Vintage Christmas List

It’s the first week of November.  The stores are already pulling out the Christmas gear, and like most parents, you’re getting serious about the kids’ wish lists.

While you’re perusing Toys’R’Us’s list of must-have battery-operated junk, it may occur to you that there must be better options out there.

And you’re right.

Active Toys Make Passive Kids
Passive Toys Make Active Kids

When we have very young children, pediatricians, parenting books, and mom blogs constantly preach to us the importance of passive toys — toys that are activated by the child’s manipulation rather than by a battery.  During early development, children need toys that encourage them to engage and explore.  Toys that light up, move, talk, and so forth allow children to sit back passively and simply be entertained.  While they certainly enjoy this, it doesn’t support growth, either intellectually or physically.

As our kids grow (and get more opinions of their own), the battle between active and passive toys takes on a whole new dimension.  What was easy when our kids were little becomes a struggle because they want the active toys!  They flippin’ love plastic, battery-operated doo-dads and gizmos and thing-a-bobs with LED lights and motion and sound, and that’s not even the tip of the iceberg.  When you start talking tablets, game systems, and smartphones, the prices sky-rocket almost as quickly as the developmental merits tank.

But kids brains are still growing all through their teenage years!  In fact, our brains never stop building new synapses.  That whole thing about old dogs and new tricks is bull.

At every age, kids need toys that challenge them and don’t merely entertain them.

Many parents have great intentions going into Christmas shopping, but their ideas for passive toys dry up somewhere between books and sporting equipment.  If this is you, have no fear.  I am a huge nerd with loads of very old-school passive toys, and today, I share the bounty with you.  Have yourself a vintage little Christmas with this go-to list of toys that are good for kids, their brains, and your battery budget.

Babies & Toddlers

You already know how well puzzles and blocks occupy little hands and minds, but if you’re on the look-out for a more unique gift for baby this Christmas season, consider a wooden pull-toy, such as this Dancing Alligator from Plan Toys.  Ours clackity-clacks around our house constantly, behind both of our kids as well as visiting friends and cousins.


If you haven’t already, upgrade your preschooler from Megablox to LEGO Duplos, or a blocks of a similar size, which will provide a better challenge for fine motor skills and more creative possibilities for building.  Kids in that 2-5 age range need to make stuff!  Look for toys that allow lots of flexibility in building, creating, and problem-solving.

Vintage wooden marble blocks, which are a lot more flexible and durable than plastic marble tracks, allow for endless building possibilities.  We incorporate ours with our homemade “Plinko” wall as well.  Wooden train sets are another staple of the engineering child.  Ours has been collected over a few generations at this point and contains pieces from several brands, including BRIOMelissa & Doug,Thomas & Friends, and IKEA, as well as homemade pieces.  There are other less expensive brands available on Amazon, and we have never had a problem with pieces from different sets working together.

In this age rage, kids are also able to start grasping the rules of simple games, so they enjoy Stack Up!Chutes and Ladders, or simple card games.  You can introduce strategy games such as Backgammon or Checkers, which are easy for young children to understand but allow for a lot of growth.  We have gotten serious mileage out of our Bananagrams set — essentially Scrabble tiles without the board — even though our kids are too young to play the game.  They practice letter names and sounds, sort, and spell out simple words.  Kids this age are also fine-tuning their motor skills well enough to play games like our catapult basketball, a project my husband built in middle-school woodshop.  If you’ve got a big kid who’s handy with tools, this would be a great gift for a younger sibling!

Grade School and Beyond!

Most old-school games and toys are appropriate for basically any age.  While you do have to be mindful of games with chokable parts or sharp pieces, once kids are in grade school they can handle and enjoy the same items as teenagers and adults.  At our house, we have two huge hits whenever guests are over.  The first is Gravitation, also called Shoot the Moon, in which the player attempts to roll a ball bearing uphill.  This game is extremely popular with my 8th graders, who have enjoyed just watching YouTube videos of it almost as much as actually playing it.  They love discussing the physics involved and trying to perfect their technique. 

We also have a collection of metal puzzles and tavern games that range significantly in difficulty.  The younger kids like the horseshoe puzzles and the bent nails, a perfect stocking stuffer.  These are simple enough for grade schoolers to do, but still a little bit magical.  If you need a gift to challenge a true genius, the Chinese patience puzzle, crown jewel of our collection, never fails to occupy the best and brightest.

This holiday season, look beyond what’s trending to what’s enduring, challenging, and good for your kids!  And if you need more ideas, email me! 🙂

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