While designating a toy as “new” can suggest all sorts of tech bells and whistles, most of what’s new is actually what’s old: variations on play themes that have kept kids busy and happy for time immemorial. The latest top picks from Magic Beans are mostly what Harvard’s Susan Linn describes as “90 percent child and 10 percent toy.” This is not to say that none of these toys involve electronics, but rather, that the lights and sounds are just the beginning: they only reach their fullest potential when they’re brought to life by a child’s imagination.
Manhattan Toy Whoozit Cosmic Bead Maze, $29.99; ages 9 months and up
The Cosmic Bead Maze packs a bunch of the early fine-motor activities that babies enjoy on a full-sized activity center into a much more compact package, with beads to push and roll, rotating gears, a discovery mirror, and a mini-Whoozit face on a track.
HaPe Walk Along Snail Shape Sorter, $29.99; ages 12 months and up
It’s a pull-toy! It’s a shape-sorter! It’s a googly-eyed friend! The Snail Shape Sorter sparks a variety of play patterns for toddlers, encouraging their first imaginative adventures as they refine their fine-motor and gross-motor skills.
Mirari MyPhone Play Phone, $19.99; ages 12 months and up
It’s a hot topic: should young kids be allowed to play with phones and tablets? There are good arguments both for and against, and the real-life effects are varied: sometimes awesome, sometimes not so great, sometimes even worse.
It’s not our business where you fall on the spectrum of kids and screens (you know your kids best, so you get to make the decisions!), but if you don’t want your child to accidentally order 50 pizzas, maybe it’s best to give her a phone of her own. The Mirari MyPhone doesn’t dial out or surf the internet, but it lights up, it makes sounds, and it looks a lot like your phone (with a chunkier, kid-tough design), and that’s enough to make it irresistible for a curious toddler who wants to engage in some early imitative play. Plus, you can record custom messages!
Fat Brain Toys Teeter Popper Fun Board, $39.99; ages 3 and up
Here and there we see new toys that make me wonder, “How the heck did nobody think of this sooner?” Suction cups are fun; balancing is fun; popping bubble paper is fun – how could toy manufacturers have neglected to combine these factors sooner?
In any case, Fat Brain Toys is very, very good at classic kid fun, and their Teeter Popper Fun Board, which rewards wiggles and wobbles from balancing kids with the satisfying POP POP POP of suction cups, is an obvious winner. Along with the sensory satisfaction and the gross motor benefits of balancing play, the Teeter Popper also provides a great jumping-off point for pretend-play – it makes a great pretend skateboard, boat, or doll cradle.
And an adult-sized version would be pretty cool in an exercise class, wouldn’t it? Fat Brain Toys, make me a grown-up version!
Crazy Forts Flexi Forts 69-Piece Set, $49.99; ages 5 and up
Think of Crazy Forts as the scaffolding for a fantasy scenario, which your child will build around it. Flexi Forts allow for a few new shapes, making the traditional Crazy Forts sticks bendy, but the concept is basically the same: build a structure big enough for a kid or two to play inside, toss a bedsheet over the top, and watch their imagination come roaring in and furnish the place. Is it a plane? A pirate ship? A castle? A cave? It is whatever your creative kid says it is.
Creativity For Kids Duct Tape Water Bottle Craft Kit, $12.99; ages 6 and up
Personalized accessories keep your child’s individuality from getting lost in the shuffle of elementary school, and who doesn’t love exercising a little self-expression and showing it off? This water bottle gives kids the opportunity to brag “I made it myself!” at lunch every day.
Creativity For Kids Grow ‘n Glow Terrarium, $14.99; ages 6 and up
Making little habitats for dolls, animal figures, and other toys is a time-honored play pattern that every kid enjoys, whether they’re carefully arranging a dollhouse, setting up a corral for toy horses, or making an obstacle course for their cars to roll through. This little habitat-in-a-jar adds an extra “wow!” factor with real, living plants and glow-in-the-dark stickers. The rich pretend-play and narrative potential in this little kit is tremendous – and that comes after kids already have had plenty of fun composing and decorating their terrarium!
Mindware Staxis Strategy Game, $29.99; ages 6 and up
Remember “pick-up stix,” the game where you had to pick up sticks from a disarranged pile without moving any of the others? Think of Staxis as the opposite, or as “put down sticks”: in this game, you add more sticks to an unwieldy stack and try not to knock any sticks down as you add more. Any sticks you knock down are added to the pile you’ve got to get rid of, so be very, very careful! The winner is the player who successfully stacks their sticks first.
Along with the obvious fun and suspense of a traditional balancing game, we love the unique look of this toy – the natural wood planks are plain and lovely and wind up forming what looks like a sort of crazy scaffolding, or wacky modern art. Plus, knocking stuff down and making a racket is always fun, even if it means you don’t win the game!
Thinkfun Gravity Maze Falling Marble Game, $29.99; ages 8 and up
There’s a certain kind of person (kid or adult) who can’t get enough of logic puzzles, and this is a logic puzzle that operates in 3D! The Gravity Maze Falling Marble Game gives players a series of logic puzzles to solve that utilize the mechanics of a marble maze: the goal of each puzzle is to navigate the marble from the top to a target on the base, using only the pieces specified. It’s a challenging brainteaser, and a marble maze. What’s not to love?
Elenco Electronics Snap Circuits Motion, $79.99; ages 8 and up
If I weren’t already sold on the concept of Snap Circuits (snap pieces together to make electronic devices that really work? Neat!), this video would do the trick, particularly the bit at about 3:40 where the charmingly dorky Snap Circuits guy demonstrates the Motion Detector. And how about that glowing, color-changing fan at 2:30? This set packs in a lot of “wow” with more than ample educational value, and makes science undeniably cool.
All the other Snap Circuits sets are pretty awesome too [http://mbeans.com/snap-circuits], and any of them will thrill a kid who loves seeing how things work (and making their own). Heck, even a kid who needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into any scientific activity will love it, too. A glowing, color-changing fan is a powerful incentive to learn about science!
Alex Toys Deluxe Hair Chalk Salon, $22.99; ages 8 and up
Time to get punky! Hair chalking is one of the rare grown-up fashion trends that’s totally kid-appropriate and loaded with appeal for children, who love sporting rainbow hues in their ‘dos.
And it’s an obvious activity for kids to do with their pals – I really wish I’d known about hair chalking back when I was attending sleepover parties as a tween, because it’s the perfect activity for a few girls to do together while hanging out in their pajamas and gossiping.
Of course, these are only a few of our amazing gift options – and we now have even more Gift Guides on our site! Plus, you can check out our Top Tens or just Shop By Age. We make holiday shopping easy!