How to Shop for Kids' Birthdays

A look at some birthday gift ideas for children of all ages and interests.

If you've been invited to a children's birthday party but don't know what to buy, the last thing you want to do is go shopping.  You can get away with money or a gift card for any age range, but at the same time, it can be a thoroughly satisfying experience to find the perfect gift for the little birthday boy or girl and she his or her eyes light up with excitement!  In many ways, it's like Christmas, since the contents are usually concealed with gift wrap, a decorative box, or a bag with tissue paper.

But if you don't have children, or yours are grown and you've not kept up with the latest trends, there are so many more choices today than before.  You almost need a handbook to go shopping!  Fortunately, kids are kids, and the things they like (to a degree) are universal.  That being said, there are of course children who don't like playing outside much, or who love everything about books.  That's where it pays for you to know something about the birthday child.  If you don't, it's not impossible to still find something to his or her liking, but it might prove more frustrating to you if you have no help.  You might want to start by asking the parents for their preferences on what kinds of gifts they would endorse (or want to avoid!) to prevent duplication, disinterest, or something that the parents don't allow (like toy guns or swords).

Should you buy it? 

It might seem shocking to some of you who are old-school, who have no qualms about giving little boys weapons to help them fight imaginary battles either by themselves or with their friends - but having worked in the toy industry, I can say that there are a fair number of people out there who are against such things, preferring to stick to toys that are non-violent and don't promote bullying.  While I can appreciate that line of thinking, I would buy and/or play with squirt guns, foam disc shooters, and play swords with no problem.  But, to each his you might want to ask the parents about that before buying such items, unless you know for sure that they wouldn't be offended.

While we're on the subject of the things parents can be picky about allowing their children to play with, it was also many a parent's nightmare for their children to have things like clay, play-foam, sand-art, moon sand, or any toys with obnoxious noises or millions of small parts.  With the amount of toys the average child accumulates just in one year, parents have their work cut out for them in having to clean up the messes and help find lost parts, all while trying to maintain their sanity.  I understand completely, as while I will always recommend certain toys and don't have issues with my own child playing with them, even I can be pushed to the limit at times.  The last thing I want to do is help my daughter find a Barbie shoe that's somewhere in the bottom of her toy box (or maybe under the couch), and it's frustrating if we are playing a card game and we don't even know where all the cards are.  You might argue that surely you can keep everything in its place...but that is just not always possible, even with the best of intentions.

So unless you know that what you're buying is something that the child has requested or definitely enjoys, try to avoid any of the asaid mentioned items so that you can put your money and shopping time to better use.

What kids like

A quick gift-guide for children might look something like this:

newborn to age 1: sensory gifts

This includes toys that light up, make sounds, have appealing scents, have interesting textures to touch/chew on, or ones with which to snuggle or grasp.  The youngest of babies will respond to sound, and eventually things that are brightly-colored or can be put in the mouth.  By the time children are a year old, they enjoy stacking, pulling, and sorting.  Some great kinds of toys are ones that help a young toddler master and encourage him or her to sit up, stand or walk.  A rocking horse, a pull- or push-toy (like a lawnmower, a convertible walker/ride-on, corn popper, or an animal to push or lead on a string like a pull-along puppy), or an all-in-one toy that provides shape sorting, music, textures, or interesting patterns (like a first dollhouse or a first play set (with animals, dolls, furniture, etc.)

2-3 years: toys that move

This includes wheeled toys that children can ride, scoot around on, or push.  By now, a child in this age range is a whirlwind of activity!  He or she will not stay put long enough for diaper changes, let alone concentrate on any one toy for too long.  How things work plays a fundamental part of development, so also things to take apart and put together (with just a few parts) can be highly entertaining.  Tricycles, sports equipment and games (like a soccer goal or a t-ball set), zoomorphs, a marble maze, a sand and water table, building blocks, a shopping cart, play tools, constructables, gearations, pop beads, dolls, or role-playing costumes and accessories where children can emulate the grown-ups in their lives and their professions.

4-6 years: Mixed bag

I find this group of children really challenging because between the preschool and Kindergarten ages so much development of a child's development and interests varies.  Some children are content to read and listen to books on cd, or dance to music, or watch movies; others will continue to want sports-themed toys or have a fascination for something specific (like rocks, bears, puppets, fairy tales, jokes, magic tricks, insects, or garbage trucks).  At this point, you can mix things up to make it interesting.  For instance, a bookworm who loves learning about how things work might enjoy something like a science kit for a hands-on change of pace.  And all children seem to be drawn to the noisy rocket balloons!

7-10 years: kits, board games, and more

Here again, the kid from this category can be hard to please.  There is also so much out there for geared for the "tweens" who are trying to break free of childhood, but are not quite ready to be teenagers.  How do you not baby this age or make him or her grow up too fast?  Even here, careful attention to details on what the child likes is key to holding interest.  Logic and word puzzles, trivia (in any subject), a stomp rocket, board games, arts and crafts, bath sets, an o-go, and tickets for sporting events are just some thoughts on great gift ideas.

Notable brands

Throughout the years, several brands have been known for quality and fun toys.  While not everything educational is ideal, not everything that is educational is boring, either.  Some of my favorite brands worth taking a look at for more ideas for specific products and general categories of toys include:   


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