Real Mom Tips (and a GIVEAWAY): Creative Gifts for Kids from Media Culture Expert Rebecca Hains

Pssst! Scroll to the bottom of the post to enter our Lottie Finn giveaway!

Did you ever wonder what kind of toys are the best for your kids? Toys are sold at a wide range of prices, but their play value and monetary value don’t always line up. In fact, sometimes, they’re at odds with one another, with the most expensive toys offering very little value for the money–a frustrating situation for parents and kids alike.

Here’s why so many kids play only briefly with fancy toys, then forget all about them: They’re too structured to keep their interest. Unstructured creative play is a crucial component of children’s development, through which children make enormous psychological, intellectual, and social strides. Structured toys that don’t fill this need are often destined to become a one-moment wonder–enjoyed for a short time and then abandoned.

In contrast, unstructured, open-ended toys have the best play value, as organizations like the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) have noted.If a toy doesn’t “do” anything, that’s great: It means the child is the one who’ll get to “do” something with it, and that’s exactly what kids need from their toys.

holiday gift guide - creative kids gifts
Tomten and the Fox story stones painted by Rebecca Hains

Unfortunately, expensive and heavily structured toys are often marketed most aggressively during the holiday season. After all, they tend to yield the highest profits for their manufacturers. But all that exciting advertising means persuades kids to ask for them, because on TV at least, they look so fun.

This means it’s on us as parents to round out our kids’ wish lists. In addition to the flash-in-the-pan name-brand toys, we need to provide our children with developmentally appropriate toys that can be used in open-ended, creative ways, and which stand a chance of being loved for the long haul.

Here are some ideas on what to look for:

1. Look for toys that encourage open-ended play.

Toys that encourage imaginative or creative play healthy choices are often the most fun in the long-term, as they can be used in so many different ways over the years. Avoid toys that have only one intended use! Lower-tech, open-ended toys such as blocks, dress-up clothes, and dolls and toy animals that are not based on media characters are great choices.

  • Recommendations: Melissa & Doug’s Standard Unit Building Blocks; Lottie Dolls by Arklu; toy animals by Holztiger or Schleich

2. Look for toys that encourage interactions with others.

Toys that can be played with friends or by the whole family, such as sporting goods or board games, are really great for kids. Keep a special eye out for games that are more collaborative than competitive, as they’re rare but valuable for fostering supportive camaraderie between the players.

  • Recommendations: “Snails Pace Race” by Ravensburger; “Hoot Owl Hoot” by Peaceable Kingdom; “Forbidden Island” by Gamewright

3. Look for toys in the “wrong” toy aisle.

Although many stores arrange products by gender — with aisles of “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys”—you can ignore these categories. For example, little boys often enjoy play kitchens as much as girls do, but play food is in the girls’ aisle. Meanwhile, girls often enjoy construction toys, but these are usually placed in the boys’ aisle.

Be creative in your search and consider shopping a small, independent toy store, where the toys are more likely to be arranged by interest than by gender stereotypes.

  • Recommendations: Hape “Playfully Delicious” Play Food; Melissa and Doug Cutting Food; Magnatiles; LEGOBricks & More Creative Bucket.

4. Look for books likely to inspire creativity.

For children of all ages, books make wonderful gifts. Every child should be given at least a few carefully chosen books at the holidays.  Seek out books with original content, as these are more likely to inspire creative play and additional creative storytelling than those based on media properties and brand-name characters.

If you’re inclined towards arts and crafts, you can even nurture your child’s creative book-inspired play by creating story stones together–small stones painted to depict characters or elements from beloved books. You and your child can use them to retell favorite tales, make up new adventures for beloved characters, or create new stories of your own invention.

  • Book recommendations:  Teamwork is the Goal (Go! Go! Sports Girls series) by Kara Douglass Thom; Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty; Art & Max by David Wiesner; Whoever You Are by Mem Fox; Tomten and the Fox
  • Recommended story stone supplies: Plaid acrylic paints; Loew Cornell Paintbrush Sets

Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years. She is an associate professor of advertising and media studies at Salem State University in Salem, Mass., where she is assistant director of the Center for Childhood and Youth Studies.  She blogs for the Christian Science Monitor’s Modern Parenthood page and at

And now for the giveaway!

We’ve been obsessed with Lottie dolls ever since Rebecca blogged her review of them last year – they’re a great alternative to a certain fashion doll who has a bad rep in some circles! And now much like many girls, Lottie has a cool new guy friend – Finn! Finn is the first of a kind, designed as a playtime buddy that young boys can relate to. He was developed in response to demand from parents who loved Lottie – he does all the cool activities Lottie does and their clothes are even interchangeable.

lottie doll giveaway - finn

Enter for a chance to win a Finn for your little boy or girl right here:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Good luck!



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