With the holidays coming up, many of us are trying to figure out what toys are worth our money – and what toys are not. Today I’m sharing Gift of Curiosity’s holiday gift guide listing our family’s favorite toys.
In general, I prefer open ended toys that require imagination and curiosity. I find that these kinds of toys engage my kids much better than cheap plastic junk or toys made for just one or two specific purposes.
My holiday gift guide suggestions are broken down into the following categories (click the link to go directly to that section):
I hope you’ll find inspiration here for your family’s next favorite toy!
I absolutely love building toys. Growing up, I loved to build structures with Lincoln Logs and create domino effects with pattern blocks. With my own kids, I find that they get so much use out of open ended building toys. Plus, building toys teach fundamental science and math concepts all through play! Here are some of our family’s favorite building toys – both ones we currently own and ones I’ve got my eye on for the future.
We LOVE Magna-Tiles! I first pulled these out when QBoy was barely 2 (before XGirl had joined our family). He and I had quarantined ourselves in the house due to a illness and I was desperate for something to keep the two of us entertained for an entire week cooped up indoors. Magna-Tiles saved our week! Because they are magnetic, they are so easy to build with, even for little hands. They are also perfect for introducing kids to basic geometry concepts through play.
Two years after we bought our first set, our Magna-Tiles still get used very frequently. The kids like to build houses for their dolls and garages for their cars. My husband and I even enjoy seeing what sorts of engineering marvels we can create! When friends come over to play, I always bring out the Magna-Tiles to keep the kids entertained.
These toys are definitely on the expensive side, but they have gotten so much use in the last couple of years that the expense was well worth it. I would much rather invest money in a high quality toy that gets a lot of use than spend $20 on a toy that only keeps my kids entertained for a few days or weeks. Our Magna-Tiles have lasted years already and will likely last for years to come.
These have been another popular and much loved toy in our home – by both the kids and the grownups! We own the Wedgits To Go 35 Piece Set. It comes with picture cards so you can re-create the models. Or you can use your imagination to come up with lots of new ideas as well! I love that these toys can be played by young kids in a very simple way, like stacking toys. But older kids (or grownups!) can play with Wedgits in more advanced ways that involve higher order thinking and planning skills. These toys will definitely grow with your kids.
We aren’t adding to our Wedgits collection this year, but I have my eye on the WEDGiTS eXplorer Pak with 125 pieces for when the kids are a bit older.
Did you ever play with Lincoln Logs when you were young? Playstix remind me of the modern day version of Lincoln Logs, but more colorful and more versatile. The toy is very well made and the building possibilities are practically endless.
QBoy was obsessed with our Playstix for months and months and months when we first got them. Every day he would build a new creation. It took him a while to learn some of the advanced ways to build with Playstix, and once he did there was no stopping him! XGirl has also enjoyed our Playstix, although not to the same degree as QBoy. We own the 150 piece set of Playstix, but if you have an enthusiastic builder you might consider the 211 Piece set of Playstix instead.
Last Christmas the kids received the 100 piece set of SmartMax magnetic toys. Our SmartMax have not gotten as much use as our other building toys. Nonetheless, the kids have still enjoyed them. We have also done some physics for kids experiments with them. All of the pieces are large enough so they will not present a choking hazard. SmartMax can also be used to reinforce colors, length (short vs. long), and basic building engineering skills.
There are also some SmartMax extension sets, including the SmartMax Flower Power set and the SmartMax Drive & Fly set that can be combined with the main set to create new items. We don’t own either of the extension sets, but I am sure they would appeal to plenty of kids out there!
We do not currently own CitiBlocs, but they are on my shortlist of gift ideas for this year. At first glance, they seem really simple and potentially boring. After all, they are just plain pieces of wood. However, they are well engineered to allow kids to build all sorts of magnificent structures. I saw a display created from CitiBlocs at one of our local museums and I was just blown away. I love how this simple toy encourages kids to use their imagination to dream up new structures to build. And because all the structures are built without glue, snaps, connectors, or magnets, kids learn to build in a whole new way. CitiBlocs come in the original natural wood version as well as cool colors and hot colors.
They are recommended for ages 3+, but I have a feeling my kids would enjoy them more in another year. But I, on the other hand, am hoping to get my hands on them this year. 🙂 I guess we’ll have to see what Santa brings.
Play Kitchen Accessories
A few years ago,
my parents Santa was kind enough to bring the kids the Pottery Barn All-In-1 Retro Kitchen for Christmas. Over time, this kitchen and all the accessories we’ve accumulated have continued to be a focus point in the kids’ creative play. Both kids, although XGirl in particular, love to spend time in their kitchen “cooking” food for me and my husband or for their dolls.
Most of our favorite kitchen accessories come from the Melissa & Doug line of products, and they include:
We own the pots and pans from the Melissa & Doug Deluxe Wooden Kitchen Accessory Set. This set still gets a lot of use as the kids like to put things in their pots to “cook” for us. I like that they are made of high quality wood.
We received the Melissa & Doug Cutting Fruit Set when QBoy was barely 2 years old, and it was his favorite toy for a while. The fruit comes in pieces that are held together with velcro. The set includes a wooden knife for cutting. Qboy used to assemble and then cut the fruit over and over and over again. Today the kids don’t spend as much time assembling and cutting the fruit, but they still use the fruit in their kitchen play – mainly to make “smoothies” and other fruity foods for me to enjoy. They also use the fruit set when they pretend to go “grocery shopping.”
The Melissa & Doug Birthday Party Cake is still popular in our home, especially around birthdays when the kids like to engage in a lot of birthday creative play. The set includes a wooden birthday cake. The cake slices can be cut apart and then put back together with velcro. The cake also includes candles and toppings that kids can place on top of the cake.
QBoy and XGirl both love pizza, so the Melissa & Doug Felt Pizza Set has gotten a lot of play time. One of the kids’ favorite activities with this pizza is to make it up for us and then “accidentally” drop it on the floor. The kids crack up every time because they find it so funny to create a huge mess with food. As an added bonus, this pizza can easily be used to work on colors, counting, and fractions.
Both of my kids have recently gotten into board games. I love that board games teach turn taking, being a good sport, and social skills. Here are a few games we have enjoyed and a few I have my eye on.
Candy Land is such a classic game. I remember playing it as a kid, and students I’ve worked with over the years all loved this game. Recently, I introduced my kids to Candy Land and it has been a hit with them as well. It is an ideal game for pre-readers because it does not require any reading or number knowledge – just color knowledge. We own the regular version of Candy Land, but apparently there is a Candy Land Disney Princess Edition available as well.
Chutes and Ladders is another classic game I remember playing while growing up. This game is more sophisticated than Candy Land, in that kids need to be able to recognize numbers and do basic counting in order to play. If the game is unfamiliar to you, it consists in spinning a number and then moving that number of squares on the board. If you land on a ladder, you go up, and if you land on a chute (slide), you go down. Each ladder is accompanied by a picture of a kid engaging in some sort of pro-social behavior. Each chute is accompanied by a picture of a kid engaging in some sort of naughty or negative behavior. QBoy is absolutely fascinated by the images on the board, and is always asking about why the kids in the pictures did certain things.
Cooperative board games
Most board games have a completive element to them. But competition is not always healthy for preschoolers, and losing can be hard on them. I’ve got my eye on several cooperative board games from the company Peaceable Kingdom, including Buzz!, Hoot Owl Hoot!, and Seeds for the Birds. I’d love to see my kids work cooperatively to accomplish the goal of the game.
Gross motor toys
I do my best to engage my kids in as much gross motor activity as I can. When possible, we try to get outside for our gross motor exercise. But even when we are stuck indoors we try to engage in gross motor play. Here are some of the gross motor toys we own and some I am planning to add to our collection.
When QBoy was just 2 and a half, we were out walking when a tiny little kid from our neighborhood zoomed by on his pedal bike. I found out he had just turned 3 years old the week before and was already riding a “big boy” bike like a champ. His mother told me it was all due to his balance bike, and she lent us theirs for a few weeks. After that, I was hooked!
I learned that the reason riding a bike is hard is NOT because pedaling is hard. Instead, bike riding is hard because balancing is hard. Balance bikes teach kids the art of balancing (the hard part) before they learn to pedal (the easy part). Both of my kids own the Strider ST-3 PREbike. Or I should clarify – QBoy used to own the Strider balance bike. However, he got so proficient at balancing that he switched to a regular pedal bike before his 4th birthday. And, he literally learned to ride a regular bike the very first time he got on – with no training wheels and without falling!
XGirl still owns and uses her Strider balance bike. Although she balances quite well, we haven’t switched her to a regular bike yet because she is so distractible when riding.
Back in my day most kids were at least 5 years old before they learned to ride a bike, and they often started out with training wheels. Balance bikes have made it possible for very young kids to successfully learn the art of balancing. If you have young kids, skip the training wheels and start with a balance bike instead!
When QBoy was 2 years old he received regular physical therapy services to help with his gross motor delays. His therapist recommended he use a scooter to help with balance. Today, both kids own the Mini Micro Scooter from Kickboard, and it is still one of their favorite outdoor toys. They go back and forth between riding their bikes and their scooters when we are outside.
When I was looking to purchase scooters for the kids, I decided on the Mini Micro Scooter from Kickboard. Even though I found less expensive scooters, I didn’t find any that were as well designed and as user friendly for tots and preschoolers as this one. Its design gives kids a lot of stability. It is very easy for kids to navigate turns. And braking is a cinch as well.
When XGirl first joined our family a few months shy of her third birthday, this was by far the favorite riding toy in our home. The kids spent hours and hours going up and down our driveway and up and down the sidewalk on their PlasmaCars. At their age, they just use them as a plain ole riding toy, meaning they power them with their feet. But PlasmaCars are special in that they can be fully powered by the wiggling the handle bars back and forth. In fact, my husband and I would sometimes race the kids down the driveway – them moving their PlasmaCars along with their feet and us moving them along with the steering wheel.
Currently the PlasmaCars have taken a back seat to their bikes and scooters, but we are keeping them around for when the kids get the strength to power them using just their hands.
In past years I have seen PlasmaCars priced as high as $100, so they have really come down in price. As of this writing, the blue PlasmaCar is being offered at a much lower price than the other colors, so definitely check it out if you are interested.
Santa will be delivering two of these Exercise Discs / Balance Cushions to our home this Christmas. I’m excited to use these in two different ways. The first is to put them on the chairs when my kids sit. Although I’d love to provide my kids with balance balls, we simply don’t have the space to store them. I’m hoping these exercise cushions will be almost as good, but without taking up so much space. Plus, my kids can stand on these cushions to use them for balance practice. QBoy, in particular, will benefit from the balance practice as we work to strengthen his core.