Holiday Gift Guide

Last year I shared some of the toys and games that have been major home runs with my kids (here’s an older list with some great ideas in the comments) and this year I wanted to do the same since I love a good recommendation just like anyone else and figure you might, also. We stick to a three present guideline for the kids at Christmas (not counting the socks and undies they get in their stocking) so I’m always looking for gifts that pack a punch in terms of quality; if it’s still being played with six months later I’m often found giving myself not-so-subtle high fives for an awesome gift choice.

Just in case you might be doing some holiday shopping for children this time of year, here are our unofficial Top Holiday Picks for kids this year (each of these we’ve either bought or they’ve been gifted to us or we’ve played at someone’s house; none of the items are sponsored – meaning no one is paying me to talk about them; I’m gushing because I just love them, that’s all. FYI: There are some amazon affiliate links below for the items I’ve actually bought from there). As always, shop around for the best bargain!

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1. This Allowance Game was given to us by my in-laws last year and the kids still love playing with it (miraculously, I don’t think we’ve lost any of the money, either). It’s educational and really fun plus whenever they complain about allowance (or lack of), I refer them to this game.

2. I’ve talked about our love for 4-square before and this ball is a key part to the experience. Plus, it doubles great as a dodgeball. My kids have repurposed it inside (the bonus room where throwing balls is allowed) for the winter. It’s bouncy. It’s a ball. It’s great.

3. We’ve put together about a million puzzles in the last decade and this map of the world puzzle (we also have the United States version which is fabulous) is our favorite. Challenging enough to keep Brian and I invested, it’s perfect for the kids, too. The pieces are super sturdy (none of that flimsy puzzle piece stuff that drives me insane) and what do you know? We learn awesome, new facts every time we put it together.

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4. Our great friends in Minnesota, the Erickson’s, introduced my kids to 10 Days in Asia (unfortunately, it’s crazy expensive right now because it’s out of stock) and the boys played it for hours (no kidding, hours!, instead of running around outside like they normally do; it was kind of weird) at their house. They’ve also played the United States version. This Christmas they are getting the 10 Days in Africa version which is equally as awesome. Highly, highly recommend any in this series of games.

5. My oldest son, in particular, loves to build things. Anything. He’ll hammer away at spare scrap pieces of wood in the garage for hours. He is a Webelos scout so maybe it goes along with the territory, but either way, this kit of wood is perfect for the kid who has grand woodworking dreams. The kit comes with laid out designs (birdhouse, train, etc) or they can go to town building whatever they want. Love, love this.

6. Ah, the Blue Trak. Another find via our buddies, the Erickson’s. This exciting car race track crosses age lines like no other. The little kids pull it out and before you know it, the older ones (er, even adults at times) are getting in on the action (how fast can a car truly race down this thing?). The stairs are a very popular spot but it can be played with and wrapped around just about anything. My sister’s kids have it, too, and swear by it’s awesomeness.

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7. Our newest, favorite card game! Sleeping Queens is a clever little game that is great for the whole family. We played it at my friend Deb’s house and my boys were instant fans (and I admit, so was I)! The box says ages 8+ but all of our kids, ages 3 to 12 were playing intently. It gets great reviews and I can see why.

8. Needless to say, these very-not-sharp bow and arrow sets are popular at our house. My dad had them at our family reunion this summer (with a fun obstacle course shooting the arrows through holes in a tarp) and two of the boys have their own set now thanks to birthday gifts from grandparents. Their favorite thing to do is line up their stuffed animals and knock them down. That’s kind of how we roll around here (sorry if that offends anyone from the Stuffed Animal Protection Organizations) and much better than them aiming at each other’s heads.

9. For the longest time, my kids have been into Lego sets (still are, some of them) but my 9-year old is especially loving this Erector set he got for his birthday a while ago. It’s a step up from lego building – the designs and instructions are a bit more intricate than Legos (he sometimes needs help but can do a lot himself, too) and the parts are metal and durable. Wonderful for a child who loves to follow instructions and use screws and nuts and bolts to build things.

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10. My friend (virtually; she’s been a long time reader here!), Rachel, sent me the greatest list of non-electronic toys and this Fastrack game was on there. I played something similar as a child and this newer one is fantastic! A smaller, finger version of air hockey. And let me tell you, it can get awfully competitive awfully fast. Be forewarned.

11. We’ve had Magformers for a couple of years now and they bear mentioning again. Although a bit pricier than other toys, they are played with daily in our house. Can’t say enough good things about them.

12. These pocket genius books are fabulous. We have the animal version, rocks, horses, sharks and one more (sorry I can’t remember which and am too lazy to search under beds to find it). They are the first things my kids grab for road trips and they are also constantly perusing them on the couch with each other. I’m amazed all the time at the random facts they spew at the dinner table – I used to question the authenticity of the crazy facts but quickly learned when they go straight for the pocket genius book that they are probably right and I am probably wrong (again).

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13) My sister gave us an Lego advent calendar last year for Christmas and to say my boys went crazy over it is an understatement. We had to put an official schedule together for who got to open it each day so that no one got a black eye. I bought one several weeks ago for the kids again this year (shhh!); when I looked at the details to post about it, I noticed the price has almost doubled on amazon so I’m not linking there. I bought mine for $29 so look around online (it looks like it’s right around that price on the official Lego website).

14) Head lamps just make everything more fun: playing hide and seek in the dark, reading under the covers (when you supposed to be asleep), taking the garbage cans out the super long driveway in the evening, the list goes on and on. My boys love wearing their head lamps. They make great stocking stuffers and gifts for boys or girls!

15) Speaking of playing in the dark, this glow in the dark over-the-door basketball hoop has given the kids hours and hours of fun. Which has given me hours and hours of contentment, if you know what I mean. They play it with it daily; that’s the mark of a great toy.

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16) If you have colorers in your life, you need to get your hands (or their hands, I mean) on these mystery mosaics books. Walker, my 9-year old, loves to draw and color and he will tell you these way-cooler-than-color-by-number books are totally rad. I have to agree. I love the designs that come out of them! There are several books in the series; they get progressively harder so browse around for the one that would fit your little artist the best.

17) Dotters, dotters, dotters. These fun little marker thingies have been part of our lives for several years (they last foooorrrrreeeevvvveeeerrrr!). They are Cam’s specialty right now (she’s 2 1/2) but very, very often (ok, always) the boys join in on the fun. Another great gift for inspiring creativity in those kids!

18) Buying for kids in a chilly climate? I might have mentioned here before but we own a ridiculous amount of these Land’s End balaclavas (just say balaclava out loud a couple times and you’ll feel instantly happy) and they are warm, simple as a beanie to put on (no funky straps or buckles) and they wash up like a dream.

Feel free to share any of your own kid favorites in the comments!

66 Responses to Mini Gift Guide: Kids, Kids, Kids

  1. Emily says:

    Love these lists! Should the Blu Track racing track be used with the special Blu Track cars they sell separately or do hot wheels work?

  2. Katrina says:

    I have a boy that loves to build with blocks. We purchased the keva structures (mindware or 2 years ago and he still gets them out and plays with them. Thank you for all of your ideas. I am checking them out and putting some of them on my Christmas buy list.

  3. Katie says:

    I think my son would really like Magformers. I noticed there are larger sets available than the one you linked here. Is the 30 piece set enough or would you recommend buying a larger set? I would rather just buy a larger set if he is only going to be able to really enjoy and create things with more tiles. Thanks for any feedback!

    • Mel says:

      Hi Katie – we have a big bin of these that’s a combination of several sets and my boys have a great time with them. I do remember they start playing with them better/more when they got additional sets for their birthdays so I think if you can, buying a bigger set might be worth it.

  4. Shannon says:

    Mel, I wanted to know if you heard about Little Bits? I am a teacher and they are a wonderful toy where kids can learn. Similar to snap circuits, but much easier to use. I think your kids would love them. They are also on Amazon. Here is the creator talking about them

  5. Jade says:

    I just wanted to thank you! We relied heavily on your suggestions for Xmas this year. My son received blue track and fastrack and my daughter received sleeping queens and 10 days in the usa. They are all huge hits! We play them pretty much every day. It’s been great! So, Mel, THANK YOU!!!!

  6. Marcie says:

    Thanks for the sleeping queens game suggestion! My 8 year old daughter loves it and asks to play it everyday! As parents, we enjoy it as well!

  7. Ellen Renee says:

    Does anyone have any good recommendations for the younger set? I am totally out of the loop (my son is in college) and now we have some little boys in the family from the nieces and nephews (babies to an almost 1 year old) and find myself wandering the toy area clueless. Help!

  8. Lauren says:

    Our newest favorite game is Forbidden Island, it is totally different than any game I’ve played. It’s a cooperative game so you are all competing against the game instead of each other- great for families that tend to get a little TOO competitive! Great fun for older kids and adults (I’d say minimum age 10-12). Love all your ideas, Mel!

  9. Oh dear, I thought I had just about figured out all our Christmas presents, but there are so many good ideas on this gift guide. I also have four boys (although several years younger than yours–ages 6, 4, 3, and 6 mos.), and I know they would enjoy a lot of these ideas. (And can I just add a second shout out to Magformers and dot paints?! We love both of those toys at our house.)

    Do you ever give group gifts to your boys? Like, would you give a game to all of them? And if so, how does that factor into the three-gift-limit? Thanks!

    • Mel says:

      Good question Amy! In our fam, each kid gets three individual gifts from us and then we do a family game and family DVD on top of that.

  10. Emily Halterman says:

    My in laws are big gamers. I purchased 10 Days in Africa, Sleeping Queens, and Saboteur from your recommendations for us all to play. Cant wait to try them out. Thank you!

  11. Pauline says:

    I just opened the World Puzzle yesterday and wish I had time to do it all in one day by myself! My husband and I (both in our 60’s) always keep jigsaws out all winter long and work on them as we’re passing through the living room. When I first saw the extra-large pieces I thought “oh, this is truly a children’s puzzle.” But it’s definitely more. And I LOVE the thickness of the pieces…we’ve never worked a puzzle with such good construction. And what fun facts! It’s a gorgeous, fun puzzle, and definitely not just for children.

  12. Nancy Russell says:

    Klutz Press has quite a few fun and educational books. I always look there for the best stocking stuffers/gifts. Our kids also liked the game Clue….but it’s for kids who are a wee bit older.

  13. Melissa says:

    Thank you for the ideas! It is great to a real mom’s view on productive toys!

  14. Tasha says:

    I was so happy to read this! I actually came on to check out your list from last year. Now I have two lists to choose from and I know my kids would want it all from both lists! I love your gift giving ideas 🙂 Thank you for sharing!!!

  15. Angie says:

    Ha. I will have to go over this list and comments again. We have Magformers and agree that when we received them my kids were 2 and 7 and one of them was always playing with them or their cousins and friends.
    Glad you brought up the Erector set. My brother has been wanting to get my son one for years but felt he was too young. My boy is now nine. I think I will give him the okay;)

  16. Diane says:

    I LOVE this post! Thank you for all the awesome ideas I can use for my 2 oldest boys in coming years. I’ve had a hard time knowing what to get them as they get older, but these ideas are perfect! Thanks again!

  17. jillene says:

    Just wondering if your heat is back? Honestly, I’ve been just a bit worried about you (and yes, I know we only friends in my head, but I’m still concerned about you). I was out of power for a week after a hurricane a few year ago, and it was shocking how NOT resilient I turned out to be! (=. Day six I packed up the kids and headed to a relatives, where we could do truly magical things, like watch TV and boil noodles and flip a light switch–precious precious light. And you mentioned ice fishing? Dealing with cold dead fish in cold dead weather, forgive me for seeing this as a test of your marital endurance….

    And, on a note more related to your post above, what toy weapon do you most prefer? My kids have no weapons at this point, but I’ve been eyeing the marshmallow shooters. Are the bows and arrows better? Or the regular nerf guns? Not a weapons girl myself, but maybe we’ve been missing out…..

    • Mel says:

      Hi Jillene – bless you for checking up on me. You are seriously the sweetest ever. That meant a lot to me! We finally did get our heat back on Friday (it’s a long, dramatic story full of twists and turns and angry heater guys and parts that didn’t get shipped on time, etc.). We are so happy to not have 12 space heaters running to keep us warm (although trust me, we were very grateful for those). I would never (and I mean never) survive without electricity. In fact, that was my main form of therapy during the 10 days we were without heat (says I to myself: “at least we still have power”) so you get major coping skills status for that one. Ok, as far as toy weapons, I’m not sure you are really missing out but our favorites are the bows and arrows. We have marshmallow guns but I don’t let the boys use them in the house (sticky marshmallows stuck in carpet is not my idea of fun) but they can use the bows and arrows up in our bonus room/playroom. They do also love nerf guns, the ones we have are about 10 years old so I don’t have a great one to recommend since all the ones on the market are different than what we have but they are plenty fun, too.

    • Heather says:

      Just a thought about the marshmallow shooters…if you get one, make your own out of pvc pipe. We bought one before and the marshmallows kept getting stuck. Plus my kids had a lot of fun making their own! You can find instructions online. So cheap and easy!

  18. Jenny says:

    Here is our kids favorites…for a brain challenging puzzle, we like Castle Logix and for a board game: Ticket to Ride I’m seriously thinking about getting for my boys ThinkFun Rush Hour Great puzzle for car rides, as well. Thank you for your list…I now have a great idea for our cousins! Happy Thanksgiving!

  19. Stacie D. says:

    We too are big Magformers fans. I’m loving all these awesome ideas! I was in need; should know by now you always provide! 😉

  20. Jessica DuRee says:

    I’ve been waiting for this!!! Thank you thank you!! Also wondering if you like magformers better than magnatiles? Have you tried them?

    • Mel says:

      Hey Jessica – I’ve never used magnatiles (er, I should say my kids haven’t either 🙂 so magformers are all we’ve really had experience with but we love them!

  21. s says:

    Love the ideas…adding a couple -one of my boys received a toolbox and a couple simple tools from his uncle, and every year he gets a new tool already marked with his initials. He’ll have a great set as an adult and he loves pulling one out when my husband is looking for something specific. This year we are starting a camping/ hiking theme with nice sleeping bags they can use as adults for the kids who are 12 plus. Fishing kits are great gifts too.

  22. Leigh Anne says:

    LOVE your list posts! I bought several things last year and this is just in time for my research this year! I have 2 boys (7 & 5) and 2 girls (3 & 1) so I’m always needing new & great ideas. Thanks so much!!

  23. Meghan says:

    Awesome list thanks. My favorite board game now is seven wonders (I’ve only played with 16 + yr olds). What is with the bow and arrows these days (hunger games). Several kids in my primary class 8-11 were getting bow/arrows for christmas/birthdays. Plus one ofthe boys was going to an archery camp. I don’t remember being that into shooting things.

  24. Alisha says:

    I was just reviewing your previous two posts on gift recommendations and all the awesome comments a couple days ago. Great ideas!

  25. kay says:

    what a great list. Hiss is also a greater one for younger kids. You can’t not love building snakes!

  26. Jill says:

    Love this list, Mel! I bought some things off of last year’s list for this Christmas. I’m also done shopping for this Christmas, so I’m bookmarking this page for birthdays and next Christmas. My 9-year-old son also loves the Extreme Dot-to-Dot books. They keep him entertained for hours with over 1,000 dots. We also play a lot of Blokus and Quirkle at our house.

  27. Shannon says:

    Thanks Mel! Hurry everyone, Magformers are Amazon’s deal of the day today 11/23/14. 40% off

  28. Oh my goodness! This list is awesome and so is the one from last year!! We have 4 kids ranging from 7 to 4 months, so I’m always looking for good activities to keep them entertained. Also, I love the idea of “extra” time at night because that has really been a struggle with having our 4th child.

  29. Bethany K says:

    I just LOVE your blog!!! This post helped me out so much! Thanks for all the great gift ideas!!

  30. Amy J says:

    We love Pictureka. It is similar to Spot It. Everyone can play and no one has to let anyone win. Our youngest is one of the best at finding things.

  31. Bobbie Anding says:

    Thank you so much for the great list. Your family stories are always great too.
    I gifted Perplexus from last years list, what a hit!!!

  32. Jackie says:

    This is kind of a different idea, my husband thought I was crazy when I bought them but 2 Christmases ago I gave my kids 50 state quarter organizers. They have LOVED them. Even today, nearly 2 years later they pulled them out and were trading quarters with each other for ones they don’t have. They also love to do extra jobs and ask to be paid in quarters so they can try and complete their collections.

  33. Britt-Marie says:

    Thank you SO much! I was literally just thinking last week, “I wish Mel would post another toy recommendation.” We have purchased and loved several of your previous recommendations including the easy origami book, snap circuits jr, perplexus jr. etc. I have a lot of others on my gift ideas list for the future. We have also loved Zingo (was that one you recommended?). Thanks again!
    Oh, also, Melissa and Doug Scratch Art collection! My kids love those!

  34. Lafayette says:

    I love the “head”light. My husband has one we use for camping trips. Frees up hands. I’m thinking of buying more for the family.
    I recommend the “Where’s Waldo?” books. It keeps kids entertained for HOURS because they’re not only finding Waldo, but also looking at all the hilarious illustrations.

  35. Holly W says:

    What a great list! Thanks for taking the time to post this! I love all your ideas and have some of those toys and games at our house too.

  36. Jennifer Ammerman says:

    Another awesome card game is Quiddler! It’s a cross between scrabble and rummy. Lots of fun for kids and adults!

  37. Tiffany says:

    Love these lists!! We too have purchased items in the past, basketball hoop, and my boys love them. FYI Walmart has Out Of The Box 10 Days in Africa Board Game for 19.16 and amazon has fast track, which is a blue orange company game (they make spot-it) for buy one get one 50% off. Happy Shopping!

  38. Darlene says:

    A great book idea – the “I Spy” books. My kids are older now (13 – 18yrs) but we first received one when my oldest son was 6 years old. Huge hit for both boys & girls. Great for when you are stuck waiting somewhere, or just so much fun to do anytime. I liked to leave one or two in the cars for those long (or short) road trips. They have appropriate books for all ages too, from the little ones to extreme challenge books. I highly recommended them for those folks that still love to hold a good old-fashioned book in your hands.

  39. Amanda says:

    Awesome list! Thank you! A few months ago (maybe up to a year ago), you mentioned another game that you guys love and play as a family. I can’t seem to find your post, can you remember what it might be?

  40. Erin says:

    Thank you so much for this list! I found a few of these things cheaper at… hope that helps someone else!

  41. Rachel says:

    Thank you, thank you! I appreciate your recommendations so much! Always so helpful to find gifts that are worth buying!

  42. Megan says:

    I want to second the indoor bow/arrows. Our boys got them 2 Christmases ago and played with them ALL THE TIME! But beware, ours got left outside in the summer heat, and the sun exposure ruined the bows’ elastic. Search for the Z-Curve Bow (set of 2) on Amazon — it’s a MUCH butter deal than buying one at a time, and anytime the bows are in use, there’s always someone who wants to join in. 🙂

    Thanks for such a great list, Mel! I’m done shopping for this year (yay, me!), but I’ve already added several of your items to my Amazon wish list for bdays and next year. 🙂

  43. Melissa Foust says:

    Wow what a great list of gift ideas. My boys are only 2 & 3 years old but I want to buy all of these now!

  44. Sheila says:

    Great post and super blog! I went on the official lego website and the advent calendar is sold out already! 🙁 But so many other good ideas and I am so appreciative of your hard work so on to deciding which great idea I should now pursue. I wasn’t even thinking of Christmas shopping yet! We all love the books you recommended last year.

  45. Linda says:

    I have 4 nephews to buy for and this list is solid gold! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this!

  46. Kate says:

    Some favorites in our house:
    For toddlers: Step 2 Water Wheel Activity Play Table (in the winter we would put towels on the kitchen floor and our son would play with this for hours- be prepared for soaking wet kids and floor, though), Cozy Coupe. For preschoolers: Animal Planet Big Tub of Dinosaurs, any of the Playmobil sets. For school age kids: Franklin sports 3-in-1 sports set (my son plays knee hockey and soccer all year long in the basement with this set), legos, and our favorite game of all time, Ticket to Ride.

  47. Annai Smith says:

    Mel, you saved my bacon! My kids have given me zero help for gift ideas this year. This list is great and it’s always nice to get a friends stamp of approval. Thanks! Annai

  48. Ali says:

    Thanks for doing this again!! What a great list!

  49. Rachel says:

    Such a great list! The Lego advent calendar looks fantastic–my 4-year old boy would go crazy for it. And he keeps bringing home dot art from preschool and asking me for ‘tappers’ and I’ve had NO idea what he’s talking about–I wonder if they’re using those dot markers. I’m going to have to get him some for his stocking!

  50. Jamie says:

    You have the best christmas lists! I bought a couple things off your list last year and my kids loved them. Thanks!

  51. Amber says:

    Mel! This is fantastic! Thank you!

  52. katie w says:

    We follow the ‘3 present rule’ at our house, but you are seriously weakening my resolve with this awesome gift post. I want to buy all the presents! We have all boys and I love this, thanks!

  53. Trisha T says:

    This list is awesome!! I have 4 kids and I’m always looking for fun items to keep them, and myself :), entertained. I want to buy them all, but I will refrain because we too have a 3 gift policy. Thanks again for all you do!!

  54. Janssen says:

    You probably already know about it, but I must mention Spot It. So simple and endlessly fun for kids and adults.

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