Q&A: gift/toy ideas for kids

Meghan jumped to the front of the line with this question, since shop-'til-you-bleed Friday is in 4 short days:

"For the past week or so, we've been fielding questions about what Cole (20 months) wants for the holidays. The problem is, no one wants to hear the answer - nothing! He has tons of toys and books at home, a lovely daycare full of even more things, and a playroom that we go to regularly that has all of the things we don't have or want at home.

I understand that people want to give him gifts and that they will get joy from selecting something for him, but I don't know what to tell them. I also don't want them buying things we can't or won't use. I want to populate an Amazon wishlist with a few things, but I can't even think about what might be good. He loves vehicles, animals, and football the most, but when I imagine one more digger or one more board book in this house...! Do you think I might want to request stuff he'll appreciate in the future, like art supplies or costumes?  Any ideas at all for affordable, non-plastic, non-crap?"

I'm asking all of the readers to play along here. Tell us in the comments section what your picks are for best gift ideas for kids of different ages and why. The answers we're looking for are going to be skewed toward high-quality or simple toys, or sure-fire hits that are on the cheap side. The fewer parts the better (except for Legos, of course).

Here are my picks:

For babies and toddlers:

A soft, anatomically-correct doll that comes in a bunch of different skin tones. My only beef is that the hat doesn't come off, but it's a great size for toddlers, contain no plastic pellets (that could come out if the doll is the victim of roughhousing), and toddlers seem to love anatomically correct dolls. Also look at the rest of the site for other soft dolls of different colors and dolls in wheelchairs, braces, with guide dog and with hearing aids.

For toddlers:

A Rody. Kids age 17+ months love to bounce around on this thing. Yes, it's bright and it takes up space, but you can deflate it to store it and it has no pieces. And it's good for their balance, plus they can bounce around and get a real workout inside while you're lying on the couch, exhausted straightening up the house.

Musical instruments. Shakers, bells, drums, and all sorts of other instruments are fun for toddlers. (I linked to the A Greater Gift catalog, which sells fair trade items made by craftspeople in their native countries. If you're disgusted with mass-produced factory-made stuff, this catalog has some great alternatives, as well as the famous fair-trade chocolate Advent calendars and Hanukkah gelt.)

Balls. The Gertie ball seems to be a particular favorite, along with plain old tennis balls.

A doll stroller to push around outside.

For 2-year-olds:

The cutting vegetables set. The Melissa & Doug version is wooden, but I've also seen a plastic version. If you have two kids, you'll ned two sets because only one knife (its wooden, don't worry) comes with each set, and they will fight over it.

More musical instruments.

Art supplies.

Play-Dough. A nice gift would be to make a bunch of colors of play-dough (recipe here) and put each in its own ziplock bag and give the whole set, along with a few cookie cutters and some wooden dowels for rolling and scoring.

For 3-year-olds:

Vehicles. Always and forever with the vehicles.

Dress-up clothes (for boys and girls).

Musical instruments and art supplies. Kids this age seem to be really into painting, so some paints and a huge smock would be a nice gift.

For 4-year-olds plus:

Games. iheartnewyork brought up Sorry, Blink, and Uno, but my 4-y-o loves Parcheesi, Balloon Lagoon and Great States Junior as well. They're not too old for the classic (if boring) Candyland and Chutes & Ladders. Games are great to get people of all ages interacting with each other.


Any age:

A savings bond, if your country issues savings bonds. They're not the most exciting investment instrument, but they're straightforward ($25 gets you a $50 bond) and they're guaranteed to be worth the face value at maturity. One $50 bond for every gift-giving occasion for a kid could pay for all his or her textbooks in college. If you really want to give something fun, give a matchbox car or action figure or doll along with the bond.

Legos. (Duplos or MegaBloks for kids younger than 5.)