Welcome to the second installment of our very first gift guide series here on Smarty Mommies! For those of you who haven't finished your holiday shopping, we're here to help you tick recipients off of your list by providing you thoughtful gift ideas for your loved ones. Which is all really just code for "We like you, AND we like online window shopping." So, you're welcome, thank you, and let's begin!
Here at Smarty Mommies HQ, we are fans of open-ended play and toys that encourage open-ended play. For those not familiar with this term, open-ended play is essentially any play in which children are able to determine their own storyline, narrative, structure, plan, and execution. It inspires creativity and nurtures executive function, problem-solving, and cooperation. You know it when you see it. It is in the magic of a cardboard box, the potential of a set of building blocks, or the versatility of a soft blanket. It is decidedly NOT in the kind of toy whose purpose is to perform all play functions for the child at a push of a button. If you're looking for push-button noise-makers with flashy bells and whistles, this isn't the gift guide for you. But if you're interested in simple toys that encourage your child's imagination and ingenuity, then follow me! (All images credited to linked websites unless otherwise noted.)
Look, babies don't actually need much in the way of gifts, especially when most of the equipment that is required to keep them alive and happy (boobs, bottles, bouncers, strollers, swings, etc.) are generally already in place well before a baby's first Christmas. And, honestly, most new parents aren't looking to load up on a hoard of baby toys when they likely already have plenty leftover from their baby shower. My recommendation is to get a token for the baby, preferably wrapped in some bright, crinkly paper that is sure to be the highlight of the gift for the baby, along with something useful or thoughtful for the parents. A rattle and a bottle of booze! A teether and a gift certificate for babysitting! A baby-safe lovey and two hours of house-cleaning! That baby doesn't need and will never thank you for objects, but the memory of your kindness toward the new parents will last forever.
Both of my babies loved these links, and they're wildly useful, too. String a long chain of links together to the handle of the car seat bucket or the stroller to entertain your baby while they're strapped in! Put one into a lidded plastic container to make an instant rattle! Circle them up and put them (briefly, safely, guardedly, temporarily) around your baby's neck like a chain to make them look like Flava Flav! The possibilities are endless!
"What the hell is that?" you ask, and I'll answer honestly. I don't know what the hell it is. But I know that it keeps babies entertained for whole entire minutes while their parents make half a dinner, take half a shower, or enjoy half a toilet session. So, don't question it. Just call it a life-saver, purchase it, and move on.
This image is from Amazon, but these are primarily available from the manufacturer, which appears to be discontinuing them.
EMERGENCY! EMERGENCY! ALERT! ALERT!
You see those limp rag-doll loveys up there? The monkeys (although they come in a handful of different animals)? GO BUY THEM IMMEDIATELY. They are genius: small enough for a baby's grasp, snuggly, chewable, and sold in packs of two so that when one gets lost, your world doesn't come to an end. A cat version was my older Smartling's go-to lovey for her first 3 years, and my younger Smartling still sleeps with a bear version as I type. But, people! Their manufacturer appears to be discontinuing them! So, while you can find them on Amazon right now, you'd probably be better off ordering them from Vitamins Baby directly.
"I put the toy INTO the fishbowl. Then, you see, I take the toy OUT of the fishbowl, so that I can put it in my mouth and/or carry it around in my fat fist all day long. The toys are soft, so sometimes I sleep with them, and no one gets too upset if I throw one across the room. This thing is awesome! Plus, my parents can get all earnestly didactic talking about sea animals and colors while I'm mesmerized by the black-and-white pattern on the sides of the bowl. Win-win!" - Babies and toddlers everywhere.
Hey, see these? Then welcome to my world, because I see these every single day all over my house. My older Smartling received these as a gift about 6 years ago, and they still get daily use in our house. They're cups in our toy kitchen, beds for small animals, concealing cloches for magic tricks, and the large bucket has gone on many, many pretend picnics with us through the years. If one determines the value of a toy through cost per use, then this set is very likely the most valuable toy in our home. If you burglarize us (and I hope you don't) then please take the jewels but leave the plastic stacking cups!
Yes, yes, I see that the above stacking cups also contain a shape-sorting lid, but those plastic shapes don't have the same gravity and sensory pleasure that these smooth, colorful, weighty wooden blocks have. This is another toy that has endured in our house regardless of the fact that our family no longer has any babies or toddlers in it. The box is often an oven, and the blocks cookies. The blocks are stacked into furniture-shapes for small dolls. And, as with nearly every object that we own, it has been employed in the service of many a pretend indoor picnic. We're beyond 6 years of frequent use with this classic, too. It's days seem to be numbered in a way that the plastic cups' aren't, but it's been a longtime favorite around here.
This is simple, wonderful, and in constant use in our house. Sure, it's a grocery cart, but it's also a stroller, transportation for picking up and putting away toys throughout the house, and a vehicle for imaginative play. There's also something kinesthetically delightful about pushing it around, and it's the most-often fought-over toy in our house when buddies come over to play. Regardless of how you feel about grocery shopping, you really ought to get a cart in your home if you have preschoolers.
Dress-up Clothes and Costumes
Every year after Halloween, I go to Goodwill, Value Village, or any of those pop-up costume shops and buy a couple of kids' costumes at a huge discount. Santa usually brings these to the Smartlings, and they love them and play with them all year long. Again, our estimated cost-per-use is pennies once the costumes have been cycled through both 'lings and shared by all their friends at playdates. Grown-up clothes from thrift shops are great, too, but there's something special about the post-Halloween costumes being kid-sized that's really appealing to their recipients.
This is where it starts to get tricky to write recommendations for gifts because this is when kids start getting pretty specific in their likes and interests. I can confidently recommend generic, across-the-board hits for little kids, but big kids' wants tend to be particular to the kid. So, here are some ideas, but, really, I'd try to get to know the kid first and get an idea about what they would like before buying.
I love giving kids games, possibly (OK - certainly) because I hope that I'll get invited to play. Here are some good ones.
Also, all the classics are great. Who doesn't love Monopoly, Clue (Now with 100% more murder than Outfoxed!), Sorry, or Checkers. It's risky to buy the classics, though, because so many people already own them. This is why I go unusual and obscure with my game-giving. Everyone's got Candyland, but Outfoxed is so much more fun and no one owns it yet.
Good Art Supplies
You like working with good tools, right? Of course you do! Everyone does, including budding artists. But, sadly, most art supplies aimed at kids are crummy. So get the artsy kids in your life the good stuff. They'll appreciate it, feel taken seriously, and use them up rather than throw them out half-used.
*A good sketch pad - Go for thick paper that won't bleed through should your artist want to work in paint or markers. Bonus points if it's bound well (oooooh, especially hardcover). Your kids get construction paper and newsprint to draw on all the time. Treat them to something serious to show them that you take their interests seriously.
Awesome science kits abound these days, as do craft kits, cooking kits, building kits, and pretty much any other kind of kit you can imagine. Do a little research into what your gift recipient is interested in, and buy a kit to suit that interest. It makes a thoughtful gift and requires very little effort on your part since everything needed to complete the kit's project is within the kit. Easy peasy, happy scrappy.
A Quick Word About Teenagers
Look, they're almost adults, and so I don't have blanket recommendations for their gifts. I highly recommend getting to know what your teen gift recipient would like and working from there. This is a cop-out, but it's no worse than gift guides that claim to know what teens want when, dude, they're people! And people want lots of different things based on who they are and what they value! So, either do the work and find out who your teen recipient is before specifying a gift for him or her, or go buy some giftcards to generally approved retailers. Cash works, too.
There you have it! Just some ideas for you, our sweet readers, as you head out into this shopping season. May your days be merry and bright, and may all the young people on your lists be delighted with what you've thoughtfully given them.