Preschoolers are at the golden age for gifts – old enough to appreciate them and young enough to like just about anything. But choices out there are endless, and it’s all too easy to end up with a house full of abandoned toys. Here are my ideas for toys that last, in five categories: pretend, explore, create, learn and move.
Play Kitchen – I’ve rarely met a child that doesn’t love pretend play related to food. I waited too long – for my daughter’s fourth birthday, when my oldest was already six – before I bought this kitchen for my kids. A play kitchen is an investment that really does pay off in years of use. Right now Walmart has this sturdy Kidkraft Large Play Kitchen on sale for $102, so the smart folks at Amazon.com are also currently selling at that price, with free shipping (usually sells for upward of $150). This kitchen is taller than most, so kindergarteners and 18-month-olds can both use it comfortably. Just plan ahead so you have time to assemble beforehand (this is not a project for Christmas Eve). KidKraft Large Kitchen at Amazon.com, $102.
Wooden play food – I love this breakfast set from Plan Toys. The quality is outstanding (made from recycled rubberwood), and the clever wood tray presents all kinds of play possibilities, from restaurant play to breakfast in bed. My two year old is getting this Melissa and Doug fruit and vegetable cutting box for Christmas. I’m hoping she can practice her small motor skills with the wood knife instead of wanting to get her hands on the real stuff. Last year we gave the kids this Melissa and Doug ice cream set, which is has magnets inside to hold the scoops on the cone. The kids still love taking orders and serving up dessert. Plan Toys breakfast at Amazon.com, $23. Melissa & Doug Cutting Food Box at Amazon.com, $16. Melissa & Doug Deluxe Ice Cream Parlor Set, $22.
Play tent – Many of you already saw my deal alert on this, but I had to include it again since play tents are such fun for preschoolers. These are great for indoor or outdoor use, fold down small for storage and pop up again in an instant when you need them. Handy to break out when kids are looking for something new to do – it always sparks their imaginations. Play tent at Amazon.com, $29.
Camp Set and Camp Stove – This camp set is not high quality, but it is awfully fun. The lantern alone makes the set – darned cute and is a good way to illustrate life before electricity (my daughter is already planning to carry it next Halloween as Laura from Little House on the Prairie). The utensil switchblade falls apart kind of easily but is also a bit hit with my preschooler. We don’t own the camp stove, but it gets great reviews and is a compact option for those who don’t have (or want to make) space for a full play kitchen. Pretend and Play Camp Set at Amazon.com, $22, and Grill-and-Go Camp Stove at Amazon.com, $25.
Little Handyman’s Tool Box and Fisher-Price Drillin’ Action Tool Set – My cousin gave us a tool set years ago that my boys and girls both loved. Tool sets are good for small motor skills, but mostly they are fun for kids to imitate adults fixing things around the house (my preschooler even used our power tools to perform an operation on visiting friends). This Little Handyman’s tool box has a collection of 18 non-powered tools, and the Fisher Price set has a hammer and battery-powered drill with holes on the tool box for kids to practice with plastic screws and nails. Small World Living Toys Little Handyman’s Tool Box at Amazon.com, $18, and Fisher-Price Drillin’ Action Tool Set at Amazon.com, $15.
Doctor kit – My kids love playing doctor – taking temperature, listening to each other’s hearts, rapping on knees. They also pretend to cut my hair with the scissors. It’s all good fun (except for the tweezers sometimes). There are a ton of sets out there. This one is similar to one we have and gets very good ratings. Learning Resources Pretend & Play Doctor Set at Amazon.com, $27.
Play silks – I already talked about these in my stocking stuffer post, but I’ll repeat briefly here. A simple square of silk makes an incredibly versatile toy. In our house they serve as costume, blanket, tarp, sack, rope. Having a few in different colors gives more creative options – a set of three would make a fantastic gift. Girls and boys both have fun with these. Play silks at Amazon.com, around $12 for select colors. You can also see a full array of colors at Magic Cabin, where silks are $10 before shipping.
Creature Peeper and Field Scope – What is it with kids and bugs? Maybe it’s because we don’t have a pet, but mine are always trying to convince me to keep bugs they find. I’m buying my preschooler these two cool tools for Christmas. One is a container in which to keep and analyze his new friends – it gives a magnified view from top and bottom. The other is a magnifying scope which he can use to get a closer view of anything he comes across (and hopefully will encourage him to leave it outside). Insect Lore Creature Peeper at Amazon.com, $7, and Backyard Safari Field Scope, $13.
Binoculars and Magnifying Glass – Can’t go wrong with these basic explorer tools. These sturdy rubberized binoculars can be used for spy missions as well as outdoor exploration. The magnifying glass is as fun on books as it is on bugs. Kids binoculars at Land of Nod, $13 with free shipping, and Melissa & Doug Mombo Snake Magnifying Glass at Amazon.com, $7.
Head lamp and LED flashlight – Kids feel like real explorers wearing the head lamp (already featured in my stocking stuffer post), which will have them seeking out the darkest areas of the house. A simple flashlight is always a thrill as well, and these mini LED ones have a handy clip for putting them on a belt loop (just make sure they don’t go through the wash!). Added bonus: this flashlight comes in pink as well. Just ordered two of each for our stockings. Schylling head lamp at Land of Nod, $7 with free shipping, and Streamlight Miniature Keychain LED Flashlight at Amazon.com, $6.
Hohner Rhythm Instrument Set – A real percussion set to introduce preschoolers to music (and not the electronic kind). I’m getting this for my kids this Christmas, along with some of the instruments from my stocking stuffer post…though with four little musicians inside one house, this might be a better gift for warm weather months. Or I might just have to get myself some earplugs for Christmas. Hohner 6 Piece Rhythm Instrument Set at Amazon.com, $33.
Fisher Price Doodle Pro Classic and Doodle Pro Tag Along – Don’t overlook these classic toys – the small ones are really great for travel. They’re currently selling way above list price at Amazon, so you might want to actually leave the house and get these at Target or Toys R Us (should sell for around $16 for the large and and $10 for the small). I’ll include the Amazon links anyway, since pricing there is highly variable and usually very competitive: Fisher-Price Doodle Pro Classic Blue at Amazon.com, $30 (!), and Fisher-Price Doodle Pro Tag-Along Blue at Amazon.com, $17 (!).
Play Doh Fun Factory Deluxe and Play Doh Creativity Center – Preschoolers love the squishy fun of Play Doh. It’s nice to have a set of tools on hand to keep things interesting. These are two good sets. We have the creativity center, which is nice for storage (but it’s big). Prices on Amazon seem reasonable, though I’ve found that often Play Doh toys are cheaper at the store. Play-Doh: Fun Factory Deluxe Set at Amazon.com, $19, and Play-Doh Creativity Center at Amazon.com, $34.
Wikki Stix Activity Set – These colorful, flexible sticks (also featured in the stocking stuffer post) can be formed into pictures on paper or sculpted into wire figures. Great creative fun for boys and girls of all ages, and particularly wonderful for keeping kids busy during travel or eating out. This set is a good value, with play board, activity sheets, storage bag and 84 Wikki Stix. Wikki Stix Activity Set at Amazon.com, $12.
Legos – My all-time favorite toy. As soon as we got to Ohio I started looking for used Legos on Craigslist. My husband thought I was cornering the market on used Legos in central Ohio, but you need a certain amount of volume and variety (especially wheels and people) to open up the creative power of Legos – and buying new is crazy expensive. These days Lego sets are so specialized, kids want to build whatever it is and never take it apart. I liked the old days when you had to use more creativity. This set is more of a throwback (though it only has one person). LEGO Ultimate Building Set – 405 Pieces at Amazon.com, $28.
Letters and numbers – I like my stainless steel fridge, but I hate not being able to use magnets anymore. My two year old is missing out on all the magnetic letter fun we used to have with the other three. The magnetic Leapfrog Fridge Phonics toy is a higher-tech version that sings a little phonics song for each letter inserted. Foam letters and numbers are also fun for bathtime play. The kids always love to hear me attempt to pronounce the long nonsensical words they make up on the tile wall. Educational Insights Jumbo Letters & Numbers Combo Set at Amazon.com, $23. LeapFrog Fridge Phonics Magnetic Alphabet Set at Amazon.com, $15. Sassy Bathtime Fun Appliques – 84 Piece Set, $13.
Tangoes Jr and Mighty Mind – As you know from my stocking stuffer post, I’m a sucker for tangrams. These shape-construction games are absorbing for kids and get them thinking about figures in a whole different way. It’s art, it’s math, it’s puzzle, it’s fun. Tangoes Jr has 12 design cards and is magnetic, which makes it great for travel. Mighty Mind comes with 30 design cards and is a good set for a child working at a table (without siblings to grab the card and send the pieces flying – big problem in our house). Mighty Mind also comes in a magnetic version, but there is a bit of assembly involved putting the magnets on the pieces. Rex Game Tangoes Jr at Amazon.com, $24. MightyMind Regular Edition at Amazon.com, $18. Magnetic MightyMind at Amazon.com, $22.
Stomp Rocket Jr – Jump on a plastic bulb to shoot a foam rocket high into the air – kids can play with this forever (or until the foam rockets are all on the roof of your house). They love to have competitions to see who can make the rocket soar the highest. This is a big version of the squeeze rockets featured in my stocking stuffer post and is made by the same company. Not the sturdiest toy – we’ve been through at least three of these with our four kids – but it is very fun while it lasts. Oh, and this latest version has glow in the dark rockets (so the neighbors can admire the rockets on your roof at night). Stomp Rocket Jr. Glow Kit at Amazon.com, $10.
Pull back cars – I just love an old-fashioned mechanical toy. Boys and girls both love to pull cars back and let them go. I was hoping to find better quality ones, but these are small, portable novelty items that could go in stockings or be stashed in your bag to pull out when a distraction is needed. At $9 for a dozen, you can’t go too far wrong: 12 Pull Back Racer Cars at Amazon.com.
Remote control cars – Three things to know about remote control cars: 1) they are really fun, 2) they eat batteries (kids never remember to turn them off – and annoyingly the remote often has its own on-off switch) and 3) they don’t last long. But they are a fun lesson in controls and steering. Just don’t bother to buy a fancy one. These Kid Galaxy Morphibians are pretty good – they are able to move over varied terrain, and the controls are simple enough for younger kids. The blue one is currently selling at Amazon.com for $17; the green one is $21. Note that these radio-controlled cars use the same frequency, so they won’t work right if you have two near each other. Kid Galaxy Morphibians Shark at Amazon.com, $17. Kid Galaxy Morphibians Explorer at Amazon.com, $21.
Phew – I’ve exhausted myself with that post. My husband makes fun of me for overloading people with information. Go ahead and take a coffee break. I’m going for a cuppa Barry’s. Too tired to test all the links – please let me know if any of them take you somewhere unexpected.
Next up – gifts for school aged kids and teenagers. Then back to our regularly scheduled programming.