Toys that aren’t clutter: A gift guide

Last night as I was making dinner and Mr. Ten sat at the counter finishing his homework, Little Five dragged the giant canister of Tinker Toys into the kitchen so he could play and hang out with us. We have a small rug in front of the bay window where he can play without being in the way of the other kitchen action. I’ve given away a lot of toys that nobody plays with in the past year, but the Tinker Toys have never been on the list. I find them scattered around the house and yard nearly every day. More often than not, the kids are constructing something that shoots invisible lasers, but I have also seen guitars, buildings, magic wands and roller coasters.It made me stop and think about what toys have proved timeless in our house over the past 10 years. Some toys that seemed like a good idea at the time turned out to be duds (the dollhouse–not a bad toy, just not suited to its recipient). Others just didn’t mesh with my particular children’s particular personalities or they’ve simply been outgrown. I’ve learned that having fewer toys encourages a child to be more creative with the ones he has.

In the spirit of William Morris, here’s my guide to toys that stand a chance of not becoming clutter. If you’re a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, godparent, or are ever called upon to find a birthday gift for a child you don’t really know, this is the list for you. These are the toys that my kids still play with, even though they spend most of their days in school and gravitate toward electronic games like proverbial moths. Obviously, toys geared for babies and younger children have their place, but if I had to start over, I would focus more on toys that can grow up with a child.

  • Tinker Toys. Preschoolers can begin with these–most of the pieces are big enough for them to handle as they are still developing fine motor skills. But there is enough of a variety of parts that older children can continue to invent new constructions. We began with a small canister of wooden pieces and a few years later received a large one of plastic pieces. Together there are enough pieces for several kids to play together. The sets have evolved somewhat, but my kids and their friends keep on playing.
  • Lego. Wooden blocks are nice, but you won’t be able to pick up your newly built portal gun to see if it will shoot you into another dimension. There are lots of different building toy brands, but pick a couple and stick with them, or you’ll end up with a bunch of incompatible sets. Begin with a Duplo set for younger kids (but don’t invest in too many–they will outgrow them) and move on to the regular Legos around age 5 or 6. Kids can practice following a sequence of directions if they want to build the specific model in the kit, and later they can use the pieces to make their own creations. And as blocks go, they don’t take up that much space. I like to start with a box of basic bricks instead of the themed sets.

  • Musical instruments. Consider your sanity. A toy is no good if you’re constantly telling your child not to play with it. Don’t bother getting a recorder until your 3rd grader needs one for music class–it will just become a shrill instrument of torture to your ears. Try a harmonica instead. We loved this nice wooden drum, and still get many miles out of this percussion set. Electronic instruments are easy to break and always need batteries; instead of a keyboard, get a sturdy xylophone. Another winner was an older version of this guitar. No, it’s not a real instrument, but it’s an excellent toy for pretending to be a rock star. We’ve had it for over five years and I’ve yet to change the batteries.
  • Vehicles. Matchbox and Hotwheels cars, a train set. If you have a hardcore train fanatic in your family, you might decide to invest in some nice wooden trains. We never moved beyond a small set with a handful of extra parts. Little Five seems to prefer cheap little cars or any vehicle he builds himself out of Legos.
  • Outdoor toys and gear. Balls, scooters, bikes, sidewalk chalk, jump ropes.
  • Art supplies. Nothing fancy, just a stash of paper, a box of crayons and markers, and the occasional paint set or play dough. For older children (8+), craft kits, beads, or whatever the latest collectible bracelet craze is. (We’re drowning in teeny tiny rubber bands over here.)

  • Pretend play props. Some dress up clothes and accessories, old Halloween costumes, a doctor kit, some play food. Toy cell phones and laptops get pulled out daily.

In case you were wondering, these are the toys I avoid buying unless specifically requested.

  • Stuffed animals or dolls. Not that kids don’t play with them, but it’s a very personal choice. We have bins and baskets full of adorable stuffed animals that never get any love.
  • Noisy toys. Need I say more?
  • Coloring or activity books. These have always been immediate clutter. My kids will always ignore coloring inside the lines in favor of a blank pad of paper.
  • Anything tied to a movie or television character. Though all three kids loved Dora the Explorer when they were preschoolers, only the 10-year-old will now admit that he ever played with Dora toys way back when he was practically a baby. My daughter categorically rejects anything princess-themed, so that box of Disney dresses? Her little brother tried them on more often.

If you’re still having trouble choosing a gift, give a child a book. But that’s a topic for another day!

2012-12-22

What toys have become perennial favorites at your house? Do you have a go-to birthday party gift?

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