While shopping for a birthday present for my one-year-old nephew recently, I stood in a D.C.-area Target contemplating an aisle of Fisher-Price toys, including a pegboard full of corn poppers. I had one for a while when I was little. Kids that age like those; everyone had one! I and my siblings probably used it for a couple years, but I don’t know where it ended up, this being the 1980s. My guess is, the garbage. An existential crisis quickly settled in as I imagined an ocean full of discarded corn poppers and sad mother whales pushing flotillas of them around with their noses. For our nephew’s taco-themed party, we instead got him one of my kids’ old favorites, Adam Rubin’s delightful Dragons Love Tacos, for his parents to read to him at night.
It feels almost impossible to avoid plastics in children’s toys—90% of them are made of the stuff, according to industry estimates. Even worse, most of those are only used for a few months before being tossed, and they’re almost impossible to recycle. I’ve been thinking about this over the last decade or so as I watched which toys piled up, unloved and unused, in my children’s rooms and toy boxes—and more importantly, which toys got played with for years and could be easily passed onto others. Since plastic is almost ubiquitous in toys, finding toys that will be enjoyed for as long as possible is one responsible (and fun) consumer choice. Our family has also stumbled upon some reliable nonplastic kid pleasers that don’t make my stomach queasy when I think about the packaging or environmental impact. This list of winners is based on a tiny focus group of two, though longitudinally it has years of observation behind it. We hope you find something your kids love.
Magna-Tiles 100-piece set
$119.99 from Magnatiles
Magna-Tiles are a bit of an investment, but there’s probably not a toy in our house—other than Lego Duplos—that has been dragged out more often by both my son and daughter than the Magna-Tiles set. They started playing with these BPA-free building toys around age 3, and my almost 10-year-old still enjoys making castles, houses, or towns out of the tiles to invent living spaces for her other toys. They’ll happily play with these solo for hours, and the tiles make a satisfying ASMR-inducing click when you snap them together. They look as good as the day we bought them, so when my kids outgrow them, I know there’s a younger friend out there who’d be happy to take them—and they won’t end up with the whales.
Lush bath bombs
Starting at $4.50 from Lush
Lego sets are a popular holiday or birthday gift, but by the time my daughter was 9, my house was already littered with thousands of the little plastic bricks. I imagined everyone else’s house was too, so we started looking for some different gifts for the parties she’s invited to. She’s gotten excited about bath bombs, and we love Lush, which created the bath bomb in 1989. It’s clear upon walking into the store that this company is different. There’s no packaging for the bath bombs (“naked packaging,” as the company calls it); you pick items up with tongs and slip them into little brown bags. Its shampoos and other body products come in reusable tins. This is an especially good present if you have kids who are bath-resistant. Some cute options for the holidays include this fizzing Santa, a baby bot with a blend of lavender, chamomile, and sandalwood essential oils to help kids calm down at night, and a shiny, pudgy polar bear.
Supersafe paper center
$49.99 from Lakeshore Learning
I got this for my kids last Christmas, and it’s something they’ve used almost every day since. If you have an artistic kid, they’ll love being able to rip off custom sizes of paper for whatever project they’re working on, and you won’t have to answer the daily call of “MOOOOM, WE’RE OUT OF PAPER!” The roll that comes with the wooden dispenser is 400 feet long, so you may not have to answer this particular call for, like, a year. Add a big box of fresh crayons or colored pencils and a drawing book if you’re feeling generous—and want to sleep in on weekend mornings. Happy holidays to you, too.
$9.99 from Target
You know what the problem with games is? A lot of times the ones that are easy enough for kids to play are mind-bogglingly boring for adults—and tend to drag on. Jenga is easy enough for everyone, actually entertaining for all ages, and can be played for just a few minutes, or much longer if you want. Best of all, parents can just as easily topple a tower as can kids—and there’s nothing more exciting for a 5-year-old than legitimately beating an adult at a game. Plus, kids like things that crash.
Melissa & Doug standard unit wood blocks
$69.99 from Melissa & Doug
A plain wooden box full of plain wooden blocks may not look exciting to adults, but trust me when I say that these blocks have enjoyed almost a full decade of use at our house. Sixty smooth hardwood blocks for some reason tickle imaginations, encouraging the creation of mazes, tracks, towers, and intricate stacks. And while putting toys away is seemingly no child’s strong suit, situating the blocks back in the wooden crate they come with feels like a soothing puzzle.
Kids’ kitchen stuff
I’m sure I got presents from other kids when I was young , but the only one I remember was a big yellow bowl with a vintage-style egg beater and a box of cake mix so I could make a birthday cake. It was exciting to get this grown-up style gift, and our family used that yellow bowl as our family popcorn bowl at least until I left for college. That would be a fun gift to recreate today with something like this retro egg beater and a box of brownies and an indestructible bowl of your choice—along with a promise to join in the treat-making. Another alternative: My daughter, who’s interested in baking and cooking, asked me for her own kitchen knife. Ever since I gave her this Opinel children’s knife, I’ve had an eager partner to help me chop carrots or whatever we need for that night’s salad—and we haven’t lost a fingertip . . . yet. Win-win.
$24.00 from Amazon
You’d think that a set of stacking toys/nesting blocks would be something that kids would lose interest in once their toddler years are over, but our stacking set is one of the “baby toys” we’ve kept around for the long haul. We pull our blocks like these out when friends with babies visit, but my son also likes to use the tall, full stack for target practice for round kicks and superhero punches. They’re light, so they don’t damage anything when they scatter, and because they nest, they don’t take up too much space to store.
Rory’s Story Cubes
$9.99 from Play Therapy Supply
Story Cubes teach kids the importance and fun of storytelling before they can read or spell, so as a journalist, I’m probably biased, but these little guys are the most portable, bang-for-your-buck amount of fun you could ever slip into a jeans pocket. I’ve distracted my kids—and myself—for many hours playing Story Cubes (which are especially useful for killing time at restaurants). They challenge kids to stretch their imaginations, and adults to think like kids. You roll nine dice and tell a story based on whatever pictures come up by putting the dice in a line like a sentence. So, if you get “turtle, tent, fire, apple, eye, fish, magic wand, text bubble, house,” a kid might—for instance—turn it into a story that begins, “Once upon a time, there was a turtle who decided to go camping. It was tough putting up his tent alone with his short little legs, but . . .” (The rest is up to you.)