Our Toy Hall of Fame

Or, gifts for toddlers that will have years of play value…

Sand & Water Table
The single best $70 we’ve spent has been on a basic sand table from Step 2 like this one.  We bought it for my daughter before she could even walk.  We didn’t have a backyard at the time – only a small deck – and it turned our deck into usable play space (very important when you’re entertaining a toddler at home all day, every day).  My 5-year-old son still plays with it several times a week.

We’ve dragged it inside our large master bathroom for wintertime kids’ parties and into our garage just so the kids could get out of the house during rainstorms.  It’s held sand, water, oatmeal and pasta noodles, been home to animals, soldiers, trucks and boats, and hidden pennies, beads and fake jewels.

Magna Tiles
At about $50 a box, these aren’t cheap.  But they’ve been a great value for us – my children have played with them several times a week for the past 5 years.  We like the clear colors and I buy them at our local Learning Express.  They are great blocks for clumsy little toddler hands because they’re magnetic and stay together.  And they make fun houses for animals and tiny figures because they’re see-through.

Schleich Animals
We’ve had cheaper, softer animal figures that were discarded long ago. But the realistic-looking animals from Schleich fascinated my children when they were toddlers (and were great learning tools) and still get played with when my kids, now 5 and 6, need inhabitants for some kind of structure they’ve built.  Schleich has such a huge variety that most of the animals come in adult and baby sizes (very important to young children).  Widely available at Target and Learning Express and my favorite section in the FAO Schwarz Fifth Avenue store.

Wikki Stix Party Packs
Good for sticking in your purse and pulling out during waits at restaurants, amusement parks, etc.  The ones that don’t end up with crud stuck on them can be reused.  It’s no coincidence that our favorite family restaurant, Ted’s Montana Grill, hands these out to kiddos when they arrive.

Klutz Hand Art
All of the Klutz books are great, but this one, in particular, has had a lot of staying power for us.  Years, in fact.  My children received it as a gift when they were toddlers (thank you, Heather) and they begged me to trace their hands again and again.  Now they can trace their own hands, and they’re still having fun making dragons and bats.

Richard Scarry’s Busytown Eye Found It Game
This is our favorite board game for 4 reasons: it’s gender-neutral (we have a boy and a girl), you win or lose as a group (our older child beats our younger child at every other game, and you know how that goes), the kids love it and we think it’s fun, too.

Beethoven’s Wig: Sing Along Symphonies
These CD’s are brilliant!  Hilarious, information-packed lyrics for children and adults set to classical music masterpieces.  All four of us – ages 5-40 – love them.

The Laurie Berkner Band
Our other favorite kids’ artist whom the grown-ups appreciate, too.  Fun music for young children.  Seniors, too – my mom, a fitness instructor, gets her Alzheimer’s group moving with “We are The Dinosaurs.”

Giant Bubble Wands
Another great idea that came from Learning Express.  A big tub, several good-quality giant bubble wands and homemade bubble solution (12 c water, 3 c Dawn Ultra, 3/4 c corn syrup).  When the kids were toddlers the tub was a staple in our backyard.  Since then, we’ve brought it out for birthday parties, family get-togethers and school parties.  Every time, there’s someone - a child or adult – who has never seen anything like it, so it’s been a hit over and over.  Well worth it to buy extra wands as you’re able to.

Need a Mystery Reader Idea?

Pete the Cat is my all-time favorite book to read aloud to my kids’ classes – pre-school through at least 2nd grade.  I’ve never read it just once, and during the subsequent readings, everyone sings!  Check out the video on You Tube and the artist’s website.  So fun.

Another fun book to read to this age group is Little Pea by Amy Krause Rosenthal.  After reading it to my son’s 4-year-old class, I gave each child a plastic spoon and had them pass around a frozen pea.  Most of them greeted the tiny pea, “Hello, Little Pea.”  One of them asked me where his eyes and mouth were.  I was stumped and the teacher laughed and said, “Welcome to our world!”

Many teachers prefer that parents refrain from bringing in treats or gifts during Mystery Reader time, which I understand.  If I have an idea I always ask first.  I passed around a bag of mini marshmallows to a kindergarten class after I read The Marshmallow Incident by Judy Barrett (a longer book, but the kids were attentive).

When my daughter was in preschool, she and her brother loved the Franklin books, written by Paulette Bourgeois and illustrated by Brenda Clark.   In the I-can’t-believe-I’m-putting-this-on-the-internet category, here’s a picture of me in my homemade Franklin costume before going to her school.  I’m pretty introverted, so this was a big leap for me (usually I get ideas like this and talk my husband into it), but my daughter loved it.  Since Franklin loves fly cookies, I also read one of The Fly Guy books by Ted Arnold and gave each child a bug finger puppet from Party City.

I wouldn’t advise going the homemade costume route for kids older than 4, though.

As the scheduled reader for my daughter’s kindergarten class, I noticed  that we owned several storybooks about alligators.  So I took in Zack’s Alligator, But I Am an Alligator (Charlie and Lola) and a girl and her gator.  Before I started to read a girl and her gator- a charming book about a girl who wakes up one morning with a French alligator on her head – I put on a baseball cap to which I’d stapled a giant, green, paper alligator.  One girl, bless her, laughed with delight.  The other 20 kids looked at me like I was a ridiculous grown-up, which of course, I was.  For my own sake, this time, I was glad I’d brought bribes – I gave each child one of those grows-in-water alligators that you can usually find at The Dollar Tree or in the dollar section of Michaels.  I was cooler then.  But not much.

Have fun!

Chapter Books for 5 to 6-Year-Old

My 6-year-old daughter is an avid reader and friends often ask us for book suggestions.

Last year, her wonderful kindergarten teacher read the first few Magic Tree Housebooks aloud to the class and used them to kick off lesson plans on dinosaurs, knights and Egyptian mummies.  We found most of the 46 (and counting) books in the series at the library, and Sasha would read an entire book before we got home.

Junie B. Jones was next.  Initially I was put off by the poor spelling and grammar, as well as Junie B’s questionable behavior, but my daughter begged to read them.  I quickly decided that I didn’t want to add a speed bump to her blossoming love of reading.  And while her writing isn’t perfect and she occasionally talks back, not once has it occurred to me to blame Barbara Park!

Below are lesser-known series that have been equally as popular in our house.  Currently, it’s the “B” for Betsy books by Carolyn Haywood.  First published in the 30′s and 40′s, they’re a great option for kids of moms who don’t embrace the Junie B-type of character.  There are multiple books in each of these series and we have found most of them at our library.

Roscoe Riley Rules by Katherine Applegate

Horribly Harry by Suzy Kline

Mary Marony by Suzy Kline

The Pee Wee Scouts by Judy Delton

Keeker and the Sneaky Pony by Hadley Higgenson

Nancy Drew Notebooks or Nancy Drew & The Clue Crew by Carolyn Keene

Marvin Redpost by Louis Sachar

Katie Kazoo, Switcheroo by Nancy Krulik

Calendar Mysteries by Ron Roy

Geronimo Stilton by Geronimo Stilton

Judy Moody & Stink books by Megan McDonald

Ramona books by Beverly Cleary

Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol

Clementine by Sara Pennypacker

Ivy & Bean by Annie Barrow

Betsy and Penny books by Carolyn Haywood

American Girl Contemporary Fiction