One of the best parts of being a parent is buying presents for your kid and seeing their eyes light up as they grab the box and play with that for a couple of hours. But then, eventually, they’ll focus on the toy inside. If it’s a good one, they’ll still be playing with it months later and hopefully learning, too, be it puzzle-solving or fine-motor skills.
Since Christmas is the Lollapalooza of present-purchasing, I’ve assembled a list of toys that have been play-tested by my own preschooler, Emile. (I made a similar list in this space last year.) These toys are definitely appropriate for two- to three-year-olds, though some won’t lose their appeal for older tykes, too.
Emile got a pineapple uke from his bubbie and zaida for his third birthday a couple of months back. While he can’t yet play it, he sure does play with it all the time, holding it correctly, strumming, and even trying to tune it. He also makes up songs as he goes along, like his current punk-rock smash hit “Hugs, No Hugs!” Soon, I’ll be enrolling him in a class to learn it properly because a ukulele is a proper instrument, just a conveniently toddler-sized one. If E takes good care of it, he could keep it his whole life and one day even jam with his own grandkids.
Joey Magnetic Dress-Up Set
We bought Emile a baby doll and stroller when he was little(r), but I wasn’t sure how he’d take to this modern magnetic version of a paper-doll set. Turns out he loves it and has played with it consistently for a year. He has the boy version, so he can dress up the dude as a knight, a superhero, or fire fighter, etc. There are also several girl editions, though they seem to just feature variations on regular clothing, rather than outfits denoting cool jobs, which is kinda disappointing.
CIRKUSTÄLT Children’s tent
Sometimes little kids need a little privacy and this inexpensive circus small top is just the place to provide it. We actually have the previous model (which was recalled, though we’re still using it) but are planning to upgrade because this one looks so neat. Emile likes to hide out in there, sometimes with his cousin, and there’s an attachable tunnel we bought to up the ante. It’s also where we store Emile’s plush army so that his snake, alligator, Itchy, Scratchy, Homer, and Totoro aren’t cluttering up our floor.
Speaking of Totoro, if your child, like mine, is obsessed with Miyazaki’s adorable forest monster, there are a number of cool toys to buy. But be warned: because they’re all imported, you’ll be paying a premium if you buy them downtown at a hipster toy shop. You’ll no doubt find them cheaper at an Asian mall in the suburbs. Emile already has a plush Totoro that was once bigger than he was, and both a Totoro and a Catbus piggybank, so this year I just got him a stack of playing cards with handrawn art from the film. There’s plenty of cool Totoro merch to choose from—though if you find any plush soot sprites, lemme know, I’m looking for them!
Yo Gabba Gabba soundtracks
So your kid wants to watch Yo Gabba Gabba all the time—and who can blame them? It’s a really good show. But too much good TV is still bad. So we weaned our own off the set by playing the soundtracks. The fourth one just came out, and features Toronto’s own Metric singing “Everybody Has a Talent” alongside the likes of Rocket From the Crypt, George Clinton, The Roots, CSS, Peter Bjorn and John, and Belle and Sebastian. The previous three albums have an equally amazing roster, though Emile is super into the tracks sung by the puppet monsters themselves, like “Let’s Be Awesome While We Wait” and “Dinosaurs Are Really Really.” Oh, and cast member/old-school rapper Biz Markie sings “Pancakes & Syrup,” a topic with which he appears to be rather familiar.
Little Doctor Kit
Emile’s been sick a lot during his short life, or at least he was before his ear-tube operation; as a result, we got him a doctor’s kit so he wouldn’t be scared of doctor’s appointments. Last time he went to his ENT for a check-up, E brought this kit and gave the doctor an ear exam before he got his own. I’d say it worked. The kit comes with a stethoscope, thermometer, blood-pressure gauge, syringe, bandage, reflex hammer, and other toy medical bells and whistles.
All kids like to draw, so there’s no need to make ’em choose between chalk, markers, or crayons with this inexpensive IKEA easel that has a blackboard on one side and a dry-erase whiteboard on the other. You can also buy the special $5 roll of drawing paper that slots in the middle and can be slowly unraveled over either side, or stretched out across the floor to occupy multiple micro artists at once.
Wooden Stacking Robots
Parents like wooden toys because they’re vintage and cool and won’t turn your kid into a zombie through leached chemicals or touch-screen technology. Fair enough, but kids just want to have fun and lots of wooden toys are as fun as, well, wood. These nine primary coloured stacking robots, however, are pure genius. They’re essentially a 3D puzzle that can be built up in increasingly complex ways as your kid’s balancing skills improve. Also, they’re robots!
Decorate Your Own Cardboard House
To be honest, Emile hasn’t tried this one out yet as it’ll be under the tree this year. But we got one for his five-year-old cousin’s recent birthday and she totally digs it. It’s a full-blown cardboard fort that your kid can paint his or herself. We bought her the house and Emile’s getting a castle, so they’ll have some variety for playdates, but both are equally cool and pretty affordable (since they’re cardboard). Yes, you could probably make one yourself. I barely have time to do actual chores, so we bought ’em.
Wonderbook: Book of Spells
If you already have a PlayStation and a Move controller/camera—or if you’re in the market for one—this is a must-buy. The motion-sensing peripheral has not been a breakout success so far, but Wonderbook—a videogame that comes packaged with a physical book of magic spells—may change that. It’s an “augmented reality” game that essentially projects you onto the screen and adds CGI effects, but is way cooler than that sounds. For this Harry Potter-based game from J.K. Rowling, the ugly, squiggle-covered “wonderbook” in front of you turns into an ancient, dusty tome onscreen, your controller becomes a wooden wand, and, before you know it, you’re casting a Wingardium Leviosa spell to repot mandrakes in Professor Sprout’s greenhouse. Emile doesn’t even know who Harry Potter is, and he was still in awe. Another reason why this is a good investments: New games are coming out that will use the same playbook.
Jigsaw puzzles rule because they not only occupy a good amount of time, they teach your kid how to think their way out of a problem. But at a certain point, they can become humdrum, so spice it up with these giant floor puzzles. You’ll need a carpet-less floor and, well, that’s about it. E has a robot one already, with a dinosaur floor puzzle coming at Christmas, but there are plenty of other embiggened designs that will all equally blow your child’s little minds.