Best Gift Guide for Kids: UPDATED (aka The Toys I Didn't Take to the D.I.)

Four years ago, I wrote a post called Best Gift Guide for Kids. It started out like this:

I have had a few people ask me for suggestions on what to get their kids for Christmas, so I decided to post some ideas for everyone to see. But first, let me clarify: There are plenty of lists out there of gifts for kids that are really fun to give. . . But this is not one of those lists.

I don't like clutter, and I don't like having a lot of toys that can clutter up my house. I am very picky with what toys I let my kids have, so I make sure the toys they get will get a lot of usage. This guide features toys that get played with the most at our house.

Most of these unisex toys are not super thoughtful, unique toys, but more along the lines of what I think the basics are. So if your kid is missing something off of this must-have list, get shopping ASAP. I broke them into categories, but the reason many of these toys made my list is because they can be used for so many different age categories. Adam (2) and Rachel (6) both like to ride around on their Plasma Cars, and sometimes I even ride them too.

We are currently working on a complete house purge. Yesterday, we took three Rubbermaid totes full of donations to the D.I. We filled three more today. So I figured it would be good to follow up on those gifts, and let you know what toys I couldn't bear to get rid of.

Ages 0-2:

1. Oball ($5 Bed Bath & Beyond, Target): Amazingly, little infants can actually grasp this ball. Target just started selling a version with a rattle.
2. Playskool Busy Gears ($15 Wal-mart, Target): This has been the most-used toy at our house. Adam still plays with it every single day.
3. Little Tikes Toddler Swing ($20 ToysRUs, Amazon): Don't have room for a swing set outside? No worries. Screw two eye bolts into the ceiling of your garage, basement, or even in a doorway and. . . Voila!
4. LeapFrog Fridge Phonics ($15 Amazon, Target): The alphabet can get a little annoying after you've heard it for the hundredth time, but the repetition helps them learn.
5. Rocking Horse ($40 Walmart): Boys and girls alike need a rocking horse. My girls used to spend hours, styling the poor horse's hair with all of their clips and bows. Adam still feels the need to jump on it for a ride every night before he goes to bed.

I should modify the ages for the toys in this category to say Ages 0-4.

1. Oball: We have at least three of these around the house, and I still love them. I generally find them with strings tied around them, which actually drives me crazy, but at least they are getting played with. You can find them at all sorts of stores these days.
2. Playskool Busy Gears: We are missing a couple of the little plastic gears, but we are keeping this toy forever because it is still a favorite for every baby/toddler who comes over to our house.
3. Little Tikes Toddler Swing: We passed our swing onto a friend earlier this year because Mykaeleigh's shoes were always getting stuck when we tried to pull her out of it. But you know. . . ten years of use isn't bad.
4. LeapFrog Fridge Phonics: We actually have a whole basket full of these magnets. We have the English version, the Spanish version, and even the Farm Magnetic Animal Set. I just looked them up on Amazon to link them and it looks like they are rare and hard to find. . . glad I didn't get rid of them.
5. Rocking Horse: We still have our beloved rocking horse. Rachel asked me if I would keep it until she has kids of her own.

Ages 3-5:

1. Razor Scooter ($20-30 ShopKo, Target...watch for sales) : Every kid needs one of these. The handlebars slide down low enough for a two-year old. And don't bother with the three-wheeled version for younger kids. They will figure out how to balance on two wheels after a little practice.
2. LeapFrog Tag Reading System ($40-50 LeapFrog, Amazon, Costco): I used to worry that we would rip the pages, but even with my destructible boy, we have only ruined one book. (He threw it in the bathtub.)
3. Plasma Car ($40-60 Overstock, Amazon, Target): Forget a tricycle or any other ride on toy. This one is so much more fun.
4. Heelys ($30-50 Amazon, Zappos): I actually resisted getting Heelys until I was finally forced into it. And now I love them. They just came out with this trimmer, less clunky model.
5. Marble Run: ($25-50 ToysRUs, Amazon): There are dozens of versions of this classic toy on the market today. My kids love going to Grandma's house to play with the same one I played with as a child.

This category should be modified to say Ages 3-10.

1. Razor Scooter: We still love Razor Scooters. In fact, Lucy and Adam just got new ones last month. I recommend buying colored or patterned scooters to make them easy to identify from your neighbors'. And try not to back over them with your car.
2. LeapFrog Tag Reading System: We still have our Tag Reader; we actually have two. And probably fifteen books. I've thought about getting rid of them, but they are nice to take on long drives in the car. And even though Adam can read, he still likes playing with them and loves listening to all of the sound effects that are connected to the pictures.
3. Plasma Car: Funny that this is the only toy from this category that we don't have anymore. Because it's probably my favorite. My brother, Sam, loved them so much, that he made his own Swivel Car Rolling Ride On Toy, available in all sorts of fun colors through amazon. We had three of these but gave them away to friends a while back because it was Adam's preferred mode of transportation and he was refusing to learn how to ride a bike. And Mykaeleigh ruined a whole lot of really cute shoes by dragging her feet as brakes. My kids have been asking about them, so I think we might have to get some Swivel Cars again this summer. . .
4. Heelys: Most stores started banning Heelys a couple of years ago, but they aren't very common anymore, so you can get away with using them again. (Best place in the world for Heelys? Las Vegas.) Lucy ended up with a hand-me-down pair from her cousin, Gracie, and Rachel's feet haven't grown much in the last four years, so she can still miraculously fit into the pair she got for her birthday in 2010. (That would be why Rachel has 30 billion pairs of shoes.) Adam never really mastered Heelys, but sometimes the kids push the table and chair up against the kitchen wall and ride around on the kitchen floor. I'm not sure I would pay full price for these anymore, but you should be able to find some bargains on eBay.
5. Marble Run: The kids wanted to get rid of our Castle Marbleworks that Rachel received for her first birthday.) But I'm not ready to get rid of it. I'll probably keep it forever. I considered buying this Marbleworks Ultra Deluxe Set for Adam, but decided it was a little too pricey. The kids still love to play with Marbleworks at my parents' house.

Ages 6-8:

1. Melissa & Doug Travel Hangman ($13 Little Cherry Blossoms, Amazon): My kids bring this with us everywhere we go. Super cute and helps them learn how to spell.
2. Apple Ipod Shuffle ($39 Apple refurbished): I am a big fan of Ipods, and these shuffles are perfect for kids. Need more convincing? Click here.
3. CamelBak Better Bottle ($12 REI): Doesn't look like a sippy cup, but provides the same function. The perfect present for children and adults too!
4. Camera (free): No need to buy a new one, just give them your old 2-5 mp digital camera and buy yourself an upgrade 
5. Hyper Dash ($13 Target, Amazon): Suitable for kids as soon as they know their colors, this award-winning game will help keep your kids active. Perfect for rainy (and snowy) days. Challenges speed, skill, and memory

The ages for this category could be more like 4-54.

1. Melissa & Doug Travel Hangman: This isn't played with as much as it used to be. . . mostly because it's been replaced by much smaller, electronic toys. And because Adam has a hard time following the rules of Hangman. But I like it precisely because it isn't electronic.
2. Apple iPod Shuffle: Even though Rachel has an iPhone, she still uses her Shuffle because she can take it running without worrying about it breaking. Still a winner.
3. CamelBak Better Bottle. I ordered new CamelBak water bottles for Christmas this year. We use ours all of the time and replace them every two or three years.
4. Camera: Rachel used that old camera of mine for years, but between her iPhone and my old Leica camera, it mostly just sits on the shelf. Maybe it's time to pass it onto Adam?
5. Hyper Dash: We still have Hyper Dash and the kids use when they are making obstacle courses. I love games that promote physical activity, so it's a keeper.

Some of my other favorite toys that should be added?

My Little Pony: My Little Ponies are one of my all-time favorite toys. Make sure you get a full-size pony with brushable hair. You don't need any of the accessories, other than a little plastic brush. This is the perfect toy to stash in your baby bag or purse. They provided endless hours of entertainment for my girls and are also great for learning how to braid hair.

Spy Gear: Adam has received different pieces of Spy Gear for the last two Christmases. Rachel and Lucy wanted to pick out some more this year. But he already has the binoculars, walkie talkies, spy car, motion detector, spy watch, spy listener, laser pen, and probably some more that I am forgetting, so I think we're good. When Adam has friends come over, they frequently play spies (which I love because it's relatively quiet). His favorites are the spy watch and the motion detector. You can also buy these at Kohl's.

Mr. Potato Head: It's a classic for a reason. We have three of these, and I love finding my kids playing with them. Bonus: they also provide the easiest, simplest way to decorate your pumpkins.

Hot Wheels 4 Lane Raceway: I think I wrote about this before. (Here it is. . . back in 2010). I used to think about how fun it would be to have a boy and buy him a train set. Well, Adam got a train set, but he wasn't impressed. And then he got this racetrack from Grandma Gloria, and it was magical. You would clearly have to but it from somewhere other than amazon because they have it priced at $200. (I understand the concept of supply and demand, but seriously. . . what?!?) We've tried other tracks, including the ones that attach to the walls. The reason why I love this one is because Adam can set it up (and put it away) by himself. And it encourages group play.

Wheelbarrow/Yard Tools: 2010 was also the year Adam got his John Deere metal wheelbarrow. It's looking like they don't sell the John Deere ones anymore, but the Radio Flyer brand should be great too. Adam take his outside chores a lot more seriously with his own tools. And I love when he uses his wheelbarrow to help unload groceries from the car.

Rocking Chair: Gloria gave this chair to Mykaeleigh as a combined birthday and Christmas present last year. (I think the price went up a little?) But anyhow, she loved it so much and we almost bought Adam his own so there wouldn't be any quarreling over who got to sit in the special chair. High quality and will last forever.

Pottery Barn Kids Soft Baby Dolls: I'm trying to think what year it was that I bought these for Rachel and Lucy. I couldn't believe that I was spending so much money on a doll (something like $30). Thanks to DownEast and eBay, our collection has really grown over the years. (Our favorite was definitely the doll stroller similar to this one. The girls loved to push Adam and Mykaeleigh in the stroller across our kitchen floor, but one too many crashes left it unrepairable.) Note: I don't think I especially like PBK's new doll collection. Maybe I'm just not used to them, but the eyes look odd.

Lego Table: Back when my brother, Paul, worked at the D.I. he scored us a Lego Table for four or five bucks. Since then, my kids have had fun building with the Duplo-sized Lego bricks. This year, we are finally entering into the world of "real" Legos. I might be able to part with this toy once we make the transition.

Charlie & Lola DVDs: So I was kind of sad that I discovered Charlie & Lola right as Rachel and Lucy were outgrowing them. I was thrilled that Mykaeleigh loved them as much as me. We also love the Charlie & Lola pop up book, I Will Never Not EVER Eat a Tomato. And it looks like you can buy yourself a new copy on amazon for a mere nine thousand dollars. Seriously. . . what is up with amazon? Forget keeping any of these things, I need to sell them on amazon!

REI Kindercone Sleeping Bag: Not a toy, but I thought I should include this one too, since I was admiring one as I put it away this morning. My mom gave these sleeping bags as Christmas gifts to the grandkids a few years ago, and they have been one of our favorite gifts ever.

Melissa & Doug Wooden Food Sets: Okay, so we have a lot of these. The fruit set, the vegetable set, the pantry products, the ice cream set, the cookie set, and a couple of food sets they don't make anymore. My sister painted a really cute mural on the wall to go along with our play kitchen, so I will probably never get rid of them. Yes, these are a lot more fun if you have a pretend kitchen. I organized everything today, and amazingly, the only thing we're missing is some french fries. These wooden food sets have provided countless hours of fun as the kids have played "restaurant".

Add in some dress up clothes, a cabinet full of board games, and Adam's toy box full of "guys", and that's pretty much every toy we own. I get that I'm probably a couple weeks late posting this, but if you are still shopping for Christmas gifts, you should be able to find most of these products at your local stores. 

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