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Only 1 week left until Christmas!

Just in case you left some of your shopping to the last minute, we’ve rounded up the 25 best-selling toys this year from all 350+ of our picks across all 10 of the 2015 Gift Guides.

We’re really hoping this will help ease your stress by making toy shopping a total breeze guaranteeing happy faces come Christmas morning.

Oh, and in case you have gotten your shopping done but still need one or two small things for the stockings – we’ve got you covered there too. Just scroll down for our go-to stocking stuffers for every type of kid including the art lover, the chef, the learner, the adventurer and more.

Enjoy!

Best-Selling Toys of the Year (arranged by age)

  1. Lamaze Cloth Books $13.99 (0-2 years) – Baby’s love soft books because in the beginning all they do is mouth them. These books (there are 7 to chose from), with their bold and beautiful illustrations and built-in peek-a-boo games are a parent favorite and provides a great multi-textural sensory experience. Two or three of them packaged together is one of my go-to gifts for parents who have just welcomed a new baby.
  2. Mega Bloks First Builders Big Building Bag, 80-Piece (Classic) $14.59 (1 – 2 1/2 years) – I still remember my son receiving his first set of award-winning Megabloks for his first birthday. It took him a little while to figure out (kids typically grasp block building somewhere between 12 and 18 months), but once he did he started building like a mad man and never looked back! All my mom friends and I love Mega Bloks for our youngest kiddos, even more than the classic LEGO duplos (although we did use both!). The locking mechanism is just a little bit easier for beginners to put together and pull apart. Plus the colors are beautiful and the zippered bag is very handy.
  3. Magna-Tiles $120 (2 – 12 years) – I discovered magna-tiles last year and they were the big present under the tree for the kids. They’re definitely more of an investment, but have been totally worth it. The kids have played with them multiple days a week for the last year straight. Teachers absolutely rave about these blocks and the play possibilities are endless. Because they join together using magnets, kids can create elaborate structures (often taller than they are) without becoming frustrated by crashes. They’re also great for use with other toys. They can be used along with blocks and LEGOs to make elaborate structures, with marbles and cars to make tunnels, bridges, and marble runs, or even with dolls to create doll houses.  We splurged for the 100 piece set and got hours of rainy day fun with these. If you have the space/budget for a personal light table to use them, the translucent pieces would look fantastic lit up from underneath.
  4. Kidkraft Waterfall Mountain Train Set & Table $152.99 (2 – 8 years) – We bought our son a train table for his 2nd birthday and we always say it’s one of the best purchases we’ve ever made.  Over four years later both he and his sister still play with it several times a week.  At 4 he was able to completely construct the track by himself using the map and that added a whole new level of building play to this fantastic toy. I think the model we bought has been discontinued but this one is the same brand and has all of the same key components: a bridge, waterfall mountain, helicopter landing pad, and the all-important drawers for storing all the little pieces. If you’re going to be putting your train table in main living space, you may want to spring for the more expensive KidKraft Metropolis Train Set Table with Trundle Drawer.  It’s got a nicer “furniture” look (and that double-decker bridge is pretty cool too). Also, over the years we’ve amassed quite a collection of Thomas trains to go with this table.
  5. Learning Resources Primary Science Mix and Measure Set $24.99 (2 – 6 years) - This set includes a scale, bowl, 3 self standing spoons and 6 unique cup designs to help children visualize quantities as well as activity cards to guide children in making mystery goo, puffy paint, slime and more. Because it allows those not quite ready to experiment to get in on the fun, it’s a great toy for siblings of different ages as older kids can partake in real concocting while their younger counterparts pour to their heart’s contentment.  This is a fabulous toy perfect for playing with at the sink, in the tub, or at the water table.
  6. Hot Wheels 20 Car Gift Pack $21.63 (2 1/2+ years) – A decent set of small hot wheels are a must for us. They’re great for playing with the toy garages listed here or for using with blocks, up-cycled paper towel rolls, and even painter’s tape tracks for all kind of innovative an open-ended play.  We also like the Hot Wheels Track Builder Total Turbo Takeover Track Set $34.86 (4+ years) – If you do want to get yourself some tracks, this is my favorite starter kit. It’s well-priced and comes with not one, but two, loops – which always seems to be the kids’ favorite part – plus a “two way booster” that gives them multiple ways to race and launch the cars. This is an ideal rainy day toy and also great for multiple kids to play with together. The only drawback, is that this one can be noisy and you need a little more space – another great set that’s noise-free and has a small foot-print but TONS of cool options and tricks for the cars is the Color Shifters Flame Fighter Playset $27.99 (4+ years) (note: we don’t use the color-changing water features but may add it in as the kids get older).
  7. Educational Insights Magic Moves Talking Electronic Wand $14.06 (3 – 10 years) Normally I’m not big on electronic toys with lots of sounds and lights, but when said toy can help my kids get rid of all their pent up energy on a rainy day, it becomes my new best friend. This inexpensive magical wand uses 90 silly commands (sway, creep, stomp like a dinosaur, leap) and 26 songs, along with a light show to get kids moving. This is one of those rare toys that’s great for siblings of different ages to play together. It will keep the bigger kids interested (who doesn’t like having the mic and being the star of the show?) while developing listening skills in the younger set along with enriching their vocabulary and ability to follow directions.
  8. Bedtime Math: A Fun Excuse to Stay Up Late $8.51 (3 – 7 years) – My kindergarten son started really getting into math this year and began asking for story problems at night before bed, so imagine my excitement when I saw this book, which contains just that! From the publisher, “Inside this book, families will find fun, mischief-making math problems to tackle—math that isn’t just kid-friendly, but actually kid-appealing. With over 100 math riddles on topics from jalapeños and submarines to roller coasters and flamingos, this book bursts with math that looks nothing like school. And with three different levels of challenge (wee ones, little kids, and big kids), there’s something for everyone.” This is a great way to change up story time at night and encourage math skills in kids that are excited about the subject as well as those who need some help getting excited. This one will be under our tree for sure this year.
  9. Kidoozie Foam Pogo Jumper $14.95 (3 – 10 years) – The key to a good indoor toy is it’s ability to wear a child out without requiring a lot of space to do so. This soft pogo jumper is an Amazon #1 Best Seller because it does just that. It will keep the kids happy (and get them good and tired) and you won’t have to worry too much about them knocking over your stuff (or each other).
  10. Castle Logix $21.25 (3 – 8 years) and Camelot Jr. $24.00 (4 – 8 years) – The entire line of single player puzzle games from SmartGames gets such stellar reviews that it was hard not to recommend all of them!  The bold colors of these two 3-D wooden castle puzzles especially caught my eye. Assemble the wooden blocks and towers to match the challenges included in the booklet. With simple challenges for inexperienced builders to complex puzzles that will challenge skilled architects, these puzzles serve to develop logical thinking skills and spatial reasoning abilities. We bought Castle Logix for my then 3 year old last Christmas and she really enjoys playing with it alone for quiet time as well as with me. There are 4 levels of puzzle difficulty which means this game has also done a great job of growing with her and continues to be a favorite a year later.
  11. Educational Insights Design and Drill Activity Center $25.02 (3 – 6 years) – This toy has been a big hit in our house and is consistently one of our very best-sellers each year on the gift guide.  It’s a pattern building toy disguised as a construction toy that has a very cool and easy-to-use working drill.  Both my 3 year old and 5 year old spent lots of quiet time occupied with this toy and we highly recommend it for both girls and boys.
  12. Leapfrog Leapreader Reading and Writing System $37.49 (3 – 8 years)  – The leapreader has been a leader amongst educational toys since it’s debut, and with good reason. My son first got his when he turned 4 and not long after we decided to get one for our 3 year old too.  Both kids (now 4 and 6) still spend large chunks of time “reading” stories with the pen and they used it to practice their letters as well.  This is one of our top tier toys that has really helped instill a love of reading in my kids and never really makes it out of rotation.
  13. Stomp Rocket Jr. Glow Kit (3+ years), Dueling Double Stomp Rocket Kit $14.95 (3+ years) and Ultra Stomp Rocket $14.50 (8 – 16 years)  – My kids both got to play with this at science camp this summer, during their study of physics, and fell in love. They both, my son especially, get a little hyper in the afternoon and I knew we’d all love having this around for them to stomp to their hearts content in the backyard. Lucky for us, we got one for C’s 6th birthday and I was absolutely right. The concept is simple, stomp (or jump) on the launch pad to send a foam tipped rocket up to 200 ft in the air. I like that both sets come with 4 rockets so the kids get to launch multiple times before running around to pick them all up and do it all over again.  Obviously the glow-in-the dark aspect of the Jr. Glow Kit is pretty cool. Siblings will love going together, and not having to take turns, and hosting friendly competitions with the Dueling Double Stomp Rocket Kit. In summary, these simple battery-free toys are multi-award winners and get great reviews. Plus they’re cheap – gotta love that!
  14. Learning Resources Teaching Cash Register $42.38 (3 – 9 years) – An obvious extension of all the play food that comes with a play kitchen, is playing store.  And the biggest prop needed for some good store play is a cash register – which as an awesome tool for burgeoning math skills. My kids started hoarded the register at a local drop in play center for over an hour at a time a couple year and I knew we had to get one for Christmas. A lot of research pointed to this one as being the best learning register on the market thanks to a working calculator and scale as well as being able to recognize real money and even incorporating some math games.  This is a toy that will grow with your kids.
  15. Playskool 2-in-1 Digital Camera and Projector $50.21 (3 – 7 years) – Photography is an amazing art to introduce to your children at a young age. Encouraging them to get behind the lens gives them a different perspective on their surroundings as well as control of their world. Plus, if you tend to take a lot of photos of your kids (ahem), getting them into photography will make them more likely to put up with your shutter bug tendencies. We’ve had a few digital kid cameras in the past and, while the kids have always been excited about them, they all were difficult for the kids to operate on their own and broke easily.  So I’ve been on the lookout for a better designed kid camera for quite a while and this Oppenheimer award winning version is it!  We got it for the kids for Christmas and their favorite feature has to be that with the flip of a switch this camera will instantly project captured images up onto a wall (cool!). Coming in a close second are all the funny clip art images you can superimpose onto the photos within the camera. Big buttons and screen, along with durability, good photo quality, storage of 1000 photos at a time and those instant special effects means the kids continue to reach for it for play time again and again.
  16. Mini Micro Scooter $79.99 (3 – 5 years) – Hailed as “the quality choice in 3-wheel scooters for young children” this scooter has more than it’s fair share of rave reviews and awards (the Oppenheimer Toy Portfolio Gold and Platinum Award Seals for Best Toy, the Parent’s Choice Approved Seal, ‘Best Pre-School Scooter’ by Toy Report, ‘Best Outdoor Toy’ by Learning Express Stores and was featured on the NBC Today Show as part of its ‘Best Toys for Summer’ series). The key is the “learn to steer” design and back brake, both of which grant preschoolers an extra element of stability. Also, the Mini can be ridden inside while learning (or waiting for Spring) as the quality wheels, made especially for Micro, are non marking. And the Micro-Mini 3-in-1 Kick Scooter $114.99 (1 – 5 years) – lets even new walkers in on the fun. 1 year olds start out sitting on the scooter with the seat attachment and using it as a typical ride-on toy. Later they advance to the O-bar (which is lower than the traditional Mini Micro Scooter) and eventually graduate to the real deal.
  17. Melissa & Doug Reusable Sticker Books $4.99 (3 – 10 years) – It will truly surprise you how engaged your kids are with these deceptively simple (and inexpensive!) reusable books. My parents gave the kids a couple a few years ago for Christmas and they’ve been a consistent stand-by for us every since.  Each of the books contain a series of background pages and hundreds of various sticker clings that can be positioned over and over on them.  There tons of book themes to choose from too. Along with quiet time, they are surprisingly useful on long car rides (despite their large size) and we always grab them when heading to someone’s house who doesn’t have younger children and is without toys for them.
  18. Robot Turtles Game $24.99 (4 – 8 years) – As one of the only products out there with the real ability to get preschoolers and kindergartners interested in programming, this is the new toy I’m most excited about adding to the gift guide this year! The most backed board game in Kickstarter history, it sneakily teaches preschoolers the fundamentals of programming, from coding to functions, while making silly turtle noises. Takes seconds to learn, minutes to play and provides endless learning opportunities. This game has been featured by NPR, Bloomberg, Make: Magazine, Boing boing, TechCrunch, Reddit, Geekmom, Geekdad and essentially lets kids write programs with playing cards. One reviewer wrote, “There are no winners/losers. (You could make a competition out of it with several kids, seeing who can make the shortest program/have the fewest bugs/etc., but it’s not set up that way.) But it does teach kids the basics of how computers think… Once he got the hang of it, we just let our son go nuts with it. He makes up his own boards and then “writes” a program to solve it. Finally, something he can play by himself that doesn’t have a ton of annoying noises/beeps/music!” You can read more about this game from The New York Times here.
  19. Zingo $17.99 (4 – 8 years) – This is another super popular game with families with young children and it was another of our family’s first games. A lot like BINGO, players get picture cards and try to fill them up.  There is a speed component too that we use about half the time with our 5 year old and skip with our 3 year old.  We have both the standard version and the numbers version and both are regularly requested by the kids. Side Note: When your pre-readers become emerging readers, Zingo Word Builder, What’s Gnu? and Zingo Sight Words are also excellent!!
  20. Qwirkle $19.21 (5+ years) – My son got this strategic domino and scrabble-like game for his 5th birthday and asks to play it during our one-on-one time or as a family several times a week.  Although we’ve altered the rules and points system a bit to adjust for his age, this Parents’ Choice Gold Award and Mensa National Competition winner is still fantastic for working on shape and color recognition as well as pattern perception and spatial and critical thinking skills. Recently my 4 year old daughter has been getting in on the fun and I can tell this is one that our family is sure to be playing for years to come.
  21. Snap Circuits Jr $20.55 (5+ years with parental help, 6 or 7+ for independent play), Snap Circuits $45.07 (8 – 15 years), and the Snap Circuits Student Electronics Training Program, down this year from $199.99 to $124.18 (8 – 15 years, younger with parental help) – This clever kit is another multi-award-winner that takes advantage of kids’ natural interest in building toys (like LEGOs) to teach the principles of electricity.  The components aren’t intimidating, snap together simply, and can be used to create a bunch of cool projects. The standard set comes with 60 pieces+ to create over 300 different electronic projects. The pieces include snap wires, slide switches, an alarm circuit, a music integrated circuit, and a speaker and are numbered and color-coded to make identifying them easy. These components combine to create working circuit boards just like the ones found inside televisions, radios, and other electronic devices. (Note: there is a conversion set that turns Snap Circuits Jr into this bigger set when your kids are ready to move up.) For bigger kids, you’ll definitely want to check out the reduced priced Snap Circuits Student Electronics Training Program as well as the Alternative Green Energy Kit and Snap Circuits Lights - just connect any MP3 player and be amazed as your music creates a mesmerizing light display. No two songs will ever produce the same light show. Includes prepunched patterns for motor, strobe light, and color-changing LED, lighted and glow-in-the-dark fans, strobe integrated circuit, color organ controlled by MP3 player, voice, or finger. Builds over 175 experiments.
  22. LEGO Creator 3-in-1 Kits starting at $11.24, (age varies by kit) – This is another series of kits, much like the LEGO City collection with the difference being that each kit can be used to create 3 totally different things.  My son thinks this is especially awesome and I did a lot of research to find the perfect set for his 6th birthday. We settled on the LEGO Creator 31011 Aviation Adventure and we were not disappointed! The photos don’t do justice to the sheer size of this thing! That and the number of pieces involved in the build truly make this the next level in LEGO builds. Plus it actually has moving parts (pull back the landing gear to make the propellers move, slide the cockpit windshield back and up to insert and remove the two pilots, etc.). My son has been playing with it non-stop for weeks and he still hasn’t even gotten to the boat and helicopter he can build with this set. This toy has already given us hours and hours of fun and promises to give lots more – a great investment in my eyes.
  23. No Stress Chess $14.99 (6+ years) – When my kindergartner came home from school one day asking me to teach him to play chess, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I was excited because, despite spending a lot of our time together on sports-related activities, I have great memories of playing chess with my dad growing up. On the other hand, I was afraid he was a little young for it and might get frustrated and give up on the game all together. Enter “No Stress Chess”. This genius game uses cards to teach young kids how to play in stages. The cards tell you which piece to move, so even children (and adults) who have never played the game can jump right in. The moves for each piece are on the cards as well as on the game board and the first stage makes the game about chance, not skill – you simply draw a card and do what it says, perfect for learning how the pieces work. Once that is mastered, you can draw 3 cards at a time and decide which one you want to go with to introduce some strategy to the game. Finally, when you’re ready to play chess for real, just get rid of the cards and flip the board over to a traditional chess board… This one is going under our Christmas Tree this year for sure! Side Note: If your little one is really into the game, there’s also Thinkfun’s Solitary Chess. Featured below, this single player game takes it to the next level by using chess moves to solve logic puzzles. It’s the perfect thing for practicing when there’s no one available to play with.
  24. Ed Emberely Drawing & Art Books starting at $6.29 (6+ years) – These books are just so cool for kids that have a passion for art because they can use them to teach themselves how to draw all the things they want to.  We started with the thumbprint book, which is great for younger kids, and recently added the animal and vehicle drawing books for my son’s birthday as well as Picture Pie, which incorporates cutting and pasting shapes to make things step by step instead of just drawing.
  25. The Everything Kids’ Science Experiments Book: Boil Ice, Float Water, Measure Gravity-Challenge the World Around You! $6.99 (8+ years) – This is kind of like Mr. Wizard in a book. Written by a high school science and math teacher, this guide will help school-aged kids explore scientific topics with themed chapters broken down into accessible experiments of varying difficulty levels. Fun for them to do on their own or along with you – this one is a great value!

Some really unique ideas here (and inexpensive too)  - esp. love the logic games and the toys that teach kids about emotions!

Most years stocking stuffers are one of the last things I get around to buying because I’m never quite sure what to get. I want items that are inexpensive but will still lead to engaged, quality play – not junk that will liter my house. This time around, though, I find myself with the opposite problem – I’ve found too many great options.

While I struggle to narrow down my list, I thought I’d share it with you all in case you’re still in need of a small item or two.  You’ll find something for every kind of kid here – enjoy!

The Game Player

You already know from our “Top Picks for Family Game Night” gift guide that I’m a big proponent of games and puzzles – both those you can play as a family and those that can be played alone for quiet time or on-the-go.  Here are a few compact selections that will fit nicely in a stocking.

  • Eeboo Color Go Fish Playing Cards $8.00 (2+ years) – This beautiful card set uses colors instead of the traditional numbers for Go Fish. This was one of the very first games I started playing with my son. It was easy for him to understand since no numbers or reading were involved and helped him learn his colors.  He still enjoys playing it 3 years later at age 5.  Eboo doesn’t stop with Go Fish either, they also have lovely Old Maid, Crazy Faces (like crazy 8s), Animal Rummy, and Hearts playing sets for the littles.

P.S. for beginner card players, check out this little hands card holder too!

  • IQ Twist $9.99 (6+ years) – This compact, award-winning multi-level logic game contains 100 challenges suitable for all ages. It’s ideal for building critical thinking skills during long car rides or quiet time.
  • Crocodile Creek Travel Puzzles starting $4.66 (5+ years) – I especially love the look and easy storage/travel capabilities of these travel 100 piece puzzles and at the price they make great stocking stuffers.
  • Rush Hour Jr. by Thinkfun $15.20 (5+ years) – This is going in my 5 year old’s stocking this year. It’s a unique kind of single-player logic game that received a national award from Mensa and is used in elementary school math classes. Plus my car-lover will think it’s flat-out fun. Also check out the regular version for older kids!

The Adventurer

If you’ve got a little explorer at home with a taste for adventure and a thirst for knowledge, check out these fun picks.

  • Toobs starting at $6.33 (3+ years) – After our Make Like a Montessori Mama: Animal Activities post a few years ago, I knew I needed to get C some small animal figurines as soon as possible.  A quick Amazon search revealed exactly what I was looking for – Toobs.  Not only is the handy container the perfect shape for a stocking, there are a million themes to choose from.  Whether your little one are into the arctic, zoo babies, trains, pirates, dinosaurs, North American Wildlife, or the wonders of the world – there’s a Toob out there for them. Read More

I mentioned last week that this is the first year our family is going to attempt some sort of New Year’s Eve celebration with the littles. Actually, a Happy Noon Year celebration may be what’s really on the docket. 

Regardless of when we do it, one thing is for sure- a tasty non-alcoholic drink (or “mocktail” if you will) is definitely making it onto the menu.

Today Natalie is here sharing a few of her easiest tips for quickly whipping up your own signature mocktails…

The kids might not make it until the ball drops this year, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have some fun of their own before bedtime.

Why not add something bright to their sparkling juice to add a whole new layer of excitement to their New Year’s celebration? Read More

The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve seems to get shorter every year. How is it possible that we can easily countdown the final days of 2014  already?  Whether I’m ready or you’re ready, the end of the year is quickly approaching.

It’s just about this time when I always ask myself: Should I make New Year’s resolutions this year? And if I’m making that plunge, which goals are both aspirational and approachable?

This year we’ve come up with a simple tool to help you and your family make some goals for 2015 while reminiscing all the happenings of 2014. Read More

As evidenced by our extensive toy gift guides, I have a passion for doing lots of researching and trying to find the perfect toy that’s going to stimulate and thrill my three kiddos.

That does not mean, however, that I don’t get a little freaked out by all the clutter that seems to come along with Christmas when said toys enter the house.

I often try to do a big house cleanse just before to make room for the new stuff but sometimes it still doesn’t do the trick, or I just run out of time to do it.

So today I thought I’d share with you some of my favorite kid gift ideas that still elicit shrieks of excitement but don’t take up much (or any) space. Ready? Here we go…

#1 – Art & Craft Books

I love giving my kids shiny new craft books because, honestly, I know that I’m going to get just as much out of this gift as they do. They get to be creative and have fun. I get lots of help coming up with ideas to help fill the hours and keep them occupied.

My friend Asia from the blog Fun at Home with Kids just released her gorgeous new book 150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids and, just like her blog, it is absolutely fabulous.

It’s jam-packed with colorful, hands-on projects that kids of all ages will love (which is no big surprise given Asia’s background as a former classroom teacher with an M. Ed who now stays home full time with her 1 and 4 year old).

Check out the quick video above and I guarantee you’re going to want this book under your tree this year. (For more arts and craft inspired gift ideas, see also our Best Toys for Art & Crafts Lovers gift guide.) Read More

Do you guys celebrate New Year’s eve with your kiddos? In years past I’ve skipped it due to the whole, “there’s no way my kids are making it to anywhere near midnight and, if by some some miracle, they do – I’m scared to see what will happen the next day” thing. 

But then I stumbled on the concept of “Happy Noonyear”. Which is just what it sounds like, basically celebrating at noon instead of midnight. Kinda genius, right?

Regardless if you decide “Happy Noonyear” or stay up for regular New Years, we’ve got an idea that will make you an absolute rockstar in your kids’ eyes. Here’s Kristen with the goods…

There’s something special about ringing in the New Year.  The anticipation of the countdown and all the festivities always has me excited to do a special activity just for the kids.

Some years, I barely make it to midnight, so I’m happy to do an early celebration with all the little ones.  This year, I’m making my own balloon drop.  Read More

Happy Friday friends! I wanted to pop in quickly and share with you a post I wrote this week for eHow’s Mom Channel. It’s a personal one for me and I really hope you like it – here’s a preview:

…The perfectionist in me wants to slow down and make sure I do this parenting thing exactly right. But the kids, and their incessant growing, seem to have other ideas. In fact, I had the bone-chilling realization the other day that we’re already one-third of the way done raising our kindergartner!

It’s become clear to me that I’m just not going to have time to research and test the myriad of parenting techniques out there — I’m going to have to wing it. And, scary as that realization is, I’ve come up with a daily ritual that has put my mind at ease a bit about the situation.

Here’s how it works: Every night before going to bed, I ask myself one simple question for each of my children…  READ MORE HERE


Before I go, don’t forget – our 2015 Toy Gift Guides are now organized by both children’s interest AND age. Happy shopping and have a great weekend!

Image Credit: ©www.suzette.nu | Fingerpainting – text added| CC by 2.0

  1. Magna-Tiles $120 (2 – 12 years) – I discovered magna-tiles last year and they were the big present under the tree for the kids. They’re definitely more of an investment, but have been totally worth it. The kids have played with them multiple days a week for the last year straight. Teachers absolutely rave about these blocks and the play possibilities are endless. Because they join together using magnets, kids can create elaborate structures (often taller than they are) without becoming frustrated by crashes. They’re also great for use with other toys. They can be used along with blocks and LEGOs to make elaborate structures, with marbles and cars to make tunnels, bridges, and marble runs, or even with dolls to create doll houses.  We splurged for the 100 piece set and got hours of rainy day fun with these. If you have the space/budget for a personal light table to use them, the translucent pieces would look fantastic lit up from underneath.
  2. Playskool 2-in-1 Digital Camera and Projector $49.14 (3 – 7 years) – Photography is an amazing art to introduce to your children at a young age. Encouraging them to get behind the lens gives them a different perspective on their surroundings and gives them some control of their world. Plus, if you tend to take a lot of photos of your kids (ahem), getting them into photography will make them more likely to put up with your shutter bug tendencies. We’ve had a few digital kid cameras in the past and, while the kids have always been excited about them, they all produced poor picture quality, were difficult for the kids to operate on their own, and broke easily.  So I’ve been on the lookout for a better designed kid camera for quite a while and I think this Oppenheimer award winning version is it!  My favorite feature has to be that with the flip of a switch this camera will instantly project captured images up onto a wall (cool!).  Big buttons and screen, along with durability, good photo quality, storage of 1000 photos at a time and instant special effects means this one is going under our tree this year (shh! – don’t tell).
  3. Melissa & Doug 60 Piece Standard Unit Blocks $50.99 (2 – 12 years) – If I could buy my children only one toy, a large set of basic wood blocks like these would be it! They are the ultimate creativity toy.
  4. Castle Logix $24.99 (3 – 8 years) and Camelot Jr. $24.99 (4 – 8 years) – The entire line of single player puzzle games from SmartGames gets such stellar reviews that it was hard not to recommend all of them!  The bold colors of these two 3-D wooden castle puzzles especially caught my eye. Assemble the wooden blocks and towers to match the challenges included in the booklet. With simple challenges for inexperienced builders to complex puzzles that will challenge skilled architects, these puzzles serve to develop logical thinking skills and spatial reasoning abilities.
  5. Educational Insights Design and Drill Activity Center $23.99 (3 – 5 years) – This toy has been a big hit in our house since Santa brought it last year.  It’s a pattern building toy disguised as a construction toy that has a very cool and easy-to-use working drill.  Both my 3 year old and 5 year old will spend lots of quiet time occupied with this toy.
  6. Kidkraft Red Vintage Kitchen $148.64 (2 – 8 years) – The play kitchen is a quintessential play toy that I would recommend for every child if you have the space and budget.  There are so many different ways kids can play with them – cooking at home, setting up a restaurant, having a tea party, going shopping and unloading the groceries, etc. We bought this one for the kids two years ago when they were 1 and 3 and couldn’t be happier with it.  I really like the look of the thing and I think the vibrant red is nicely gender neutral. Despite a small footprint, this kitchen still has all the amenities and both my kids enjoy regularly playing at it simultaneously even now at ages 3 and 5 (Side note: people sometimes ask if kids will get too big for this smaller kitchen – mine are 95% in height and haven’t had an issue). If you’re looking for a big wow gift from Santa, this could very well be it!
  7. Melissa & Doug Cutting Food $15.99 (3 – 6 years) – Regardless of whether you go for a play kitchen, cash register (see the kindergartner list for our favorite), or both – you’re gonna need some food to cook or buy.  We got this cutting food from Melissa & Doug before we ever got the kitchen and it was an excellent toy all on it’s own, both for dramatic play and for building fine motor skills.  Our kids have been playing with these pieces for years and still found them very enticing on their own up to age 3 or so (after that they were good props for kitchen play).
  8. LEGO Ultimate Building Set $24.59 (4+ years) – A basic set of LEGOs is a must-have for any child, boy or girl. Start early with a basic duplo set or a set of Mega Bloks and transition around age 4 to a standard sized set. This is a good one to start with!
  9. Leapfrog Leapreader Reading and Writing System $37.49 (4 – 8 years)  – The leapreader has been a leader amongst educational toys since it’s debut, and with good reason.  My son first got his when he turned 4 and not long after we decided to get one for our 3 year old too.  Both my kids will spend large chunks of time “reading” stories with the pen and my son has now started practicing his letters as well.  This is one of our top tier toys that never really makes it out of rotation.
  10. Melissa & Doug Solar System Floor Puzzle $11.99 (3+ years) Melissa & Doug USA Floor Puzzle $12.74 (5+ years), and World Map Floor Puzzle $12.16 (4+ years) – Large floor puzzles are great to introduce around ages 3 or 4. We have all three of these and our 5 year old has loved them for quite a while.  It amazes me that he can construct the entire map of the US completely on his own.
  11. Richard Scary Busy Town Game $19.99 (3 – 8 years) – I have heard great things about this cooperative, non-competitive game from multiple sources but was really convinced when a mom on one of my son’s good friends was raving about it. Everything about this game is impressive, from the 6 foot long game board, to the amount of imagination and teamwork required. In fact, the company behind this game , Wonder Forge, has won over 120 prestigious awards by creating good-for-you games that encourage teamwork, healthy competition, and get-up-and-go active play. This is the perfect game for children of multiple ages to play together and for when you hit that stage when kids pout a lot about losing or start to become ultra competitive as it focuses on teamwork instead of competition.
  12. FirstBike Balance Bike $154.79 (22 months – 5 years) – What can I say?  I think a balance bike will probably make it onto my gift guide for as long as I’m writing them.  Both of my kids have been zooming around on bikes since they were 2 years old thanks to this genius idea of taking away the pedals and letting the kids pick up their feet and balance when they’re ready.  I also really love how light weight they are.  Both kids could easily pick theirs up and carry it around as soon as they started using it. In previous years I’ve always recommended the Strider Balance Bike because that’s what we have and it’s worked great for us.  The only drawback has been when the kids get really good at it and can’t stop when going down steep hills due to the lack of brakes.  This new FirstBike version comes with a hand brake that could come in very handy for those scenarios (no pun intended).
  13. Radio Flyer My 1st Scooter $36.42 (2 – 5 years) – Our daughter discovered this when we went camping with friends last summer. The innovative design (two wheels in the front instead of in the back) made it simple for her to master even at barely 2 years old.  But don’t get me wrong – her 4 year old big brother loved it too.  This is a versatile ride-on toy that will get lots of use from kids not ready for bikes and accomplished cyclists alike.
  14. Hop on Air Hop Balls $23.64 (2 – 5 years) – My sister got these for the kids last year, per my request.  The bouncy ride-on balls have been a fantastic way for the kids to get some energy out when stuck inside. (So much better then running around the living room and kitchen until someone inevitably gets hurt.)  We got a 15″ version for then 2 year old S and an 18″ ball for then 4 year old C (both of whom are tall for their age) and they are both still using them a year later.
  15. Yoga Pretzels $13.49 (3+ years) is another card set I’ve had my eye on.  Again the illustrations look beautiful and I like how there’s a story element to go along with each of the poses.  Plus the set gets great reviews on Amazon.
  16. Mini Micro Scooter $79.99 (3 – 5 years) – Hailed as “the quality choice in 3-wheel scooters for young children” this scooter has more than it’s fair share of rave reviews and awards (the Oppenheimer Toy Portfolio Gold and Platinum Award Seals for Best Toy, the Parent’s Choice Approved Seal, ‘Best Pre-School Scooter’ by Toy Report, ‘Best Outdoor Toy’ by Learning Express Stores and was featured on the NBC Today Show as part of its ‘Best Toys for Summer’ series). The key is the “learn to steer” design and back brake, both of which grant preschoolers an extra element of stability. Also, the Mini can be ridden inside while learning (or waiting for Spring) as the quality wheels, made especially for Micro, are non marking. And the Micro-Mini 3-in-1 Kick Scooter $114.99 (1 – 5 years) – lets even new walkers in on the fun. 1 year olds start out sitting on the scooter with the seat attachment and using it as a typical ride-on toy. Later they advance to the O-bar (which is lower than the traditional Mini Micro Scooter) and eventually graduate to the real deal.
  17. Green Toys Tea Set $19.59 (2 – 6 years) – Whether playing with mommy or a favorite doll, tea time is always a fun way to pass some time.  We’ve had this set for over a year and it still looks like new (despite lots of use in the playroom, bath tub and even sand box).  Plus I love that Green Toys are 100% recycled, made from milk jugs, are FDA approved to eat and drink from, and do not contain BPA, phthalates, or lead paint.
  18. Animal Planet’s Big Tub of Dinosaurs $31.89 (2 – 12) – The best thing about these dinos are their size (9 – 11 inches). The second best thing is all the cool stuff you get along with them including a carrying case, playmat, landscape props (be sure to remove the bag of rocks for children who dtill mouth toys) and the names of the dinosaurs are even printed on the bottom. This is a great find if you have a dino lover at home. If you find your dinosaurs starting to accumulate, this storage box that unzips into a deluxe playmat is also extremely popular.
  19. Melissa & Doug Brianna Doll $18.95 (1 – 5 years) – There’s a lot to like about this basic doll.  At 12″, she’s a good size for hauling around.  Her soft body allows for laying or sitting and her hard arms and legs easily wipe clean.  She has lots of shiny hair to play with and her eyes open and close. Plus, her open mouth allows her to suck on either her thumb or pacifier.  Last but not least, her price can’t be beat!
  20. Chico Doll Stroller $39.99 (2 – 5 years) – In my opinion, if you’re going to buy one accessory for your child’s doll, it should be a stroller.  Our daughter S likes her dolls, but isn’t obsessed, yet she LOVES to pile them into her stroller and take them for a stroll around the house over, and over, and over again. You’ll get a lot of mileage out of this one – trust me.
  21. Educational Insights Magic Moves Talking Electronic Wand $14.06 (3 – 10 years) – Normally I’m not big on electronic toys with lots of sounds and lights, but when said toy can help my kids get rid of all their pent up energy on a rainy day, it becomes my new best friend. This inexpensive magical wand uses 90 silly commands (sway, creep, stomp like a dinosaur, leap) and 26 songs, along with a light show to get kids moving. This is one of those rare toys that’s great for siblings of different ages to play together. It will keep the bigger kids interested (who doesn’t like having the mic and being the star of the show?) while developing listening skills in the younger set along with enriching their vocabulary and ability to follow directions.
  22. CAT Digger Sit On Toy $85.69 (2+ years) – The aunties bought this for my son three Christmases ago, when he was 3.  I have to say, I had my reservations. C of course thought an excavator that he could actually sit on, drive, and manipulate was just about the coolest thing ever but I was concerned about the space it would take up in our yard, especially with a non-rainy season of only about 3 months here in Seattle. What I failed to realize was the versatility of this toy.  Yes, it’s awesome for digging in the sandbox or bark in the summer, but it’s also great for picking up leaves in the fall and snow in the winter (see here).  This thing gets played on year-round and is often the one of the main things that lure my kids out to play on a rainy day (they put out buckets to collect the rain water and use the bucket shovel to scoop it out).  This one’s definitely a big ticket item but return on investment is high.
  23. Hot Wheels 20 Car Gift Pack $21.63 (2+ years) – A decent set of small hot wheels are a must for us. They’re great for playing with the toy garages listed here or for using with blocks, up-cycled paper towel rolls, and even painter’s tape tracks for all kind of innovative an open-ended play.  We also like this race ramp for rainy or sick days (I was pleasantly surprised that it’s lasted it us a few years already and I like how it folds down flat for easy storage).
  24. Little Helper Broom Set $13.66 (3 – 6 years) - One of the most surprising things about having toddlers and preschoolers is seeing how much they absolutely LOVE to clean! This is another item we’ve had for a few years now.  It’s very inexpensive and the kids really enjoy breaking it out to help with clean up when the opportunity arises or just using it to play pretend. Every toddler we know has this set and totally adores it.
  25. Melissa & Doug Dress Up Sets starting at $19.99 (2– 6  years) – A big box full of dress up clothes was the kids’ big present two Christmases ago.  I filled it with lots of random items (shoes, jewelry, masks, hats, boas, etc) as well as a few complete outfits.  For that, Melissa & Doug’s selection has always been my favorite.  Go for their Delux Role Play Costume Bundle or check out their chefFire Chief, and pirate outfits as well as this very cool, non-M&D, astronaut getup.
  26. Disney Dress Up Princess Outfits starting at $11.03 (2 – 6 years) – These are pretty much all our daughter wanted for her 4th birthday so she got several from friends. They have all held up impressively well amidst repeated dramatic play use (while I may not be the biggest princess fan, I do LOVE the creativity these dresses have brought out in my girl). Our favorites include Snow WhiteAuroraAnnaMerida.
  27. Learning Resources Pretend & Play Doctor Set $24.68 (kids no longer mouthing toys – 6 years) – A quality doctor kit is another excellent dramatic play toy for both boys and girls. Kids like being patients but really enjoy the power involved in getting to play care-taker (which can be really nice when your tired because you can play with your child by basically laying still and playing “patient”).  These kits are also nice for easing doctor visit anxiety. I really like how comprehensive this set is and the fact that it comes with a durable carrying case to keep track of everything.
  28. Bruder Construction Vehicles $15.59 and up (3 – 8 years) – If you’ve got a true vehicle lover at home then you know they can NEVER get enough construction vehicles to push around the floor (or around the sandbox).  The Brudler versions are each realistic, high quality options that won’t disappoint. They cost more but they hold up and my son is seriously smitten with how well this crane truck works.
  29. Play-Doh Case of Colors $9.99 along with this Play-Doh Clay Center with Storage Case $29.99 (2 – 10 years) – Although not completely mess-free, Play-doh really is the ultimate quiet time art toy.  It’s unbelievably engaging to kids of all ages and, as long as you prep your space well with a table cloth or large placemats, allows for quick and easy cleanup.  Of course you can always make your own, but I like to also have a few tubs of the pre-made stuff on hand for when we don’t have time.  I also highly recommend the clay center with storage case.  It’ll give your kids tons of tools to keep them occupied and you a handy place to store them all when they’re done.
  30. Melissa & Doug Reusable Sticker Books $4.99 (3 – 10 years) – My parents gave the kids a couple of these reusable sticker books a few years ago for Christmas and they’ve been a consistent stand-by for us every since.  Each of the books contain a series of background pages and hundreds of various sticker clings that can be positioned over and over on them.  There tons of book themes to choose from too. They are surprisingly useful on long car rides (despite their large size) and we always grab them when heading to someone’s house who doesn’t have younger children and, therefore, is without toys to entertain younger children.

 

Image Credit: ©Donnie Ray Jones | Lego Feet - text added| CC by 2.0

After covering the kindergartners yesterday, we’re back today with our go-to gifts for 2 year olds.

We’ve narrowed it all the way down to the elite eleven and each and every one is sure to delight and engage the two year old in your life for hours on end. Enjoy!

  1. Mega Bloks First Builders Big Building Bag, 80-Piece (Classic) $14.59 (1 – 2 1/2 years) – I still remember my son receiving his first set of award-winning Megabloks for his first birthday. It took him a little while to figure out (kids typically grasp block building somewhere between 12 and 18 months), but once he did he started building like a mad man and never looked back! All my mom friends and I love Mega Bloks for our youngest kiddos, even more than the classic LEGO duplos (although we did use both!). The locking mechanism is just a little bit easier for beginners to put together and pull apart. Plus the colors are beautiful and the zippered bag is very handy.
  2. Kid-O Bilibo $29.14 (2 – 7 years) - This thing is kind of silly looking but my daughter loves it.  There were a couple at her toddler group and she always spent a considerable amount of time bopping happily away on one.  It’s like a one person teeter-totter, so I can see why a kid would think that was fun. I think the bright colors, small footprint, and reasonable price are quite fun myself and I’m not alone, this one gets tons of rave reviews.
  3. Learning Resources Primary Science Mix and Measure Set $24.99 (2 – 6 years) – This set includes a scale, bowl, 3 self standing spoons and 6 unique cup designs to help children visualize quantities as well as activity cards to guide children in making mystery goo, puffy paint, slime and more. Because it allows those not quite ready to experiment to get in on the fun, it’s a great toy for siblings that cover a span of ages as older kids partake in on some real concocting while their younger counterparts pour to their heart’s contentment.  This is a fabulous toy perfect for playing with at the sink, in the tub, or at the water table.
  4. Learning Resources Mini Muffin Tin Match Up  $20.78 (non-mouthing kids – 5 years) – The first thing to say about this toy is, of course, not to leave a child alone with it if they still put things in their mouth. Once you’re out of that stage, though, this is a truly AWESOME way to keep young kids occupied for a really long time. Moms figured out long ago that letting kids sort things in a muffin tin is a great quiet time activity. This play set expands on that idea by adding in multicolored mini muffins, dice, and cards that can be placed inside the muffin tin for sorting and math purposes. There are also some interestingly shaped tweezers for fine motor work. All in all this one has A LOT of play-ability.
  5. Kidkraft Waterfall Mountain Train Set & Table $170.99 (2 – 8 years) – We bought our son a train table for his 2nd birthday and we always say it’s one of the best purchases we’ve ever made.  Over four years later both he and his sister still play with it several times a week.  At 4 he was able to completely construct the track by himself using the map and that added a whole new level of building play to this fantastic toy. I think the model we bought has been discontinued but this one is the same brand and has all of the same key components: a bridge, waterfall mountain, helicopter landing pad, and the all-important drawers for storing all the little pieces. If you’re going to be putting your train table in main living space, you may want to spring for the more expensive KidKraft Metropolis Train Set Table with Trundle Drawer.  It’s got a nicer “furniture” look (and that double-decker bridge is pretty cool too). Also, over the years we’ve amassed quite a collection of Thomas trains to go with this table.
  6. Haul and Ride Truck $34.99 (1 – 3 years) – This has been arguably the best toy our family has ever owned.  My son got it for his 1st birthday and for three years he played with it almost daily until the steering wheel finally snapped off.  Both he and my daughter loved to ride it, fill it up with stuff, tow with it, pull it, and push it all over the house.
  7. Melissa & Doug Deluxe Standing Easel $58.99 (2+ years) – There’s nothing like an art easel always set-up and waiting to entice a child to start creating and the folding design of this one makes it easy to store when not in use. One side is a chalkboard, the other’s a dry erase board, and in between the two easel sides is a dowel for holding a butcher paper roll. Pull the paper through to either side of the easel for your child to paint or draw. Once the painting is complete, the paper can be torn neatly against the top of the frame and set aside to dry, and a new length of paper can be pulled down for the next art creation. The multiple options for making art will keep kids interested AND allow more then one child to use it at once so it’s great for siblings. From the Amazon review, “Our preschool-aged toy tester enjoyed working on the easel, whether she was drawing with chalk or painting with poster paints. In fact, her creative output increased significantly with the easel. She especially enjoyed mixing paints to make different colors. Like many children her age, she likes standing while engaged in creative play, and the easel makes it much easier for her to draw and paint large pictures without having to reach awkwardly across a table surface or kneel on the floor.” Read More

Image Credit: ©clappstar | Smiling Up – text added| CC by 2.0

One of the things I’ve really been wanting to do with the gift guides – and that I’ve heard from you guys that you really want me to do – is to lay out our top picks by age.

As much as I love having our 350+ toy recommendations organized by interest, I know it could be really useful to parents and other gift givers to also have them organized by age, especially when shopping for a birthday!

Today I’m happy to announce that we’ve finally made it happen. All this week we’ll be highlighting our all-time favorite gift ideas for:

  • 0 – 18 month olds
  • 2 year olds
  • preschoolers
  • kindergartners
  • elementary aged kids

As always, instead of focusing on the latest and greatest “it” toy, we’re highlighting the most engaging, entertaining (and even educational) toys for each age group. These are the gifts that have the highest bang for your buck and are going to keep on giving as kids return to them again and again for hours of continued play.

We’re mixing it up today by starting with the kindergartners. Happy shopping (and don’t forget to bookmark this list for the next time you’re invited to a birthday party).

The Very Best Toys for Kindergartners (5 – 6 years old)

  1. Snap Circuits Jr $20.55 (5+ years with parental help, 6 or 7+ for independent play), Snap Circuits $45.07 (8 – 15 years),and the Snap Circuits Student Electronics Training Program, down this year from $199.99 to $124.18 (8 – 15 years, younger with parental help). – This clever kit is another multi-award-winner that takes advantage of kids’ natural interest in building toys like LEGOs to teach the principals of electricity.  The components aren’t intimidating, snap together simply, and can be used to create a bunch of cool projects. The standard set comes with over 60 pieces to create over 300 different electronic projects. The pieces include snap wires, slide switches, an alarm circuit, a music integrated circuit, and a speaker and are numbered and color-coded to make identifying them easy. These components combine to create working circuit boards just like the ones found inside televisions, radios, and other electronic devices. For bigger kids, you’ll definitely want to check out the reduced priced Snap Circuits Student Electronics Training Program as well as Snap Circuits Lights. Just connect any MP3 player and be amazed as your music creates a mesmerizing light display. No two songs will ever produce the same light show. Includes prepunched patterns for motor, strobe light, and color-changing LED, lighted and glow-in-the-dark fans, strobe integrated circuit, color organ controlled by MP3 player, voice, or finger. Builds over 175 experiments.
  2. Qwirkle $19.21 (5+ years) – My son got this strategic domino and scrabble-like game for his 5th birthday and asks to play it during our one-on-one time or as a family several times a week.  Although we’ve altered the rules and points system a bit to adjust for his age, this Parents’ Choice Gold Award and Mensa National Competition winner is still fantastic for working on shape and color recognition as well as pattern perception and spatial and critical thinking skills. This is one that our family is sure to be playing for years to come.
  3. Robot Turtles Game $24.99 (4 – 8 years) – As one of the only products out there with the real ability to get preschoolers and kindergartners interested in programming, this is the new toy I’m most excited about adding to the gift guide this year! The most backed board game in Kickstarter history, it sneakily teaches preschoolers the fundamentals of programming, from coding to functions, while making silly turtle noises. Takes seconds to learn, minutes to play and provides endless learning opportunities. This game has been featured by NPR, Bloomberg, Make: Magazine, Boing boing, TechCrunch, Reddit, Geekmom, Geekdad and essentially lets kids write programs with playing cards. One reviewer wrote, “There are no winners/losers. (You could make a competition out of it with several kids, seeing who can make the shortest program/have the fewest bugs/etc., but it’s not set up that way.) But it does teach kids the basics of how computers think… Once he got the hang of it, we just let our son go nuts with it. He makes up his own boards and then “writes” a program to solve it. Finally, something he can play by himself that doesn’t have a ton of annoying noises/beeps/music!” You can read more about this game from The New York Times here.
  4. Crayola Inspiration Art Case $39.99 (3 – 12 years) – This 150 piece art set gets great marks for everything from it’s special looking case that keep all the components snapped in place to the quality of the art supplies inside. If your child is getting serious about art, this gift will show them you are proud of their burgeoning gift and is sure to thrill.
  5. Twistz Bandz Rainbow Loom $19.95 (5+ years) – Being billed by many as “the runaway toy of the year” last year, this award winning loom was the most exciting thing to happen to kid jewelry since the advent of the friendship bracelet. Using a special loom and the multitude of colorful twistz bandz that come in this kit along with a myriad of video tutorials available on YouTube, kids will spend hours happily creating with this fun kit. Both my son and my daughter love playing with it at their friends’ houses and will be getting one this year.
  6. Hot Wheels Track Builder Total Turbo Takeover Track Set $34.86 (4+ years) – If you do want to get yourself some tracks, this is my favorite starter kit. It’s well-priced and comes with not one, but two, loops – which always seems to be the kids’ favorite part – plus a “two way booster” that gives them multiple ways to race and launch the cars. This is an ideal rainy day toy and also great for multiple kids to play with together. The only drawback, is that this one can be noisy and you need a little more space – another great set that’s noise-free and has a small foot-print but TONS of cool options and tricks for the cars is the Color Shifters Flame Fighter Playset $27.99 (4+ years) (note: we don’t use the color-changing water features but may add it in as the kids get older).
  7. Marble Run – 103 pieces $34.95 (3 – 10 years) – This one is a classic for a reason. Kids have always loved (and will always love) building cool structures and watching marbles spin and drop down them. This is a perfect game to play alone or with others so it can be used for quiet time or play dates plus it’s great developmentally for fine motor skills, critical thinking skills, spatial awareness and more. My only caution is to be careful of small marbles that can be a choking hazard to young kids who still like to put things in their mouths, including younger siblings who may be nearby.
  8. Stomp Rocket Jr. Glow Kit (3+ years), Dueling Double Stomp Rocket Kit $14.95 (3+ years) and Ultra Stomp Rocket $14.50 (8 – 16 years)  – My kids both got to play with this at science camp this summer, during their study of physics, and fell in love. They both, my son especially, get a little hyper in the afternoon and I knew we’d all love having this around for them to stomp to their hearts content in the backyard. Lucky for us, we got one for C’s 6th birthday and I was absolutely right. The concept is simple, stomp (or jump) on the launch pad to send a foam tipped rocket up to 200 ft in the air. I like that both sets come with 4 rockets so the kids get to launch multiple times before running around to pick them all up and do it all over again.  Obviously the glow-in-the dark aspect of the Jr. Glow Kit is pretty cool. Siblings will love going together, and not having to take turns, and hosting friendly competitions with the Dueling Double Stomp Rocket Kit. In summary, these simple battery-free toys are multi-award winners and get great reviews. Plus they’re cheap – gotta love that! Read More

Got a little reader on your gift list this year? Our resident children’s librarian, Janssen, here today with one of our favorite gift ideas ever – the series starter. Here are all the details…

Whether you’re looking for a book to give to a voracious reader or a struggling and reluctant reader, series are always a good idea.

For an avid reader, a series gives them not just one book to devour, but a whole set. While for the reluctant reader, entering a series means they can continue reading after the first book without having to be introduced to a whole new set of characters and world again, which makes the initial plunge into a book that much easier.

Here’s how a “series starter” gift works. Pick 3 to 5 of your favorite books series and wrap up just the first book (or first few if you wanna go crazy) in each series, add a homemade bookmark or book light, package it with a note with the names of all the books in each series, and let them discover a whole new world to get lost in.

Not sure which series to go with? Whether you’re buying for a preschooler or beginning reader, a third through sixth grader, or a teenager, there’s sure to be a few series on this list that’s perfect.

Emerging Readers:

  1. Elephant and Piggie by Mo Willems. It takes a master to use so few words to tell such hilarious stories, and Willems is just such a master. Some easy readers are mindless and plotless, but this series is anything but.
  2. Ling & Ting by Grace Lin. Ling and Ting may be identical twins but they aren’t exactly the same. Each book is broken into several chapters and readers will love seeing how different these two identical twin girls really are.
  3. George and Martha by James Marshall. These two hippo friends will have you in hysterics. These are great for early readers to work through on their own or perfect for reading aloud. Either way, prepare for giggling!
  4. Oliver and Amanda Pig by Jean Van Leeuwen and Ann Schweninger. This sweet series about a pig family has been one of my life-long favorites. With books correlating to practically every season and occasion, you’ll never run out of opportunities to pull out one of these titles.
  5. Penny and Her Doll by Kevin Henkes. If your child loves you reading aloud other Kevin Henkes titles like Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse, they’ll love his easy reader series about a little mouse and her various light-hearted escapades.

Read More

You guys know I’m all about getting outdoors whenever possible! I’ll admit, however, that has been a little more challenging this year with the baby in tow – sometimes I’m just too tired to face arming all 3 kids in the layers and layers of outdoor clothes, you know?

So I’m over at eHow this week with my top 10, all-time favorite ways to keep the kids active when stuck inside.

These are some seriously low key and zero prep ideas that are sure to rescue you when the kids are bouncing off the walls – guaranteed.

Back tomorrow with something fun (she says mysteriously).

Every year Trader Joe’s gets their holiday products in stock.  They fly off the shelves and quickly as they arrived.  Peppermint is king around the holidays and we love everything from the candy cane tea to the candy cane ‘joe-joes’  (Trader Joe’s version of an oreo.)

We decided to make our own version of the candy cane joe-joe in the form of a whoopie pie.

Whoopie pies are basically cakey little cookies with frosting to hold them together.  Like a soft oreo!  Whoopie pies have been around since the 1920’s and now we can find them in every variation under the sun.

Let’s start with the cookie!

Ingredients

  • 1 2/3 cups flour
  • 2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 4 Tablespoons vegetable shortening
  • 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

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Headed to potluck after potluck this season? Looking for something that’s easy to assemble, festive AND healthy?  Read More

I love the smell of Christmas. And truth be told, I’m not exactly sure what that smell is. But in my mind…it’s part pumpkin, part pine tree, and part cinnamon. Mmmmm.

Every year we like to fill our house with holiday aromas. And we’re always looking for new ways to do it.

This year, our family decided to make our own painted cinnamon pine cones. Not only do they smell fantastic, but they work so beautifully with our natural Christmas theme and they make fantastic gifts.

Sure, you can always buy your own scented pine cones at the craft store. No harm, no foul. But did you know that you can make your own for a fraction of the cost? It’s so easy!

And the best part is,  you can control how strong the scent is. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like wearing a gas mask into craft stores at Christmas time, simply because the smells are so strong. If that’s your thing, then by all means…make ‘em strong! But if you are more like me, then fear not. You can make yours as lightly scented as you please.

Here’s how to do it… Read More

Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving! Now that we’ve all stuffed ourselves and, hopefully, had a great day with the family – it’s time to get a little Christmas shopping done.

I stayed up extra late last night/this morning to scour Amazon for deals they’re running on any and all of the 350+ Toys featured in our gift guides this year. I really hope this goes a long way to saving you a little time and money today!

You’ll find the toys on sale from each of our gift guides below – each currently 15% – 45% off. Before we get to that though, here are the standout deals…

*note: These deals aren’t specifically labeled as “Black Friday” sales, so I’m not exactly sure when they end, could be today, could be this weekend – consider yourself warned. Also, for more deals, be sure to follow our facebook page – which we are continually updating with the latest sales through December!

Top 12 Deals Today from all 350+ Toys

  1. Playskool 2-in-1 Digital Camera and Projector $50.21 $38.99 (3 – 7 years) – Photography is an amazing art to introduce to your children at a young age.  Encouraging them to get behind the lens gives them a different perspective on their surroundings as well as control of their world. Plus, if you tend to take a lot of photos of your kids (ahem), getting them into photography will make them more likely to put up with your shutter bug tendencies. We’ve had a few digital kid cameras in the past and, while the kids have always been excited about them, they all were difficult for the kids to operate on their own and broke easily.  So I’ve been on the lookout for a better designed kid camera for quite a while and this Oppenheimer award winning version is it!  We got it for the kids for Christmas and their favorite feature has to be that with the flip of a switch this camera will instantly project captured images up onto a wall (cool!). Coming in a close second are all the funny clip art images you can superimpose onto the photos within the camera. Big buttons and screen, along with durability, good photo quality, storage of 1000 photos at a time and those instant special effects means the kids continue to reach for it for play time again and again.
  2. Kidkraft Waterfall Mountain Train Set & Table $170.99 $119.97 (18 months – 8 years) – We bought our son a train table for his 2nd birthday and we always say it’s one of the best purchases we’ve ever made.  Over four years later both he and his sister still play with it several times a week.  At 4 he was able to completely construct the track by himself using the map and that added a whole new level of building play to this fantastic toy. I think the model we bought has been discontinued but this one has all of the same key components: a bridge, waterfall mountain, helicopter landing pad, and the all-important drawers for storing all the little pieces. If you’re going to be putting your train table in main living space, you may want to spring for the more expensive and KidKraft Metropolis Train Set Table with Trundle Drawer.  It’s got a nicer “furniture” look (and that double-decker bridge is pretty cool too). Also, over the years we’ve amassed quite a collection of Thomas trains to go with this table.
  3. LeapFrog Leappad3 $89.99 $79.99 + $20 Amazon credit = $59.99 (3-9 years), or the Leappad Ultra $129.00 (4 – 9 years) – If you’re looking for an educational introductory wi-fi tablet that’s safe for your kids, the consensus is a LeapPad is what you want. Only LeapPad Ultra has LeapSearch — a secure browser that lets kids explore the content they love. Everything on LeapSearch has been handpicked by a team of learning experts, with parental settings for easy additional fine-tuning. The continually growing collection of eBooks and educational apps available for them foster reading, art, music, language and culture, science, geography, mathematics, and health education but what I really love about them are the possibilities for creating.  They come equipped with two front and back cameras and video recorders allowing children to create masterpieces in the Art Studio, edit pictures they’ve taken in the Photo Studio and create, direct and narrate their own animated movies in the Cartoon Director app. New with the Leappad3 this year is a faster processing speed, a higher resolution camera, and (most impressively), peer-to-peer play.
  4. Leapfrog Leapreader Reading and Writing System $37.49 $29.99 (3 – 8 years)  – The leapreader has been a leader amongst educational toys since it’s debut, and with good reason.  My son first got his when he turned 4 and not long after we decided to get one for our 3 year old too.  Both kids (now 4 and 6) still spend large chunks of time “reading” stories with the pen and they used it to practice their letters as well.  This is one of our top tier toys that has really helped instill a love of reading in my kids and never really makes it out of rotation.
  5. Learning Resources Pretend & Play School Set $36.00 $19.49 (3 – 6  years) – This is such a popular toy and it’s no mystery why. Kids absolutely love playing school, especially when they have some awesome props like this, and parents love how it fosters a love of learning.
  6. Tinker Toy 100 Piece Essentials Value Set $28.99 $16.49 (3+ years) – Tinkertoys are a total classic. My grandparents had a set I used to play with whenever I would visit them as a little girl and now both my 4 year old girl and 6 year old boy love them whenever they discover them at friends’ houses at play dates. I’m thinking this one may be under our tree this year.
  7. K’NEX 375 Piece Delux Building Set $19.97 $11.98 (6 – 14 years) – My son spotted this at a consignment store shortly before his 5th birthday. When I went back to get it for him the very next day, it had already been snatched up – a sure sign of a good toy. K’NEXs have been around for a long time and with good reason. If your child loves LEGO, this is a natural next step for him or her. The pieces offer lots of flexibility and many of the guided builds have dynamic, moving parts. This set includes a variety of builds including a Ferris Wheel, helicopter, train, etc. Also don’t miss: K’NEX Education – Kid Group Set $49.99 $32.90 and/or K’NEX Education: Transportation $76.99 $52.49 (3 – 7 years) –  I also love that K’NEX has an entire educational line of sets that teach specific scientific principles such as the Intro. to Simple Machines: Gears and Intro. to Simple Machines: Levers and Pulleys.
  8. Playskool Sesame Street Big Hugs Elmo $48.42 $29.99 (18 months – 6 years) - Elmo has once again managed to land himself a coveted spot as one of the hottest toys around. Parents report that this dancing, singing, sleeping and hugging super-sized Elmo outshines his tickle-me predecessor.  I especially like how he encourages imaginative play with scenarios revolving around astronauts, rabbits, frogs and horses and how his affirmative words and hugs will help kids build emotional intelligence as well.
  9. Diggin JumpStart Trampoline $65.40 $49.99 (3 – 7 years) - Every day around 4:30 PM I wonder why we haven’t bought one of these yet.  Two of C’s buddies have one and they each love to jump and jump and jump on it.  Chances are very high Santa will be bringing the kids a trampoline this year and if he does it’ll be this one due to the good reviews and space saving design.
  10. Mini Micro Scooter $79.99 $63.99 (3 – 5 years) – Hailed as “the quality choice in 3-wheel scooters for young children” this scooter has more than it’s fair share of rave reviews and awards (the Oppenheimer Toy Portfolio Gold and Platinum Award Seals for Best Toy, the Parent’s Choice Approved Seal, ‘Best Pre-School Scooter’ by Toy Report, ‘Best Outdoor Toy’ by Learning Express Stores and was featured on the NBC Today Show as part of its ‘Best Toys for Summer’ series). The key is the “learn to steer” design and back brake, both of which grant preschoolers an extra element of stability. Also, the Mini can be ridden inside while learning (or waiting for Spring) as the quality wheels, made especially for Micro, are non marking. Also, don’t miss: Micro-Mini 3-in-1 Kick Scooter $114.99 $91.99 (1 – 5 years) – lets even new walkers in on the fun. 1 year olds start out sitting on the scooter with the seat attachment and using it as a typical ride-on toy. Later they advance to the O-bar (which is lower than the traditional Mini Micro Scooter) and eventually graduate to the real deal.
  11. PlasmaCar $60.80 44.99 (3 – 8 years) – Check out the stellar reviews on this one and you’ll be sold.  It’s a cool space-age car that’s powered solely by wiggling the steering wheel.  This multi-award winning toy is one that will be enjoyed by kids of all ages for many years.
  12. Hasbro Furby $52.99 $29.99 (5+ years) – Dolls don’t have to be just for toddlers.  Older kids flip over this tech-based friend. Feed it, speak to it, tickle it, play music for it, and shake, tilt or turn your FURBY upside down. But be warned – how you treat your FURBY will shape its personality.

And here are the sales currently going on for each gift guide. (Hint: click on the title of each guide to see all 40+ toys in each one.)… Read More