Have you ever wondered if a toy your child (or grandchild) is begging you for will actually get used? Or will it end up somewhere in their room practically untouched and eventually in the donation pile?
My family has had our fair share of dud gifts and after many years of rearing these people, I’ve discovered a handful of toys and activities that have been big winners.
What makes a gift a winner? Basically it’s a winner toy, game, or activity that my kids actually use, not the stuff that they beg me for as we’re trolling the toy aisles.
And it’s not necessarily something they play with every day or even with great regularity. It’s the things the kids circle back to and continue to enjoy playing with or using. It’s also a toy that all the kids have enjoyed, so the initial investment pays off over a longer period of time.
So, here we go! Can’t miss toys and activities for kids!
TOYS & ACTIVITIES FOR PRESCHOOLERS
Wood Building Blocks — Blocks can be used for so many things and my kids still use them now (and they are well past the preschool years).
I don’t think you need a ton — we have a small bucket’s worth. Colored, wood-colored, it doesn’t matter. The Melissa & Doug 100 Piece Set is more than sufficient.
Kitchen Set — A smallish kitchen set is about the only large play item we’ve had in our home. The key is lots of doors and buttons and hooks. I don’t think it matters if you get a plastic or wood set. If you get a wood set, you’ll get more money when you sell it on craigslist, but a plastic one can be used outside.
KidKraft makes a great wood kitchen (the small one is totally sufficient) and Step2 has popular plastic sets. You can find the plastic ones for dirt cheap at garage sales and craigslist. I suggest you skip the fancy sets that make sounds because they are super annoying.
Costco usually has one great set that goes on sale during the holiday season, generally at a pretty reasonable price.
I also don’t think it’s necessary to get a bunch of plastic food and play pots, pans, and utensils. I actually got rid of all the fake food and kept the Melissa & Doug Stainless Steel Kitchen Set.
The Bouncy Horse is a surprisingly popular toy in our house. Kids of ALL AGES sit and bounce around the house on this thing. Like toddlers to my teens. You can use it outside and inside and it’s nearly indestructible.
In case you’re wondering, it will NOT last if a small child sticks a safety pin in it “just to see what would happen”. Ask me how I know.
My little kids have always loved Play Doh, but I caution you to not go crazy buying all the plastic stuff available at the store. I think this Play Doh Factory Set is really all you need along with a plastic knife, a small rolling pin, and maybe some plastic cookie cutters (and obviously the actual Play Doh).
Kids love to jump, period. So buy them something that will keep them off your couch. The Little Tikes 3′ Trampoline is a nice size. We kept ours outside under our covered porch.
We’ve had a Little Tikes 2-in-1 Snug n’ Secure Swing since my oldest was a toddler, which is well over twelve years. It’s hung in our family room from the rafters (perfect for little kids who need movement but it’s too cold outside) and under our patio outside. My big kids STILL swing in the thing and we have a nice swing for when friends with little kids come over to play.
Wooden Train Tracks
We collected several sets of these wooden tracks when our boys were quite a bit younger and they are one of the few things I can’t part with. Every time we have friends with toddlers or preschoolers over, they pull out the train tracks and get to building. These can be spendy so ask for sets for Christmas, check out “off brand” tracks (just make sure they’re compatible), check your local consignment sale or store or ask a friend with older kids if they have any they’d like to sell.
You really need just a few basic sets of tracks (those fancy accessories aren’t necessary) and a few trains for your kids to push around. We used to put a new train in our boys’ stocking every year. You can buy a fancy train table if you want, but we found the kids just preferred to build on the floor where they had more room and could be more creative.
TOYS & ACTIVITIES FOR SCHOOL-AGED KIDS
LEGOs and DUPLOs
If you have little kids, I strongly suggest you start and stay with DUPLOs for as long as you can. They are way easier to build with and don’t need nearly as much adult help. If you start with regular LEGOs too young, YOU get to put all the sets together which kind of misses the point of the things and you will spend your whole life picking them up off the floor.
If you’re totally new to gifting LEGOs, here’s where you should start:
Kids under 5 or 6 — DUPLOs all the way. Get a medium starter set like this and then buy a character set if you want more. Make sure the set you buy has something with wheels (like this set) so they can build a car. One or two baseplates like this are nice to have as well so they can build a city or fortress.
Kids over 6 — It’s time for LEGOs. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to find used LEGOs for a reasonable price so most likely you will have to buy new sets. We have found some mixed sets at children’s consignment sales, but they go fast so I wouldn’t necessarily count on this.
I suggest you purchase one small to medium sized “creative brick box” if you’re totally new to LEGOs so they have some basic bricks to play with, but after that just buy the sets. Those are the most fun anyway.
Again, if you’re new to buying LEGOs, start buying the smaller sets. All of them have at least one LEGO figure which tends to be the coolest part of the set. The giant ones are really attractive on the shelf, but it takes kids FOREVER to build those and then there’s so much pressure to keep them together.
My boys preferred more small sets over one large one because the building was easier and they could actually play with the finished set around the house.
Playmobil — My kids didn’t fall in love with Playmobil in general, but they did play with the Playmobil Carry Case sets a lot. These sets are self-contained, which means you don’t need anything else to have a rad time, and they are priced (or should be priced) under $15.
They tote around well and you don’t need any bulky buildings and cars. My boys all got their own Knight’s Catapult Carry Case Set and now my five-year old daughter plays with the set.
Magformers are magnetic construction shapes that are used to build all sorts of fun stuff. My kids LOVE Magformers, though they don’t use them all the time. I store them in a plastic tub and bring them out at strategic times and the kids are occupied for a really long time.
So, let’s start with the obvious — these things are spendy, but you don’t need a ton of magnets for maximum fun. Buy one or two sets (30-60 pieces max), make sure you have some wheel bases, and you’re set.
The price on these sets fluctuate wildly on Amazon, so make sure you’re on my Christmas Deals email newsletter list so you don’t miss a great deal.
My boys really like Beyblades, especially if they have other people to “battle.” And it’s not a terribly expensive toy — you just need one Beyblade per person and a Beyblade Stadium for official battles. You can also use a large plastic bin or a cardboard box or they can just use them on a non-carpeted surface. I saw a kid using an old plastic disc sled the other day at my kids’ flag football game. Genius!
Nerf guns, all of them, are a huge hit with kids of all ages. I love that most of the bullets are interchangeable and there are TONS of generic/off-brand bullets you can purchase for less than the official Nerf brand options.
Amazon puts Nerf stuff on sale a few times over the holiday season, so you can stock up, especially on replacement bullets, for not a ton of money. If you live in the PNW, watch our for flash sales at Fred Meyer during the holidays.
We’d love to hear from you! What would you add to this list?
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