No puppies either; my sister would kill me.
January 1, 2013 7:40 PM   Subscribe

What is the most awesome gift I can give a two year old these days?

My sister and her 23.67 month old child are coming all the way across the country to visit my wife and me this month. We have no children. I know very little about children.

I would like to get the child something Really Cool, but I don't know what sorts of things would really excite a two year old. Price isn't really a factor, I just want something jaw-dropping that the child is capable of understanding.

E.g., left to my own devices I would go buy the biggest, craziest lego set on the market, but I suspect that would be too advanced at this time. So I will bide my time and take your suggestions.

Furthermore, I've read some previous similar questions and it seems that stuff with lots of parts (e.g. saxoflute) maybe are not the best as my sister probably has enough cleaning up to do, and I previously sent a wood block set (which went over well because of the bright colors and a love of smashing things).

I'm just going to come clean and admit that I'm trying to very passively and subtly turn their daughter into an intelligent thinker. Is there something I can get my niece that will make the sort of emotional impact I described above as well as have some redeeming value? I do not want to get some "gender appropriate" thing like a doll, but I also don't want force anything.

All suggestions welcome. Except dolls.
posted by jeffamaphone to Shopping (46 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
A marble run. A nice one, sturdy, with lots of nifty specialty parts. (Hell, maybe even two to enable the building of superstructures.)

I had a marble run when I was a toddler (I think it probably came into my life sometime around age two) and my brother and I still played with that thing into my early teens. (We were kind of weird kids, though.)

Yes it has lots of parts, but it encourages building skills, creativity, delayed gratification (you have to build it before you get to play with it), and holy crap they're fun.

Now I kind of wish I had one as an adult. Damn.
posted by phunniemee at 7:44 PM on January 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

We also bought our (three year old ad 18 month old) nephews the FAO piano that is seen in the movie Big, the kind that you dance on with your feet to make noise. It was a huge hit.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:47 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thomas the tank engine is massive with kids that age.
posted by vincele at 7:48 PM on January 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

Bath toys were a hit w mine from early on. Bath fizzies, tub paints, floaty mermaids, squirty fish etc.
posted by GaelFC at 7:48 PM on January 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

Fort making materials. Sturdy boxes, plush pillows, life-size Lincoln logs, and blankets were the most glorious toys as a little kid.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:49 PM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

A Magna-Doodle, or whatever non-brand-name version, is the modern-day version of the Etch-a-Sketch. My 3-year-old, and my 22-month old both adore it. It's also a LOT less mess than 37,000 crayons and 950 sheets of paper. At this age she'll scribble. Soon she'll be practicing stick figures and then letters and numbers. A big one for the house or a smaller one for travel. (P.S. I play with it too.)
posted by wjm at 7:51 PM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A rody!

We looove ours-kids can burn some energy when stuck indoors and adults can ride em too, so you can have drunken summer rody races. How awesome is that?

Seriously, I think simple is great at this age, and would always pick something for creativity or activity. My kids loved play food, a fabulous set of wooden blocks, and ride on toys at this age.
posted by purenitrous at 7:51 PM on January 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Magna tiles
posted by k8t at 7:51 PM on January 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

perhaps an easel and art supplies? 2nd thought as my first was the fort-making supplies :)
posted by 2manyusernames at 7:53 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: While I love a good fort, she does have to lug whatever I get back on an airplane. :)
posted by jeffamaphone at 7:54 PM on January 1, 2013

If he's old enough for picture books get him Mo Willems Pigeon or Cat the Cat or Susan Meddaugh's Martha.
posted by brujita at 7:55 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sorry, SHE
posted by brujita at 7:56 PM on January 1, 2013

jeffamaphone: "While I love a good fort, she does have to lug whatever I get back on an airplane. :)"


My brother had a child first in our family and the only rule he gave those of us without children was no gifts that required batteries. They simply make too much noise not to mention the cost of batteries and the disposal problem, etc.

My daughter had (still has at 18) a stuffed animal collection. She loved playing zoo or something with all the different animals. She would make the sounds and talk to them. Between a soft father like me, family friends and family, she ended up with about 35 of them. She still considers them a prized possession.

She had plastic vegetables and plates and a kitchen that she and her brother used to cook meals for us.

I forget what age she was, but she was young when she ended up with an etch-a-sketch. LOVED that thing.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:58 PM on January 1, 2013

Seconding the magna tiles, even if they say age three or above they are perfectly safe for two year olds and I think they appreciate the almost magical qualities of them. They're fun for adults too which encourages joint play.
posted by Rumple at 8:00 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Since the kid is not quite 2, "choking hazard" is still a thing. I'd steer clear of the marble run or anything else with small parts that will require intense parental supervision.
If your impulse is to buy Lego, consider Duplo (which is absolutely perfect for 2-year-olds). You can get all kinds of different sets, including ones with detailed figurines like the zoo and also more open ended tubs of bricks.
Bubble solution and sidewalk chalk are winners.
Pretend food is great.
posted by steinwald at 8:01 PM on January 1, 2013 [10 favorites]

posted by Sassyfras at 8:04 PM on January 1, 2013

Bilibos (also sold by the Rody people) are awesome. Two Billibos would be even better and shouldn't be difficult to take back on a plane. They are rocking chairs and sit-and-spins and turtle shells and darth vader helmets and all kinds of other fun stuff.
posted by Dojie at 8:07 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agreeing on Magnatiles. That's just about the age when they'll start being interesting and they're really cool, will be used for years, and are a bit pricey (so would make a good gift!).
posted by otherwordlyglow at 8:08 PM on January 1, 2013

Alas I think marbles and (regular-sized) Lego are still considered choking hazards at this age; check the age range on the packages. Duplo is great, though.

Our nearly-2-year old enjoys imitating us (latest trick: holding up a glasses case to his ear and saying "hi") so toy versions of grownup things might be good.

Of course books are always great.

As for "jaw-dropping": they'll probably have fun with anything you get, but you can't count on any reaction. Maybe they'll immediately want to play with it, or maybe they'll just have found the world's coolest rock in the back yard and aren't going to take any interest in the new thing today. Keep your expectations in check and enjoy the mystery that is a toddler.
posted by bfields at 8:08 PM on January 1, 2013 [7 favorites]

The ikea train set! We got one for my son when he was closer to a year old, and I shit you not, he plays with it EVERY DAY and he turned 2 in October. Also, it's quiet and requires no batteries and would pack easily in luggage to travel back home. There are a couple sets with different types of pieces to extend it too.
posted by chiababe at 8:10 PM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

We got magna tiles for my 4 year old for Xmas. We had friends with a 2 year old ams 7 year old over during the holidays and all ages and adults loved them. At daycare as well, all ages love them.
I am amazed what my kid is building with them.
posted by k8t at 8:11 PM on January 1, 2013

My kids LOVE Duplos. We have some sets with animal and people figures, as well as some Thomas the Train pieces, and they are quite possibly our most used toys. Both kiddos build something from those blocks almost every day.
posted by Happydaz at 8:12 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and seconding the Ikea train set!! My son loves that set!
posted by Happydaz at 8:13 PM on January 1, 2013

Duplos will not be too advanced (they are for 1.5 years old and up). It is easier to make a tower out of Duplos vs wooden blocks. They come in 'girl colors' with bunnies and princesses if that would go over better with the parents, but ignore that if you can get away with it. It's really all the fun and educational value of legos, except for people who have poor fine motor skills and a tendency to eat things that fit in their mouths. She will enjoy them now and for several years to come.
posted by steinwald at 8:22 PM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Thirding the Ikea (or other similar) train set. Ours both loved the wooden train sets when they were that age, and still play with them 4 years later.

Of course, my favorite things to get children of any age are books.
posted by jferg at 8:38 PM on January 1, 2013

My kid (age 24.5 months) adores the following:

Lego Duplos! They are totally fine for that age. (Regular Legos require too much fine motor control as you surmise).

Small vehicles of various kinds. Trains, cars, school buses

Musical instruments (maracas are a big hit around here)


Books: Mo Willems, Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry.

Magnadoodle (bonus: fabulous diversion on a plane trip)

A flashlight that's small enough for little hands with a big switch that's easy to manipulate

If you can lay hands on a big cardboard box that she/he can climb in and out of and be spun around in and play hide-and-seek in, that will be hugely popular and will be completely trashed by the end of the visit so you can then recycle it with a clear conscience.

Kids this age really love to imitate the things that adults do--my son really loves to sweep and wipe up messes and "help" cook and "wash dishes" on a stepstool which really just means pouring water from one container to another.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 8:39 PM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have a two year old boy. The biggest hit gift of the holidays this year was a hand-puppet of a cat from Etsy. He interacts with it frequently. Shares with it, tells little stories about it, personifies it and really flexes his imagination. It's pretty awesome. I would totally recommend a cool hand-puppet.

Other toys he loves right now - Tegu magnetic blocks (though I'll be checking those magna tiles too), a Melissa and Doug mailbox, tons and tons of books, a Kazoo, a Harmonica and other assorted noise-making devices. He also got this barn when he was about 6 months old and it's the only toy from that age he still plays with.

Given your goal, you should be in good shape with anything that can spark imagination and trigger creativity.
posted by Jacob G at 8:40 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some good small stuff that they can take back easily:

Harmonica - little kids go crazy with them

Hexbugs - surprisingly fun, don't get the bigger mechanical ones, just the little ones which vibrate

Buddha Board - painting with water, and it fades after a few minutes to do it again

Bath toys - at 2 years old, they're starting to be able to really play in the bathtub. Squeezy toys are great, but a set of measuring cups and funnels are a great option as well
posted by markblasco at 8:52 PM on January 1, 2013

We bought our 2yo a small Android tablet after he'd started to seriously monopolise the iPad.

Load it up with a kiddie sandbox app so they can't go exploring too far, and install a bunch of games & puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles are a big hit, as well as educational quiz type games. He also loves "games" where you have to do stuff like cook simple dishes for cute animals, or cure their medical problems. Obviously, you'd want to check with the parents first if their conception of parenting involves exposing a little kiddie to tablet computing devices! The parents would also have to be tech-savvy enough to be able to install new apps when the kid outgrows the old ones or gets tired of them.

He's also loving Thomas / Ikea train sets right now, and really enjoying a brand new 3-wheeler scooter - even if the handle is up near chin height.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:55 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Depending on your budget, an iPad full of educational apps.

(If that's how your family rolls.)
posted by taff at 9:01 PM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah, preview much?

What ubu said. Australian toddlers obvioudly go nuts for iPads.
posted by taff at 9:14 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some parents (including some otherwise entirely tech-positive ones) do not believe in screen time for toddlers and would be very unhappy if anyone gifted their toddler a tablet of any sort.

Magna tiles are the bomb. Next year: geomags.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:23 PM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ooh yeah! I forgot about Tegu blocks! Magnetic blocks-way expensive but gorgeous and I think kids would play with them for years. I'd love if our kids were gifted some.
posted by purenitrous at 9:29 PM on January 1, 2013

A play tunnel or tent. Toddlers love small enclosed spaces. And yeah, Fedex it to their home after they leave. Get ones made with fabric, not vinyl or any other plastic materials.
posted by marsha56 at 9:46 PM on January 1, 2013

My grandma got our two-year-old this for Christmas and he loooooves it. Kind of surprised actually, but he's at an age where he's starting to try to learn letters and his vocabulary is exploding so it's a perfect fit.
posted by agress at 9:50 PM on January 1, 2013

My son is this age, and we play with his wooden train set every day. A few choice books that I treasure because they don't annoy me no matter how often we read them:

* Spoon and Chopsticks
* I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat
* Not a Box and Not a Stick

The thing to remember is that kids are really simple in their tastes — they don't care how much something cost or how elaborate it is; they just want something that captures their attention and imagination. Parents love something that can safely occupy the kid while the parent is multi-tasking (as parents always are). So while I love Legos, as a dad of a kid exactly the same age, I'd be annoyed with even a very generous display of Lego exuberance, because it's tons of little pieces that I have to clean up every night and keep the kid from swallowing, without it being significantly more fun for the toddler than, say, a simple wooden train set.

If you want to truly make them happy, find classics like a dump truck or a doll or a play set of pretend food items that are particularly well-made, well-designed, clean-looking and sturdy.

That being said, if you're still hell-bent on a "big" gift, and the parents are okay with it, a Skuut bike is a wonderful show of both flashy, exciting gift-giving and the sort of simple fun that kids like.
posted by anildash at 9:51 PM on January 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

I bought my daughter a rainbow set of playsilks for Christmas. She's three, but she loves them. They can be anything - she wears them as capes, pretends they are water, wraps her toys in them, hides under them...I don't know what else. They look kind of lame - I mean, they are basically large squares of (vibrantly coloured and heavenly smooth) silk, but the baby was thrilled by them. Possibly not the immediate impact toy you're after, but lovely, easy to transport, and engaging. Powered by imagination.
posted by thylacinthine at 10:09 PM on January 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

A ball.
posted by breadbox at 10:28 PM on January 1, 2013

Best answer: PLAY-DOH!!
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 11:27 PM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Im throwing my hat in the ring for a tablet. Our 2 year old totally gets it and loves it. We meter her time to a few hours a week and she loves it. Bonus: not only easy to carry onboard but actually entertaining for the flight too!
posted by chasles at 5:35 AM on January 2, 2013

I am the mother of a four year old who was once a two year old and I am also the mother of a fifteen month old.

A really, really, really, really, really big cardboard box.
posted by zizzle at 5:51 AM on January 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

How much space do you have in your home? You can get a cardboard castle or house for ~20 bucks from a chain toy store that's freak'n huge and will cement you in her mind as the Uncle With The Castle or whatever.

Obviously, the castle would not be coming back with her, but you could then fill it with other stuff (books, block sets, etc) that she can take back. You can also color the castle for a fun activity.

Our two year old is obsessed with firemen and one of his favorite things is a bit of left over tubing I used for homebrewing. It cost all of 62 cents, but it is a hose, a rope, and sometimes London Bridge.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:53 AM on January 2, 2013

My two-year-old loves puzzles right now. We started her on the simple shapes go in matching holes and now she likes the 12 piece simple puzzles -- Melissa & Doug. She also has this mix and match outfits for a family of bears -- it's a wooden puzzle with a box and a lid -- and she got this magnet puzzle which is a dress up girl. It's not too girly and I like that the dress up girl has pretty common outfits.
posted by amanda at 6:10 AM on January 2, 2013

We took our 25-month-old across continents for a couple months and the clear favorite toy, in terms of maximum fun per cubic centimeter, was a set of animal finger puppets. She literally wore holes in a few of them. We cut a hole in an old cardboard box and made a theater for them too. At first she liked watching our shows, but within a few weeks was putting on her own.

I think the common thread you're seeing in a lot of these cheapo wonderlands is that you have to show a two year old why and how a toy is exciting, and play with it with them for a bit and then they'll get excited about just about anything. Spontaneous imaginative play comes a little later (or at least it did for ours) but if you can suggest a set of narratives or ways to interact with it, a stick or a box or a tube can pretty much be their own Disneyland.
posted by dr. boludo at 6:26 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Chiming in with the Magna Tiles recommendation. Expensive and difficult to tell you without seeing it firsthand what a 'hit' it is with young ones.

Yesterday we had about 15 families with their kids over for brunch. (It was a New Year's lunch for a local 'mom's club'.) We had several areas set up for kids of many ages, and a popular area in the basement was the Magna Tiles one. Lots of creative play going on with these things, and if as they are not cheap your sister will really appreciate them once she sees the creations that come out of them.

'Bright colors and a love of smashing things' = a perfect fit IMO.

Another option for a fun toy (but not that creative, more on the 'cool toy' dimension) is an Up and Down Rollercoaster which if your sister has some space can also get a fair amount of use.
posted by scooterdog at 7:07 AM on January 2, 2013

nobody has mentioned stickers? I mean, one's definition of "cool" might vary, but our 2-year-old could spend hour after hour doing sticker books with us, especially the ones that had a few pictures formed from multiple stickers, of that had some naturalist chat about the animals after you put them in place. hours and hours, at home, on planes, in restaurants... STICKERS!!
posted by acm at 7:22 AM on January 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

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