It’s that time of year! The stores are full of toys and kids are full of imagination from toy catalogs to what’s a la mode.
Here’s the deal, you know, and I know, that the majority of toys advertised on TV, in the catalogs, and by other kids, are junk. Noisy, small pieces, gimmicky, things that have no value after a couple weeks of play. Does these toys delight little kids? Absolutely. Are they really a good idea? No, not really.
If you need to send family or friends Christmas ideas that aren’t character branded, Disney slathered, Marvel Comics pumped, then I have a list for you. All the toys are under $50, they’re great quality, and they will last your kids years, not days. Please bear in mind that while some of these toys don’t look exciting to *you*, does not mean they won’t be beautifully loved for years to come.
Sometimes the best toys are the most simple and elegant ones.
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Disclosure: Most of these toys are my or my child’s favorites. The links to purchase these toys at Amazon or Natural Baby Co are affiliate. I make a tiny amount of commission for each sale made through the links below. It costs you nothing but helps me cover my costs to continue writing and maintaining this site. Thank you for the support!
Play Kitchen – Of all the toy play kitchens on the market, the best by far is from IKEA. It is elegant, aesthetically pleasing, and mostly wood (a couple pieces are plastic. There are no stickers and crazy colors, the IKEA toy kitchen is a calming place to play.
To fill that kitchen, you need some basic items. Goodwill or the thrift store is great for buying real objects: utensils, little plates, and kitchen knick-knacks. For something more specialty, Plan Toys has a sweet tea set made from wood. It’s gender neutral and perfect for all ages and genders. Hape also makes lots of wooden fruits and veggies and tea sets.
Whatever you choose to buy for the play kitchen, be intentional in purchasing non-gender conforming colors. The days of pink cups are over. Girls AND boys play with tea sets and dolls, so please don’t be the person limiting your child’s interests.
Bruder dump truck – $49.99 on Amazon – Bruder is my go-to toy truck company. While you can get them on Amazon and at some specialty toy stores, the best place to score a Bruder truck is at the Home Goods store. They are well made, a mix between plastic parts and metal parts, and many of the models are still made in Germany.
Snap Circuits – $20.99 on sale at Amazon – Get your child involved in electrical engineering with Snap Circuits. Good for kids 4 years and up (5 years is recommended on the box), this junior will pique your little ones interest in building and engineering.
Sneaky, Snacky, Squirrel Game – A collaborative board game, little kids will love the sneak squirrel. More for aged 4+.
Adopt an Orphan – Managed by the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the adopt an orphan allows you to contribute to caring for an orphaned elephant, giraffe, or rhino. Through the $50 adoption, you’ll get a certificate, access to updates, and special photos. Teach your children about the importance of saving our wildlife for future generations.
Corolle dolls – My friend introduced me to these dolls as a birthday present present for my 1 year old. It became a hit. My toddler son fell in love too that we had to purchase one for him as well.
Our favorite Corolle are the ones with the weighted bean body. Bonus for being washing machine safe (trust me, they will eventually go to the bubble bath). The company still lacks in having a diverse line-up of different skin toned dolls, but there are a couple at least.
Petit Collage magnetic sets – Going to a restaurant? At the doctor’s office? Need to entertain kids in a mess free, noise free way? These magnetic tins are the best! I like the veterinarian play hospital, funny faces, tree house sets.
Marble runs – The Hape Quadrilla marble run is a feast. The basic set is under $30. With fun add-ons and expansions, the set isn’t cheap, but it’s a great gift from family members for large builds by several children. As a bonus, The Wall Street Journal calls the marble run a STEM coding toy.
Green Toys Car Transporter – $24.99 on Amazon – What makes this plastic toy so great you ask? Well, it’s 100% recycled plastic. And it’s darn good quality. Green Toys is another one of my personal favorite brands and what toddler/young child doesn’t love a car carrier? For an alternative, check out the Melissa and Doug racecar carrier set.
Brio train sets – Trains, trains, more trains. Brio is a Swedish company famous for their train sets. You may have even grown up with them. Either way, trains are still awesome. Get started with a few small sets and build from through secondhand shopping (FB marketplace) and off-brands (okay, I said it). You can also add on with specialty pieces like the Brio bridges, off-brand level stacking (to create multi-level train tracks), cool trains, and switches.
At this point you are probably thinking, “oh no, Thomas the Train, please no no no!” I’m with you on that. I despise the Thomas the Train tv show and I absolutely despise the overpriced trains. Solution? Buy those secondhand. FB marketplace is a treasure trove of other parents dumping their kids Thomas the Train tracks.
Unit blocks – $52.49 on Amazon – The essential building blocks for every child. The natural colored blocks allow children to create cityscapes, farms, oceans, castles, houses, wherever their imagination takes them. For the $50 budget, Melissa and Doug is sure bet, the Bajo Manhattan Skyline (though I’d use it more as supplement, $49.95)as is the 40 piece set from Plan Toys. If your budget has lots of room, you can look to Grimms Large Stepped Pyramid ($199). Fora fun add-on, check out Uncle Goose blocks. These made in the USA blocks (yes! MADE IN USA!) range from beautiful alphabet blocks to planets and moon phases to dinosaurs and ocean blocks.
A word of caution if you are looking on Amazon for unit blocks. There are a lot of off-brand, Chinese companies selling unit block sets. You need to thoroughly check that all the pieces are *not* a chocking hazard. In addition, you should vet the paint and wood used by those companies. Frankly, I don’t trust them, and Amazon reviews won’t help in terms of consumer safety.
Ostheimer wooden animals and figures – $7.95-$25.95 prices vary on style from Natural Baby Company Co – These German handmade animals are a mark of beauty. They are durable, beautifully painted, and if taken care of will last your to your grandchildren’s generation. These wooden animals are not cheap in comparison to plastic stuff, they are an investment for birthdays and holidays each year. You can buy a few at a time or ask each family member to purchase a couple pieces – the collection will grow quickly thanks to a loving family.
If Ostheimer isn’t quite your thing, check out Holztiger, also wooden animals made in Germany. They come in a bit better price point and are just as loved. Perhaps my favorite are the subscription boxes from Danny and Luca. The website shop is run by a mom and she curates these gorgeous Holztiger sets. If you subscribe to a 3 or 6 month box, you’ll be paying $8-9 per piece, a substantial discount over retail.
When you’re starting a wooden animal collection, start by theme. If the kids love farm animals, put farm animals on their wish list. If they love the ocean, fill their gift list with ocean animals.
Duplo – Seriously, can you ever go wrong with Lego Duplo? The building possibilities are endless, there are loads of animals and cars, and so many specialty pieces, your little ones will be busy for hours. As a bonus against Legos, you won’t vacuuming Duplo or stepping on them like spikes in the house! I recommend using Facebook Marketplace to buy loads of mixed up Duplos at rock bottom prices. A grocery bag full of Duplos would cost $20-40. These mixed bags will give you lots of pieces to go build crazy. For specialty sets, buy the boxed Duplo. Some of my favorite are the, Truck excavator, fire station (set 10903), baby animals, and submarine set.
Extra credit for Lego being one of the few major toy manufacturers catering to women. Female truck drivers, female doctors, female people of color scuba divers, the company is making big strides forward.
Tegu tram set – $49.99 on Natural Baby Co – Anything Tegu really is super fun.
Melissa & Doug Wood Barn – $39.99 on Amazon – Includes 7 animals, this is a great starter barn set for any creative mind. As your child grows, you can add on more animals, Schleich is great, and wood blocks to create a farm world. Make sure not to buy the *latches* barn; it’s just a barn with a lot of latches!
Magnatiles – Build with magnets! Similar to Tegu, Magnatiles allow you build. Compared to Tegu, Magnatiles are plastic based, build larger systems, yet are trickier in forming complex designs. You could also buy Picasso Tiles, which are a lot cheaper.
Art Supplies – price varies at Amazon &Target – Art supplies of any sort are loved by little ones. Notebooks, crayons, markets, stickers, glue, this is not just a refresh of your kiddo’s book bag, it’s a way for your child to have private space to think and express themselves. Art is therapeutic and developmentally important. Classic Crayola crayons and markets are always a win.
Cuddle + Kind – $52 on Natural Baby Co – These stuffed toys are the cutest! Made in Peru by hand, each purchase provides 10 meals to children in need. You can get the 13” for $52 or the 20” doll for $72. Yes, they are pricey, but they are not made in China and they are not cheap quality. You get what you pay for.
Hope you enjoy this non-mainstream list of toys for your little ones to enjoy this holiday season. Your kids will love you and so will your bank account.