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A pediatrician’s list of best gifts for kids

It used to be that parents had two big considerations when buying holiday gifts. How much does it cost? And will my child like it? Today, parents are also juggling a third question. Is this gift good for my child’s brain development?

In a world where STEM skills and creativity are highly prized, it’s little wonder that parents are pondering which toys will give kids a leg up on spatial reasoning and strategy. But parents can breathe easy. There’s no toy that kids have to have to learn a skill or reach a specific milestone. An expensive game that teaches programming concepts isn’t necessary. To be set up for success, kids just need toys that help them build, imagine, and explore—and lots of love and interaction from the adults in their lives.

With that in mind, here are the top toys I like to recommend to parents:

Art supplies: Fresh crayons and markers, blank paper, puff balls, glue, pipe cleaners, stickers, and tissue paper are great for fueling a child’s imagination. Put everything in a container with the child’s name on it to make it special. Older kids can enjoy nice colored pencils, paints, pastels, model kits, homemade slime ingredients, and knitting supplies.

Books: The gift of stories is one of the simplest, easiest, and best presents. For kids who are reading on their own, consider getting books they can read quietly, as well as books to read aloud to them. Learn more about the benefits of reading every night.

Building blocks: Simple wooden or plastic blocks are great for babies and toddlers. Older kids can move on to building sets that can be made into lots of different things. Even if kids have building sets already, a new one of the same style can renew children’s interest and let them make bigger, higher, or more complex objects.

Exercise gear: Balls, jump ropes, scooters, skates, helmets, and knee pads help get kids moving and keep them safe. But don’t overlook more unusual outdoor gear—rockets that launch via stomping or slingshot, mini rakes, and shovels are great options, too.

Experiences: Unfortunately, giving tickets to the local children’s theater or a trip to the local pottery painting studio may not be an option given the current pandemic. That said, I encourage parents to consider finding some outdoor activities to do as a family during this time to ensure everyone is getting fresh air and exercise.

Outdoor equipment: Camping, hiking, and backpacking gear fall into the practical toy category. Sleeping bags, tents, water bottles, flashlights, binoculars, nature guides, s’mores roasting sticks, and sunglasses are all good adventure items. Younger kids can enjoy an indoor campout until the weather changes and it’s time for the real thing.

Passion projects: Encourage a child’s interest in certain activities or subjects. Is he or she interested in magic tricks? Photography? Space? Dinosaurs? Elsa? Construction equipment? Tea parties? If the item inspires kids to play, go for it.

Pretend play items: Plain cars and boats, dress-up clothes like capes and hats, basic doll houses, stuffed animals and baby dolls, and pretend food can all feed a child’s imagination.

Time with you: Give a board game to play as a family or get a new puzzle to do together. Gifting a new kid’s cookbook and kid-size kitchen equipment can be a great motivator to do some cooking with budding chefs. Spending time with each other strengthens relationships, creates opportunities for kids to talk and ask questions, and helps kids feel loved.

With so many great options for kids, I recommend avoiding weapons and toys that promote violence, particularly graphic videogames. Be on the lookout for toys that reinforce gender or racial stereotypes. For gifts that showcase smart and courageous girls and promote thinking and exploration, check out Finally, be alert to electronic toys—those that light up or make noise when a button is pushed and those that include screens. These toys don’t encourage learning or discovery.

Dr. Stacy Drasen is a pediatrician at Vancouver Clinic. She loves caring for kids of all ages. She has a special interest in helping first-time parents adjust to life with a baby and serving adolescents.