An OT’s Gift Buying Guide

It is time for me to update my gift-buying guide!  I’ve added some new brands to consider, local toy stores, and links to other posts with lots of gift ideas.

It is the season where a lot of people spend a lot of time and money on gifts for children.  In my job as a pediatric occupational therapists, I get a lot of questions about “good” presents for children.  There isn’t a perfect gift for each age or child’s needs, but I do have advice that I commonly give to those looking for buying gifts:

Toys are marketed to adults (they are the people with the credit cards or cash).  Yet, what appeals to adults is not really what makes for a good toy.  Adults love toys that are cute, educational, or have lots of features.  However, children don’t usually care.

 So, what makes a gift a “good” toy?

child opening present3 things: Durable, flexible to use, and engaging.

Durable (including is it safe)?

  • Toys for younger children usually are safe and durable, but when you are looking at toys for older children, the quality can vary a lot.  Just keep in mind you get what you pay for most of the time.  Children will find ways to use and abuse toys, so the more pieces and features a toys has, the more I question its safety and durability.

Flexible in it use (allowing for it to be used for a long time)?

  • Look for toys that can be used at many ages in many ways.  Consider how a toy might be used in a year or even 5 years.  Can the toy be played with alone and with a friend or sibling?  If it is likely to only be played with for a short developmental time (or if the children will only like it for a short time while it is “popular”), consider finding another toy.  

Engaging rather than just entertaining

  • It engages a child to play, rather than just entertaining a child.  Toys that entertain allow a child to be passive (like watching TV) or to take minimal effort to activate (like push button toys).  Toys that engage a child encourage them to take an active role in playing, using motor and cognitive skills. Toys that are great for engagement are art activities, sensory play, pretend play, building play, and social activities like board games.

Examples of toys that pass this test:

Looking for an easier way to decide?  reading

If it has batteries, buttons to push to make noise, comes from a TV show or movie, or if there are more pieces than a child can keep track of, I usually pass.  

(If you really aren’t sure, an easy gift is always a good book, new playdoh, or a gift card to a local children’s place like the zoo).

 Where to buy better gifts?

Look beyond Target, Walmart, and Toys R Us- I rarely buy toys at the major big box stores. While there are some great toys there, they are the minority and hard to pick out among all the flashy advertising.  Don’t get me wrong, the toys look great (they are well marketed), but they don’t usually pass my “what makes a good gift” criteria.

Places to try instead:

  • If you live in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis, St. Paul) or the south metro area- there are two stores worth visiting:
    • Lakeshore Learning (catalog, website and store in the Twin Cities).  Decent pricing, especially if you sign up to get email coupons.
    • Creative Kids Stuff (locations around the twin cities, website)
    • ABC Toy Zone (store in Burnsville, MN with good selection of high quality play and learning supplies)
    • Ikea (in Bloomington)
  • Fat Brain Toys (catalog, website)
  • Discovery Toys (catalog, website)
  • Amazon: I buy most of my toys and gifts on Amazon.  I look for brands that make higher quality toys and browse those specific brands for more ideas. Try using the ratings and reviews to help you.  The reviews also give insight into age ranges and longevity of the toys in real homes.  

Brands to explore online (I’ve included examples to show products that meet the criteria listed above for a “good toy”:

5 Brands to look for if you need to shop at a major store:

  • carLegos (and all the younger versions like Duplos)- a very durable toy brand that has clearly stood up to the test of time.
  • Playdoh- while I don’t care for most of the accessories and play kits, it is hard to beat playing with the dough for creative play.
  • Little Tikes- they make some of the classic children’s toys, like the Cozy Coup Car and toy shopping cart.
  • Fisher Price- Their traditional baby toys are still great, and the Little People sets are also durable and encourage pretend play.
  • Melissa and Doug- they make some great puzzles and manipulative toys.

Lastly, consider activities and outings, instead of gifts

  • Rather than cluttering up play rooms, consider opting for a a gift card for a class (music class, swim lesson, dance or gymnastics, team sports, art classes, community education classes).
  • Memberships or a gift card to local children’s places, like zoos, museums, movies, theaters, and parks.

Other posts that might help you as you look for gift ideas:

(Disclosure- I have not been paid directly to review or promote any products. This is only my honest advice on buying toys for children as a pediatric OT and as a mother.)


Paige Hays is an occupational therapist who provides in-home, pediatric occupational therapy services in the south metro area of the Twin Cities, MN. She is a mother of 2 girls, avid DIYer, and a highly skilled and experienced OT. She specializes in working in pediatrics, with diverse expertise ranging from cognition and sensory issues to working with children with neuromuscular disabilities or complex medical needs.