A toy expert’s guide to the best holiday gifts for creative, curious kids

Go beyond Legos.
Go beyond Legos.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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To me, good shopping means going in with a game plan. That’s particularly true for parents heading into the craziest shopping week of the year, at once eager to find toys that will help their children learn and grow and overwhelmed by the number of sales on offer.

The best way to find the right toy for children is to observe them playing and ask them which toys are most fun. You can even ask them to dream up the perfect toy. Their answers will give you the best ideas.

I asked a group of parents, whose children’s ages ranged from two to 13, to follow these steps.  I was happy to hear what I suspected. The toys most valued by kids were ones that involved building, pretend play, and making art. Here are some suggestions based upon their feedback.

Building toys

The building toys that best suited the majority of my testers were, of course, Lego. That said, I’m not suggesting that parents should just run out and buy more Lego products. Instead, try to observe kids’ play patterns and see if they need more pieces to make their own creations. They may be very happy with something as small as a new collection of figures.

A lot of Lego-loving kids also need help sorting their building toys in order to better see what they already have. Buying another box of assorted Legos is a great gift, as well as sorting trays to help kids know where their pieces are. Having an organized box of Legos is just as inspiring as opening a well-stocked and neatly organized refrigerator: You can’t help but want to make something.

Another way to get more out of your child’s building collection is to give toys that let them create art for their room or useful accessories like pencil holders. I’m very excited to try my first BrikTiles later this month. The repositionable tiles stick to your walls, holding up Lego mosaics. Another building toy that I love happens to be specifically marketed to girls. Roominate lets kids build amusement park rides, dollhouses, and personal display shelves for other toys and cars.

Meanwhile, older kids may be pleased by Flybrix, a toy that lets them build their own flying drones out of Legos. Another successful toy is Thames and Kosmos’ Geckobot, which allows kids to build window-climbing robots.

Storytelling toys

Two storytelling products I love are both building products too. The Star Wars Krennic’s Imperial Shuttle from Lego is a majestic building toy that inspires awe in both children and adults. The highly detailed starship, complete with folding wings and a miniature cockpit, will be the fuel for kids eager to tell their own Star Wars stories.

Another storytelling product that I wholeheartedly recommend is Build and Imagine. These are magnetic walls that create houses and buildings, which children can put together whichever way they want. This year, Build and Imagine also offered dry-erase products so that children can draw and create whatever type of scene they wanted on their walls.

Art toys

When it comes to art products, I love the ones that teach kids and give them enough supplies to run with their newfound skills. Both qualities are evident in Faber Castell’s premium art supplies for children. Their Connector Pens, which are basically thin magic markers, have been used by my testers for years. As an added bonus, the markers don’t dry out if you forget the cap overnight.

Another great art set is eeBoo’s Scratch paper, which lets kids use a bamboo stick to etch drawings onto black-coated paper, creating colorful foil designs as they draw. The product quality really inspires users to be thoughtful about what they’re making, encouraging kids to take their time.

I also appreciate when opportunities for making art reflects how children’s skills and needs change as they grow. Klutz’s Sew Mini Treats is one such example. Good instructions help kids not only learn how to sew, but create and decorate adorable smiling doughnuts, pears and popsicles. That’s a lot to learn, but that’s what makes it fun. Kids can even sell or gift the treats when they are done.

Get to work

Family time on Thanksgiving day will offer a great opportunities for parents to gather intel about what kinds of toys might be a hit with their kids. Careful research in advance can help parents avoid buying toys instantly relegated to the shelves to gather dust—ultimately saving us a lot of money, and sparing both children and adults disappointment when kids unwrap their gifts this holiday season.