Oprah has her favorite things list and I have my favorite toys list.  As the holiday season approaches, I feel urged to share some of my favorite finds over the past year.  I have no affiliate links or financial affiliations with any of these products. I am just a mom and a play therapist that has enjoyed them over the past year. 

And, I will also say that I am a huge fan of the EXPERIENCES, not things people. 

Before I begin, I must give you the link to this list “The 5 Best Toys of All Time” because it really says everything that you need to know about kids and toys and play.  And that is that simple is best and there is nothing really in the store that can beat the stuff you already have lying around your house.

Those 5 best toys of all time: 

A Stick

A Box


Cardboard Tube


After all, it is common knowledge in the parenting world that kids often prefer playing with the box more than the toy that came in.  And, if you think back to the times where you or your child were most engaged….it was probably playing with things that were very simple.

time in nature

PS.  A fun activity we learned from Forest Building School was to grab some rubber bands and string and use them to make JOURNEY STICKS.  Basically, take your stick on a walk and attach cool leaves, trash, flowers, etc that you find along the way to mark your travels. If you want the full details about this activity, be sure to check out, Never Enough Time in Nature: The Benefits of Being Outside.

So, my number one tip is to start saving LOOSE PARTS.   Paper towel rolls, egg cartons, bottle caps, string, cereal boxes, rocks, sticks, etc.

I know that it might seem crazy to wrap these things up and give them as gifts, so maybe don’t do that.  But have them stockpiled somewhere and then you have all the supplies you need for some imaginative art projects in the future.

Now for wrappable gifts that will be used throughout the whole year:  

Here are my best finds that I can recommend for children of almost any age.

 Paint Markers (and Art Supplies)

For example, one of my play therapist friends loves to paint rocks with kids in sessions.  And she recommended these acrylic paint markers to me a few weeks ago. She says that they are better than paint brushes for making more detailed designs on rocks and dry super fast. And while you are at it, you might want to pick up a bag of rocks and some sealant!

So, I have not actually tried these markers yet, but they are in my cart for my artistic 6 year old so that she can get to work during the (too many) days off school. 

Earlier this year, we tested a Pinterest project where we painted rocks with melted crayons. It was so easy and really fun!  You can really do a lot with a rock. So, if you’re not ready for the markers, just grab a box of crayons and some rocks! Pop the rocks in the oven for 10 minutes or so and then rub the crayons on top and Voila! 

Another play therapist approved art supply that we’ve all been adding to our carts is this hand-powered paper shredder.  Mine is on order and has not yet arrived, but combine this with a stack of colored paper and post it notes and kids are loving it!. 

Buddha Board

One of my absolute favorite things for kids (and adults) of all ages in my Buddha Board.  I discovered this at a craft fair in Alaska and ordered in that very night from the hotel room.  When I bragged about my prized find to all of my play therapist friends, they were all like “Oh, I love mine.  It’s the best.” I had no idea that everyone knew about this but me, but if you are also late to the Buddha Board party, let me tell you to GET ON BOARD. Literally.

It’s painting without the mess - simply paint with water that makes a picture and then as it dries it disappears.  So, zero mess (except occasional spilled water, but I can handle that). And, it’s great for artists who are very critical of their mistakes because they dry and morph into new things so quickly that you learn to let go and go with the flow.  It’s also a great mindfulness activity for us older folks. We have ours sitting on the kitchen counter and it is used almost daily as we sit and chat, finish homework and get dinner ready. 

Nature Toys: Terrarium, Nets, and Kids Sized Tools 

One of my clients actually recommended this to me as a birthday present for my nature loving son. He has caught and studied several lizards, beetles and other bugs in it. It was such a hit and perfect. And it encourages children to go out and observe and interact (nicely) with nature and their environment so it’s really a win-win.

Along that same line, one of our most valuable (and inexpensive) toys this year has been a net.  For chasing butterflies, or trying to scoop up fish in the tidepools of Hawaii to just collecting leaves.  We got these nets for $3 at the local fishing store and are now a must-have item anytime we leave the house.

And, all of the kid-sized tools that you can find.  The kid sized broom (indoor and outdoor) is great for kids that want to help with chores or those who just need some heavy work to calm their senses.  And on my list now is the kid-sized rakes! Also, kid-friendly knives, pizza cutters, and kitchen equipment has been in heavy rotation at our house this year.

Bike Lights

My aunt gets all the credit for this one as the birthday present gone gangbusters!  Obviously, if your child doesn’t have a bike...then that is the first priority. But once you have that minor detail covered, then these bike lights are guaranteed to make them the coolest kids on the block.  They can turn them on/off themselves and they come in tons of different colors. They are a bit of a pain to lace through the spokes, but not difficult at all. And once you have them in, I have to admit...I wanted some for my bike.  We started off with just one wheel, but plan to finish the look as Christmas presents. 

Baby Doll

My infant mental health expert and play therapist colleague turned me on to the best baby doll I have ever seen.  It has movable joints and is not made of that annoying hard plastic. It feels like a really newborn and even fits 0-3 month clothes, which leaves room for tons of fun in the future with diapers, clothes and all the nurturing play you can imagine.  And, it comes in multiple ethnicities, which means you can either match the doll to your child OR introduce them to a baby that looks different than they do. Your choice!

*My goal was to save this one for Christmas, but that was an epic failure.  Here we are a month away from Christmas and my daughter AND son have taken over the two that I ordered for my office as their own.  

Cooperative Board Games

Everyone knows that I am a huge fan of cooperative board games.  And, #humblebrag, I even have a chapter in this awesome new play therapy book dedicated to using them in therapy.  (Therapist friends...order it here!). 

But, aside from the therapeutic benefits of learning teamwork and cooperation, these games are just FUN to play.  My all time favorite is Race to the Treasure. But, I recently added Stone Soup, which has also been a big hit. Look for Peaceable Kingdom or Family Pastime games - but add some cooperative board games to your family game night!  And another play therapist friend of mine in Montana introduced me to Obstacles (aka as Lion in the way) which is a surprisingly fun cooperative, problem-solving/story-telling game that my kids loved. It promotes imaginative and flexible thinking. 

 Peter H. Reynolds!

I have a new obsession with all things Peter H. Reynolds so if  you are doing the "4 Rules of Christmas" thing (you know- something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to READ), then this is your best bet.

The books (any of them) are my kids most favorite books to read and they all these important (but not over the top annoying) messages about resiliency, empathy, courage, etc. 

And the perfect go-with gifts are the workbooks.  A guided journal for artists or writers who might be unsure of how or what to do to get started!  I love them both so much that I kept them for myself and now I have to go back and order more for the kids!

About the Author Jen Taylor

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

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