Slamdunk Birthday Presents for Kids (of All Ages)

We’ve given our boys many birthday gifts throughout the years, and it’s always surprisingly unpredictable what will resonate. Some toys have been more or less ignored, but certain toys have stuck: a harmonica for Anton, for example, or a wooden bus that Toby has played with almost every day for more than four years and counting. So, we’ve asked our friends to name the toys their kids have loved best (and please tell us yours, too!)…

AGES 1-2:

A toy ukulele. Anton plays it for ages every day, and it actually sounds good! (Here he is in action.) —Joanna

This stupid thing makes the most ANNOYING sound in the world—truly terrible—but it has been my son’s most beloved possession since he was two. It absolutely mesmerizes little kids. —Linsey

A small crank music box. The look on my son’s face when it plays his favorite song was priceless. —Erin

My son has ridden this mini-trike—his favorite gift—all around our apartment. —Deb

These baby dolls (for girls and boys!) along with this stroller. My son Alex still plays with them at 5.5! —Abbey

This Duplo picnic set was one of our favorite gifts. —Erin

My little one played with this farm every day for a year. You sew wooden animals onto a long piece of string. —Gemma

The Fisher Price chatter phone is a classic. —Maureen

These dinosaurs are adorable—their bodies are big enough for little hands, and their faces aren’t too scary. —Joanna

AGES 3-5:

MAGNATILES! For every age. I put it off for years since they are pricey, but it’s the first thing my kids go for at every playdate, and we have spent hours playing with them. They’re even fun for adults. I regret not buying them years ago. —Linsey

Jacob got this 36-pack of Play-Doh for Hanukkah and I don’t think we saw him for a month! —Deb

A friend gave my daughters a face paint set, which comes with a guidebook that shows you how to paint all different faces (“cheetah” and “pink puppy” are their two favorites). They LOVE it. Every day when I come home from work, faces are painted! —Lina

My son loves this wooden horse carrier. —Deb

My mom gave Toby this chef’s outfit, and he looks so proud when he wears it. Even if we’re just making buttered toast, he wants to put the whole thing on. He’s actually become really interested in cooking because of it. Too cute. —Joanna

This awesome Christoph Niemann book + a subway train of the subway line with the kid’s age or initial. —Erin

For SURE a stomp rocket. When Henry turned four, three different people gave him one, and somehow three still weren’t enough! Endless entertainment and only $15. —Liz

Another gift that has inexplicably stood the test of time: this Melissa & Doug Party Cake. My girls host pretend birthday and tea parties on an almost-daily basis. —Lina

I discovered this toy in France and my kids would not put it down. The parts are magnetic, so they pull apart and together with a gentle tug. Kids LOVE them. —Jordan

The Hape body puzzle is probably our favorite puzzle of ALL time. It teaches the girls about each “layer of the body”—clothes, skin, bones, muscles, organs. It comes in girl or boy. —Maureen

The Hape gourmet kitchen is played with constantly in our house. —Maureen

AGES 6-8:

My son Henry’s friend got a Guinness Book of World Records picture book for Christmas, and Henry loved it so much he saved his money and bought his own last month. So fun to read through and watch their MINDS BE BLOWN. —Liz

My boys have been obsessed with this basketball hoop for weeks. A mom down the hall had one and placed it outside her door for the kids to play with. She let us borrow it. I bought one for us the next day. It’s been a huge hit. —Sharon

My mom gave us all disposable cameras one summer growing up, and we still talk about what a genius gift it was. We went crazy for them and took such funny shots—my brother took photos over a wall he wasn’t tall enough to peek over, just so he could know what was on the other side! —Joanna

This journal, with 642 things to draw. —Abbey

We also love any kind of messy one-time experience science experiment kit, like an erupting volcano. —Liz

My personal favorite is Mastermind for Kids. We played my parents’ 70s version all the time when I was little. So I got it for my daughter for Christmas and she LOVES it. It’s a great way to learn logic and reasoning, and it’s the only board game we actually got into. —Lina

A sailing-ship kite. They can fly it on windy days, plus it looks good in a kid’s room when not in use. —Jordan

One step up from a ukulele!

What about you? What toys have your kids loved through the years? Please share!

P.S. Would you try this toy experiment?

  1. Aly says...

    Thanks!! This was so helpful!! I needed presents for a birthday party and as one without kids (but one on the way!!), I was clueless.

  2. Sent the stomp rocket to a 4 year old, thank you for this great list, so helpful!

  3. Alexandra says...

    Great list, thanks, I forgot what smaller children might like …
    Magnatiles, yes, expensive, but so much fun, unbreakable and good for many years.
    Playmobil – my mom kept the Playmobiles that I had when I was a kid (I am from Germany where they originate from), and we added to the collection. Our daughter (7) plays with them all the time, and brings a selection to playdates. You can build your own world. She loves the hotel, the camping set, pirate ship, spy-boat. Oh, and they make perfect gifts, as they are available in all price ranges, starting from around $4 up to more than $100.

  4. What a great post, I now have all my ideas for the next birthday! I like how you have so many musical toys for the kids, it seems to be a big theme. I’d like to do the same for my kids. I am totally doing the toy challenge. We are moving into a much smaller home and I am all about simplicity!

  5. My 18-month-old has loved the harmonica since we first showed it to him at about 10 months. Lots of our friends and family are into getting him musical gifts so I think I’ll suggest a ukelele to the next person that asks!

  6. Best present was the grandparents bought themselves and each grandkid a year’s pass to the Trocodaro aquarium. They spent a year of Wednesdays and weekends together studying the fish.

  7. KEPLAS!!!!! The simplest best toy and every kid in France loves them. Pure imagination. My 4yr old builds elaborate stables for his plastic animals and my 7yr old constructs amazing towers. Why are they still unknown in the US?

  8. Mine are almost 2 and 4, and the play kitchen, doll stroller/grocery cart, train set, and the cash register are their favorites.

    I keep hearing about Magnatiles … but ouch! $$$

  9. I meant to comment on this yesterday. I’ve been handmaking birthday gifts recently. This past weekend, I made the 2 year old birthday boy personalized note cards, which turned out so cute:

  10. marie, mary and tracy, a flashlight is so lovely and simple! and MB, i LOVE the idea of a gymnastics ribbon!! brilliant.

  11. these are such cute suggestions!! and annamatic, i love that a water bottle made such a great toy. kids are so inventive and adorable ;)

  12. Thank you for this list! I needed to order a birthday gift today and kept procrastinating because I didn’t know what to get. Great timing. I just ordered the magnetic wooden rocket and a stomp rocket. Yay!

  13. Plastic food, especially the kind that velcroes together and comes with a plastic knife to “cut it”. My kids are 17,19 and 23 and we STILL have the plastic food in the closet. Not allowed to get rid of it. Now they use it with their second cousins.
    Cozy Coupe car-three kids and then passed on to my nephew. BEST, most USED toy.
    Playmobile toys.
    Coloring books, just bought one for my 17 yr old for her first solo plane trip. Used to buy them whenever we travelled.

  14. Magnatiles are great. I got a set on Zulily (slightly different brand, but exactly the same) at a seriously big discount!
    Right now my 4 year-old is all about Legos, all the time.
    He also really loves the activities from the book 150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids. We’ve been making frog ponds, building volcanoes, making colored beans, banana playdough, colored foam, etc.

  15. Lego, lego, lego & a plastic dump truck – played with in sand, water & snow!

  16. What a great list, I will have to bookmark this to come back for my nieces and nephews!

    xx Kelly
    Sparkles and Shoes

  17. We were traveling in Asia for quite a bit before my son turned 2, and on our trips (which were often as long as 3 months), we couldn’t take many of his toys with us, so we improvised on the road. And I found that his absolute favorite thing was water bottles. Full, partially full (good for sloshing around), empty, filled with uncooked macaroni (to make a shaker), stacked up to make towers, lined up to make bowling pins, different sizes making different noises, to use as baseball bats, the uses were endless! When we checked out of the hotel, I think the staff thought we were crazy cuz we had so many water bottles lying around.

  18. My 2.5 year old daughter is obsessed with the Melissa and Doug food sets. She loves the cutting food sets with knife and also the birthday cake and cupcakes. We have birthday parties!

  19. RR says...

    The Stomp Rocket is GENIUS! Can’t wait to order one.

  20. Our go-to for kids 2-5: a flashlight!

  21. My boy is 1,5 and loves schleich animals

  22. Thank you for this awesome post. It’s so tough to find good quality toys to buy for our kids! And you’re right, you never know what is going to stick. I think about this all the time because I design toys for a living. And I think that fostering imagination is THE most important thing that a toy can do! If your kids enjoy fairy tales check out these houses – they can read the stories, build the houses and then act them out!:
    Goldilocks –

    The Three Little Pigs –

  23. I started a travel fund for my baby nephew – he won’t understand the holiday/bday gifts for some time, but he should have enough for a fun trip by 18!

  24. Great post! The harmonica has been a hit in our house too! Our favorites include: Schleich animals, Imagination Magnets, threading beads and string, and a small picnic basket/blanket/play food.

  25. There’s no little children in my immediate/extended family yet, but personally I loved receiving the American Girl dolls. I fell in love with reading through their stories and my family was set for presents for 3 years. Kirsten traveled everywhere with me; I highly recommend them for any little girl.

  26. didn’t toby request a violin once?

    sweetie kids.

  27. Some great ideas. My son just turned 1 1/2 and he has a set of six cars that he plays with every day, many times a day. (Actually he doesn’t have that many toys, so most of them are played with every day.)

    I love the idea of a Ukulele though and think we might try that as his half birthday gift. Any suggestions for a tuner since it seems from the comments on Amazon that it is normal to need to re-tune these instruments? I’m so un-musical that I know I won’t even recognize if the instrument is out of tune, but I want my son to learn a better sense of pitch than I have! We were also thinking of getting a keyboard. Does anyone have suggestions on brand/make?

  28. Ooh flashlight…YES!

  29. Great post – I’m saving a couple of these ideas for upcoming birthday parties.

    For the 1-2 range – a push-toy. We got a mower with bubbles, and a john deere tractor. Both boys loved them, and we still have them for visiting toddlers.

    Ooh! A toy microwave. Just a plastic little microwave that has buttons to push and spins around and beeps when the timer goes off. My kids both played with this forEVER.

    For older kids, I definitely echo: Magna-tiles (Expensive but totally worth it!), Stomp Rockets, Whoopee Cushions (great stocking stuffer), Snap Circuits, Lego sets (my boys can’t get enough). For his 8th birthday, my son received a mini air hockey table – so unexpected and SO COOL!

    My oldest really loves those science kits – he has tons of fun doing experiments. My youngest loves any kind of action figure – he is almost 6 and takes several to bed with him every night. Avengers, star wars, whatever…he loves them. Depends on whether the kid is an imaginative player (like my Nathan) or a directions-lover (like my Aaron).

    For those in colder climates like we are….a sled! My son got an inflatable disc sled for his birthday one year (not expensive, super easy to find), which I thought was genius.

  30. My 2.5yo niece has this wooden bycicle and she LOVES it!!
    SHe can’t get enough of it and she’s had it for a year! She takes it everywhere, it’s the most precious thing.
    Such a hit! Even amongst all of us adults! She learns balance in a really fun way! She even has this to go with it! It’s so cute!

    A music box was also a really big hit!

  31. At my son’s second birthday his favorite gifts were dinosaur rain boots and a cheap plastic flashlight.

  32. a flashlight. Once my son (aged 2 at the time) opened it, he ignored the rest of his toys.

  33. A great list to help with gift buying!

  34. I think Anton’s saying,”I am a car, beep, beep!” So cute!

  35. My 2 year old daughter was getting frustrated on a random plastic harmonica someone had gotten her, so just last week, I dug up an old harmonica of my dad’s for her to play with, and I cannot go an hour without hearing her or my 3 year old son blowing away on the thing. A huge hit!

  36. my three year old son has a ukelele he has hardly put down since he was about one too! he also loves his set of foam building blocks. he uses them to build “eiffel towers.” when he was a bit younger he loved wooden ABC blocks with pictures and numbers on the sides in different colors. he’d spend so much time sorting them by color/number/letter, etc. it’s so interesting to see what toys they gravitate to. we’ve had other kids come to play that have grabbed his uke upside down and my son will just stare at them in horror like, “haven’t you ever played a ukelele before?!”

  37. M says...

    I’ve heard for ages 3-5 a magazine subscription works realy well, something like highlights magazine!

  38. OMG I definitely love Anton playing his ukelele AND tuning it!!
    My 4 years old girl is a Play-doh huge fan. She is always doing “cakes” and “balls”.
    My 1,5 years old only wants my smartphone to call her daddy. I think I’ll try the ukelele! Thank you Jo!

  39. mgik, such a cute visual about all the trains:)

  40. If you’re okay with “weapons,” my kids always love wooden swords and shields we buy for them from etsy sellers. We bought them shields at Ren FEst years ago, and their collection has grown and their friends love them too.

  41. dot, you should do it! the kid would LOVE it.

  42. andrea, haha, a whoopie cushion! that is awesome.

  43. My grandsons and friends play for endless hours with a box of wooden blocks that were leftovers from my husband’s workshop.

  44. Garbage truck!!!! Any kind! I got one free from a neighbor–it’s by Bruder. And space ships–he goes to bed with the from green toys and plamobil 123.

  45. A good old fashion whoopee cushion has been a favourite gift for my 3 year old and my 6 year old through the years. Bodily function noises are always a hit ;)

  46. Twig blocks are incredibly enticing with their unique hollow design! My boys build with them all the time.

  47. This dollhouse from Ryan’s Room has seen daily use at our house for many years.

    I love that it is neutral enough for kids to imagine it in lots of different ways: as a house, a super hero hideout, a fire station, a school, a castle, a barn… Ours has an eclectic assortment of furniture and people in it that have been collected over the years, including the Victorian Bathroom from Melissa and Doug, Playmobil characters and lots of funny little kid-made furniture. It is also good-looking enough to sit in a corner of our living room, so it attracts our little visitors right away.

  48. I know that you didn’t do a baby post…

    but this toy is just so ugly…but it was, hands down, the best and most played with toy for all 3 of my kids when they were babies.

    It kept them occupied in the stroller, in the car, anywhere. It is my go to gift for new parents. I get the side eye look when they open it…but I assure them, it is a miracle toy. They thank me later :)

  49. Don’t have a kid yet, but if I have a girl, I hope she likes Barbies. My sister and I spent sooo many hours creating fairly complex imaginary worlds with our Barbies. We still laugh about some of the plot lines we came up with. I hear that with many kids these days, imagination has been taken over by technology. Sad. I hope to give my future kid the same opportunities I had as a kid to use my imagination and play outside and so on. I’ve been into decluttering lately, and I don’t want to bombard my kids with tons of toys that they’ll never play with. I like the idea of letting your kid pick out a toy… I don’t want to raise a spoiled brat, but I know that’s easier said than done!

  50. My boys are now turning 10 and 11 and through the years, every year, I would ask their permission as to which toys to give away. These toys, which they’ve had since they were 3 or 4 have so far remained and still being played with, oftentimes, getting elaborate in design.

    1 – Lego & Duplo
    2 – Playmobil
    3 – Thomas trains & tracks (our whole living room is sometimes unusable with the winding rails going under couches and tables and into the middle of the room)
    3 – Colored wooden blocks
    4 – Schylling accordion
    5 – Toy trumpet & harmonica

    We’ve moved 3 times in the past 10 years from Canada and into 2 states in the US and we’ve been lugging these toys with us.

    Great article!

  51. Such a great post! Very helpful ideas.

  52. Magnatiles! Seriously. What a great list.

    Harmonica (my parents both play so it’s exta-engaging.) Easel. Toy dishes.

    Top toy: a sibling. Sometimes they’re a little rough but they’re made pretty sturdy!

  53. This is such a perfectly-timed post! I’m looking for a gift for a coworker’s kid. Just last night, I said to my husband, “What about a ukulele?” and he made fun of me! Turns out I’m more in the know than I thought.