Monday, November 14, 2016

Christmas Gift Ideas

I've been working on this post for a few weeks--I hope it's helpful!! I have benefited SO much from reading similar posts by other bloggers that I thought I should do the same and pay it forward. :-)  We have gone through what seems like a gazillion toys/books, but this list is whittled down to our very favorites. This definitely represents more of where my kids are now (i.e. no Barbies), but these are all toys that all of my children have loved, regardless of gender. They are also the toys that I love and really think are a good value for the amount of entertainment and fun that the kids get out of them. Forgive me for not having photos for every item but we're still in newborn mode and finding photos of everything was kinda hit and miss!

First of all--I am a huge huge huge fan of books for kids. We love the "something to read, something to play with, something to wear" as a starting point for gift ideas. If you're of a similar mind, I've got you covered for book recommendations! Helping your child to develop a love for books is such a tremendous gift. It's also one of my very favorite ways to spend time with my children and is the #1 thing I make sure we do every single day--whenever I am feeling cranky or irritated or frustrated I know that if I just snuggle up with a couple of kids and read aloud for awhile that my mood will improve 100%.

With that in mind, I've given quite a few book recommendations on this blog in the past, all of which are indexed here! This is the very first post I wrote about our favorites back in 2010. We're really into fairy tales, myths, and legends, and I've spent a lot of time searching out the most beautifully illustrated fairy tales I can find, so those are compiled here. Favorite books for each season are listed here (we like to pull out seasonal books and keep them in a basket). These ones have been real hits with my sons--for some reason it was more intimidating to me initially to figure out what my boys would love. Favorite authors, with our favorites by each author, are all grouped together on this post. And last but not least, our favorite chapter books for the elementary-aged set here.

For younger kids:

We loooove Little People...they are fun for older kids and choking-hazard-free for younger kids. These are ones that I don't mind having out on the floor with a baby crawling around! Perfect gnawing size without any ability to actually damage the toy by aforesaid gnawing. :-) We have a bunch of sets but the farm is the first one we started with, and one that's great for the littlest kids who are entranced by animals.

This Melissa and Doug bug jar is my very favorite baby toy--it's cute, makes a variety of interesting (but quiet!) noises, and it comes with its own storage case but is squishable so it doesn't take up much room in a diaper bag. If you buy one baby toy, let it be this.

Another one of my favorite toys for younger kids is a basic doll stroller (doll optional...our kids loved pushing around their dolls but used the stroller to give each other rides!)

A good wooden train set. We started off with that basic one from IKEA (such a great deal!) but we've loved adding on with more interesting Melissa and Doug pieces.

We also love this stackable wooden train, this wooden car carrier, and these stacking construction vehicles.


Cubebot--I've mentioned these before, but they are so great! So compact--I always keep one in my purse for on-the-go entertainment (totally saved me in church this week with Nathan!). Perfect stocking stuffer.

My kids are totally obsessed with Perplexus--and they aren't the only ones! A few Christmases ago all of the adults were fighting with the kids over whose turn it was with Perplexus. There are a few different varieties out now but our favorite is the Epic.

Tangoes Junior is such a fun set for kids who are interested in puzzles and problem-solving. Isaac went through a stage where he did these for at least an hour every day. Since they're magnetic, they also work really well in the car.

And last but not least, actual puzzles! We have this big floor one and it's held up beautifully. The quality of Ravensburger puzzles is fabulous, but we've gotten lots of fun out of dollar store puzzles as well (they just don't last as long as the Ravensburger ones). My absolute favorites for younger kids are wooden puzzles made by Schylling, but I think those have been discontinued (have I really been having kids that long?!).

Building/STEM toys: 

Magnetic building tiles--there are lots of sets out there. My experience is that you need at least 100 pieces to make anything really cool, and it's best if you have lots of building pieces (i.e., those fence pieces are kinda a waste). The base plates are a nice addition too. These are the best deals I'm seeing right now--generally anything under $1/tile is a steal, and these are 30% less than that! Playmags 100-piece set or the Magnetic Stick and Stack 120 pieces. We've had no issues mixing different sets--the ones surrounding Nathan are Playmags and Magnatiles.

K'nex--another thing that my kids will spend hours and hours doing! This set has almost 900 pieces AND a booklet detailing 100 possible creations. I find that my kids are less "creative" with K'nex than with Legos (i.e. they really love the instructions to make new stuff, since it's not quite as easy to free-hand new creations), so that is a definite plus. We have this book and it's absolutely amazing.

We love, love, LOVE Legos. There are all kinds of great sets out there, but we are particularly partial to sets which can be configured multiple ways, like this dragon/scorpion/snake or this house. I have to say that I think the Lego City sets are a better value than the Lego Friends sets...the Lego Friends designers seem to have poured most of their energy into the tiny little accessories (which are cool!) but the pieces themselves aren't that interesting and seem to be more big chunks of bigger blocks than actual cool little intricate pieces that can be used in other builds later.

Design and Drill--this is a great toy starting at about age 2. We've even taken this on road trips! Lots of fun pattern ideas in the included cards, so this is a good toy for both younger kids (busily drilling in pegs wherever) and older (actually making more complex patterns).
Snap Circuits--Isaac has this set and has loved working his way through the 300 projects. It's super easy to figure out--really, as soon as a kid can read, they can use these. The projects start out very simply and progress to more complex schematics. Super great, seriously. One of the projects is to build a circuit that plays "Happy Birthday" and you better believe that Isaac builds that circuit every time it's someone's birthday so we can blow out candles to its accompaniment. (He also likes to build the radio circuit so he can listen to NPR...funny kid.)

Luke got these gears last year and has had a total blast with them. They come with a bunch of base plates, but my kids tend to build all kinds of hand-held structures with them (lightsabers!) and carry them around like that. Seriously tons of room for imaginative play with these!

He also loves these flexible tracks--you can build them in all kinds of configurations and the car zooms around and around.

This Roller Coaster Mini-Rail is one of Isaac's current favorites. Several different configurations in the instructions, plus you can manipulate it however you'd like. It's similar to Marble Run, but more complex and with more room for experimentation.


A few years ago Juliet and Abigail decided they wanted to save up for American Girl dolls. It took quite awhile and they ended up taking it really seriously and researching the pricing and durability of different dolls, etc. In the end, they opted for these 18-inch Our Generation dolls and have loved them. Lots of cute outfits out there for them like this one, which is Juliet's current favorite.

We actually gave away our toy kitchen a few years ago (our girls loved it when they were small but the boys were much more interested in the real thing because it produced edible food...apparently they figured that one out pretty quickly). But we loved this set of wooden food--it held up well to Juliet constantly gnawing on it when Abigail created delicious feasts to share!

Pop Art beads--I originally bought these for Juliet, but I am constantly finding the boys decked out in fancy rings, bracelets, and necklaces. These toys are just too good to resist.

We've had a Marble Run set for years and years--it is one of our most-played with toys and one that "grows" well with kids as they make increasingly complex marble routes.

When Abigail and Juliet were younger, I kept these magnetic dress-up dolls in my purse. Perfect activity for the doctor's office, church, the car...I should see how the boys feel about them! :-)

If you have someone in your house who is obsessed with construction vehicles, this set is a must-have. (We have several, actually.) The little machines really can push around wheat berries, sand, dirt, Play-Doh...and they're inexpensive enough that you can easily replace them if lost/broken. Ours have lasted pretty well but eventually gave up the ghost after some seriously hard use.

Remote control vehicles are always a hit--we like this rock crawler and this helicopter. Both are inexpensive and simple enough to allow younger kids to use them without frustration.

Dress-ups! You can never go wrong with dress-ups--both Nathan and Luke have gone through stages where they practically live in costumes (for about two years I went everywhere with a kid in this monkey costume and Nathan is currently wearing this "fire puppy" outfit every day over his clothes). We always like to check out the Halloween costumes right after Halloween, but we've found the Melissa and Doug stuff is much better quality than the Halloween costumes sold in local stores. This fireman costume has been growing strong for almost five years now!

My parents gave Luke this lawnmower when he was two--it is one of our very favorites! It's been a great toy both indoors and outdoors and hasn't even faded or cracked after spending three summers outside in the sun. (I like it because the lid compartment is the first place my toddlers go to hide their loveys...makes my life a lot easier when I'm hunting for them at naptime!)

Books & Coloring:

If you missed the note earlier, for our favorite picture/chapter books, head on over here. I've got pages and pages of recommendations--by author, by season, by genre, by age level...

Star Wars Visual Dictionary--we have a few of these, and I am always amazed at how long my kids will spend looking at it, and how often they reread it. Seriously--this is a huge favorite and almost always out with someone poring over it! This one has more specific info about characters (like really mega in depth) and is also a big favorite.

Coloring books--my kids are HUGE fans of the Mindware count-by-numbers and mosaic books. They are SO worth the money...these last us for months and months, and the kids are so intent! (We especially love them for Conference weekend.)

On that note, Lego books are also a huge hit--we have several of the Idea books. This one is probably our favorite.

Board Games:
Isaac is standing here over my shoulder telling me that I should include Monopoly, Clue, and Settlers of Cataan. We're focusing instead on games that might be new to you. :-)

Battleship--okay, so this probably is an old favorite, but it is SO GOOD that we had to mention it anyway.

TransAmerica--this is like the kid-friendly version of Ticket to Ride (plus it goes a lot faster!) You can play just one round if you only have a few minutes, or you can play 5-6 rounds until your train "falls" off the board as you accrue excess points. This is probably our #1 family favorite these days.

King of Toyko--the kids love this one and will play round after round together. Basically everyone is a rampaging monster and you have to decide whether you're going to attack Tokyo and try to get more points, or play it safe on the defensive. :-)

Blokus--this is my favorite because it doesn't involve advanced strategy--you're responding in the moment to the actions of everyone else as you each try to lay out your 21 pieces while simultaneously blocking everyone else from laying out all 21 of theirs. Bonus: you end up with a really gorgeous mosaic when you're done. This game is simple enough that very young kids can play it, but complex enough that adults can really get into it. Totally my kind of game. :-)

Doodle Quest--another game that's perfect for young kids and adults alike! We've had some very intense family competitions here. :-)

And that should give you a good starting point! Let me know if I missed any of your especial favorites!!

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Rebecca said...

I always love your insights, so I'm hoping you can help me with this. I have 3 boys (5, 3, and 10 months). The older boys are starting to be old enough to play with really fun toys that aren't very baby safe (regular Lego's instead of duplo, a marble run, etc). How do you guys it? Right now we keep 100% of our toys in the play room, but I'm weighing the pros and cons of having some toys in the bedroom.

Rebecca said...

Whoops, that should read, "How do you guys handle it?"

Rachael said...

Great question! For things like Marble Run, we let them play it out in the living room/library, but only when the baby is asleep, and then we check to make sure everything is cleared up before the baby gets down on the floor. Legos are allowed to be left out in a bedroom ONLY and the door has to stay shut if there's a crawling baby on the loose. Hope that helps!

liz@carpeseason said...

I really loved this post! Thanks for sharing! I love getting gift ideas that have been tested by a family with lots of kids :) (Those cubebots are so cool; right up my four year old's alley...and I loved your book lists!) Thanks for taking the time to put all this together!

Sarah said...

Love how many of the same things are our favorites too! (And love that you have an Isaac also.:)

Hena Tayeb said...

brilliant ideas.. love your children's love to build and create!

Joanna Goddard said...

wow, what an amazing post. thank you so much! you seem like an awesome and loving mom.

Erin said...

Thank you so much! I have been racking my brain to think of what to get my 4 year old daughter and the pop art beads fit the bill perfectly! I know she will just LOVE them. Oh, I am so relieved to finally have that ordered. This is so nice of you to take time to share what your kids have loved. I found your blog because you commented with a link on melskitchencafe gift guide. None of her gifts really worked for what my daughter's interests are. But this was perfect. Thanks again!

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