Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Toddler X's Toy Guide: Let's Pretend!

Could anything be more quintessentially "toddler" than pretend play? Pouring "tea" for mommy, cooking a meal in a play kitchen, talking on a toy phone, hammering away on a toy workbench, cleaning with a little broom, dressing up in play clothes -- it's just what toddlers do. Here are some of our favorite toys that encourage creativity and imagination in this key developmental stage.

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Kitchens, "Cooking" and Food

    • KidKraft Vintage Kitchen
    • Toddler X received this kitchen as a Christmas present in 2013 (at just shy of two years old), and it has been a source of joy for us ever since. And we're not the only ones -- almost all of our friends have the exact same kitchen (it comes in various colors -- we have red, but friends have white, pink, and ice blue), and many play places we've visited do as well. Why is it so great? It's compact (but still plenty roomy for two kids to play side by side), well-made (Toddler X's takes a beating, and still looks great almost two years later), and provides hour after hour of fun, imaginative play. The doors open and close (and stay closed) nicely, the knobs turn and the microwave rotates. We couldn't be happier with our pick. The only negative I can think of is that it's a beast to put together -- but once it's done, the fun makes it all worthwhile.
    • Little Tikes Shopping Cart
    • After seeing Toddler X play with shopping carts at friends' houses, I jumped on a great deal when I saw one and came home with this Little Tikes cart. As much as it pained me to buy plastic, I'm glad I did -- it's cute and sturdy, and Toddler X loves it. The cart travels back and forth throughout the house, hauling toddler gear wherever it goes. For quick cleanup, I throw everything in, park it in the corner, and ta da! Clean house! I especially like the fold-down seat, where a stuffed animal or doll can ride just as kids do at the store.

    • Melissa & Doug Shopping Cart
    • We've played with this adorable shopping cart at friends' houses and play places, and it's a fantastic toy. A perfect replica of the ones mom and dad push around at the grocery store, this cart pivots and rolls easily, indoors and out, has "feet" for stability, is made of high quality steel, and has a little seat for a favorite doll or stuffed animal. The only negative I can think of is the potential damage to other furniture if your toddler is an aggressive shopping cart driver -- a few bumpers on the front corners should do the trick. If I hadn't found such a great deal on the Little Tikes cart, this is the one I would have chosen.

    • Hape - Playfully Delicious - Gourmet Kitchen Starter Set
    • This adorable set from one of our favorite toy makers is a critical component of Toddler X's kitchen setup -- he received this as a gift the same Christmas as he received the KidKraft kitchen (above), and has used it constantly since to cook and serve to us meal after meal. The high quality pieces are all wood and minimally decorated, except for the adorable salt and pepper shakers that have a nice shake to them. Great set.

    • Green Toys Tea Set
    • Several of our friends have gone with the Green Toys tea set, and we've played with it at various play places as well. Like most Green Toys items, it's a definite winner (and they now make it in primary colors as well, if you happen to have a a child who doesn't care for pink and purple). The pieces are larger than the Play Toys set that we have (see below), and fit nicely in toddler or parent hands. Very cute and very sturdy, like everything Green Toys makes.
    • Plan Toys Tea Set
    • This is the tea set I purchased for Toddler X (after a LOT of research), and we couldn't be happier with it. Plan Toys makes lovely, solid wood toys that are long-lasting and durable, and this is no exception. We love the little tea bags and stirrers, though I took the very small sugar cubes away from Toddler X (he got this when he was just shy of 2 1/2 years old) until recently. The pieces are small, but perfect for a toddler tea party.

    • Melissa & Doug Playtime Veggies
    • A number of toddler parents have recommended the Melissa and Doug wooden play foods as fun accompaniments for a toddler kitchen or shopping cart. There are a TON of different options -- Fridge Food, Pantry Products, Fruits and many more -- but I just picked the veggies as the main link because...well, veggies are good for you!

    • Plan Toys Fruit and Vegetable Play Set
    • Several parents recommended various Plan Toys food play items to me, with a few saying that they prefer Plan Toys to Melissa and Doug because the paint doesn't chip on the Plan Toys sets. I just chose this fruit and veggie set as representative of the brand's play food offerings because it was so darn cute and has an impressive 4.9 star rating on Amazon. If you click on it, you can find links to the rest of the Plan Toys play food arsenal. (Though nobody specifically recommended it, I think the Plan Toys Activity Breakfast Menu Playset  -- which has a 4.8 star rating -- might take the cake for cuteness.)

    A final note: Several people have mentioned that their children like the Ikea play foods or pots and pans, but sadly, those can not be ordered online -- you have to visit the Ikea store. Here's a link where you can scan through their offerings.

      • Little Tikes Secret Garden Playhouse
      • They have this playhouse at the Duck Pond, one of Toddler X's favorite indoor play spaces, and he can't get enough of it when he visits. It has everything a toddler needs -- a door that opens, a doorbell that rings, a little play kitchen, plenty of windows to throw things out of, and a gate to crawl through -- in a compact footprint that could work on a deck or in a playroom. I have a picture from my last visit to the Duck Pond of four toddler boys all in there at one time, looking slightly confused as to who the other three kids were -- but needless to say, it was the place to be.
      • Step2 Naturally Playful Storybook Cottage
      • Toddler mom Siu recommends this adorable playhouse, which is basically every toddler's dream come true (and a lot of toddler moms too -- I am salivating!). She says that her daughter loves the doorbell and the included phone, and could ring the doorbell and talk on the phone all day. She also loves the door and windows that open -- a feature that Toddler X adores in our old Little Tikes playhouse as well (opening the "shutters" on the window, flinging a ball out, and closing them again is a favorite pastime). Finally, Siu appreciates that the table inside folds up, allowing for more usable space. This is the ONLY Amazon product I have ever seen with more than ten reviews that received a flat-out 5 star rating. Definitely an investment, but reviewers say it's a good one, and it sounds like it's appropriate for and loved by toddlers of all ages.

      Dollhouses, Dolls and Puppets

      • Melissa & Doug Fold and Go Princess Castle
      • Toddler mom Kelty's 3 year old daughter can't get enough of anything princess/castle/knight-related, and loves playing with this castle. Kelty appreciates that it's compact, unlike some of the huge dollhouses, and she loves to see the imaginative play that it inspires.
      • Recommended for: Ages 3 and up.
      • Melissa & Doug Fold & Go Wooden Castle 
      • Nearly identical to the Fold and Go Princess Castle above, this one presents the same great features in a more gender-neutral color scheme. Melissa and Doug have yet to let me down with a toy. This may be a Christmas present for us next year.
      • Recommended for: Ages 3 and up.

      • Ryan's Room Home Again, Home Again Dollhouse
      • Toddler mom Amy recommends this beautiful wooden dollhouse, which her 20 month old loves already and will be able to grow into in the years to come. She appreciates its natural wood structure and the fact that it is a blank canvas -- rooms are not designated as kitchen, bedroom, etc. -- so that little imaginations can grow. Kids can easily reach in for play through the open roof.
      • Recommended for: Ages 2 and up.

      • Melissa & Doug Deluxe Three Little Pigs Play Set
      • If you've read Toddler X's Top 10 Toy List, you already know that this is one of our all time favorites. This was a Christmas gift for Toddler X last year and, 11 months later, the manner in which he plays with his "piggies" has changed quite a bit, but the amount that he plays with them hasn't waned at all. While many of the pretend play toys are geared toward kids 18 months and up, this is a toy that Toddler X loved at 10 months old and has enjoyed ever since. For more details on this awesome toy, see the Top 10 Toy List.

      • Melissa & Doug Joey Magnetic Dress-Up
      • Toddler mom Hillarie's kids love these magnetic dress up dolls, which come in a number of different sets ("Joey" is the one Hillarie has, but you can also find Abby & Emma, Nina Ballerina, My Horse Clover, and many more). They love searching for the different pieces to create a special outfit -- a knight, a pirate, etc. -- and Hillaries loves that the pieces come in a nice wooden box for storage.

      • Folkmanis Puppets 
      • I am shocked -- shocked! -- that I originally forgot to include puppets in the "Let's Pretend" section of the Gift Guide, and that I left them off Toddler X's Top 10 list as well. Perhaps it's because they're so ubiquitous in our house that I've forgotten that they're toys and not just members of the family. Anyhow, thanks to toddler mom April for pointing out the omission and for mentioning Folkmanis puppets, which happen to be our favorites too. 
      • Our Folkmanis puppets -- particularly our big and little hedgehog duo (the little guy would be perfect for a stocking stuffer!) -- have been loved by Toddler X since he was an infant (we have hilarious video of him at 8 months cracking up when we'd pull out the puppet and say "Hedgehog!"), and are loved by him now (in fact, I believe they're both in his shopping cart being wheeled around as I type this). April reports the same scenario in her house -- her 5 month old coos and laughs at them, while her 2.5 year old enjoys playing with them, cooking in his play kitchen and bringing them food to eat. April likes the Folkmanis Bunny Rabbit and Giraffe Stage Puppet, both of which are adorable. I also have played with, and really want to get, the Snowy Owl -- it's so plush, well-made and just beautiful. Thanks, April, for the reminder! 

        • Melissa & Doug Augie Alligator Dustpan and Brush
        • This is one of our favorite toys right now. About a month ago, Toddler X became obsessed with our household broom, specifically the bristles, which grossed me out because we have two dogs carrying all manner of dirtiness onto our floors on a daily basis. Fortunately, Grandma X spotted this adorable brush and dustpan set, and the problem was solved. Toddler X has zero interest in the real broom now, and loves "dusting" his kitchen and brushing the dogs with his new alligator brush.
        • Recommended for: 18 months and up.

        • B. Tropicleania
        • Toddler mom Joy S. says her son loves this cute little cleaning set, made just for toddler hands. Helping mommy out with the sweeping got a lot easier once he got a broom and dustpan scaled to his size, and the fun tropical bird theme lends a cute touch.
        • Recommended for: Ages 18 months and up.

        Dressing Up
        • Playsilks by Sarah' Silks
        • Toddler mom Nichole pointed me in the direction of Sarah's Silks, reporting that her daughter loves using them for dress up. We've played with silks in our music classes before, but I've never explored the wide variety available and wow! Sarah's Silks provides silks in every color of the rainbow (and, I believe, in a rainbow print), extra large (9 foot x 3 foot) Silk Scapes, StreamersCrowns, and even a cute silk Sword. These products are a dream come true for parents interested in offering their children opportunities for imaginative play. (Note: the links are each to a single color, but you can explore other color offerings from there.)

        Building, Fixing and Growing

        • Radio Flyer Kid's Wheelbarrow
        • I am so excited about this find. Anyone who visited a pumpkin patch with us in October can tell you that Toddler X's favorite moments were not spent searching for the perfect pumpkin, but for the perfect wheelbarrow with which to push pumpkins (or anything else) around. I don't know that he had ever seen a wheelbarrow before our month of pumpkin-patching, but by the end it was clear that he was obsessed and needed to have one of his very own. I was thrilled to discover this highly-rated Radio Flyer wheelbarrow -- I'm a big fan of Radio Flyer's sturdy, well-made toys, and this one is just adorable. From the reviews, it sounds like it is perfectly sized for a 1 1/2 to 3 year old, making it a perfect 2nd birthday present for Toddler X in February and giving me something to occupy him while I work in the yard throughout the spring and summer.

          • House Of Marbles Children's Garden Tool Set
          • I've done quite a bit of research on kids' gardening implements, as I hope to spend a lot of time in the garden this spring and summer and would love to keep my little...um, "helper" entertained. Of all the sets I viewed, the House of Marbles set had the best reviews across the board and a 4.8 star rating on Amazon. The four tools -- all metal, with wood handles on everything but the watering can -- are apparently perfectly sized for little hands, strong and durable. The tote helps your little gardener get his or her gear to the garden, and we all know toddlers like to carry around bags full of "stuff." Another perfect gift heading into spring!

            • Green Toys Tool Set in Blue or in Pink
            • Big surprise, right? Have I mentioned before that I love this toy company? Yes, the tool set is yet another Green Toys winner. Toddler X will be receiving one for Christmas, so I can't offer my personal opinion yet, but two friends who have this set give it rave reviews (as do Amazon reviewers -- 4.5 stars for the blue, 4.8 for the pink). It has all the Green Toys characteristics you love -- bright colors, solid and well-made features, adorable design, and the knowledge that it's from an environmentally-conscious local company that recycles milk containers into charming toys for toddlers.

            Well, that's it for pretend play, my toddler friends. If you have any suggestions for toys I've missed, please let me know and I will add them. Thanks!

            Disclaimer: The age recommendations listed in these posts reflect the experience and opinions of my readers and me as to the age of toddlers who can play, and enjoy playing, with the toy in question. Each child and play environment is different, and it is up to each individual parent to evaluate the safety and appropriateness of a toy before offering it to his or her toddler. I make no warranties as to the safety or appropriateness of these toys for any child. Please check the manufacturer's recommended age for each toy on Amazon before purchasing and make your own decision as to its appropriateness for your particular child. Thank you!


              1. Puppets! Puppets are an amazing tool for dramatic and imaginative play. We love the Folkmanis puppets, because they are realistic and easy for little and big hands to operate. Here are links to the bunny and giraffe, but there are plenty of other choices :)
                Bunny: http://www.amazon.com/Bunny-Rabbit-Puppet-Folkmanis-Puppets/dp/B0007QO4FY/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1384903117&sr=8-3&keywords=folkmanis+puppets
                Giraffe: http://www.amazon.com/Folkmanis-2561-Giraffe-Stage-Puppet/dp/B000OHOWOO/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1384903205&sr=8-1&keywords=folkmanis+puppets+giraffe

                Puppets are great for all ages: my 5 month old coos and laughs as we make funny animal sounds and my 2.5 year enjoys operating and playing with them--he loves cooking in his play kitchen and bringing them foods to eat! Nothing makes a book come alive like including a puppet :)

              2. April, PUPPETS! I can't believe I forgot that! Our puppets are some of our favorite play things -- right now we're super into our mama and baby hedgehog set, and our owl occasionally reads Toddler X his bedtime stories. Puppets. I'll pull together a puppet section tonight after he goes to bed. Thanks for the bunny and giraffe links, I'll include them.

                Thank you!


              Hmm...what to do today?