a peek inside the fishbowl

15 Dec, 2008

Best Christmas gift ideas for kids

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Oh! Things!

I like reading toy recommendations from parents. They’re gold for people like me. A recommendation from a fellow mom holds more weight than a traditional ad.

Judging from the commercials I’ve seen on TV lately, marketers would have us believe that their toy is the MOST FABULOUS and has lots of PLAY VALUE and your KIDS WILL LOVE IT and they MUST HAVE IT and it WILL MAKE YOUR LIFE EASIER TOO. Some of their claims might be true. Some might not be. Sometimes it’s hard to know what believe. 

Which toys really capture children’s imaginations?
Which toys will kids want to spend the most time with?
Which toys are truly fun?
Which toys will annoy parents the least? (Personally, I don’t really like toys that are loud, or toys that have a million parts and don’t come with their own storage.)

The critical question is this: Is ToyX really worth the money, or will it just gather dust and clutter up my house? 

If you’re looking for ideas, Canadian Family has published a great-looking toy guide, in which, they say, all the toys have been family-tested. (I want to be a toy tester too! Is that a great gig or what?)

I wanted to list a bunch of our own favourite toys – the ones which have been enjoyed the most in our household. It’s kind of specific to our own family, but you might find something that fits your own family too.

  • Vintage “suitcase style” record player and old-skool records. Santa brought it a few years ago (but I hear you can pick them up on eBay), and we have accumulated quite a few albums – of both music and stories.  The girls love it. There is a lot to be said for kids having control over their own music. I guess you can go the Mp3 player route too, but I don’t think it has quite the same tactile charm that a record player does.
  • 20 Questions – A great little toy. If only I could find it. :(
  • Playmobil– great design, great play. If I had a special room I’d get a special table and set up a special World of Playmobil JUST FOR MYSELF.
  • Melody harp – Finally! A quiet musical instrument children can play without a single lesson! I also like the fact that we can buy additional sheet music for it.
  • Stilts– It took them awhile to figure it out, but now that they get the hang of it they can walk pretty much anywhere. It gave the girls a wonderful dose of new-found confidence. (Ha! If you look at the page I just linked to you’ll see my personal recommendation listed right on it. If I could add something to it I would say that my girls have used them so much that the rubber tips are worn down to nothing and we’re now having trouble finding replacement tips.)
  • Bikes, bike locks, bike baskets – not exactly a Christmas gift, I know, but bikes are big around here. The baskets were a great addition: they carry found objects, dolls and toys, and their bike locks.
  • Plasma car – it might look like a toddler toy, but it’s great for kids of all ages. It’s rated to 200 lbs.
  • Skipping ropes and sidewalk paint and chalk – no further explanation required.
  • Sled/toboggan – Inflatable sleds are great for sore and achy parents. We used to have an inflatable two-seater and I *loved* it. It saved my fanny. This year we’re going for a regular four-seater like this one. Sadly, no padding. Perhaps I should bring a snow pillow when we go?
  • Sea Monkeys – Life, death, procreation, patience, responsibility … this toy teaches it all.
  • Good quality art supplies – we were at a school function recently, and part of it was a raffle of 52 various baskets of things that were donated by each classroom and by some parents. One of these was a basket of art supplies, paint, paper, pencils etc. Each of the girls had five raffle tickets to put towards any basket. Sarah shoved all of hers in the one with the art supplies. Truly, art supplies (and a place to put them away) are one of the things that is used the most around here. I’ve learned, through the years, that it pays to spend a little extra on the good stuff. Cheap art supplies just end up in the garbage.
  • Books – We’re reading book four of the Sisters Grimm series right now, and loving it.
  • Magazine subscriptions – Emma gets Owl. Sarah gets Chickadee. It’s a thrill when it comes once a month. It’s the gift that keeps giving, and giving.
  • Board games – I’m happy we’ve gotten past the Candyland stage. And I found it hard to stay interested while playing board games involving pretty ponies and princesses. Now we play games like Trouble, Uno, and Battleship. The girls like Mousetrap – a lot – but it doesn’t do it for me. There is a special place in my heart for vintage games (Ooo, 1968 Battling Tops!)
  • Art – Kids and art go hand in hand, so why not decorate their rooms with it? Last year I bought them each a print from Etsy and I’ve done it again this year too.
  • Nintendo Wii– I bet you didn’t think you’d see a video game on this list, did you? I let Mark convince me to get a Wii and I haven’t regretted it. if you’re looking to buy a game, do your research and read some consumer reviews before you buy. Crappy games are a waste of money. Better yet, rent some games at your local video store, play the heck out of it, and then bring it back.
    Our most enjoyable games so far: Wii Sports, Wii Play, Wario Ware Smooth Moves, Wii Fit, World of Goo, Party Tetris (!), Mario Kart Racing.  Not only are these all fun to play, but they’re also fun to watch, which makes it the ultimate family video game.
  • Handmade goods: hats, mitts, scarves, slippers. We’ve been the lucky beneficiaries of wonderful crocheted and knitted goods. This stuff gets a lot of wear, and the girls get to brag about their grandmother.
  • Fun portable/unbreakable nightlights– Sarah uses hers every night. I love it as much as she does. This one was from Ikea.
  • Pup tent and collapsible fabric tunnel. The girls love having their own “secret” hideout. I should also mention that the girls also like to play with old blankets and an old sleeping bag. It’s definitely not a Christmas gift, but I wanted to mention it as sort of a sidebar. During the summer months I keep them on the back porch. They drag them all over the place and every once in awhile I shake them out and throw them in the laundry. They get used ALL THE TIME. One day it’s a blanket, or a cover for the picnic table, or they use them to make a fort, or they sit on them while they’re reading under the tree. It’s crazy. It ranks up there with empty cardboard boxes for play value.

That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure you have your own to contribute. What toys have been big in your house? (Bonus points for links!)

19 Responses to "Best Christmas gift ideas for kids"

1 | Lindsay

December 15th, 2008 at 2:35 pm


Oh my gosh… I second your Playmobil suggestion. My 5-year-old daughter will play for HOURS with that stuff. She even saved up her allowance and bought *herself* the Playmobil Advent Calendar.

Oh, and because they are mostly solid plastic the people and furniture usually double as bath toys too. :-)

Andrea – do your girls still play with it now that they’re a bit older?

2 | andrea

December 15th, 2008 at 2:50 pm


They do! And quite happily.

3 | Alison in Ottawa

December 15th, 2008 at 3:05 pm


The links I put in my original post labelled it as spammy. And all the text disappeared when I went back a page.

So in short form

Playmobil is great. Try their direct order page to get extra sheep for the nativity scene or an octopus for the bathtub. You can buy an extra floor for the dollhouse and all sorts of other things. You can also buy regular stuff that you would see at the toy stores.

LEGO ! Lego shop at Home (Canada) has really cool stuff you can’t find at stores. Or buy retro sets through a second hand seller. Try http://www.bricklink.com There is a great Canadian store called Lasting Toys that sells new kits that are 4-5 (or more) years old. Not opened, perfect for under the tree.

4 | Elizabeth

December 15th, 2008 at 3:33 pm


I saw the 20 Questions game in the clearance aisle of the Zellers at the Gloucester Centre a week ago. Perhaps it is available at other Zellers stores? Our most long-lasting “toys” have been flashlights; the older girl invents reasons to use them in most imaginary games, and the toddler oohs and aahs at the light in any darkened room.

5 | Lynn

December 15th, 2008 at 8:12 pm


Last year I applied to be a toy tester for Today’s Parent and we were selected. However, I backed out before we actually tested any toys. The big problem was that you only get the toys for a short time — I think it was six weeks — and then they must be returned. I was afraid my kids didn’t really understand the idea behind returning things and there would be issues, and I’d feel pressured to buy them a replacement thing. The Captain in particular is a terrible hoarder and can never part with anything.

Also, there is a fair amount of paperwork involved — there were probably about 20 forms to fill out at the start, and then a 10 page questionnaire about every toy you test — and there are literally hundreds of toys on the list (not that you test them all, but I think you will be testing a fair bit, pretty much all the time).

Anyway, I second the motion about quality art supplies. The good stuff is easier to clean up and lasts longer.

6 | jennP

December 15th, 2008 at 9:00 pm


I purchased the Plasma Car for my 6.5 yr old this year for Christmas…. she wanted it so bad but knows I wouldn’t pay 60$ for it. When Scholars choice had their 20% off for members, I went and bought it then. can;t wait for her to see it!

tried and true: Little People – the vintage ones – I played with them when i was little and my daughter LOVED them for many years.

Board games – they have to be fun for me as well because i have to play with her. i love battleship. i got her Blokus for christmas… i hope we both enjoy it! i also got Boggle and Scrabble since she is doing great with her reading and writing and enjoys it a lot. She sees me play scrabble on facebook with my sister and she really wants to play too.

For some reason she really wanted Pixos this year. I noticed that since she watched a bit of tv with commercials as opposed to Treehouse only, she has started asking for things she sees on tv. So this is where we discuss commercials and marketing. She is VERY reasonable now… !

One game you may want to check out if you dont already have it is Zigity. Its a card game that is actually enjoyable for adults as well. Its pretty cheap too… 12.99 at Toysrus

I am so glad that my daughter isnt into some of the stereotypical themes for little girls such as Dora or princesses…! :) She is all for variety too!

7 | porter

December 15th, 2008 at 10:17 pm


Interesting about Playmobil because I didn’t start my kids on it because I thought at 3 and 5 they might be to old for it??? Hmmm, might have to reconsider…I certainly think it’s awesome and durable, and the possibilities are endless.

We have the 20 questions game, I bought it for Bert’s stocking last year….we play it if we are in the car for a long drive. I am not a huge fan but it’s cute.

My kids love dinky cars…what are they called now matchbox cars? The girls have a bucket of them and they are often played with.

The girls like to play with small figurine type toys like Fisher Price Little People and Polly Pockets (especially the mini polly pockets from the 80/90’s) so I decided to start my 3 year old on the Calico Pets…anyone have any input on those? I think she will love them because she loves animal figures and these are families which is another theme she seems to be drawn to.

The girls are getting one toy each that are being heavily advertised (they don’t watch tv with commercials though)…both toys are items that I don’t think are worth the money and won’t be long lasting. I’m going to post about it so I’ll leave it at that for now.

8 | Dagne

December 15th, 2008 at 11:11 pm


We have boys and so I must mention Meccano and K’nex, both of which soak up huge amounts of attention from our 10 year old; the younger one is getting into K’nex now too. Lego – it goes without saying. Between these three building systems I feel like I’m always restoring stray pieces to one box or another in an effort to keep it under control. These make Christmas easy too – instead of introducing something new, adding to an existing system reinforces a favourite and makes it fresh again.

Playmobil is also very big with both boys and they live for the catalogue to come.

Big batches of homemade playdough would probably come next on the list; they can sit for hours with mini vehicles and playdough. Just made them a red and green batch for an advent gift.

Books are almost bigger than toys at Christmas at our house; Santa gets the toy glory, while mum and dad settle for the book glory. Second hand books make the stacks taller (and it’s so fun sourcing good finds in the weeks leading up), but I can’t resist a cool new book. This year it’s Bill Bryson’s kid version of his amazing Short History of Nearly Everything: http://www.rbooks.co.uk/product.aspx?id=0385614802

9 | Scattered Mom

December 16th, 2008 at 1:00 am


Books, books, and more books!

If you can instill a love of reading in them when they’re small, they just might keep it when they are older and reading is no longer ‘cool’.

I can easily spend $40 every Christmas just on books for Jake.

10 | Shan

December 16th, 2008 at 6:14 am


My girls (6 & 2) both love the Little People and mega blocks. I’d say those are the two toys that see the most play. They’re also happy with some markers and a pack of paper. And books! Both girls love books and always have a stack beside their beds.

I was glad to see the Wii on your list. We got one for the family for Christmas and even the grandparents are looking forward to it.

11 | andrea

December 16th, 2008 at 8:37 am


Lynn: you’re right. That does sound kind of annoying. I would like to rephrase my desire thusly: I would like to receive toys (to keep!), play with them, and write about them on my own terms. :)

Everyone else: WOW some great suggestions there.

Dagne, we do the same as you. We parents give the books, art, and pj’s and Santa brings the stockings and the toys. Funny you should mention the Bryson book. I’m reading the grownup version right now. The kiddie version sounds great.

Secondhand is often the way to go with books, for sure. Comic books, especially, are a much better value when purchased secondhand.

12 | Meghan

December 16th, 2008 at 9:13 am


I tend to lean towards doing things over the holidays rather than buying things. This year I am taking my two girls to Mama Mia at the NAC on Boxing Day. I will wrap each ticket and put them under the tree. We also booked a hotel room at the Travel lodge Hotel-they have a water park. I feel that all the “stuff” hangs around and is really only exciting for a bit. Plus extended family always buy the girls a lot.

13 | DaniGirl

December 16th, 2008 at 9:15 am


Ooo, we have a bunch of the stuff on your list under our tree! Chapters had a 25% off sale, so we picked up a plasma car for all three boys. I couldn’t stop laughing at Tristan and Simon testing it in the store. They’re also getting (shhhh!) a toboggan each from Granny, art supplies, books, and board games.

We bought a Marble Run set a few years back, and that continues to be a perennial favourite. Lego is huge at our house this year, so Santa will likely indulge with some Star Wars lego. Also, Imaginext has some cool stuff out, and Beloved and I agreed that the Batcave ( http://www.fisher-price.com/fp.aspx?st=900002&e=storeproduct&pid=44740&section=pop_imaginext) we got for Simon would have thrilled us as kids. And I got Lucas an old-skool Fisher Price talking phone that I wanted when I was a kid!! (Cuz isn’t that what Christmas is about, reliving your childhood through cool gifts for your kids?)

14 | andrea

December 16th, 2008 at 9:54 am


re: calico pets

Sarah has a mouse family, which she received for her birthday last year or the year before. She doesn’t play with it very much. It is cute, but personally I think the calico pets are notch too expensive for what they actually are. Or maybe that’s just my personal perception when I compare them to Polly Pockets for example … which may not be the same kind of quality.

15 | Allison

December 17th, 2008 at 6:31 pm


Andrea, we are a toy testing family with the Canadian Toy Testing Council http://www.toy-testing.org/ . There is only a one page application form to fill out and then you do have to fill out an evaluation form for each toy tested which is mostly rating things on a scale of 1-5. But they really do want you to write your own comments – this is what they really rely on so that might fit your “writing on your own terms”. The toys are distributed to distributors and you pick them up for your distributors’ house (in your area). You keep them for 6-8 weeks and the testing period runs from spring to September. Just FYI!

16 | porter

December 17th, 2008 at 11:33 pm


While I was soaking in my tub tonight I remembered that I forgot to come back to see what everyone had written! Thanks for giving me your opinion on the Calico Critters. Perhaps I will switch them for Playmobil??? I think Mouse would prefer Playmobil but Bug really loves small animals so that’s why I thought of Calico but they are expensive for what the possibilities are!

18 | porter

December 20th, 2008 at 12:22 am


the racoons are perfect! yes…calicos are going back tomorrow.

19 | vanessa

December 20th, 2008 at 8:39 am


last year i sent some wwf adopt a big 4 tiger, gorilla , whale or orangutang certificates to kids for xmas.the certificates were part of a promotion by Andrex . i thought they were an inexpensive idea that would give kids a link with distant countries & interest them in wildlife.
i selfishly kept a tiger called mallacca for myself .
in case you dont have this brand in ottawa , andrex is the leading manufacturer of toilet tissue here

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