When you kid gets to a certain age, you find yourself going to a lot of kids parties at indoor gyms that resemble a prison yard for preschoolers. And after the requisite pizza and cupcakes, it’s time for the gifts! Unfortunately, most preschoolers don’t subtly drop hints to their classmates about what they want to for their birthday. Fortunately, this guide has all the stuff (under $40) that will win the afternoon. You can keep the Thank You note.
Candylab Toy Cars
These vintage-inspired, fast-rolling wooden cars are the Pinewood Derby racers your dad would have built you if he was even a slightly competent whittler. Instead of a poorly painted pine block, you’d have rode to victory on the wheels of the GT-10, BLU 74, or Stinger. Hell, even the Camper would’ve gone down that track faster. Assuming you haven’t sprung for the life-sized one yet, these cars are your ticket to victory row.
Candylab Toy Cars ($25 And Up)
Tiggly makes ingenious app-toy hybrids where kids use physical blocks to solve screen-based puzzles that teach numbers, letters, shapes, and other early math and reading skills. In their newest release, Cookie Monster is the teacher, and cookies teach the basics of language, which Cookie could probably stand to brush up on, too. This marks Sesame Street’s first partnership with a connected toy, so your kid still won’t know how to get to Sesame Street, but Sesame Street will have figured out yet another way into your house.
Tiggly Words: Sesame Street Alphabet Kitchen ($25)
The new Barbie Fashionista line made waves recently for being Barbies while resembling actual humans. The audacity! The traditional, tall, petite, and curvy body shapes come in 7 skin tones, 22 eye colors, 30 hair colors, 24 hair styles, and 14 face sculpts, so every kid can find a Barbie to which they can physically relate. Doll collection makeovers are so this season — whatever the season is.
Barbie Fashionistas ($20)
Indie Rock Coloring Book
Your kid is well on their way to kindergarten hipster status with their insider-approved Kindie music playlist and SXSW ticket stubs. Complete the transformation with this coloring book featuring challenges like finding hidden birds in Devendra Banhart’s beard or drawing whatever the cool new haircut is on the members of Rilo Kiley. They’ll be an insufferable blogger the minute they learn to write! At least the publisher donates the royalties to charity.
The Indie Rock Coloring Book by Yellow Bird Project and Andy J. Miller ($8)
A series of back-to-basics kits that consist of standard blocks in various shapes and sizes, plus the original supplemental pieces like wheels and doors — there’s enough in even the smallest kit to create cars, airplanes and a lighthouse on the water with a sailboat going by. Not only will they encourage the kind of creativity that comes from building without specific instructions; they’ll also foster an appreciation for a simpler time, when every Lego set didn’t have a brand tie-in and View-Masters didn’t require smartphones to work.
LEGO Classic ($15)
You could follow award-winning illustrator Oliver Jeffers’ advice to turn your kid into an artist — or could just read them his books and let them figure it out themselves. If you choose Imaginary Fred, they’ll learn about the power and confidence they have inside. You’ll learn it’s just fine for Junior to make those long-distance phone calls their best friend Gary, who may or may not exist.
Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer and Oliver Jeffers ($15)
Here’s a fun game: Give the kid a Hot Wheels race car and … that’s it. When the kid utterly fails to keep disappointment from registering on their face, nonchalantly produce a few sections of orange track, loops, and launchers, as if you just had them lying around. Smile as disappointment is replaced with sheer elation, then apologize to the parents for the fact that they’re going to have die-cast cars flying around their living room for the foreseeable future.
Hot Wheels Track Builder Sets ($20 and up)
These build-your-own-dollhouses combine characters and sets that allow kids to build their own 3D storybooks by combining illustrated scenes. Dolls, panels, and accessories are infinitely interchangeable, which beats the hell out of an actual storybook, which is singularly colorable.
Build & Imagine ($35 And Up)
Promote your little artist’s skills for months on end with creativity kits from Green Kid Crafts, like a basil and sprout gardening kit, or that timeless classic: the baking soda volcano. Depending on your child’s age, each box of 4-6 kits is either an opportunity for quality time together or an effective way to absorb their attention for a few hours while you get some work done.
Green Kid Crafts ($20 monthly, $19 for 6 months, $18 for 12 months)
You might not be ready to decorate your desk with Minecraft mini figures just yet, a la this dad, but like him, you could use Minecraft to bond with your kid. These new mini-figs, whose identity stays a surprise until you open each one-pack, are a tangible way to interact and play with the virtual world of your kid’s favorite game, which you still aren’t any closer to understanding.
Minecraft Mini Figures ($9 for 3-pack)
Automoblox (that’s “Automobile” + “Blocks” if it took you a minute to figure out the name, too) allows kids to customize their rides by mixing and matching modern design elements with old-school wood frames. Truly the ultimate toy car for the kid with neo-retro-chic parents. Available models include hot rods, police and fire vehicles, trucks, and even a sensible, minivan for dad.
Automoblox ($15 And Up)
Ubooly is a cute plush toy that turns into an interactive teacher and adventure partner when you stick your phone or tablet inside. It can match wits with your kid with more than 298,000 words of original content, plus more added every month. It’s basically a modern Teddy Ruxpin that can keep your device safe from as much as a 3-story fall.