Updated: Feb 1, 2020
It’s that time of year again when the house starts to fill up with parcels and the delivery man knocks on the door every five minutes! We have two birthdays in the lead up too so, if I’m not careful, the house really starts to look like a toy shop!
I’ve always been very keen to buy things for my children that will last, and be enjoyed for years to come, rather than throw-away fads that they’ll grow out of before the holiday season is over. My background in education has always led me to buy toys that inspire my children to use their imagination or encourage their creativity, rather than the battery-powered, flashing, noisy plastic items that are advertised and thrust at you as you wander into many big-named, high-street toy shops.
Recently, I turned our spare room into a playroom for the children and, in the process, indulged my obsession with organisation, by sorting and labelling their toys into boxes. My children (boy and a girl aged 3 and 5) have accumulated a lot of toys over the years, thanks (mostly) to our very generous family and friends. I did expect to part company with a fair few things as I sorted but in reality, there were very few things that I felt they had outgrown (the ones I took away were first baby rattles and things aimed at really tiny babies). When I looked at what was left, I was pleased to see very little plastic and very few toys or games that were no longer useful. It made me realise that, when you purchase items that are designed to be ‘open-ended’, and by that I mean, there are many possible ways to play and interact with them, you don’t end up having to change the toys very often because your child changes the way they play with the toy instead!
I thought it might be helpful, at this time of year, to share some of the toys that we have in our playroom. I’m in no way affiliated with any toy manufacturers or companies so all my suggestions are completely my own and come from my own experiences as a teacher and a mum. Also, bear in mind that some of these toys have a recommended age limit to them due to choking hazards and other concerns. As a parent, I chose to buy some of these things earlier than the guides suggest because I knew I wouldn’t leave my child unattended when using them. It’s important to always check the safety guidance before purchasing so that you can make an informed decision about what you feel comfortable with.
Books feature, and always will feature, in my children’s present piles. Our playroom is full of them. There are books with wooden pages, picture books and chapter books in there. My recently turned 5-year-old still loves to pull out the books with wooden pages sometimes, even though she now enjoys chapter books at bedtime too. I could write a whole other blog post about my favourite books – and maybe I will – but for now, I’ll just say – buy a book for your child for Christmas, reading and enjoying books at this age is so important.
I’ve sorted the gift recommendations into the approximate ages that my children were when they were given them but, as I said earlier, these gifts are still used in my house so have many uses.
Newborn to One.
Puppets – socks or gloves with characters attached for the baby to wear themselves or finger puppets or hand puppets for you. We had both. They’re still used today. They are great as your baby will look and follow the puppet’s movements and by doing so will be strengthening their eye muscles. In addition, by playing with puppets together you’ll gain and maintain their attention which is a prerequisite skill for speech and communication. As they grow, they’ll start to reach and stretch to grab it, stimulating their cerebellum – the part of the brain responsible for coordination and movement. You can use them for storytelling purposes either by sharing a well-known fairy-tale or by making up your own.
As your child becomes a toddler and a pre-schooler, they’ll follow your lead and use them in their own imaginative play too.
Wooden blocks – there are so many on the market – look for ones that are FSC-Certified (Forest Stewardship Council, help promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world's forests.) and coated in baby-friendly lead-free paint. We purchased two sets, one was traditional wooden blocks which have numbers and letters on them and the other was a colourful collection of different shaped blocks. These were used for sorting by colour, shape and size as well as for building. The more traditional cubed shaped blocks were easier to stack (and knock down!) when the children were younger.
Scarves – an inexpensive and small stocking filler – I bought a set of 12 coloured scarves and have used them for so many activities over the years! Now my children still use them for role play! A worthwhile investment for sure.
One to Two Years
Wooden puzzles – great for hand-eye coordination, the pincer group, spatial awareness, problem-solving. Classic toys such as these never get old because it’s so satisfying to place all the pieces back in the correct place. Now my children are older they can solve each puzzle with ease but they still enjoy them and to challenge their problem-solving skills I mix all the pieces from all the different puzzles together! They love fixing them all in the fastest possible time!
Musical instrument set – we’ve collected this bit-by-bit over the years. Some are wooden and others are not – every single one makes a different sound to explore. We’ve one set of wooden blocks which look almost identical but make various noises as you pick them up – perfect for your baby to explore and learn through discovery.
Pretend play food and tea set – great for all sorts of activities. A high-quality set will last for years. I love to collect bits and pieces over the years. We have wooden, plastic and fabric food in our ‘shop’. The tea set is wooden and sturdy which is great because it’s seen some (ab)use over the years!
Two to Three Years
Small world toys – think miniature farm animals, people, houses, trees – that sort of thing. My children love to create little scenes using our small world box. Be careful about choking hazards with these, make sure your child has moved past exploring things with their mouths. Manipulating and setting out the small objects is great for children’s fine motor skills, imagination and patience! They’ll likely need you to set it up for them at this age. Using a book like Jack and the Beanstalk is a good inspiration for a scene and you can retell the story too.
Balls – yep, we have a box of balls – big ones, small ones, light up ones, noisy ones, bumpy ones, soft ones, hard ones. We’ve got a lot of balls! You can never have too many right? We use them all the time for different purposes and, actually, by having them freely accessible from a young age, both my children learnt which balls were safe to throw in the house and which ones needed to be used outdoors.
Dolls – and not just for the girls. My little boy loves to look after his dolly, making sure he is okay and changing his nappy. Research has shown that ‘boys’ toys’ generally encourage spatial skills whereas ‘girls’ toys’ promote social skills, language skills and problem-solving. It has been shown that children who play with both dolls and cars were seen to have more complex play skills than those who played with traditionally ‘male’ toys.
Three to Four Years
Craft sets – stickers, pom-poms, lolly-sticks, pipe-cleaners, glitter, glue, scissors, paper, card, sequins, foam letters and numbers. We have two big drawers of ‘crafty bits’. The ultimate rainy-day pleaser. You can buy lots of items really cheaply too, so it is brilliantly educational and cheap to boot! Win-win!
Wooden 2D shapes – In a similar way to the 3D blocks, these are fantastic for creativity, imagination and motor skills. You can buy sets which come with pictures to match which would allow children to find the right pieces to recreate the images which are well-loved in our house.
Wooden car garage – this has seen a lot of love over the years. Both my children enjoy playing with it either together or on their own. You can buy plastic versions for less money; indeed, my son was given one but it sadly lasted two only weeks before something broke on it and it lay discarded and unloved. I’d always invest in wooden toys given the choice – they last so well and can be resold when your children outgrow it.
Four to Five Years
Board games – we have a range of games, some are classics such as Ludo, Junior Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders; while others focus more overtly on letter and number skills – Orchard Games such as Match and Spell and Shopping List are firm favourites.
Dressing up outfits – we have accumulated a number of different costumes over the years. What I love to do is pick up ‘bits and pieces’ that they can mix and match rather than buy a whole outfit as these are quickly outgrown.
Lego – We’ve had Duplo and Big Blocks and various different brands over the years. My children love interconnecting blocks. Personally, I like to follow the step-by-step instructions that come with the Lego sets but my children are just as happy, in fact, they actually prefer, just to use their imagination and build away.
I hope that’s been helpful – as you can see, none of these ideas are particularly modern, they’re certainly not the latest fashionable must-have, but I think that’s why they’ve stood the test of time. They’re solid, educational toys that will be enjoyed for years to come.
If you agree with my philosophy about these toys then I think you would also enjoy my packs of play ideas – take a look at www.busybrainsactivitypacks.co.uk for more details…they make a lovely stocking filler 😉