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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

9 Toys You (Probably) Won't Regret Giving Your Kids

It's the first week of December and I'm sure that you, like me, are in the thick of shopping for friends, family and your own children this week. When considering what to gift my children for Christmas I'm always torn between buying something they'll enjoy and buying something I won't regret bringing into our home.

You see my daughter sleeps with a plastic bracelet from Chuck E. Cheese's under her pillow. My youngest's favorite book is missing pages crucial to the plot and no back cover. My older boys have a collection of empty gum packages displayed like rare stamps on top of their dresser. These are not people with a taste for the finer things in life - so when my kids are given a quality toy that stands up to their abuse and that I don't hate, we're all pleasantly surprised.

The following toys are ones that, no matter how many times I find them under the couch or step on them in a dark living room at 6am, I am rarely tempted to throw away. These are classics, the keepers, the toys that have proven their staying power for both girls and boys, 3 year olds and 7 year olds, mild-mannered and/or insanely rambunctious children.

Legos or Lego Duplos
No list would be complete without them because, they epitomize classic childhood play. Boys like them, girls like them, Dads like them, Moms like to organize them (is that just me?) We were lucky enough to inherit BJ's full set of Legos, but we've easily doubled our collection since Elijah began playing with them as a five-year old. Prior to playing with these classic Legos, we bought a starter kit of Lego Duplos, which they all still happily construct with when I pull them out. Yes, you will step on them and teach your children curse words. Yes, they will forgive you because - Legos.

Educo Wooden Kitchen
Britain received this for Christmas four years ago and it's been played with everyday since. I highly recommend the Melissa & Doug cookie baking set and the Melissa & Doug Cutting Food set to go with it - both are favorites with all my kids and virtually every friend who comes over to play. Again, both my boys and daughter use this equally and BONUS! it's lovely to look at.

Wooden blocks
I found these at Goodwill years ago for $4 - still can't believe what a steal that was. This set is similar to what we play with daily. These blocks have formed the banks of the Nile River, served as a garage for untold numbers of matchbox cars, been used as Dominoes, car ramps, fortresses and Nerf gun targets. They are sturdy, open-ended play pieces that your grandkids will play with just as readily as your own kids. Even if you can't find them at the thrift-store, worth the money.

Fisher-Price Batman ride-on car
How I wish this were not one of my kids' favorites. Everything about it offends my minimalist, non-plastic-loving, Montessori-preferring sensibilities. But my kids love this thing dearly. Elijah (7.5) still sits on it with knees crunched against his chest and rips down the hallway chasing younger siblings. It is an ambulance, a getaway car, a minivan, a horse. The older kids rarely if ever play with the car ramp component on the front, but as toddlers that part delighted them all. It's held up to more than 5 years of abuse, and it's from Fisher-Price, so although I wish it were made from up-cycled bamboo by hipster Scandinavians who surf on their lunch break, it's been a keeper.

Dress-up clothes

My parents had the brilliant idea several Christmases ago to gift the grandkids the ultimate dress up bin. It was full of masks, swords and costumes they bought for 75% off at Wal*Mart and Target just after Halloween. It may be too late for you to snag those kinds of deals now, but these capes are a great start to any dress-up collection.. As far as costumes go, my kids love any and everything. Capes, masks and especially accessories like walkie-talkies, glasses, hats and belts.

Nerf Foam Sword
Yes, it is expensive "for a foam sword" Yes, it has the word "zombie" in its name. It has neon green accents and no, it is not beautiful to look at. But if any toy in our home has been subjected to years of daily, brutal abuse, it is this one. This sword has not bent or broken in over 5 years of battle, inappropriate use and general wear and tear. The boys have broken every other play sword and light saber we have gifted them, but this one has survived relatively unscathed. (And for those of you with girls...Britain uses it as a crutch when she plays make-believe...)

Tinker Toys
My in-laws gifted us this set when Elijah was a toddler and the kids create with them all the time. These are Wolverine claws, guns (-sigh-), spaceships, Chinese throwing stars (-sigh-), Harry Potter wands, teacher pointers, pencils, etc. I have been shocked by their longevity and I love seeing what new use the kids will put them to next. Again, sturdy, classic, quality toys. (I'm seeing now that apparently we are slightly biased toward building toys.) 

Balance bike
Our kids love this bike and BJ and I love how quickly they have all transitioned to pedal bikes after starting on this model. The seat of this particular one goes the lowest of all the ones we looked it, so you can start your kid on it around 2/2.5 depending on their legs. It also has the best foot rests once your kiddo is really cruising. There are cheaper models out there, but this one has held up to more than 5 years of continual use - it's a quality bike. Jude just started cruising the neighborhood on it last week.

Tonka Classic Steel Mighty Dump Truck
Honestly, my kids rarely if ever use the dump truck function on this bad-boy anymore. Britain sits in the bed and propels herself forward on her heels, her "wheelchair" getting her around the house in style. Elijah sets one knee in the dump and uses his hands to wheel down the hallway like some erratic scooter. Seems like good ab-work to me. Ben and Jude actually do use the dump as intended. They love collecting other toys or blocks and dumping them into bins, boxes and bowls. Works particularly well to clean up Legos. This thing is made of metal and has held up to my four monkeys using it entirely inappropriately for YEARS.

Would love to know what toys have proven themselves over and over again at your house - share in
the comments!

More gift guides from Crazy Joy: For newborns and their mamas: hereFor moms: here and here.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

If It Feels Like You're the One Making All the Magic this Christmas

You know that scene from the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her friends finally get an audience with the wizard? This grand disembodied voice is shouting madly, billows of smoke and flashing lights have the four friends completely captivated...and then Toto pulls back a curtain to reveal that the "great and powerful Oz" is just a little man with a microphone wildly manipulating levers and buttons? Picture that man and you'll have a pretty good idea of me the first year I had kids at Christmas.

I was running around between nursing sessions, stringing up half-burnt out strands of lights and trying to finish off our handmade stockings with faux-fur trim (I know y'all...I know). All around me bells were ringing and people were fa-la-la-la-ing and over at my house I was yelling, "pay no attention to the lady behind the curtain!" while making four different kinds of Christmas cookies I had no business eating.

It occurred to me that year that Christmas doesn't feel so magical when you're the one making all the magic.

That Christmas the kids didn't care about the presents I'd carefully selected and wrapped with love,  they played with the Amazon box they came in and expressed their thanks by throwing up on the brand-new sweater the hubs had given me. I felt so defeated by the whole ordeal. There was no joy in my world, no jolly in my season. And ever since that insane Christmas as a family of four, I've tried to lower my expectations for what this season "should" look like at this stage of life.

I've stopped baking Christmas cookies almost entirely and rely on invites to the in-laws or my mom's house to have the goodies I'm so sentimental about. It seems I'm constantly needing to shave an inch or two off my waist anyway, so this is really a win-win.

Every year fewer boxes come down from the attic and fewer decorations make their way into the house. Gone are the twinkly glass Christmas trees that used to live on the coffee table and the massive snow globe that plays 'O Christmas Tree' (which was used as a bludgeoning weapon the last time I put it out...)  

We still buy a real tree, but I've gone from hanging three boxes of ornaments on branches to only putting out a curated selection (on the very highest branches). We still hang stockings but I no longer change out my everyday kitchen linens for ones embroidered with Christmas trees and holiday sayings. Keep it simple is my mantra for the holidays nowadays.

If you're the crazy person behind the curtain at your house this year, might I make a few suggestions?

Pick one party to attend and decline all the other invites. 
Maybe don't put up the holiday village this year?
Ask the grandparents to have your kids over to their house to bake and decorate cookies. 
Get your tree from Home Depot instead of the gorgeous tree farm that is an hour away. 

If taking the kids ice skating downtown defines the season for you, make that a priority but skip caroling with neighbors. If sending Christmas cards is a must, then order them online and pay a little extra to have them addressed and mailed directly to your family and friends.

Pretty soon the kids will care more about watching A Christmas Story than pulling all the ornaments off the tree and in the mean-time, no one will care that your gifts all came straight from Amazon instead of the local fair-trade boutique.

When it comes down to it, it turns out that Christmas is a pretty magical season even without all the Pinterest perfection.

More great advice on how to keep Christmas stress-freee from two moms I greatly admire:

Christmas Guidance for Moms (Clover Lane blog)
How Do I Make the Holidays Run Smoothly? (Wire Talk LIVE w/ Karen Stubbs) 

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