07 April 2014

When Buying Toddlers Presents

Buying gifts for Abigail is not an easy task. You'd think shopping for a two-year-old girl would be the easiest thing in the world, but I have a nuanced position on toys, and it makes the process more time consuming. I've been thinking about all this as Abigail's third birthday is coming up and I need ample time to prepare.

Factor #1: Educational
I have a minor in psychology and I always found brain development to be incredibly interesting - interesting enough that I enjoy watching documentaries and reading new non-fiction on the subject for fun. Once I had a child with cognitive delays, my interest in the human brain went more from hobby to something closer to "key tenet of family life." So combining my knowledge of the importance of dendritic spine growth with the significance of therapy through play, I try to keep a good percentage of Abigail's toys "educational" ones. This isn't to say she never gets toys for pure entertainment (for Valentine's Day she got a spiky ball that lights up when it bounces. It was from the dollar party favor section of our local superstore and surely does nothing for brain development), but it is to say that I don't want her to have a play laptop. I'd rather her have a bead maze, a magna doodle, or mini beach ball. These kinds of decisions happen better at home with the Internet for research or a therapist for questioning, rather than waiting till I get to the overwhelming toy section of Target.

Factor #2: Imaginative
We're also big fans of imaginative play toys around here. Imaginative play is hugely, hugely important in early childhood development. Since these toys tend to be the ones that last the longest time-wise (think play kitchens and doll houses), this is where I prefer to get Abigail something higher quality. Wood toys are better than plastic as they last longer and are better for children with sensory issues, but since they're also pricier, I need to spend some time checking out different stores and waiting for favorites to go on sale.

Factor #3: Moral
Some toys do not fit in with our personal beliefs. At age two, this means that Barbies, for example, are banned around here, and I keep toys that feature licensed cartoons to a minimum.

Factor #4: Quantity
The last aspect of my toy-decision-making-process that results from my own principles is that I think it's bad for kids to have too many toys. The definition of a "good limit" and whether we make it a soft or hard one is something that changes based on age and season. I used to hold this opinion as a theoretical one, believing that children with too many toys are learning to be materialistic and will always demand that someone entertain them, among other things. But once I had Abigail, I realized that when she has too many toys around her, she gets over-stimulated: she'll lose her temper faster, she's more aggressive, she throws things, she'll bang her head or hands against furniture. Sometimes when she's in a bad mood, all we have to do is clean up her toys and she's instantly calmer and happier. To this extent, I make sure she doesn't have too many toys with lots of components and try to find a balance between toy gifts and utilitarian gifts (ie, clothes).

Factor #5: Mommy's Sanity
Then I have all my own neurotic preferences about what toys I want to spend my day around:
-If it plays music, it can't be high-pitched and annoying (the B. Woofer Guitar has really high quality, non-annoying music. Fisher Price's retro record player? So irritating that I boxed it back up after one song and returned it the next day).
-Freaky-looking dolls and dolls that make noise get returned/donated. Even if it came from beloved Great Aunt So-and-So.
-Toys that use lots of batteries or go through batteries quickly get donated unless they are fun even without noise. Batteries are expensive and bad for the environment (ain't nobody around here got time for rechargeables), plus I'm sure there's an argument to be made that sound-free toys are better for imaginative play.

And those are just my considerations that I take into account. There's also Abigail's preferences.

Factor #6: Age-appropriateness
Her mind and her body are at different places developmentally. This is true to some extent for all toddlers (imagine how irritated you'd be if everyone around you could spear their own french toast and successfully eat it, but you couldn't get your own fork to pick up a damn piece?), but it's more dramatic for Abigail. I don't even know exactly how, the only reason I even know it to be true is because she really struggles with certain smash-hit kid toys. Like Duplo Legos (in fact, all building toys) and Fisher Price's Little People play sets. Every other toddler house we visit is chalked full, but Abigail really struggles with them - so much so that she quickly looses interest. Sometimes I can't predict which toys will be duds, and othertimes, a toy she struggles with will be a favorite (like her Thomas the Train play set).

Factor #7: Interest
Abigail doesn't really like My Little Ponies. I have no idea why and I desperately want to buy her a basketful of pink, purple, and yellow sparkly ponies, but she really doesn't play with them. How am I suppose to re-live my childhood through Abigail if she won't cooperate?

A surprisingly large number of times, it isn't the item that Abigail wants, it's the fact that it's mine. Take purses, for example. I though Abigail loved purses because she was always trying to score mine, so one year for her birthday, I got a toddler version with a sequin butterfly on it. But it turned out she just wanted my purse. Now her purse sits in the bottom of a basket in her room. This "I want it because it's Mommy's" has ruled out a number of potential toys, like play makeup sets and her own keys.

Factor #8: Quantity, Take 2
Sometimes a toy is a wild success, but she doesn't need any more. Like dress-up jewelry and dolls. Abigail loves her dress-up jewelry. She's already got a toddler-sized shoe box full of pastel necklaces, bracelets, rings, and two pairs of plastic sunglasses. But as much as she loves to play dress-up, yet another jewelry set would just be excessive. The same holds true for her Thomas the Train set, which is expandable. But she's quite happy with it right now and I suspect the add-ons would just collect dust.

Okay, so once Abigail's and my preferences are taken into account, then I have to factor in the practical aspects.

Factor #9: Space
We live in a two-bedroom apartment and are very nearly about to be four people. Space is at a premium. So as much as I would love to buy Abigail a play kitchen or teepee/tent for her birthday this year, there is simply not space.

We live in an apartment with very little storage space. So while outdoor items like a ride-on toy or a blow-up pool or a cozy coupe would be wonderful, it's just not going to happen.

Factor #10: Money
We only have so much money. I would absolutely love to get Abigail an American Girl doll. High quality, encourages imaginative play, encourages reading, something she'd love. But the girls start at $110. That's more than our entire birthday present budget right now.

Those are all the considerations I go over before making a toy purchase, my friends. Like I said, it's time consuming. We limit the number of presents we get her at a time (materialism + overstimulation + limited resources) and try to make some of them utilitarian and food (she loves getting pudding cups for holidays) or experiential (like a swim class or a zoo pass).

But obviously, toys are important to childhood. Plus I really enjoy watching her enjoy an item I put so much thought and effort into selecting.

Last year for her birthday, we gave her these toys:

The puppy guitar is the one referenced earlier and was a huge smash hit. Even one year later, it is still one of Abigail's top favorite toys. (And I don't think I've had to change the batteries on it yet). The jewelry set is the first one she ever got - a bit of a risky move at the time, but one that was successful.

She was too young for the bouncy ball and really had no interest (good thing it only cost $.50 at Old Navy ; ), and we ended up donating it with some other stuff when we moved. The magnet puzzle violated Factor #6. Even a year later, she still really struggles with tool-based play and she gets frustrated with it very quickly. It's a Melissa and Doug brand (a high-quality brand for those outside the toy-know) at a used kid store, so I tucked it away for either when she gets older or when we have another kid.

Then we also took her to the Aquarium and did buy her a penguin stuffed animal.

Matt and I have already spent much time planning out her Easter basket presents for this year. We've decided on bubbles (at $1, they fit Factor #10, plus we use them in therapy to encourage her to do difficult tasks and reward her), a feeding set for her dolls (this after many months spent testing and teaching the concept with her own bowl and spoon), and a religious board book (books are a perfect present. They're never overstimulating, they always fit in the budget, they are wonderful for development, and she always loves them). I feel confident that all of our choices will be much enjoyed.

As for her third birthday next month? We're still working on that. So far we've got bubble blower on the "yes" list. It's small enough to store inside our apartment, encourages outdoor play, and if we use it on the grass, it'll double as a physical therapy tool (standing on the uneven ground uses more core muscles than standing on the stable concrete). Plus they're only about $10-$15 full price.

So, yeah, even though I've been thinking about this for a bit, I've still got practically nothing. She has enough baby dolls and baby doll care stuff (I suspect this category will get blown wide open after we have a baby and she sees all the different aspects of caring for a baby in action), she's outgrown puzzles, she has a bunch of balls, she's too young for a doll house, we're bursting at the seams with flash cards, and I get more out of Baby Signing Time DVDs than she does.

Things I'm mulling over in my head include "big girl" Dr. Seuss books (is she ready for paper books?), an animal play set (will it be overstimulating? will it be fun enough to overcome the fine motor skill difficulties?), a zoo membership (will we go enough with a new baby while sharing one car to make it worth the price?), I'm still trying to make a teepee happen (dang Factor #9), and I'm hunting for a good price on B.'s Symphony toy (I've tested it in the store and it has non-annoying music, B. toys are good quality, and it would encourage fine motor skills).

It may seem like I'm making things way more complicated than they need to be (I wouldn't be me if I didn't!), but I do think it's really important to put time and consideration into the influences that surround our children. The toys that fill her room are what she's going to have memories of when she's older. I want to do my good to plant potential for healthy, happy memories.


Anonymous said...

Regarding teepee: last year we found a little tent at Michaels for $12 on sale for $8. My boys love it as a game-changer on a rainy day or outside where they can pretend they're camping. Plus, it can be rolled up and put into a little storage bag a d fits nicely in the umbrella-space in the closet. Happy present hunting! TB

Cam Wollner said...

The sit and stand that you guys have in the background of the super cute picture is one of the favorite toys around here! All three kids love it and Mae uses it throughout therapy every day to play music (she runs across the room and hits the monkeys hand). And I'm amazed at how long those batteries have lasted! Because batteries are a big determining factor around here too!

Anonymous said...

I just unearthed a treasure for keeping Charlie quiet at Mass. I think it's from Mario's childhood. It's a "quiet book," with felt flowers to take off and put back onto buttons, Velcro-attached cloth balloons, tiny cloth dolls that fit in the pocket/cars of a train, an oven Mott to stick your hand into, etc. many motor skills like zipping and tying are way beyond my youngest (15 mo), but he's endlessly entertained by it. Just a thought! TB