1. Legos – My boys are currently ages 5 and 7, and legos have taken over our house. Sometimes the classic toys really ARE the best! Whether they're putting together complex sets or free-building an architectural design, my sons are completely absorbed by their legos. Until now I've almost entirely avoided toys with teeny tiny pieces that can get lost or lodged in my foot, but Legos are the exception. Best place to buy - Amazon or the Lego store (they have a loyalty program). Occasionally sets pop up on discounter Zulily - search for the term "brickmaster".
2. Anything from PlanToys – I cannot say enough great things about this company and the cool toys they make! Eco-friendly, award-winning, beautiful and clever, Plan Toys are made from Rubberwood. And they are VERY hard to break. When he was a baby my younger son loved this cone stacker. Then as toddlers my kids adored the large wood construction vehicles shown in the photo (unfortunately a lot of these have been discontinued, but they're still featured for sale at online discounter MyHabit now and then.) Currently we're obsessed with the large, PlanEducation kids. These are primarily sold to schools and they hold about 130 pieces, like tool kits or building sets. They're featured on Gilt periodically at about half price, and they come in a big, gorgeous rubberwood box.
3. A wood Play Kitchen – My sons spent many hours pretending to prep and cook food for me. I think they were especially interested in their kitchen because my husband is the cook in our family. I prefer wood to plastic since it looks and holds up better. The one we had (pictured) is from Hape, and included a lot of really cute food. The Ikea version is darling too, and both are under $100!!!
4. Trains and tracks – These are readily available used, and you can save a lot of money buying them via craigslist, ebay, yard sales, or your local mom-listserve. And since they hold up well, you can sell them once you are done with them! Before we bought our train table (found at a yard sale for $30), my older son and I would build tracks on the hardwood floor in endless permutations. I found that the Brio trains were better-looking and better constructed than the comparable Thomas or Ikea ones. But many of the trains (and tracks) are compatible and can be used together.
5. PlasmaCar – Of the many ride-ons we’ve tried, this one is the best. It can be driven without using one’s feet. It requires no batteries — it’s propelled by mechanical operation, by moving the steering wheel back and forth kids can ride in either direction. The best thing about this toy is something most parents don’t know — it has a 220 pound weight limit. This means an adult can drive it around the house with a small child seated in front. I really enjoy cruising around with my younger son! And now both of our children have started riding around together. Note: don’t opt for one of the knockoff brands, reviews say they’re inferior to the original.
6. Magnatiles – My kids love many building toys, but these win the most-played-with award. Magnetic blocks are lighter, less apt to get lost and much easier to clean up than standard blocks. And children love the way the magnets snap together to create boxes and shapes. Magnatiles can be used to build huge structures, and the clear type (which we prefer) allows kids to create transparent boxes to hold other toys. The best price I know of is at my local toy store, Henry Bear’s Park, using a 20% off coupon. If you’d like to receive their coupons yourself, call or visit and ask to be added to their mailing list! Honorable mention for other good building toys includes Tegu blocks and Konstruk-tubes. I've heard good things about Magformers as well, but we haven't tried them. Again stay away from the knockoff brands, I have read and heard that the magnets are weaker. In this case the original is worth the price.
7. A Butterfly Net – This turned out to be the best birthday presents my son has ever received. He has hunted and captured bugs, toads, frogs, fish, crabs, eels, and yes, even snakes with his net. In the process he has become fascinated with the natural world and different animal species.
8. Art Supplies – I think one way to get kids more interested in art is give them a good variety of tools to work with. Let’s face it, the basic crayola crayons and markers kids use at school are pretty lame. I don’t feel any desire to color when I look at them, do you? A set of these nice markers from Pro Art are under $20! Just make sure kids put the caps back on. Or spring for a nice art set from Xonex. Currently on amazon for $50, but they’re often sold on Zulily for around $22 (and Zulily has a flat-rate yearly shipping option comparable to Amazon Prime). People are always so excited when we give these art kits as birthday gifts.
9. The Maxi Kick Scooter – We've tried many scooters and this is the best one on the market. The third wheel and simple rear breaking system make it easy for a young child to ride. And the steering column is totally intuitive – twisting the handle is not necessary. If you pull it horizontally to the right, the scooter glides right. After being intimidated by a basic razor, my kids happily scoot around everywhere on their Maxi Kicks all summer long. Don't bother with the Mini Kick - your child will grow out of it in no time. The Maxi Kick adjusts to an extremely low handlebar height, making it suitable even for a 3 year old to ride (suggested starting age is 5, but I think that must be a liability thing.) The only downside of the Maxi Kick is its price tag. $130 on Amazon, but a couple of times a year it goes down to $67 (and that included shipping cost) on Gilt, so definitely watch their kids section if you're in the market.
10. Papo and Sleich figurines – These two brands in particular make highly detailed miniature figures (about 4 inches high) that have given my kids endless hours of pretend play inspiration. First they loved their animals, then they moved on to their knights and mythical beasts and now they have "battles" and play games with their collection. Get them on Amazon, at local toy stores or at a discount when they're featured on Zulily.