Park Grass Photo
FUN : Toddler gifts

Top 10 Toys and Gifts for Toddlers & Young Kids

Your Guide: M.S.G.Quixo
comment | bookmark

When our twins were toddlers (and their cousins were too!) we spent a lot of time searching for fun, natural, educational toys that would last. And it is so wasteful to buy junk that breaks or that is so poorly designed you just throw it away. Here is a quick list of recommended toys that my kids and their friends really enjoyed as toddlers. Some items are a little more expensive than cheap plastic junk at the discount store, but it is worth it. This isn't exactly a top 10 list, but I hate top 10 lists anyway. And please submit your suggestions!

  1. Toddler Tool Puzzle by Melissa and Doug
    Anything from Melissa and Doug, especially puzzles and games: We came to really trust toys from Melissa and Doug. Their toys are always pretty great quality, they are educational and they are almost always made from natural products, usually wood. From ages 3 to 6 our kids especially loved our Melissa and Doug puzzles. They make some amazing wooden puzzles for younger kids (2-3 years old). And from 3 years -5 years old our kids loved the giant floor puzzles. Our favorites were the the dinosaur puzzles, the princess castle puzzle, the rain forest puzzle and the construction truck puzzle, but you really can't go wrong. Note the number of pieces in the floor puzzles: the 24 piece puzzles are obviously going to be better for 2-4 year olds, and the 48 or 100 piece puzzles are better for 4-6 year olds. One small quibble is that once in a while the designs and illustrations on Melissa and Doug toys are kinda funky and not professional looking. But it just adds to the charm of a mom and pop kind of product.
  2. Princess - Fairy Canopy
    Everything from Magic Cabin: When I want to splurge, I go to Magic Cabin. Magic Cabin is a very special source for natural and Waldorf style toys. The idea is that simple props and natural toys can serve a bazillion different roles. They emphasize toys made of cloth and wood that stimulate the imagination, without all the Disney and character cross-marketing The play canopy shown above is great for magical play or hanging over a bed and can be used long after the princess phase ends. I find their web site a little too cutesy, and I think it puts some people off, but the selection of products are absolutely brilliant and always make me drool. Our kids love to use their hand drawn catalog to make their birthday and Christmas lists. It is a great place to get natural wooden toys, play scarves, dress-up items, including alternatives to the Disney princess costumes, dolls and art supplies. They are big on fairies and princess stuff, in the best possible way.
  3. Fisher-Price: One company that consistently provided us with good, well thought-out toys, for babies and young toddlers, was Fisher-Price. It seemed like all our best toys came from them and when we’d buy copy-cat items we’d be disappointed. They just seem to test things well and make sure they are really solid and engaging.

    I know they have had some issues with manufacturing in China, and, while I'm not thrilled about it, basically all plastic toys for young kids are made in China -- it is only amazing that we haven't had these problems sooner. I am thankful that we are finally focusing on the affect that our manufacturing is having there (and here!).

  4. Fischer Price Train for Toddlers
    The entire Little People line of toys is pretty great (but the dvd's are so painfully bad they are funny). As babies and toddlers our kids really loved the trucks and buses. The bigger play sets like the airport, carnival, provided hours of imaginative play. By far our favorite toy, starting at about 1 year and continuing til age 4 or 5, was the Circus Train (this is a slightly updated model). It goes with an easy push of the button and plays music which is always great for an impromptu toddler dance session.
  5. Toddler Piano, Fisher Price
    Also very popular in our family was the Fisher Price Baby Grand Piano. This is a much upgraded version from the one we had. It has a few simple keys for future keyboard players. And teaches numbers. And plays a few songs which are good for dancing and dj'ing. Subtly educational and just a lot of musical fun. And, tough. As these things go, the music is not as irritating as most toys and it is even a bit catchy. It is just the right level of musical education for very young children.
  6. Wood Blocks, Melissa and Doug
    Wooden Blocks: Yea just plain old blocks. Even with all the funky modern obnoxious noisy toys around, it is amazing that basic blocks were, and continue to be, a favorite toy of my kids. They are great for building tall towers, houses for creatures and roads around the house. The best sets come with storage cases or bags. Mega Blocks are also a great plastic locking block when Legos are too small for young kids.
  7. Baby or Toddler Truck from Fisher Price Little People
    Trucks: Fisher Price trucks are also perfect first trucks for babies and toddlers —sturdy and safe for little ones. And in case you were wondering, YES you should get girls cars and trucks! They love them and will feel left out if boys get all the fun! You can still get the big Tonka trucks and a few Tonkas are still made out of metal like the Tonka Mighty trucks. And you can even find classic steel ones sometimes.
  8. Baby Doll Chou Chou
    Baby Dolls: Toddlers naturally love to rock babies, get them dressed and feed them bottles. I REALLY prefer the quiet ones. And generally you can get away with that when the kids are 4 and under and don't know any better. At around 5 they really start wanting the ones that cry, move and make other noises. At least at that point kids can control the noise and do it at appropriate times in their play. And yes, boys too! Changing dolls teaches getting dressed and fine motor coordination. And caring for them teaches nurturing. Don't be afraid to give your boys dolls! Isn’t it important to raise men who can nurture and feed their kids? Boys (and girls) can always play with dolls and then go out and kick some butt, or whatever macho thing you are into. And chicks dig guys who are good with kids.
  9. Sturdy Toy Shopping Cart
    Toy Strollers and Toy Shopping Carts: Toddlers love pushing things around, especially when it involves a little imaginative play. Our kids spent hours playing with their strollers and shopping carts loading and unloading. And, yes, boys can play with them too! Sometimes it is just about pushing stuff around, but there’s also the opportunity for tons of adventure and creativity. Like with most toys, paying a little more for quality is worth it. Cheap ones will wear out and because these are such favorite toys, you'll have to buy new ones anyway.   
  10. Wood Play Kitchen
    Play Kitchen: This is still one of the most popular toys for our kids and play date guests. We were gifted a big plastic one which is nice and gets a lot of use. I do also really like the wood ones which are little more natural and earth friendly. These are the kinds of toys which get repeated use, you can store other toys in them, and they can be passed on.
  11. Bug Toy: Bug Jar Creature Peeper
    Bug Toys: One of our daughters had a huge bug obsession for a while – as an entomologist for Halloween, she was one of the very few non-princesses at her preschool. So she got a lot of bug related toys. There are many plastic devices created so kids can torture bugs, but we try to discourage keeping the bugs trapped in some plastic play thing until they die or escape. So the one bug toy we’ve used the most and the longest was a simple bug jar to catch, observe and release the bugs. Magnifiers and sometimes gentle tweezers are also helpful. Insects of the Los Angeles Basin has been our most helpful reference book, along with And having a compost bin in your garden or kitchen is also great source of clean, interesting, buggy, grubby, worm filled fun for kids.
  12. Best Tricycle: Kettler
    Tricycles: (Yea I know this is number 11, and I was already cheating by listing complete brands of products, but I did say I don't really like top 10 lists in the first place.) At age two our daughters got tricycles and from our experience, Kettler Tricycles are the best. Getting the quality model meant that our girls loved riding them, we enjoyed taking them every day and they lasted. I strongly recommend getting the rubber tires. They give the tricycle traction and make it much easier to ride, so kids learn faster and enjoy riding more. The removable stick that allows an adult to push when needed is also essential for the first couple years of use. I actually found the free wheel bonus feature to be unhelpful. The model we had did not have a freewheel and I think it helped our kids learn the proper pedaling motion when we pushed. Having no freewheel also permits kids to pedal backward so they can perform three point turns – a trick which, once mastered proves very handy. And the little dump truck bucket in the back allowed my kids to carry their drinks with them and made it much easier for us to bring home piles of books from the library. Our girls didn’t start riding immediately after their 2nd birthday, it took a month or two.  But once they learned, there was no stopping them. In fact at 6 years, even though they've moved on to two wheelers, they still ride the trikes around the yard! (Oh, and please don't buy your kids those motorized ride-on cars and trucks -- isn't it more important for them to get some exercise and learn some motor skills?)

A few notes on Videos and DVDs: Toddlers and especially babies don’t need DVD's. Or TV. They don’t even really like them! Recent studies show they lower kids' vocabulary. And Baby Einstein movies are a scam. The production value is lame and kids could learn much more looking out the window, listening to good music or staring at their feet. Ok, we watched a little TV when our girls were small and a few nice videos we enjoyed were from the excellent Scholastic series, especially Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. And, for all ages, They Might Be Giants terrific DVD Here Come the ABC's is full of quirky songs, delightful animation and weirdness.

Books are really our favorite toys and gifts but we have a whole separate page for them here: The Best Books for Toddlers, Babies and Young Kids.