Think (and Shop) like a Preschool Teacher: The ECM Holiday Gift Guide is here!

By Rebecca Walsh & Shannon Jerolmon

Ready or not…the holidays are here!   Holidays with little ones can be a marvelous and nostalgic time to reignite holiday traditions and bring back a little bit of the holiday magic.  At the same time, they can include stressful travel, disruptions in schedule and childcare, and lots of extended family (and their well-meaning gifts!)  

When I became a parent six years ago, I immediately began to think about the home play space I would create for my child. After carefully designing countless preschool and toddler classrooms over the years, I excitedly set out to organize my own child’s play space. Play is the work of childhood, and a child’s toys and the environment in which she/he plays has a significant impact on their “work.” Years later, many of the same considerations about play environment continue to inform my holiday shopping decisions.

One way I have avoided accumulating so many toys, and being pulled into purchasing the latest and greatest gadgets, is to basically not buy anything that I wouldn’t find in a high quality early childhood setting.  When I think about what toys would benefit my children, I think about the curriculum areas of a preschool or toddler room-each of which support specific areas of child development.  From there, I consider how to diversify and enliven each area to engage my children in all areas of play, deepening their specific areas of interest and thoughtfully expanding their play in ways that might not come as naturally. As we create a more intentional balance in the play materials offered to our children, their play will become more balanced as well.

It is so tempting to buy lots of gifts for our children during the holidays in an effort to give them an unforgettable day. It can be helpful to remember that the more toys children have, the less they value them. Overall, having fewer possessions helps children have longer attention spans and be more resourceful, cooperative and creative. Giving your child a few lovingly chosen, made-to-last toys is far more valuable than a mountain of toys that will quickly get lost or forgotten.

Read on for the 2015 Early Childhood Matters’ Gift Guide. You will find toy suggestions arranged according to their corresponding preschool curriculum area. I hope you find this guide helpful as you build up your toy libraries in thoughtful and creative ways.

While we have provided some online links for your reference, we strongly encourage you to shop local wherever possible. Some of our favorite local shops include Recess, Green Apple Books, West Portal’s 3 toy stores, and, of course, consignment shops like Chloe’s Closet. We also like to check out local parent listservs, Craigslist or neighborhood parenting pages on Facebook for gently used children’s items. A quick online search will yield an abundance of postings for items like balance bikes, play kitchens, train sets, clothing and baby gear. Not only is this a great way to keep costs down during the holidays (and throughout the year), it is also a great way to connect with your community, reduce waste, and help your neighbors de-clutter!

Happy Holidays to you and yours!

ECM Approved Holiday Gift Guide: 2015


BLOCKS/MANIPULATIVES (Fine motor skills, mathematical thinking, collaboration, problem solving)

·         Wooden Blocks: If you don’t have a solid collection of wooden blocks, I would recommend starting here. It is great to have a large selection in a variety of shapes and sizes, to inspire limitless creativity in building. Ages 2-still going strong at 6!

·         Shape Stacker (Maple Landmark): This stacker grows with your child. A very young child can grab and stack the pieces, and this stacker’s unique geometrical shapes extend the learning well into 18m-3years. Available at Recess!

·         Magna Tiles: If you haven’t discovered these yet, let me be the first to introduce you to what will likely lead to hours of engaged happy creative children! Ages 2-still going strong at 6!


DRAMATIC PLAY (creative thinking, social emotional, collaboration, problem solving)

·         Wooden Play Kitchen/Kitchen Toys These are available in a wide range of styles and price points. Keep an eye out for gently used play kitchens that have plenty of life left, or if you’re feeling crafty, try making your own!

·         Baby Dolls These are beloved by toddler boys and girls alike. When selecting baby dolls, think about dolls that are diverse in ethnicity/gender/appearance as a way of enriching your child’s play space.

·         Baby doll strollers can add great fun for indoor and outdoor walks and nurturing imaginative play. Doll-sized baby carriers and wraps are also a sweet, hands-free way for toddlers to transport their lovies just like grownups (and can be helpful in the adjustment to having a younger sibling!).

·         Tool box: Wonderful for imitating and “helping” parents with home repairs; these also help develop fine-motor skills and teach cause-and-effect.

·         To encourage your little helper to join in household tasks in a more practical way, child-sized brooms and dustpans (like these) are a great place to start.

ARTS & CRAFTS (Creative expression, fine motor skills)

·         Toddler-sized crayons Left-Right Crayons (International Arrivals): These crayons are erasable, ergonomically appropriate for even the earliest drawers, super sturdy, non-toxic, and eco-friendly. And the colors are beautiful! (These left/right crayons are available at Recess!)

·         Do-a-dots are great for creative expression with minimal mess and cleanup required

·         Easel and washable paint in primary colors for hours of mixing fun!

SCIENCE/SENSORY (Sensory integration, scientific thinking)

A great home-made gift idea is to make some play-doh, moon sand, kinetic sand, or Gak as a holiday present for your child. This can also be a wonderful gift for an older sibling to make for their younger toddler-aged sibling! (Recipes can be found online; a great resource for sensory recipes and ideas is Ooey Gooey)


No matter your age, there is something special about having a real instrument of your very own. Ukuleles are just the right size for toddlers to strum, and are quite pleasant to listen to (as long as they are in tune!). Small instruments such as kazoos, egg shakers, tambourines and harmonicas are also great fun for budding musicians and make for very affordable gifts for the younger set.

GROSS MOTOR (big body play, energy release, muscle strengthening, balance, and lots of sensory input)

·         Balance Bikes are preferable to scooters for building left/right hemisphere connections and, well, balance

·         Mini Trampoline great energy release on rainy days!

·         Radio flyer rocking horse-Great indoor energy outlet and proprioceptive and vestibular stimulation

·         Door swing/ladder-for an active toddler (and way beyond!) a door swing or ladder to climb will provide countless moments of indoor fun, muscle building and energy release

·         Punching bag or bop it bag - a great energy release for the active child!

·         Hoppity hops-a classic bouncing toy for developing balance and releasing energy

·         Balls-a good collection of indoor soft balls to help redirect the toddler throwing stage, as well as some balls to bring along to the park!

·         Scarves- store bought or a thrift store collection to encourage dancing, imagining and moving in creative ways.


The holidays are a wonderful time to build your child’s library. Listed below are some of our recent favorites-books that our children request time and again, and that we are happy to read as often as they like. Our favorite books tend to include rich, detailed illustrations (often with humorous hidden details), books that highlight and celebrate diversity, and books that carry valuable messages in a beautiful, lyrical voice.

·         Little Humans by Brandon Stanton. The creator of Humans of New York wrote and photographed the images in this book. Simple, empowering text with gorgeous portraits of children in New York City.

·         All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon. A lovely, gentle book about families living through the simple joys and disappointments of a single day. A great story to read before bed; its nature-centered illustrations and mellow, reassuring rhyme are incredibly soothing for children and adults alike.

·         Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback. A simple folk tale with a message, masterfully illustrated with die-cut images and plenty of hidden details that will make adults chuckle. There is a song version of the book that is fun to sing with toddlers.

·         The Day the Babies Crawled Away by Peggy Rathman. A funny and tender story of a small child coming to the rescue when a group of babies escape from a pie-eating contest, written by the author of the classic Good Night, Gorilla. The illustrations are all in silhouette, making it visually striking to look at.

·         Cars and Trucks and Things that Go by Richard Scarry. We love this book (and really, anything by Richard Scarry) and so do our kids. The incredibly detailed, whimsical illustrations and meandering storyline mean that there is always something new to notice in its pages.

·         The Ultimate Book of Vehicles from Around the World by Anne-Sophie Baumann. If your child loves vehicles and/or Richard Scarry books, this gorgeous book is a great next read. It features realistic but fun illustrations of a wide variety of cars, trucks, boats and planes (even rockets!) and has pop-up features and moving parts throughout the book. A fascinating keepsake.

·         The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman. Another beautifully illustrated book, filled with detailed illustrations that even the littlest readers will pore over with interest. This book explores and celebrates families of all kinds. It is a fantastic book to have in your library as your child grows, gracefully addressing big topics and opening the door for meaningful discussions.

·         Life-Size Zoo by Teruyuki Komiya. This is a fascinating book that will grow with your child. It features up-close, fold-out, life-size photographs of a variety of different animals. Toddlers will enjoy looking at their favorite animals and pointing out body parts; older children will love learning interesting facts, which are written and illustrated in small comics along the margins.