For the Santa shopping in a tight-budget year, it's best to get back to basics for children who still believe. Little kids need classic toys and learn best through open-ended play.
First, toddlers and preschoolers need a big set of wooden blocks with different shapes including bridges, cylinders and triangles, with a smooth, rounded finish. Kids who are out of the chewing stage can have a fun second set - soft blocks made out of foam.
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Swap out block sets with another must-have for little kids: bigger Duplos or smaller Legos, depending again on what your child puts in his mouth. New sets in an array of colors come out often, but also check out consignment stores and Internet sites such as Craigslist for used blocks. The plastic is easy to clean using a spray bottle of diluted bleach.
Another construction toy to consider buying is K'nex. Once the domain of older kids, K'nex is producing a variety of new construction sets called "Kid K'nex" for beginning 3- to 5-year-old builders. Colors, shapes, sorting and how gears work all come into play with construction toys. Also, your child is practicing hand-to-eye coordination and sharpening fine-motor skills, necessary for a task such as writing with a pencil.
A wooden train set with interlocking tracks is another good choice for the preschool set - and not just for boys. If you have the space, a new or used train table with bins underneath helps keep the track and trains contained.
Preschoolers are interested in events and people that are part of their world: postal workers, store clerks and cooks, for example. To play into what's familiar to your child, consider buying a toy cash register, a wooden mailbox or pretend food with a pretend oven. All of these toys should enhance your child's attention span.
Stevanne Auerbach, known as "Dr. Toy," has spent more than 30 years developing her expertise on toys, educational products and why children need open-ended play. On her website www.drtoy.com, she lists her "Best Picks for 2010" and "100 Best Products for 2010."
The author of "Smart Play Smart Toys: How to Raise a Child With a High PQ" (Institute for Childhood Resources, 2006), Auerbach says children need a mix of active, educational and creative toys to develop a variety of skills. The more a child plays, the higher his "PQ" - or play quotient - will be.