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Stuff We Like: Retro Gifts for Kids

While our kids revel in their technology, it’s our job as parents to offer plentiful options for old-fashioned play, too—so we’ve got nostalgic, battery-free picks you’ll recall from your own childhood, plus newer gift ideas that just feel retro.


Budding (Green) Builders

jix straw sculpture

You’ll be amazed at the sheer and unexpected beauty of a sculpture made of straws! Design anything from small tabletop structures to stadium-sized installations, from highly geometric constellations to free-form organic webs, with Jix Straw Sculpture Connector($24 for pack of 125).

toobalink starter kit

Or let the kids raid your recycling bin for the materials needed—um, that’d be paper towel and toilet tissue tubes—to construct with the Toobalink Starter Kit ($34.99) Part of the fun is collecting as many tubes as possible so the kids can keep building bigger and better structures. Bonus: Watch a video of how to make a simple sword with Toobalink pieces:  

Nostalgic Artwork

phyllis harris print

Children’s book illustrator Phyllis Harris captures the hope and innocence of childhood in her nostalgic artwork, now available in customizable fine art printsto hang in nurseries, kids’ bedrooms, or libraries—they make wonderfully unique baby shower gifts, too. Browse the website to view a wide variety of pictures (we guarantee you’ll have as tough a time as we did choosing just one illustration!), from moments of childhood reflection to tender scenes such as this one of a girl and her loyal canine companion. (Archival giclée prints available in various sizes; $35 for 11-by-14-inch print)  

Round and Round!

create your own thread art

Create Your Own Thread Art includes instructions and supplies for making frames, mobiles, coasters, and more (ages 3 and older; $7.50). spirograph Or spin a pen-and-paper web with the “new-and-improved” iconic Spirograph Design Set, packaged in a retro-design tin box (ages 8 and older; $14.95).  

Into the Woods

[gallery columns="2" ids="5799,5801"] Have a block party with these original options that go beyond the classic ABC cubes! Kids can form never-ending patterns of marching ants with the Antics Ant Blocks ($250 while the Braille ABC with Sign Language set ($39), also from Uncle Goose, combines ASL symbols with embossed letters (both for ages 2 and older). giraffe safari nest and play blocks from skip hop NYC mainstay SkipHop’s Giraffe Safari Nest and Play Blockslet tots stack and match the sides to reveal towering animals or create a game by dropping included wooden balls in and out of the holes (18 months and older; $20).  

Making It All Up

home grown books adventuring set

Let their imaginations run wild with gift options that promote pretend play. Brooklyn’s own Home Grown Books don't just offer visual prompts for storytelling, they edify parents and respect that young children are able to grasp much richer concepts than they can initially read. The seven themed books in The Adventuring Set(ages 3-6; $29.95) use vivid watercolor paintings to depict days of old with kings, inventors, and knights in shining armor as well as castles, submarines, and maps.

playmobil cargo passenger aircraft

Or encourage your kids to inhabit characters off the page with role-playing toys such as the Playmobil Cargo and Passenger Aircraft (ages 4-10; $109.99)—not only can the plane’s roof be removed for tiny figures to play with characters onboard, but it’s even equipped with a miniature bathroom, hinged cockpit, a cargo container, and air traffic control tower. “All clear!”  

Experimental Fun

edible chemistry kit

Let them play with their food! With this Kids’ Edible Chemistry Kitfrom Uncommon Goods, your tinkering scientists can whip up fizzy carbonated concoctions or turn green jelly to blue while learning about acids, bases, solutions, formulas, reactions, carbonation, indicators, pigments, gels, and polymers—and all the ingredients are 100-percent safe to eat or drink (ages 10 and older; $15).

green science solar rovers

And while your kids aren’t in physics class just yet, that doesn’t mean they can’t absorb some advanced science principles through play. They’ll build their own solar-powered machine with a recycled soda can and the unique solar-motorized modules in Green Science Solar Rover(ages 8 and older; $19.99).  

Transportation Traditions

2013 hess truck If you were ever the recipient of an annual Hess truck or woke up on Christmas morn to find a shiny new Lionel train chugging around the tree, you’ll know the anticipation your kids will feel when you begin a gifting tradition you can build upon every year! The 2013 Hess Toy Truck and Tractor boasts a truck with 45 working lights, an extendable rear loading ramp, and realistic sound effects including a backup alert and hydraulic lift, plus a tractor with reliably fun bells and whistles, too (ages 3 and older; $27.99). thomas the tank engine train set This year Lionel introduces a variety of new trains, but our vote goes to the remote-controlled locomotive celebrating the ever-popular, hard-working steamer Thomas the Tank Engine. The set includes Annie, Clarabel, and of course Thomas (with three interchangeable faces) and (bonus!) your child can activate the engine from the next room, so watch out! (Ages 8 and older; $199.95 for Thomas & Friends Remote Set; smaller sets, individual cars, and accessories also sold separately). We admit: These both require batteries, but they do have that retro vibe, no?  

Winning Isn't Everything

[gallery ids="5813,5814,5815"] There’s nothing like some good old competition to keep a night in from getting boring (and the holidays provide plenty of opportunities for extended families to take part in the fun). This array of younger-kid games from eeBoo never goes out of style: Crazy Eights ($4), Sidewalk Games ($4.25), and Slips & Ladders($9); all for ages 5 and older.

classic monopoly

To satisfy the competitive spirit of the older players in your gang, check out that classic capitalist venture Monopoly(ages 8 and older; $17.99)—just don’t expect to be the iron, as Hasbro retired that token and replaced it with fan-favorite cat game piece!  

Color Their World

paintable placemats

Kids can use dry-erase or washable markers to color these heat-proof Paintable Placematsagain and again ($17 for mat; $26 for gift set including 6 markers).

shrinky dinks charms and trinkets

You’ll have as much fun as your little ones when you whip out this Shrinky Dinks Charms & Trinketsassortment with whimsical designs by artist Suzy Ultman—just color, pop in the oven, and voilà ($19.95).

outside the lines book

And gift Outside the Lines: An Artists’ Coloring Book for Giant Imaginationsto inspire any budding Picasso—among the 100-plus contemporary artists whose line drawings appear in the book are Keith Haring, Shepard Fairey, Buff Monster, AIKO, and Carol Es, representing genres including graphic artists, photographers, street artists, and video game artists ($18; Penguin).  

The Fine Print

[gallery columns="2" ids="5824,5827,5822,5825,5823,5821,5828,5826"] Two divergent classics celebrate their 75th anniversaries with style and make memorable gifts this year: an authentic reproduction of the first edition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer recaptures the magic of the 1939 original, while Gertrude Stein’s only children’s book brings back into print the poetic tale exploring a girl’s individuality and personal identity, The World Is Round. Mary Shelley’s classic work of gothic horror, Frankenstein, undergoes a twisted and fresh graphic transformation; illustrator Jemima Catlin puts a lively new spin on The Hobbit with pencil, ink, and watercolor interpretations of Tolkien’s Middle Earth; and Brooklynite John Bemelmans Marciano breathes new life into the beloved Madeline character created by his grandfather Ludwig Bemelmans two generations before. Peanuts fans young and old will delight in the hardcover tribute A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition, which includes interviews with the original child actors who were the voices of the gang in the beloved TV special, music and publication notes for Vince Guaraldi’s jazz score, the script, and more than 200 pieces of original animation art. Throw in some delightful paper dolls reminiscent of an earlier era in Mary Engelbreit’s Paper Dolls: Fun with Ann Estelle and Mikayla and a jaunt down the 100-year-old yellow brick road in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz , and this selection of books will enhance every youngster’s library!   Also see: Top Tech Gifts for Kids Safety Hazards to Keep in Mind When Buying Toys  

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Kaitlin Ahern

Author: Kaitlin Ahern has a degree in magazine journalism from Syracuse University. See More

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