Tips for Choosing Toys That Stand the Test of Time

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Love it or loathe it, November brings all things Christmas rushing to the forefront of most everyone’s minds and to-do lists. Aside from the usual holiday merriment, there is one thing that is always on my November to-do list before the big day rolls around: a playroom purge. Every year around this time I start mentally preparing the kids for the weekend when we set aside time to box up unused toys for donation in an effort to make room for the influx of new and shiny I know is coming December 25th. This year I’m feeling even more pressure to clear space as Baby No. 3 is due right around Christmas and all. the. baby. THINGS. have to be gotten out of storage and found a spot as well.

The purge is always met with great wailing and gnashing of teeth by the kids, who suddenly have a sentimental attachment to every piece of plastic in the house, and horror by me and my husband as we realize how many of the Christmas toys from last year went mostly untouched for a large portion of the year. We are trying to be more intentional this year in what we (and extended family) give the kids in an effort to reduce this cycle of overspending and waste. There are so many great resources and blogs on non-toy gifts to give and things like museum memberships, experience gifts and needed clothing items will definitely comprise a good portion of the lists we make for the kids.

But many of these gifts can’t bring that wild Christmas morning joy factor that we as parents are so addicted to.

A museum membership is practical and will go on giving all year round but the slip of paper isn’t all that fun to unwrap in the moment. And so there will also be a few new toy gifts for each kid. As I’ve remembered and compared the toys that have been the most beloved throughout our kids’ lives to the ones that were forgotten almost instantly, I’ve come up with a few guidelines we are using to consider each toy purchase carefully. We hope keeping these things in mind will help us (and others) select toys that will grow with our kids and make it past the month of January in terms of interest.

Here are my tips and guiding questions for choosing toys that will stand the test of time:

The more the toy does for them, the less it is played with. This is the number one mantra I’ve kept in mind when selecting Christmas gifts. I have noticed over the years that toys with lots of bells and whistles, flashy lights and recorded noises make some of the biggest impacts on Christmas morning but fade from regular rotation the quickest. An electric car that races around a light-up track is super fun to watch…for like five minutes. If the kids don’t have to interact with it much in order for it to perform its function, they quickly lose interest.

Is it battery powered? This is an extension of tip #1 in that most of the toys that function on their own are battery powered. But even those that just have a few elements that require batteries tend to eventually collect dust in the corner for the sheer fact that we rarely have the right batteries on hand to replace them when they die. If the kids are used to the fire truck making the siren noise for them, they rarely are willing to switch to supplying the noise themselves when the batteries run out and instead simply discard it as “broken.” Much better to buy the no batteries required trucks from the get-go.

Does the toy have one specific function or is it open-ended? Obviously a toy with endless possibilities is going to supply more hours of enjoyment than one with a very narrow purpose. One of our favorite open-ended purchases of the past few years are these play silks. Some of the things my daughter and son use them for most often are skirts, capes, flowing hair, the fire in their campfire, layers of the cake they’re baking, doll blankets, picnic blankets, etc, etc, ETC. They take up little to no space when stuffed in a bag and spark all sorts of imaginative play. Toys like these that are versatile can replace dozens of others that each might only serve one of the specific functions in the pretend scenarios above.

Can the toy evolve with them as they age and their interests change? This is another reason that open-ended toys win out every time. If we really want a toy to have staying power and longevity, it has to be something that can be useful as kids develop new skills and interests. Legos are a great example of a toy that is ever-evolving. My two-year-old loves to build “towers” out of Legos (we still have the Duplo variety for little hands) by stacking twenty of the same size piece on top of one another. My five-year-old has gone through phases of building houses, hospitals, castles, and tree houses as the settings for what her dolls are interested in changes. Math manipulative toys are also great for spanning a wide range of ages as they can move from use in sorting activities to complex number sentences.

How easy is the toy to set up/take down and does it require making a big mess? As exciting as it is to have that giant roller coaster or teepee or bounce house assembled and waiting on them Christmas morning, I’ve come to terms with the fact that these toys quickly take up permanent residence in the garage. This is mostly my fault because if they take any amount of time to assemble and then tear down, the days I am willing to deal with them are few and far between. This goes double for anything that will create a big mess for me to help clean up afterward. The kids must be able to be autonomous in the setting and cleaning up. This rule is still pretty limiting for the ages of my kids, but there’s no use in trying to fool myself into thinking otherwise. I am not ever going to be willing to spend my hectic evenings vacuuming up moon sand from the day’s play.

I hope these guidelines can help you (and your kids’ grandparents) select some long lasting toys that will still bring that wild Christmas joy to their faces! Do you have any tips to add?

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Hi! I’m Sara, former early childhood teacher turned stay at home mom to two girls and a boy (2013, 2016, and 2018). My husband and I got married in 2010 and are both ETSU alumni. Despite being born here, I grew up all over the country as the daughter of a military family, only finally moving back to the area in 2014. The mountains of East Tennessee were calling us home! I love all that Knoxville has to offer young families in the way of festivals, events, outdoorsy adventures and charm. When we’re not striking off on a weekend excursion to the Farmer’s Market or a new hiking spot, I can be found in my kitchen nurturing a semi-professional baking obsession or curled in the living room with a book. I love getting to write for and be part of this supportive community of moms!

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