In the four-and-a-half years of my blog's existence, I have never published an official "gift guide." I've shared favorite things here and there in random posts, but never compiled a conscientious list.
But over the last few months, I've had a number of friends ask if certain toys that we own are "worth it," and I've also had the thought cross my mind on more than one occasion and about more than one toy, That was one of the best things we ever invested money on.
I also realized how much I love recommendations from trusted friends and sources (Mel's gift guides are among my very, very favorite), and so I thought I could maybe do the same for you.
We are not huge consumers, and so this list is going to be relatively short, as well as random. I'm including outdoor toys, building toys, games, crafts, books, etc. These are gifts that have gotten heavy, sometimes daily, use at our house (some of them for years) and are still going strong. These are all things that I would really and truly buy again if I were given the choice and that I've never experienced even the slightest twinge of buyers' remorse over.
(Disclaimer: Many of the links below are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase anything through that link, I earn a small commission without changing the cost for you. But please, feel free to shop around for a better deal!)
1. Wiggle Car
When Aaron was eighteen months old, we bought him a blue and red wiggle car with some Christmas money Mike's grandma had given us. At the time, these were still relatively new toys, and so we actually went to a swing set store to buy it because they were a distributor of them. I can still remember the sales guy sitting down on one and riding it around the show room to demonstrate its weight capacity. In the years since, we've acquired two more (one yellow, one green), and, except for extremely cold winter days, all three of them are driven around every single day. My kids race around the driveway and ride them up and down the street over and over and over. I keep expecting a wheel to break or a handle to fall off, but even the blue one (which is now seven years old) is still going strong. There are so many riding toys that get quickly outgrown (we keep having to buy new bikes because my kids just keep getting taller), but wiggle cars work for toddlers all the way up through teenagers (and yes, we have some older neighbor kids who love to ride them around). There are two brands (wiggle and plasma) and they look almost identical, but I believe that all three of ours are wiggle cars.
Ah, Legos. We entered the world of Legos the Christmas when Aaron was four-and-a-half, and I think they've been a part of our Christmases ever since. Prior to that Christmas, Mike scoured the classifieds and finally found a decent collection of bricks for a good price. That was definitely a nice way to start because it gave them a good foundation of basic pieces, but since then, my kids have loved saving up for and asking for actual sets (their favorites, and the ones they dream about the most, are from the Star Wars collection and the Creator collection). People have asked me before what we do with those built sets (do they display them? play with them? take them apart and build the same set over again? take them apart and build something completely new?), and the answer is: all of the above. This year I'm giving Aaron this book of Lego designs to inspire him to try new projects, but honestly, he seems to be plenty creative on his own. In fact, it is not unusual for him to go directly from the car to the Lego bin in the basement when he gets home from school. They're beastly to step on in the middle of the night and I find that I always seem to have a random collection of them in my pocket because I find them all over the house, but oh, my kids love them.
There are dozens of building toys out there, but this is where we've chosen to spend our money (along with Legos--see above). Why? Oh, for so many reasons. First of all, they're durable and well-made. We've had them for three years, and during that time, I think we've had two pieces break (and I blame my kids entirely for both breakages--they're hard on toys). Second, they appeal to a wide age range: Clark and his friends play with them as do our teenage nephews. Even adults find them impossible to resist. Because they're magnetic, they go together easily, almost without trying, and there is no end to the creative possibilities. And third, they are a breeze to clean up. This is where they trump Legos; instead of little random pieces scattered all over, they just all sort of clump together, making it super easy to gather them up and throw them in the bin. These are by far one of the more expensive toys we've invested in, and at the time, I really wondered if it would be worth it. But it has been. Again and again and again it's been worth it. Originally we bought the largest set we could find (and we've never felt like we had "too many" Magformers) and then later added one of the construction sets because it came with a couple of shapes we didn't have as well as a few specialty pieces. When I've been tempted to buy other building toys, I always ask myself, Will we like them more than Magformers? And the answer is almost always, Mostly likely not.
I probably could make an entire gift guide entirely out of games because my kids love games and play them all the time, but I'll restrain myself, mostly because most of the games we own I haven't actually played with them (guilty confession, but that's why they have each other, right?). But this one, I have. And what's more, I actually enjoy playing it with them. Each person gets a board with sixteen little cubes. The cubes each have six different sides. A card is turned over in the middle of the table with a design on it, and players have to race against each other to be the first one to duplicate the design. I have had just as much fun playing this game with adults as with kids, and the great thing is, if you're not really a competitive person, you can just play by yourself--it's just fun to turn the cubes and create the designs.
5. Rush Hour Jr.
This is a fun single-player game that challenges logical thinking and reasoning. The player picks a card from the deck and sets up the grid board according to the picture. The goal is to get the ice cream truck out of a traffic jam by sliding the other vehicles in and out of their places until you've created a clear path. Check out this video if you want a more visual idea for how it works. The puzzles get gradually harder as you work your way through the deck. So far we've only tried the junior version, although Aaron could definitely move up to the regular version. (This is the perfect game for afternoon quiet time or just when your kids need some time away from each other . . . or is that just my kids?) (Oh also, if your kids really like these kinds of logic puzzles, another favorite of ours is Castle Logix.)
6. Round metal pencil sharpener
I know, you're probably thinking, One of these things is not like the other. How did a pencil sharpener end up on this list? But stay with me. Anne Bogel calls this "the holy grail of pencil sharpeners," and with good reason. For years, we have dealt with the most inadequate pencil sharpeners (probably because we bought them for less than a dollar at Wal-Mart). They never gripped the pencils, and when they did, they sharpened them up one side but not the other. My kids are constantly drawing and coloring and doing projects, and the lack of a good pencil sharpener was so frustrating. I considered getting an electric sharpener, but as a last resort, decided to try this one first. Lo and behold, it only took three turns of the pencil, and it had a beautifully sharp point. I was sold (and so were my kids). I'm considering getting one for each of them for their stockings because I'm so worried about losing the only one we have.
7. Ramona Quimby collection
You knew books had to show up somewhere on this list, right? And although it pains me to have to pick favorites, I will say that these books (along with the Henry Huggins series) are probably the most read and re-read series in our house. Alternatively, they also love listening to the audio versions, and if you're an audible member, you're not going to find a better deal for your monthly credit than these collections. Eight books in the Ramona series or six books in the Henry series for one credit (which ends up being about $15, depending on your subscription)?! That's incredible.
8. Thinking Putty
A friend recommended this high-end silly putty earlier this year and said that it's one of her kids' favorite ways to occupy their hands when she's reading aloud to them. I bought a small tin for each of my kids for Easter, and it has been played with countless times since then (and yes, usually when I'm reading to them). At five times the price of old-school silly putty, you're probably wondering if it's worth it. And since I'm including it here, you can probably guess that my opinion is yes, I'd take this over silly putty any day (and pay for it, too). It comes in the most amazing assortment of colors and the texture is less rubbery, more smooth, than silly putty. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that the other day I asked Mike if he would buy it again and he said no. And it's true that even though we have pretty strict rules about when they can play with it and where it goes when they're done, they've still managed to smash it into the carpet. But a little vinegar has taken it right up without any problem. So buy it at your own risk. (Also, there's quite a range in price. This four-pack is one of the best prices I've seen, even with paying for the shipping.) A perfect stocking stuffer.
9. Perler beads
I saw that--a few of you cringed when you saw this on the list, didn't you? And I totally get that. Perler beads are either a dream come true (your kids will sit for hours and painstakingly fill up a pegboard with little beads) or your worst nightmare (you spend most of your time sweeping up all those little beads while your kids wail because they accidentally bumped the pegboard when they were almost done). We happen to fall into the first camp, which is why they made it on the list, but I totally have some things that are like the second (rainbow loom! kinetic sand! ugh!). I've tried to figure out why perler beads have worked so well for us, and I think the main reason is just that we happened on a really good system right from the start: all of the supplies (beads, boards, even their finished creations) go in one big tub that gets put on a high shelf in their closet. They're only allowed to do them at the kitchen table (never in their room) and usually only during quiet time (so that Clark can't work his destruction magic). It just works for us. So there's that, but also, my kids just really love putting them together and somehow become miraculously focused and concentrated when they're working on them.
10. Ravensburger puzzles
We are a family of puzzle addicts. Mike claims that he doesn't love doing puzzles, but it sure seems like anytime we have one out, he somehow ends up being sucked into it, so the evidence would speak otherwise. At this point, Clark's interest is probably more of an adversarial one, if you know what I mean (nothing like having the power to make an older brother scream and chase you), but he loves doing wooden ones, so I think he'll come around. Our favorite brand is Ravensburger because the pieces are sturdy and fit together securely, the pictures are colorful and kid-friendly (even as you move up to more pieces), and they've got a wide range of sizes (even breaking it down into the 200- and 300-piece sizes, which are sometimes difficult to find). We have even ordered one of their custom puzzles, and it was the same great quality we've come to expect from their other puzzles but with a picture of our family on it. We still haven't braved anything beyond 500-pieces, but I think this might be the year for it.
11. Shrinky Dinks
These simple craft sheets literally kept my kids busy the entire Christmas break last year. Have you seen them? You simply draw a picture on one of the clear plastic sheets, cut it out, and put it in the oven where it miraculously shrinks down and turns into a hard thick plastic in the process--perfect for Christmas ornaments or key chains or necklace pendants. There are lots of specialized packs out there, but I just bought my kids one of the regular packs with ten sheets in it (and no extra gadgets). Then I printed out coloring pages for them, which they traced over with a sharpie and colored in with sharpies or colored pencils, and then they kept an eye on them through the oven window until they reached the perfect size. So many hours of fun.
12. Magazine subscription
Last but not least, how about a gift that keeps on giving? My parents gave Maxwell a Ranger Rick subscription for his birthday, and it has been one of his favorite things this year. Of course he loves it for all the animal facts and the jokes, but mostly he thinks it is wildly exciting to get something in the mail every month that's just for him (he does end up sharing it with his brothers but only after he's read it cover to cover). There are so many fun magazines to choose from. Ranger Rick is a good fit for Max because he's such an animal enthusiast, but search around because there's bound to be the perfect magazine for whatever your child enjoys.
Are any of these your favorites, too? Tell me about the toys YOU would buy again. Also, I'm happy to try to answer any questions you might have about anything I've mentioned.