We love local here at ParentMap. Why? Because local stores know our communities. You may save a few bucks at a big-box store, but staff there won’t spend 20 minutes with you helping you pick out just the right holiday gift. We polled five delightful independent toy store owners about their favorite toys this season — what’s new, what’s hot, what’s the most fun. They emphasized quiet, nonviolent toys that kids can use for imaginative, open-ended play, and those are the best kind.
Sophie the Giraffe (Calisson). A 100 percent natural rubber toy (derived from hevea tree sap) that’s perfect for grasping and teething. Sophie was created in France in 1961, when a toymaker realized that the only animal toys available on the market were farm-animal or pet figures. She’s still hand-produced using a traditional 14-step process. Infants and older. $22.99. [THE TOY PLACE]
Organic Nicki Baby (Kathe Kruse). These handmade German dolls are made of soft organic velour and filled with organic sheep’s wool and buckwheat. An ideal first grasping, teething and snuggling toy. Infants and older. $33.95. [ONCE UPON A TIME]
Wooden Push Toys (Plan Toys). These push toys — a seal, frog, mouse, alligator and duck — are adorable. Made out of safe, eco-friendly wood and painted in subdued colors, they make a gentle clacking noise when pushed along the floor. Ages 19 months and older. $19.95 [TOP TEN TOYS]
Spinaroos Bristle Blocks (Toysmith). New this year! These supertactile building pieces are soft, bristly and colorful, making them fun to look at and easy for little hands to grasp. Perfect for open-ended, imaginative play. Ages 2–6. $55.50. [TOP TEN TOYS]
Rise ’N Shine Coffee Maker (Educo). Kids can play at making their morning coffee with this sweet wooden coffee maker! Owner Miebeth says that the kids in her store absolutely love this. Contains a jug, milk, stirring spoon, honey jar and felt coffee filter. Ages 3 and older. $29.95. [CHILDTREK]
Ezy-Roller (Ezy-Roller). This sounds like too much fun: a sturdy three-wheel cart that uses a unique foot motion to go forward (no pedals!). It’s made of a tubular steel frame (extender rods for older kids included) and rolls on non-marking polyurethane wheels. Ages 3–14. $104. [THE TOY PLACE]
Trunki (Melissa & Doug). An animal-themed rolling plastic suitcase that kids can ride on, pack up with treasures, pull around by a strap and use as a travel carry-on. A working lock protects kids’ stuff from curious younger sibs. Owner Scott gives this toy a thumbs-up for its versatility. Made in the U.S. and new this year from Melissa & Doug. Ages 3 and older. $39.99. [TOYS THAT TEACH]
Pat Bells (Beyond 123/Playme). Colorful bells fitted into a patented wooden stand that kids can “pat” to play. This is a great musical toy for young kids or kids with delayed motor development, because of how easy it is to manipulate. Ages 4 and older. $159.99. [THE TOY PLACE]
Hexbug Nano Habitat (Innovation First Labs). Snap the pieces together in different configurations, then set the two robotic “bugs” (which act like real bugs) free to navigate the maze. Your kids will have to pry this one out of your hands. Ages 5 and older. $29.99. [THE TOY PLACE]
Music Maker (European Expressions). Even kids with no musical experience can play this hardwood instrument (made in Belarus) by sliding a song sheet under the strings, and plucking the string above each note. Easy! Includes 12 songs, a pick, tuner and spare wire. Ages 5 and older. $34.95 [ONCE UPON A TIME]
Blocks & Marbles (TEDCO). A beautiful marble run made in the U.S. of smooth wooden blocks and rectangles. Owner Scott likes these because you can use your existing wooden blocks to build a scaffolding (not possible with marble runs made of curved plastic). Ages 6 and older. $36. [TOYS THAT TEACH]
Crane Construction Kit (Baufix). Builders in training can create a crane with working crank and real rope — and several other models — out of this high-quality kit’s 73 pieces. Made in Germany. Ages 6 and older. $34.95. [CHILDTREK]
Super Magformers (Rainbow Products). This is the kind of toy nobody can keep their hands off — even the adults. Large, colorful triangles and squares are (safely) embedded with high-powered magnets, making it easy — and endlessly fascinating — to create geometric shapes. Ages 6 and older. $75.99. [TOYS THAT TEACH]
Totem City (Hip from Holland). You may have seen the gorgeous Totem Tree, a three-dimensional tree built from flat cardboard panels. This new building kit from the Dutch company includes 120 recycled-cardboard pieces, imprinted with symbols and textures, that kids can use to create a cathedral, airplane or anything else they want. Very cool. Ages 7 and older. $31.95. [TOP TEN TOYS]
Keva Planks (Keva). A 200-piece set of unfinished wooden planks that kids can use to create all sorts of architectural designs — towers, bridges, you name it. Perfect for imaginative, open-ended play. Made in the U.S. Ages 7 and older. $63.95. [TOP TEN TOYS]
Tweens and teens
Stitch-It Flowery Handbag Kit (The Little Experience). Pre-cut felt flower pieces and pre-punched holes make sewing this colorful handbag easy for beginners, and the results are so pretty that your child may have to hide this from you. Ages 8 and older. $19.99. [CHILDTREK]
Invisible Diary (Babalu). For supersecret secrets. Kids write in invisible ink markers, then shine a UV light on the page to read what they’ve written. The set contains a locking (just to be extra safe) 240-page diary, two keys and a box to store it in. Ages 8 and older. $21.95. [ONCE UPON A TIME]
Remote Control Machines (Thames & Kosmos). Kids can build their own remote-control machines using these construction kits, and learn about physics at the same time. Following the enclosed instructions, make a forklift, crane, robotic arm or seven other models. A favorite kit from one of Top Ten Toys’ favorite companies. Ages 8 and older. $68.95. [TOP TEN TOYS]
Anomia (Anomia). The word means “chaos” or — familiar to those of us over 40 — “a problem with recall.” In this fast-paced card game, players with matching symbols on their cards race to be the first one to give an example of the person, place or thing on their card. Easy to learn and great for the whole family. Ages 10 and older. $15.99. [THE TOY PLACE]
Cobra Elite RC Helicopter (Cobra Toys). An indoor (yes, you read that right) radio-controlled helicopter with gyroscope stabilization that makes it very easy to fly. Owner Scott calls it “far and away the coolest RC helicopter” he’s ever played with. Ages 12 and older. $55.99. [TOYS THAT TEACH]
BuckyBalls (Maxfield & Oberton). Kids can make sculptures, shapes, patterns and almost anything else out of this set of 216 powerful rare-earth magnets. Owner Robin recommends this for hard-to-buy-for teens. Note: Because of the magnets’ small size, this is not recommended for households with young children. Ages 14 and older. $29.99-$32.99. [THE TOY PLACE]
Kris Collingridge is ParentMap’s Out & About editor, and often can be found wandering the aisles of her favorite independent toy store.
What’s the point of being a supervillian if you can’t get any respect? That’s the plight of Gru, a villain on the downslide, voiced by Steve Carrell. When a young upstart supervillian aims to bring him down, Gru summons his minions — and follows his heart. To be released Dec. 14; $29.98; rated PG.
We have copies of this DVD to give away! Visit parentmap.com/giveaways to enter by December 15.
‘Disney’s A Christmas Carol’
Jim Carrey’s take on the beloved Christmas classic is both darker and visually niftier than any holiday release in recent memory. Rated PG — but this is a ghost story, so expect ghosting aplenty. Scary for younger kids, but older kids will be blown away by the amazing animation. $39.99; rated PG.
We have copies of this DVD to give away! Visit parentmap.com/giveaways to enter by December 15.Google+