While my specialty is toys for early childhood (infants through six-year-olds), this advice applies to toys and games for all ages.
Rule number 1: Ignore the "it" toy of the moment.
Next year (or next month) it won't matter if little Susie has the newest Zhu Zhu Hamster, because it will be forgotten or broken. Focus, instead, on toys that will keep your child stimulated and are constructed to last longer than a season.
Rule number 2: Know your audience.
A budding baker would prefer a set of toy pots and pans to a trendy toy that doesn't grab his or her interest. If you're not close to the child, you can still choose a "classic" gift like wooden blocks or hand puppets that will make an impact.
Rule number 3: Follow your heart.
Choose a toy that you loved as a child or one that catches your eye and it's bound to be special. You don't have to spend the morning after Thanksgiving bundled up outside Toys "R" Us waiting to buy The Next Big Thing. Follow your heart when choosing and you'll be successful.
Here are some of my favorite toys and brands of toys. These are IT&O-tested and kid-approved; they are sturdy, tons of fun, and in many cases educational. Some are even sustainably-made and good for the earth. Read on, toy buyers!
Melissa & Doug
Melissa & Doug started out in the garage at Doug's parents' house and has grown into one of the most successful toy companies around. Their products are high-quality, featuring many well-constructed wooden toys. In times when children are inundated with cheap plastic toys, the feeling of warm, solid wood is a comforting alternative. Some of my favorite products by Melissa & Doug? Puppets, puzzles, and wooden toys.
Green Toys says that they believe that "the world would be a much better place if everyone said 'please' and 'thank you', cell phones didn’t ring during movies, and all toys were fun, safe, and made from environmentally friendly materials. Since it’s probably no use holding our breath for those first two, we’re concentrating on the toys."
Made from recycled plastic and other environmentally-friendly materials, Green Toys are classic toys that are great for kids and great for the planet. I'm personally a big fan of the tea set (since in addition to it being planet-friendly, it's one of the few tea sets around that isn't plastered with images of Disney princesses or glitter), but all of the company's toys are wonderful, durable, and more pleasant than stuff made from cheap, destructible plastic.
If you're looking for high-quality games, look no further than Cranium, the makers of super-popular games for everyone from preschoolers to adults. The games are silly, lots of fun, and allow people of different ages and abilities to play the same game without anyone feeling as though he or she is too advanced or too far behind. These games are guaranteed to bring you a lot of joy and laughter. (Classic Cranium is my favorite Cranium game for adults!)
Please do me a favor and don't buy Rose Art crayons and supplies for your kids! It pains me to see kids scribbling around with cheap, waxy crayons, when Crayola crayons are so durable and inexpensive in their own right. Stick with the classics here. My favorite? A big box of crayons in many colors.
Buying toys that are well-constructed will serve the children in your life better than plastic pieces of junk that will be forgotten in a few days. Feel free to share your own toy recommendations in the comments!