How to Find the Best Christmas Toys

As soon as the candy-and-costume dust clears from Halloween, parents know it's time to start planning for the holidays. Whether it's your baby's first holiday season, or you're a gift-getting veteran, shopping for Christmas toys can be fraught. With so many products out there, how do you choose what's fun and educational, safe and age-appropriate? What are the hot toys that all of your child's friends will have and your child might be coveting after their playdates? How do you find them, and will they even fit in your home?

First off, relax. Assuming you're not trying to get into Jimmy Kimmel's "I Gave My Kids a Terrible Christmas Present" highlight reel, your kids will love their gifts. In fact, the really little ones will probably love ripping off the wrapping paper and playing with the cardboard box the most. Not that the 100 man-hours you spend assembling the toy kitchen will be for naught. With toddlers who are not yet capable of making lists for Santa, your choices are going to go over just fine. Enjoy this while you can—soon enough you'll be inundated with detailed lists and dog-eared, annotated toy catalogs.

So, then, where do you begin? With what we'll call parent-led holiday shopping, there are a number of factors that should be considered. Let's take a look at a few things to keep in mind when making your list and checking it twice.

Safety First: First and foremost, it's important to think about how safe a toy is, especially when you're shopping for infants who tend to put things in their mouths. In addition to online resources like the Consumer Product Safety Commission's Toy Safety guide and Toy Recall database, look for safety warnings on packaging (for instance: contains small parts). And when in doubt, use your common sense. Toys containing a multitude of pieces can present a choking hazard, not to mention the potential to keep you searching for missing parts for hours on end. Also important: You'll want to pay attention to what the toys are made of. The Ecology Center provides guides with chemical names to look for and avoid—like lead and PVC—especially when shopping for children. You can search for brands such as Green Toys, which are made from recycled milk jugs and surpass U.S. and international standards for harmful chemicals.

Age Appropriate: Some parents swear by the age recommendations listed on the packaging of toys, and indeed, they do provide helpful general guidelines. When shopping for very young children, the primary reasoning is pretty clear: Choking hazards such as small parts are an automatic no-no for babies and toddlers. But age appropriate also means your child's motor skills are at a level that will allow for holding and playing with a particular toy. For instance, you may want to choose the mega-sized Duplo sets over regular Lego kits. It's not just a matter of safety; it is also about their readiness. Play time is when young kids do their best learning, but if a toy is too advanced, your child may end up frustrated, leaving the toy to gather dust.

Learning Tools: For many parents, this is the million-dollar question: Which toys are the most educational? For young kids, you will want to consider which ones provide the most intellectual and physical development and stimulation. This doesn't necessarily mean emphasizing the alphabet and numbers (though of course it can). We're also talking about toys for creative construction (from Mega Bloks to magnetic building sets) and pretend play (the aforementioned toy kitchens), which are valuable activities for children that can help hone verbal skills and imagination.

Hot and Hard to Find: Yes, it's hard to resist getting sucked into this year's equivalent of the Tickle Me Elmo. But remember that today's fad could easily be tomorrow's fail. Before you go on the hunt for a popular toy, consider all of what was discussed above: Is it age- and safety-appropriate for your child? Will it end up in the heap of forgotten and unloved toys in the playroom? If all the answers are still pointing to “Buy”—and your child's (or really, your) heart is set on it—then pull the trigger early. Shopping online will give you access to greater inventory as well as save time on driving around and standing in line. Keep in mind that items that may show up as out of stock on a website might be re-stocked. Add it to your wish list and keep tabs on its availability.

Get a Mix: As you make your list, make sure you buy a variety of toy types that will satisfy a young child's wide-ranging curiosity. Think of the different skill sets they're developing: Ride-on toys promote gross motor skills; pretend play items will work on their imagination and storytelling; and building sets will get your child a jump start on STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mechanics) lessons.

Wrap it Up: Once you've found the gifts, how do you keep them hidden away from your kids? Think high up in closets and places where your child will never venture: a linen closet, perhaps, or a bathroom cabinet. And don't underestimate the amount of time some toys may require for assembly, if you want it ready for presentation on Christmas morning. Many a parent has spent the wee hours of Christmas Eve turning the house upside down for the right-sized Allen wrench.

And here's a tip for post-Christmas toy overload. Put your toys on a rotation. Leave out a few, and put away the rest in the closet. Encourage your child to finish a task (such as a puzzle or a Lego model) before moving on to the next toy. If their choices are limited, they may be more willing to sit down and focus on the activity at hand. An added bonus: this will help you cut down on the clutter and cleanup. After a month or two, put away those toys and take out the other ones. As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder, so when the old toys make their appearance again, your kid will surely be happy to see them—and even find new ways to play with them.

Now that we've discussed the general guidelines for toy shopping and gift giving, let's look at some specific toys to buy this year for your one-, two- and 3-year-olds.