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Twenty years ago this week, I was preparing for my first baby’s first Christmas. Santa bought him a ride-on car. I couldn’t wait to see his excitement when we placed him in that car and pushed him around. On Christmas morning, he was excited to rip the wrapping paper and open the box, but didn’t seem to understand that it was a car. As my husband assembled the car, my son happily played in the box. When it was finally finished, we scooped him up, placed him in the car, and pushed him along the floor. My son screamed, frustrated to be taken away from the empty box. 

Baby wearing reindeer antlers is in an empty shipping box. He eventually enjoyed the car, but never as much as he loved the box it came in. We learned our lesson, and his two siblings received much simpler first Christmas presents. My youngest is now 5, and she wants just about every toy she sees advertised. She’ll take all of Amazon’s top holiday toys. But every day, she spends most of her time playing with empty paper towel rolls, paper, markers, ribbon, and tissue paper. She loves her Barbies, but she’ll spend much more time with a bowl of water than with her doll collection. And I love simple, open-ended toys. For starters, they’re cheaper and easier to buy. But also, they allow her so much more opportunity to learn, explore, and use her imagination. 

If you have a tiny tyke to shop for this holiday season, you might not want to wrap up a collection of empty paper towels. That’s OK–there are plenty of presents that provide opportunities for babies and toddlers to develop skills. And our team of kiddo experts at the Parent Education Infant Development program have assembled a wonderful list of ideas for toys that promote development and play:

Funny little girl and her cute baby brother having fun taking bath together playing in water with foam with colorful toys after shower Bath Toys

  • Any toys that squirt and spray
  • Sassy Snap and Squirt Sea Creatures
  • Yookidoo Stack and Spray Tub Fountain
  • Floating toys
  • Green Toys Tugboat
  • Ozzie the Octopus (a spout cover)
  • Bath crayons or paints
  • Water flutes



  • Teething books
  • Books with mirrors
  • Board books with simple pictures–preferably one picture to a page
  • Musical books
  • Photo albums with single photos of each family member in an individual slot
  • Touch and feel books 
  • Spanish/English books or other dual-language books
  • Your favorite childhood book 

Floortime Fun 

  • Baby Einstein Neptune Ocean Adventure Gym
  • Fisher Price Rainforest Melodies and Lights Deluxe Gym
  • Kicking toys: Kick and Play Piano, Tiny Love Frog Kick Mirror
  • Sassy Crib and Floor Mirror
  • Earlyears Fill ‘n’ Fun Water Mat
  • Whoozit Water Mat

Exploring our World

  • Lamaze Peacock 
  • Learning Curve Star Teething Blanket
  • Sassy Baby’s First Teether/Rattler
  • Linking Rings
  • Shape Sorters (simple designs are best)
  • Ring Stackers
  • Little People Sets
  • Toy Phones (wonderful for teaching pretend play!)
  • Blocks
  • Wooden Puzzles 
  • Cars, Trucks, and Trains
  • Melissa and Doug fishbowl
  • Crayola Jumbles
  • Nesting Cups
  • Stacking Bowls

Process Art

  • Large crayons
  • Markers
  • Watercolors
  • Sidewalk Chalk 
  • Magna Doodle
  • Play Doh

Asian Chinese little girl role-playing at kitchen at indoor playgroundSparking the Imagination

  • Plastic Play Food
  • Melissa and Doug Picnic Basket
  • Pretend Kitchen
  • Small Dollhouse
  • Tea Party Sets
  • Tools and Workbenches
  • Simple Baby Dolls
  • A Purse 

Music Makers

  • Meowsic Keyboard
  • Traditional Xylophone
  • Parents Magazine Bee Bop Band

For the Movers and Shakers

  • Fisher-Price Activity Cube
  • V-tech Move & Crawl
  • Fisher-Price Crawl Along Snail
  • Chicco Music N Play Table
  • Fisher-Price Crawl-Cruise Jungle
  • Classic Popper Walking Toy
  • Little Tykes Moo Mower
  • Fisher-Price Gobble Up Hippo
  • Geoffrey Imaginarium Wooden Activity Walker
  • Ride-on Toys
  • Chicco Play and Ride
  • Sesame Street Fly With Elmo Ride-on
  • Little Tykes Swing & Play
  • Pacific Play Tents
  • Melissa and Doug Tunnel
  • Little Tykes Home Garden Playhouse
  • Small Indoor Trampoline

If you do want to package a collection of paper towel rolls or other non-toy items for holiday gift-giving, here’s a wonderful article with ideas. 

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