I have five children and close experience with dozens more in educational settings, as a teacher, mother, and education reporter. Over the years I have developed strong opinions about raising children. These affect my choices about what to buy them for gifts. So I will declare my basic assumptions then follow with a children’s gift list that reflects it, focused on ages toddler through middle school. This is not a comprehensive list because I have Thanksgiving cooking to do, but more of a rundown of some gifts my children have loved and that coincide with black Friday deals this year to boot.
Children need and deserve to develop their ability to govern themselves. That is, in fact, the process of becoming an adult in a nutshell: Going from utter dependence to full independence. Parents’ job is to do what teachers call “scaffolding”: erecting a support structure that they gradually take away as the child grows. Parents should generally do nothing for their child that he can do for himself, and require children to contribute to the family to their full capacity at each age.
For example, my eight-year-old mows his own patch of our lawn. On Saturdays he cooks the family pancakes or waffles using a homemade mix. He is perfectly capable of these things and enjoys the responsibility. For his eighth birthday we gave him a set of walkie talkies (not a cell phone because it has too much baggage) and an ordered list of “achievements to unlock” to earn the ability to walk to more and more distant locations in our neighborhood, such as friends’ houses and parks. (Menards has a better black Friday deal on a walkie talkie set this year: $17 from 6 a.m. to noon in-store only.)
In gift-giving, my ideal is to give something meaningful and substantive. My style is “classic” — meaning I far prefer wood to plastic and get a thrill out of ignoring those manipulative gimme ads from today’s passing children’s TV show. Good gifts open worlds to children and facilitate their development as a person. They avoid compulsion to spend money without a good purpose and to serve the ends of retailers rather than my own. They are not fad-bound but of long-lasting value in personal growth.
Books are also go-to gifts for me, but that’s an entirely separate list due to the amount of possibilities.
Free and Open-Ended Play
Psychological research shows that free play is essential to developing executive function in the brain — essentially the capacity to manage yourself, to make decisions, and develop good judgment. This requires taking age-appropriate risks and the lack of constant adult supervision and interference. I find that adults are particularly helpful in getting things going — helping kids learn the rules of a new game or setting up the pieces the first time, for example — and after that do best to buck out and let the kids carry on.
To this end, outdoor games and gear are an excellent choice. One of the simplest and most versatile is a jump rope. From grade schoolers to gym rats, jump ropes are fun, inexpensive, portable, and allow for a variety of skill levels. I recommend including a workout book or video to get your giftee started.
Here’s one aimed at adults that would particularly attract older kids (late elementary through high school), especially boys. Here’s another aimed at crossfit, boxing, and MMA enthusiasts.
Those plastic jump ropes have less tangle but also hurt more, so if you’re buying for an early elementary child I recommend these soft ropes. Include one of these books to get them started.
This one could also be filed into hobbies, but a small but adult-quality shovel and pair of child-sized work gloves will also set children of all ages and both sexes at any mud hole, sand pile, stack of leaves, rock grouping, and mulch pit you may have or be kind enough to set up in your yard. Get them a galvanized bucket to boot, and they will be over the moon (and you will be happy you didn’t buy five plastic sand buckets in a row because those are crap and they break immediately).
We own these and they have endured lots of abuse as well as almost daily play. For this kind of thing I recommend not wasting your money on play sets made of plastic or kiddie toys. Get the real thing and it will last longer.
Klutz books are hard to beat for a creative and engaging combination of explanation and activity. Here are a few currently in print that I’d buy for my kids (click on the picture to buy on Amazon). I also buy the out of print ones. You can get them at Joanns.com with coupon code Rank349 for $3 flat shipping and a 35 percent discount that makes several cheaper than on Amazon currently (to find coupon codes that apply wherever you shop, I use the browser plugin Wikibuy — without signing up for an account, to reduce data surveillance).
Michaels also is offering a black Friday deal of buy one, get one 50 percent off on similar activity kits. If you stack that with their 30 percent off coupon (code THANKS118) while buying Thursday from 6 p.m. to midnight, you will get two items at about half off.
Constructing and Fighting
Imaginative play is also key to children developing executive function, as well as their empathy and their understanding of history and psychology. Rough and tumble play is particularly crucial for child development: it teaches them about boundaries, how to control their strength and bodies, and how to appropriately use their aggression.
For my three sons and the tumble of male compatriots that rolls constantly about our house, I’ve found that guns are the number-one played toy by far, perhaps tied at the top with Legos. Legos are obviously more appealing to both sexes. Little girls love the girly Lego sets.
Here’s where I check on the latest Lego deals going around the web. Almost never do Legos go on sale for more than 35-40 percent off, so that’s usually my buy price. If you’re buying Lego for little kids, seriously, don’t bother with the expensive sets. They can’t build them and half the pieces will be soon lost in your home’s air vents. Just get them a box, perhaps with a book of building ideas, and save the special sets for older kids who will guard them — late elementary age or so. I also like the Lego City sets for this age range, especially because I don’t like to buy my kids dual-branded stuff (e.g., Harry Potter Legos, movie-themed Legos, etc.).
This year Walmart is offering a black Friday deal of a large $20 Classic box. Also, pro tip from a Walmart manager: Do not venture into Walmart on black Friday. Buy online, starting Nov. 21 at 10 p.m. ET.
There are a great variety of toy guns. If your child is eight years or older and you have a place to take him or her shooting, you might consider a BB gun or the child’s first .22, but it’s beyond my knowledge base to recommend specific ones so we’ll stick to the toys here. Selection depends on whether you want to build up an arsenal of one kind for protracted wars or offer a variety pack for different kinds of play.
There are two basic kinds of toy weapons, and both are played differently: Ones that fire missiles, and ones that don’t. For the former, Nerf is the unrivaled king. It is very coveted by boys and usable for all ages from as soon as they can pull the trigger right up through adult. Teens often like to graduate to Airsoft and paintball games, but they still can and will pick up a Nerf gun for a little cross-age fun.
In my estimation, Kohls has the best black Friday multi-gun deals on Nerf this year, with a general buy one, get the second for 50 percent off promotion. I think this one is the best big gun at Kohls for the money, and these are the best low-cost pair for the money. Kohls’ black Friday deals are live online right now. But Walmart’s Nerf Dominator for $20 deal starting Wednesday morning is highly competitive for a big gun. I’m going with Kohls because I have to outfit three boys. If I were just buying one I’d go with Walmart’s Dominator as the best single-gun deal.
I also recommend stocking up on Nerf bullets (or “darts”). For best cost per dart, buy the huge pack for $10 per 200 on Amazon — the off-brand shoots just fine, so there’s no reason to pay double — but after we chopped up all 200 in our lawnmower, I recommend you release the bullets in groupings of about 20 and require the boys to pick up when they’re done. Unless you’re made of money and don’t mind blue foam bits all over your yard forever.
Walmart also has the best Nerf ammo prices if you want buy name-brand or need non-generic Nerf darts like Mega Bullets.
Sturdiguns may look basic but they are hugely popular among little boys in our house, from age toddler through middle elementary. I get the smaller-sized ones for the tots and the larger ones for the bigger kids. They are indeed sturdy. They are the first thing visiting boys pull out of our weapons cache with a huge grin on their faces.
The thing you have to watch out for here is boys thwacking each other, but I’ve found if you threaten to take away the toys completely the first time it happens they will shape right up. Bigger boys would probably be able to actually fight with them without clocking each other constantly, but my little boys aren’t.
If you’re still worried about the potential for bruises, check out this awesome array of foam battle gear from WhomBatz.
So I focused on war here because that’s basically what boys gravitate towards when they get together. But imaginative play obviously has many other possibilities. One of the most on-trend things I’ve seen recently is silk scarves. These can be almost anything, from a fort to a cape to baby swaddling to a tablecloth to you name it.
You can pay $20-60 here at the eco-mom place, which is running a black Friday sale, or you can do what I did and buy a floaty large square scarf from Goodwill for $2. Yes, real silk is gorgeous. But also: $2. Or you can buy a whole set of floaty scarves from Lakeshore Learning for $17.
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Catch, throw, climb, jump, flip, tumble, run…Be sure you’re challenging your child’s physical play as well as their imagination play. A healthy, growing body needs flexibility, strength and body awareness in space. Rock climbing and gymnastics are the two best sports (recreationally or competitively) for developing many of these wonderful qualities in your child’s physical play. #sarahssilks
One of my favorite mental categories for play opportunities is what I call “playscapes.” That’s essentially a setting for pretend. Basically, it’s dolls but not only with dolls. For example, for the preschool and toddler set, this Melissa and Doug farm mat play set at Khols on a black Friday deal for $16.
Fisher Price’s Little People are the classic example of this kind of thing, and I’ve been slowly adding Little People playscapes. I like that they are all compatible and indestructible, although they used to have a cleaner, simpler, more attractive design. They’re aimed at toddlers and preschoolers, but elementary schoolers will play with them quite fixedly if you have a good selection.
Kohls has them for buy one, get one 50 percent off this black Friday, and Amazon generally has good prices. I prefer the ones that make fewer noises.
The on-trend bigger kids’ version of this — besides Lego, of course — are the variety of little critters and houses for them, such as the Peppa Pig, Calico Critters, and Woodzeez. This year the hands-down best deal I saw for these was Walmart’s black Friday $40 for the Lakeside Lodge or Adventure Treehouse Calico Critters gift set, which retail otherwise for $90.
If you want something a little less commercialized and less plasticky, this site has a wide range of natural playscapes, many of which the child would construct himself, an added bonus. For example, this fairy house set.
Perhaps the ultimate in open-ended playscapes are train sets and wooden blocks. Both are also a multi-year and multi-age option, because if you have enough components you can have preschoolers through adults building these.
My husband’s family growing up slowly amassed a fabulous wooden train set thanks to annual theme gifts from an uncle. We liked the idea so much we decided to do the same thing, and are slowly building our own wooden train set. Every year I look for another add-on. The main brands are all compatible, although Brio is the premiere brand.
This year I bought what I thought was a good deal from Kohls’ black Friday offerings: A Melissa and Doug set that has pieces we want and thanks to a double discount was about 40 percent off the sticker price. A bigger set for those starting out has a similar discount.
For wooden blocks, I recommend the preschool-classic standard-unit size blocks. They are widely available in many brands, and all compatible. You want to get both just the basic sizes and then some accessory blocks, like this Melissa and Doug architectural set or this Keva cutouts set. The Melissa and Doug sets regularly go on sale for at least 40 percent off around holiday time. Stage is offering a great architectural set for a $20 doorbuster this black Friday.
Board and Table Games
Growing up, my siblings and I played a large variety of card games. Today my sweet spot for a family game is something a wide range of ages can play at least at some level. Some card games — like War and Spoons — accomplish that. Also fitting the bill are board games like Parcheesi, Sorry, and Memory. My kids also like Chutes and Ladders, but I refuse to play that because it’s infuriating.
My goal in a game is to create memories of joy and laughter with my family (and any friends who might happen to be around at game time) to strengthen our relationships. So far we’ve kept it simple, but more gamey friends have helped introduce us to some perhaps less-common but still very fun games that fit our need for age-inclusive play.
The first one I want to mention is Quixx. It is a simple-enough, fast-moving game that accidentally also builds kids’ sense of the number line, addition, and subtraction (which is perfect for early elementary schoolers or any kids subject to Common Core). Learning to play goes quickly and it’s a small game perfect for tucking into the car for a camping trip or trip to grandma’s. My four-year-old can play with help.
If your kids have a hard time losing when playing a game, try a cooperative game that helps redirect that competitive edge. Outfoxed was the first recommendation on that front from a board games family friend. Children as young as three (our friend’s two-year-old can play with coaching) can play this game, but it is also fun for older children and even adults playing with the littles.
Slamwich (get this cool tin-box version) and Ticket to Ride are also highly recommended games, more for middle-elementary aged children. Amazon describes the latter as “a cross-country train adventure in which players collect and play matching train cards to claim railway routes connecting cities throughout North America.” It’s one of those board games that also has many expansion packs, offering multi-year gift and play opportunities.
Hobbies and Skills
One of the best gifts you could give someone is an introduction to a hobby or equipment to feed an existing one. To that end, Joanns is offering a black Friday deal of 40 percent off its many crafting classes, such as the Learn to Sew class, Learn to Crochet, and Learn to Paint with Watercolors. When I was a child my mother paid a local seamstress to teach me how to follow a pattern and other sewing basics, and thanks to it I’ve been able to enjoy that skill for years.
If you’re not near a Joanns or Michaels store, you can buy a membership to an online craft class repository. Or a how-to book or kit, or gifts like these below. With gifts like these, I recommend planning to take some time to do the new skill with the child you’re giving the gift to. Relationships and personal instruction help a new skill move more reliably from a one-time thing to a lifetime thing. Plus, it’s a great “excuse” to build a new aspect into your relationship.
Gardner’s plant press from Imagine Childhood:
Build-It-Yourself Woodworking Kit from Lakeshore Learning, or this larger Young Woodworker’s Project Kit:
Children’s Sewing Kit from Usborne Books:
Historical wood modeling kits, from Rainbow Resource:
This gift category is highly localized, and wonderful to receive. It would include a family pass to the local zoo, aquarium, or art gallery. It might be music lessons or an art class, or concert tickets. It could be a National Park pass, a summer day camp, or swimming lessons. It could be a contribution to the child’s college or first car fund, or to his private school tuition bill.
There are so many potential gifts like this I will just stop there, but wanted to remind folks that sometimes less-tangible, less-“stuffy” gifts like this can be the very best kind. And because these take a load off of the family budget, they are a two-fer gift to child and parent.