- Sidewalk chalk. Sadie is just starting to enjoy sidewalk chalk, and she's almost two, but Theo at three and a half is totally occupied with it. We spend whole afternoons filling the sidewalk outside our house with drawings, and roads are a popular thing to draw for us too. If you're looking for ideas of how to use chalk after the gift is opened, try drawing shapes or writing numbers/the alphabet and get your child to copy. Or get them to jump on letters/numbers/shapes that you name, or that they name. Theo has also started playing hopscotch, so that's another one you could try from about three years.
- Puzzle. These come in varying levels of difficulty and price. My tips for picking a good "cheap" puzzle are to look for wooden pieces (we've got a wooden puzzle that cost $2 new) or if getting the cardboard in a frame variety look for a universal picture that can appeal to more than one child (if that's something you care about) and make sure it's thick enough to be sturdy. Also, the cardboard puzzles that have shapes hidden amongst the usual "puzzle piece shapes" are good for the younger ones, it gives more points of reference when solving.
- Art supplies. $2 shops and their kind have made this sort of thing totally accessible. Even for young ones that you know will eat the crayons, push the felt tips in, wind up the entire glue stick and mix the paints. Remember to buy non-toxic and washable. And my policy when buying such cheap art supplies is to go for the pack with the most in it, since they'll gradually be destroyed no matter the quality*. Also, just one will do! Buying just felt tip pens or just crayons is enough of a gift for most children. You don't need to deck them out with an entire art studio**.
- Musical instruments. Aren't all children interested in musical instruments from birth till sometime after five? As much as I hate to sat it, recorders can be bought cheaply and are a good place to start if you're not sure your if the child you're buying for is musically inclined. Other instruments that I would look for: harmonica, small drum, shakers. Bigger instruments than these start to get much more expensive, which is fine if you can afford it. But those four should be available for $5 or less.
- Toy vehicles. Sadie has been a vehicle girl ever since she was able to crawl. But I think she was an exception. Theo has be getting more interested in vehicles in the last year (2 1/2 onwards). It doesn't seem to matter what type of vehicle it is, if it has wheels it will work. But try to look for something well built if you can, because kids often put all/a lot of their weight on whatever they're driving.
- Storybook. This may be "boring" for some five-year-olds and older, but at 2-4 I think it's still an exciting gift. Of course interactive books (lift the flap, touch and feel etc) will give a bigger rush of excitement for the younger ones, but for older children look for a story that you don't mind being a part of your child's behaviour i.e. they will mimic whatever they watch/read at this age so make sure phrases/behaviours in the books that you read to your children are things you don't mind being repeated.
- Handbag. This idea is mostly for girls, but Theo loves to carry bags for me too, and uses Sadie's handbag occasionally, so could work for either (if you don't mind boys with handbags). Despite anyone's efforts to treat their child neutrally, girls tend to like pretty things, whereas boys are happy with something purely functional (but don't mind the pretty). That's just the way it seems to be!
Happy gifting! If you like/use an idea from here I'd love to hear about it!
*If there are any obvious differences in quality, if prices are the same, and pieces per packet are similar, I obviously choose the better one.
**At this age children can be creative with much less. Of course at an elder age a child particularly interested in art can use more supplies.
Disclaimer: The links included are intended as image credits. Some are linked to cheap, good quality products and some to more expensive ones that I would never actually buy myself. I am not a paid advertiser for any of these products.