve tried to donate this so many times, but it’s just too useful of a prop! Of course as a kitchen, but pop the cash register on it and it’s a store front or an ice cream stand. I think the magic is that there are just enough bells and whistles for it to be exciting (the doors that open, burners have lights in them), but the overall design is neutral enough that it lends itself to creative interpretations.
- Cat Play House ($25) – We have the cat house, but there are versions of this with all different types of animals. Just be aware of the pricing – for some reason the price of this gets super inflated online sometimes. Our kids play with it a lot, and it’s the perfect size for little ones to carry around, but I think anything over $25 is probably to expensive.
- Wooden Fruit ($27) – These have been the go-to play food in our house since 2010. There’s velcro in the middle that’s fun for the kids to pull apart or “slice” with a wooden knife. (Pro-tip: Mix up the halves of fruit and wait for hilarity to ensue.)
- Silk Play Scarf ($19) – I kept seeing this specific brand of play scarf recommended, but when I finally ordered it a few years ago I was (at first) disappointed. It comes folded neatly in a little pouch and I honestly couldn’t see how it could be worth $19. But this is one of my kids favorite things and it is always out…there are just so many ways for it to be played with. It’s the perfect size and weight to be controlled by little ones, used as costume, part of a fort, or magic show prop. We have the rainbow one, but there are other colors that are just as lovely.
- Toy Snowballs ($25) – These are awesome for long winter days when kids need to get some energy out. They’re just heavy enough that you can throw them with some direction, but not hard enough to hurt if they hit you. We live where it snows a lot, but these are a great alternative for when that’s not an option.
Art and Music
- How to Draw Cute Stuff ($9) – This is probably geared toward slightly older kids, but we gave it to our son for his sixth birthday and it was a big hit.
- Step-by-Step Drawing Animals by Fiona Watt ($12) – One of our kids loves to draw and the other doesn’t, but they both really like this book and refer to it again and again. We’ve had it for years and are giving the Step-by-Step Drawing People version for Christmas this year.
- Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg ($14) – This is super cute pop-up book that emphasizes that when creating art, any “mistake” can be made into something beautiful. This was a game changer in convincing perfectionist kids that mistakes are a welcome part of the process of creating art.
- Graph Paper ($7) – I know this sounds silly, but our older son loves writing and drawing on graph paper. I think the grid feels more welcoming to his little left-brained mind than a totally blank page. A bonus is that the gridlines don’t show up when these pages are scanned or copied.
- Sketch Pad ($13) – This is a little pricey for an everyday notebook, so it’s mostly reserved for drawing on the go. Road trips and sibling sports events are the perfect opportunity to pull out this sturdy sketch book that holds up to a little bit of pressure and a large enough area for little hands to create.
- Magnetic Chalkboard ($35) – We have these hanging in our son’s room and they’re in constant use. The ones we have are actually from Target but are no longer available. I like to use magnetic chalkboards so you can hang artwork, reminders, or schedule cards in addition to drawing on them.
- Chalk-O-Rama Chalk Crayons ($9) – These are so much fun to write and draw with! They’re super smooth like a gel crayon, but they’re not so soft that they make a mess. Plus, they don’t leave chalk dust behind. Just use a damp cloth to clean off of chalkboards.
- Jingle Bell Wrap Bracelet ($4) – These are in the attic right now because sometimes kids love a toy too much and it has to go away for a little while. But these add a fun jingle-jangle to dance parties.
- Egg Shakers ($6) – Another fun way to introduce kids to rhythm – the steel beads sealed inside of these makes them pretty satisfying to shake around.
- Rhythm Sticks ($6) – An oldie but a goodie – we put these in the boys’ stockings years ago and were a little surprised by how much they liked tapping, rubbing, and twirling them.
- Catan Junior ($27) – Fun and easy to learn, this game is a good middle ground for upper and lower elementary school kids to play together with parents.
- Ticket to Ride ($45) – This one is a little complicated for younger players (under 8) to play on their own, but our sons liked to play on a team with an adult until they could hold their own. Bonus: a little geography lesson with every game. (There are different versions featuring different places around the world – we pull this one out for the winter fun!)
- Monopoly Junior ($9) – This is a quick and easy version of Monopoly – another good one for younger and older elementary school kids to play together.
- Puppy Pursuit ($28) – We’ve had this since our oldest was in preschool and they still love it to this day. You follow clues (printed on paw-print cards) to find plush puppies hidden around the house. It was a great way to help the kids learn to read – the clues feature a lot of beginning reader words and the kids were super motivated to try to read them. The game comes with ideas for various ways to play with the puppies and clues, and your kids will likely come up with their own variations. This is a good one.
- The Magic Labyrinth ($26) – This game is super hard for my non-spatial brain, but maybe if I had it as a kid, I’d be a fully functioning adult. Hidden “walls” under the game board block your game piece from traveling down certain paths, you have to remember where the walls are and move accordingly. A little confusing to explain without going into a lot of detail, but a good opportunity for brain development. (This one would most likely be frustrating for kids under 8 – or maybe I’m just saying that to feel better about myself.)
- Santorini ($23) – This one is super easy to learn, but difficult to master. You play as a Greek god with a specific power trying to prevent your opponents from building a tower using their specific powers. Our older son is really into mythology so this was a fun way to explore that in a kid-friendly way.
- The Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel Game ($11) – This is cute and well-made game for pre-schoolers. It’s a good introduction to taking turns, a little fine motor practice in the form of acorn grabbing, and the art of winning/losing gracefully.
- Click-Clack Lumberjack ($20) – This one is super simple to set up and play, but offers a great opportunity for elementary aged kids and adults to practice fine motor control. Using a plastic ax, you gently tap at a tree to remove pieces of bark, but if you tap too hard and a piece of trunk falls, you lose points. Another good one to play as a family with elementary aged kids.
Math and Science
- Magna-Tiles ($50) – I think every preschool has these and they’re always a favorite. We’ve had them for about six years and they’ve held up great.
- Goobi Magnetic Construction Set ($25) – Magnets are just inherently fun, and these are no exception. Our kids like to build sculptures and then display them for a while. Because of the little steel balls, I’d skip this one if you have an infant or toddler in the house.
- Inchimals ($35) – Full disclosure, the kids don’t play with this one on their own, but they do get into it when I’ve sat down and played with them. The reason I’m including it is because I love the concrete representation of inches and basic number operations. I’m a big believer in exposing kids to hands on representations of abstract concepts when they’re young so that later learning experiences come more easily.
- Dress-up Lab Gear ($20) – Okay, they’re not going to learn anything from this…but it makes kids playing with food coloring, baking soda, and vinegar 1,000 times cuter.
- Chemistry Station ($36) – We have a different version of this, but if I were buying today, I’d get this one. It’s a little less expensive than the one we have and has better reviews. It would also make a cute playroom display and encourage kids to think of themselves as scientists.
- Abacus ($20) – My family teased me about this when I bought it for my son years ago (because who wraps up a toy abacus for Christmas? Me! That’s who!) but it genuinely comes in handy for explaining so many basic math concepts: addition, subtraction, addition by counting on, counting by tens, I could go on…
- Floating Ball Run ($25) – My sister bought this for our son years ago and it is always in use. I can’t say that they really create a “ball run” but they do constantly find creative ways to use the pieces during bath time.
- Bath Coloring Tablets ($11 for pack of 2) – We almost always have a container of these in the bathroom. They come in especially handy when a child is crabby and tired and they need distraction to reset. Watching one of these dissolve into the water around you is almost a meditation. I do have my kids take a quick rinse off after soaking in the colored water because I’m intense like that.
- Coast Guard Floating Bath Blocks ($15) – Played in tandem with #1, these have been around since toddler days. It’s been fun to see how the ways the kids play with them have evolved over the years, but our seven year old still plays with all the time.
- Bath Crayons ($13 for pack of 2) – Another constant in our bath arsenal, these have been in many a stocking and Easter basket over the years.
- Floating Xylophone ($16) – I think our kids liked taking the pieces apart and putting them back together just as as much as actually tapping out tunes.
- Water Flute ($13) – The idea for these is that they make different tones based on how much water is inside. Our kids never mastered the art of the water flute, but they did love pouring water in and out as toddlers and then blowing on the flute as they got older
I hope this list gave you some ideas for gifts that are worth bringing into your home!