Last week I saw a picture online of what may be the single most beautiful toy I've ever seen: a handmade set of wooden blocks that comes in its own handmade wooden wagon, just the right height for a toddler to push around. It's heirloom quality, crafted by some guy in Wisconsin, with a price to match. Worth every penny, I'm sure, but at over $300, a little rich for my blood.
But it put me in an anti-plastic mood nonetheless, so I decided to look around this week for some more budget-friendly wooden (or metal, or fabric) toys and gift ideas. Much of what I found was in stock at both Toy Up (Bowman Curve) and the Heights Toy Center (R Street), so take your pick.
A few of my favorites:
For little babies, the Selecta-Spielzeug line of wooden rattles and grasp toys ($13-$20). The company promises its paints are “absolutely child safe.” Melissa and Doug, another maker of wooden toys, also claims to use non-toxic dyes. I love Melissa and Doug's monkey-face rattler ($11) — extremely high cute factor, and it's the perfect shape for wee hands to wrap around.
Toddlers would like wooden pull toys from Haba — no lights or noises, no batteries required, easy on the grown-ups' sanity. My pick is a little truck that has a clown face where the cab should be, and four brightly patterned barbell-like things that spin when you pull the truck. It's $48, but Melissa and Doug makes some that are cheaper — a chain of three brightly colored animals, for instance, is just $20.
Melissa and Doug, in general, is a fantastic brand — they've got wooden versions of classics like stacking rings and shape-sorter boxes, plus dollhouse furniture, puzzles, sets of blocks, even a giant folding medieval castle.
If nostalgia's your thing, and you're not against all gun toys of any kind, the Heights Toy Center carries a wooden rubber-band shooter from Neato! ($10). I wouldn't have minded one of those back in the day.
Ten Thousand Villages on Clinton Avenue has some great wooden toys too: puzzles ($18-$28), a small one-room dollhouse (fitting, given that the toys are made by third-world craftspeople) and even a school bus with a pull-back lid and 16 Little-People-esque figures sitting inside ($58).
My favorites there, though, are made of fabric: A large multicolored, multisegmented caterpillar ($28) and a cloth-turtle stacking rings set ($34).
To the books:
If you've got little ones and can't figure out what to get their grandparents, pick up “My Grandpa's Briefcase” ($17) and “My Granny's Purse” ($16), both at Wordsworth. They're technically board books, I guess, but they've got all sorts of things for little ones to touch and try on and play with inside. Granny's purse, for instance, includes glasses and rings to try on; Grandpa has a whoopee cushion in his briefcase, among more educational items.
For an older child, check out pop-up genius Robert Sabuda's latest. This year, Sabuda tackled the “Chronicles of Narnia” stories ($30), but he also put out a smaller book called “Winter in White: A Mini-Pop-Up Treat” ($13) that would make a great stocking stuffer for adults.
Speaking of pop-ups, the Heights Toy Center has a make-your-own kit from Creativity for Kids ($17).
As much as I love pop-ups — and I do love pop-ups — the coolest book I came across was “The Daring Book for Girls” ($25), by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz. It's the counterpart to “The Dangerous Book for Boys” ($25), which came out in the U.S. last spring, and is a well-written, brilliantly compiled collection of things every girl needs to know. What I love about this book is it presumes nothing. There are chapters on cootie catchers and four-square, finance and going to Africa, slumber party games and reading tide charts, tying a sari and Robert's Rules of Order. Oh, and Boys, although they only rate a single page. As befits them, cootie-infested creatures that they are.