Music: I have yet to meet a toddler who doesn't like to boogie. Wrap up a cd in a cute zippered case that can go from the car to the house without dropping and breaking 3 plastic jewel cases. My favorite kids' artists are Sandra Boynton, Putumayo Kids, and They Might Be Giants.
Cups: Toddlers go through a lot of sippy cups. They break them, they lose them, they roll them behind the couch until Daddy finds them 3 months later, full of rancid stinky solidified milk. Currently, our favorites are Klean Kanteens (can be purchased with the sport cap or sippy adaptor - yes, I know I'm a hippie), and the Thermos Foogo Straw Bottle. If you want to make it extra special, order some Inchbug personalized reusable ID bands.
Musical Instruments: Plan Toys makes some really fun, beautifully made, sustainable options for younger children that are actually affordable. The Nugget has the solid wood drum and we all love it. Its sound is rich and deep, not at all annoying.
Chunky Wood Puzzles: I am so in love with this one by Kid-O. Melissa and Doug and Plan Toys also make sustainable chunky wood puzzles for the toddler set.
Push and Pull Toys: Every toy brand makes these, from lawnmowers to grocery carts, pull ducks, dogs, even hippos. I would attest that at every playdate, these are the toys that the toddlers are fighting over.
Aquadoodle: Stimulate creativity without the mess. This travel version would be perfect for your favorite road tripper or jet-setter.
Playsilks: Seem too simple but are beloved by both boys and girls for their limitless potential. Hem your own squares of silk if you've got skills, if not, find them at Hearthsong.
Hooded Towels: Toddlers are at a weird size where baby towels are too small and adult towels are still too big. The Nugget has the Camp Critter Towel from LLBean, and while normally I would be embarrassed to admit dropping such a seemingly absurd amount of cash on a towel, I can honestly say it was so worth it. The towel covers him head to toe, is warm, cute, makes him smile, and stays soft through washing. It would make a fantastic gift for a favorite niece, nephew, or godchild.
Videos: If you know the parents let their children watch tv, I recommend Signing Time, Sesame Street Old School, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood (inexplicably off the air at PBS, a true travesty), and Reading Rainbow. Not only are all of these educational, the latter three are just so sweet and nostalgic...who doesn't love the Ladybug Picnic song or the chime of Mr. Rogers' trolley? The other advantage of dvds is that nothing comes on "next" like live TV, so when it's over, IT'S OVER, making couch potato time non-negotiable.
Clothes: Are pretty tough to buy for any toddler other than your own. Brand sizes vary, and no two kids are shaped the same (says the Mommy of a long-torso-ed, short-legged Nugget). Sneak a peek at tags or logos to find out the parents' preferred brands (Jumping Beans = Kohls, Just One Year or Cherokee = Target, Child of Mine = Walmart, ON logo = Old Navy, teddy bear = BabyGap, lowercase g = Gymboree) and buy a gift card. If you see something that is too cute and you have to try it, remember to get a gift receipt and when in doubt, buy a size up.
Shoes: Good ones for growing feet are super expensive, and active toddlers wear them out and grow out of them like you wouldn't believe. That makes them the perfect gift, as long as you don't mind ruining the surprise. I love buying shoes for toddlers, but I ask the mom/dad ahead of time what size and type/brand of shoe they need. Then, I watch Shoebuy or Piperlime for sales, and nab them with a discount. Free shipping both ways ensures that if they don't fit just right, the recipient can exchange them without hassles.
On a tight budget? Here are some inexpensive toddler gift solutions:
1. Jumbo crayons (the jumbo is key) and a coloring book from the dollar store. You can even make your own rainbow jumbo crayons by baking crayon stumps in a muffin pan. I am saving the free crayons we get with the kids menu for this purpose.
2. A bottle of bubble bath - I like Method (good ingredients and inexpensive), available at Target.
3. A giant playground ball - get it at any of your big box stores for $2-3.