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Great Holiday Gift Ideas: The Toys You Loved

Here are classic playthings (or proxies) that today's kids will enjoy, too

As the days grow shorter and shorter, the holiday gift lists we’re making get longer and longer. We want to give the perfect present, and what could be a better indication of success than the joy from a child who likes what she sees under the ripped-off wrapping paper?

But it’s hard for boomers (and others!) to find really great toys for our grandchildren, young nieces and nephews and other kids we know.

TV commercials and store displays often push the latest “branded” items: a train set whose cars advertise a caffeine-laden soft drink or a playset based on a popular smartphone app. Kids may be swept away by these items, but truth be told, it’s hard to feel good about giving a gift you don’t truly endorse.

(MORE: A Boomer’s Toy Story)

Here’s the solution: stick to classic toys, ones without bells and whistles or superhero or movie tie-ins — that are not so different from the ones we played with ourselves as kids.

Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D., AKA “Dr. Toy,” believes that, “these toys become … props to more imaginative play” and encourages children to explore and discover.

Some of the toys in the list below are actually improvements on the ones we played with. Gone are the unsafe bits and pieces; re-engineered, they may also be more durable (not ruined should they, say, fall into the bathtub). We’re also including ones at a few online retailers because some of the updated classics aren’t at big box stores or in the mall. (However, check around, since you may be able to score a better price on a different site or at a brick and mortar store aving a sale.) Happy shopping!

(MORE: 10 Children’s Books That Made Us)

INFANTS (birth to 18 months)

Milk Wagon (Fisher-Price, $34.95, sold online at Vermont Country Store, for age 12 months and up)

Like many well-designed toys, the Milk Wagon can be played with in several different ways. It’s a truck that can be pushed or pulled (by a plastic cord), back and forth, on sturdy plastic wheels; it’s a milk basket that can be carried around with a handle; it’s a sorting toy, since the bottles can be taken out and put back in and it’s a food toy because those are clearly beverage bottles.

On this list because… Great price point for a versatile, durable toy that will appeal to girls and boys.

Caveat emptor: It makes noise. Not too much. But that jingling might get annoying.

What’s Inside: Soft Feely Box (Lakeshore, $39.99, for birth to 4 years)

Inside the soft-sided, colorful cube live six items, each with a different texture. The butterfly crinkles when handled (or chewed on, as infants will do), the corduroy lion feels ridged, and the smooth airplane makes a sound when shaken.

On this list because… An infant will outgrow the discovery phase of taking the objects out of the box, but the toddler will still delight in each of the soft pieces.

Caveat emptor: There are six things and one of them is bound, over time, to get lost, unless the child has a super-organized parent.

TODDLERS AND PRESCHOOLERS (18 months to 5-years-old)

Pull-A-Tune Xylophone (Fisher-Price, $39.95, for age 18 months and up)

Toddlers steady on their feet will love the simple melody the xylophone plays when it is pulled along. Perfectly tuned (and happy-colored) metal bars enable future Justin Biebers to tap our their own songs.

On this list because… A classic pull along — first introduced in 1957 — the toy doubles as an introduction to making music. It will last through several children and be a garage-sale hit.

Caveat emptor: From my own experience, should the mallet become detached from the xylophone, it doubles very nicely as a weapon with which to hit siblings.

Bunny Boo (Smart Games, $19.99, for age 2 and up)

It’s a 3D puzzle! It’s a stacking game! It’s a concept exploration kit! It’s a lot like a cardboard toy I had as a child that intrigued me, but became frustrating as the pieces wore out quickly. Made from wood, Bunny Boo will last through several children.

On this list because… Kids choose one of the challenge cards (which are at four different levels, appropriate for 2-year-olds to 5-year-olds) and then use the pieces to build what they see. In the beginning, adults will probably play with their child — but I’ve also seen 2-year-olds go at it by themselves once they become familiar with the pieces. Also great for older/younger sibling play.

Caveat emptor: Lots of pieces, and it doesn’t come with a container

Calin Maria (Corolle, $34.95, for age 18 months and up)

Twelve-inches of soft-cuddle, this vanilla-scented bundle is a perfect first doll. Maria looks like the baby Latina she is; aAl of the Corolle lines, targeted to different age groups, feature dolls of several ethnicities. The head and limbs of the Calin line of dolls are vinyl, and the body is beanbag.

On this list because… In my opinion, Corolle manufactures the best play dolls on the market, and if there’s one classic toy that brings out a child’s inner nurturer, it’s a doll. The faces of the babies in the Calin line, like all Corolle dolls, have character.

Caveat emptor: Maria doesn’t come with booties, and you can’t buy them either, although there are lots of Corolle accessories available.

(MORE: How Much Is Your Childhood Memorabilia Worth?)

Bear Family Dress-Up Puzzle (Melissa & Doug, $14.99, for age 3 and up)

Mama, Papa and Baby Bear can be dressed in a slew of interchangeable outfits — and even mix-and-match heads that show different expressions. The puzzle base helps small children practice manual dexterity and reasoning skills.

On this list because… When we were toddlers and preschoolers, there was nothing on the market like this. Wooden puzzles were simply puzzles. I have played with this set with some 3- and 4-year-olds and we used it as a starting point for storytelling.

Caveat emptor: Luckily all the pieces store nicely inside the puzzle box. There are, however, 45 pieces. Good luck keeping track.

Folding Trampoline (Galt, $74.95, for age 3 and up)

This is the toy that you always wanted because some kid you knew had one, but your parents said toy trampolines were dangerous. Until a few years ago, they would have been correct. But this well-constructed toy has been safety-tested up the whazoo and is fine for children who weigh up to 77 lbs. The trampoline folds for easy storage.

On this list because… Preschoolers need good outlets for their energy. So a toy that allows them to release their yah-yahs while at the same time hones their coordination and flexibility is a win/win.

Caveat emptor: Even with the bungee cord that helps prevent spills, I don’t think I’d want to let a little kid use this unsupervised.

Ice Cream Cone Playset (Melissa & Doug, $29.99, for age 3 and up)

Included in this well-made playset are two wooden ice-cream cones (about the size of a real wafer cone) and four scoops of “ice cream” that attach magnetically to the plastic scoops and store easily in a plastic container resembling ones kids see in the supermarket.

On this list because… First, two ice cream scoops. Chance of kiddie squabbles reduced dramatically. Second, it’s so realistic. Third, youngsters learn a lot about social interactions when they play with food.

Caveat emptor: They’re going to ask for the real thing. I guarantee.

The Pet Vet Clinic (Lakeshore, $39.99, for age 4 and up)

What a great spin on the classic doctor set! This vet clinic comes in a box that resembles a real carrier and contains play versions of all the equipment you’ll find at a real veterinarian’s office — stethoscope, scale, brush, clipboard, pill bottles and so much more.

On this list because… Stuffed animals need nurturing and tend to be more gender neutral than dolls, which means collaborative play among girls and boys. This set will generate hours of pretend play.

Caveat emptor: Discourage children from poking and prodding their family’s living and breathing pets. That’s why Lakeshore makes cats and dogs that can be purchased along with the set. But most kids probably have a number of plush toy dogs, cats, frogs and other denizens of the animal kingdom hanging around.

SCHOOL AGE (age 6 to 12)

French Knitter (Galt, $27.23, for age 6 and up)

I have memories of hanging out in the school yard with my “spool” knitter, cranking out yards and yards of knitted stuff. Who knows why we loved this craft toy, but we did. In my day, even the boys wanted to try their hand. This new version of the classic toy may be a bit too girly?

On this list because… The French knitter provides good small motor practice, and kids experience a tremendous sense of accomplishment when the knitted stuff snakes out. Knitting remains a fashionable skill for men and women, and this toy gets youngsters hooked.

Caveat emptor: Warning: the parent of the child who receives this gift will probably send you an annoyed text message as the useless coils of yarn start piling up.
Optical Mysteries (Sentosphere, $69.99, for age 8 and up)

This is the classic chemistry set that my sister and I used to make all kind of concoctions — all according to the instruction booklet, mind you. Looking back, I’m sure those of us who didn’t burn ourselves, or a younger sibling, or set the house on fire simply lucked out. The experiments in this kit manage to be fascinating and yet safe.

On this list because… All 25 experiments are hands-on, not computer effects, and help children understand how light works. My favorite one explains why colors on a computer screen aren’t the same as they appear on paper.

Caveat emptor: You might start doing the projects yourself. Buy your own set.

Easy Bake Oven (Hasbro, $54.99, for age 8 and up)

Happy 50th birthday, Easy Bake Oven! The anniversary edition comes in black, a, shall-we-say, gender-neutral color. Boys always loved this toy, too. The set comes with a baking pan, a cookie mix, and a cooking tool.

On this list because… I was getting my hair cut, and two women next to me were agreeing this was a perfect gift for their 10-year-old grandchildren. Kids love to cook; having their own tools gives them a sense of mastery.

Caveat emptor: I’m pretty sure the blueberry cake still tastes the same.

Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer Train Set (Lionel, $249.99, for age 8 to adult)

This is the kind of train set that children dream of owning, and at this price, kids may just have to continue to dream. But if you’re generous, know a child fascinated by model railways and you think he or she may become a life-long model train aficionado, start here.

On this list because… The detail on the train cars is remarkably realistic and the remote control system works a lot more easily than the control boxes on train sets I remember from my childhood. Those model trains also derailed pretty much all the time. This one stays on the track.

Caveat emptor: A model train set like this isn’t something that is packed up and put away at the end of a play session. There needs to be room in a child’s house for a classic train set.

Monopoly (Hasbro, $17.99, for age 8 and up)

In this world of electronic games, web-based multi-player games (with strangers), apps and whatnot, Monopoly remains the most popular and perhaps recognizable game out there. Sure, there are suped-up versions, but the classic board game looks basically the way it did in 1935.

On this list because… Talk about a classic. Monopoly has influenced the way Americans talk and given us cultural references galore. While engaged in fierce competition (with family and friends), kids can practice math skills and hone the part of the brain that we need for strategy.

Caveat emptor: You may need to provide some background on actual real estate values.

So shop, wrap, and get ready to play!

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