These are sorted by the year at which my kid first found them. If you’ve never been into some of these – classical music, Broadway, Gilbert & Sullivan, logic puzzles – why not broaden your own horizons while you’re broadening your kid’s?
Note: most of these were purchased ca. 1992-2002, and some of the toys and games are now out of production, although you can find them on Amazon at high prices. If you don’t want to pay that price, see if you can find something similar.
First year (through 1st birthday)
BARTELS, Joanie. Music.
Lullaby Magic 1. When my kid was born I didn’t know any lullaby except “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” and not much of that: so this was a long-time standby. Includes “Close Your Eyes,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Rock-A-Bye Baby,” “Wynken, Blynken and Nod,” “All the Pretty Little Horses,” “Hush Little Baby,” “Goodnight, My Someone,” “Twinkle, Twinkle.”
Lullaby Magic 2. At least as good as the first Lullaby Magic – maybe even better. Includes “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “Goodnight, Sweetheart,” “Over the Rainbow,” “Russian Cradle Song,” “May I Have the Next Dream With You,” “German Lullaby,” “Sleepyhead” (“Leila’s Song”), “When You Wish upon a Star,” “Sleep Song,” “Love Me Tender.”
Morning Magic. Includes “Morning Has Broken,” “Lazy Mary, Will You Get Up?,” “Rise and Shine,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “Put on a Happy Face,” “Good Day Sunshine” and “The 59th Street Bridge Song” (“Feelin’ Groovy”).
Infants are at first more interested in strong black-and-white patterns than in colors or complex patterns. This cube has a black-and-white side and color sides for later, plus lots of textures, and it’s light enough for an infant to grab and wave about.
Sturdy and colorful, great for building and then knocking down, as well as identifying shapes (arches, pillars, triangles, rectangles, squares) and colors. Pull out any pieces that you think are too small for your toddler.
Classic crepe rubber: simple forms, easy to manipulate, good to chew on when teething, can be disinfected. This set includes puzzles with animals, geometric shapes, and pegs.
The stethoscope was a big hit, and explaining what would happen at the next pediatrician’s visit made my kid less anxious. You can get a kit that’s twice as expensive, with a stethoscope that has pre-recorded sounds – but why not leave some room for imagination?
At about 3 months, my kid was wearing brightly colored socks on a long car ride, and suddenly noticed that her feet were a) interesting and b) under her control. They amused her for the rest of the trip.
A charming introduction to music and musical instruments, including classical and jazz. Make sure you get the book plus CD (or audiotape): the book’s pointless without the audio, and the audio loses some of its appeal without the charming illustrations in the book.
HILL, Stephanie. Special Delivery Symphony: Looney Tunes Discover Music.
Amusing introduction to instruments of the orchestra, with Bugs Bunny as a conductor, Daffy Duck as a delivery man, and Porky Pig as a stubborn security guard. The audiotape is cued to the book. (Why is this not available as a CD??)
Easier for little hands to manage than Duplos or Legos: they fit together by means of plastic bristles covering the surface of each block, and once together they’ll withstand a fair amount of shaking and tossing.
Includes an alphabet puzzle, slotted octagons that can be fitted together to make 3-D objects, and a couple lacing projects. The lacing requires considerable manual dexterity, but is very absorbing.
Beauty and the Beast (Disney)
The Little Mermaid (Disney)
Classical Kids series
The stories in this series offer substantial excerpts from the composer’s works, held together by an intriguing story told from a kid’s point of view. If your kid really likes any of the composers, find similar works.
Classical Kids Collection 1: Beethoven Lives Upstairs, Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery, Mozart’s Magic Fantasy, and Mr. Bach Comes to Call. (The Mozart story is based on The Magic Flute, which my daughter was interested in because of Freeman’s The Pet of the Met. The liner included the lyrics. My kid is training to be an opera singer, so yes, this did have a big impact.)
Classical Kids Collection 2: Song of the Unicorn (medieval music), Mozart’s Magnificent Voyage, Tchaikovsky Discovers America, and Hallelujah Handel.
The protagonists are two dogs and a Siamese cat, all courageous and intelligent; voices by Don Ameche, Michael J. Fox and Sally Fields. This was a favorite for years and years.
Duplos are slightly larger than Legos, hence easier for toddlers to handle.
Kids who don’t have the motor skills to draw well can make recognizable animals, plants, machines, etc.
The best use for an animated movies such as Balto is to get a child interested in books. Try Standiford’s Bravest Dog Ever, The True Story of Balto. If you live in or near New York, visit the Balto statue in Central Park, near the East Drive at 66th St. It’s shown in the movie, which will thrill your kid, and the inscription’s very moving.
The Scarlet Pimperel
At age four, my daughter fell in love with The Scarlet Pimpernel (1991 concept CD) after we’d played it in the car a couple times. Soon she graduated to the Scarlet Pimpernel movie, with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour. At first she was annoyed that the movie didn’t include the music: we told her she had to work out where the songs would go. That year she was Sir Percy at Halloween – no one guessed who she was – and for her birthday we gave her a Barbie and Ken dressed up as Marguerite and Sir Percival Blakeney, Baronet.
A year later we went to see The Scarlet Pimpernel on Broadway, and she listened to the cast recording of that over and over, too. All of us had a great time discussing how and why the movie was different from the musical and from the story as told in the original concept CD.
The one thing we didn’t do was read the original novel by Baroness Orczy: that was a bit too tough even for a precocious 5-year-old.
Great for building once a child’s dexterous enough. The circles, wheels, and rods create more options than Legos.
A good item to have around the house, for playing Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? or locating Thailand after you’ve eaten at a Thai restaurant. Your kid should be old enough not to chew on the globe, sit on it, or throw it down the stairs, but with those limitations, buy a globe as early as possible and keep it where you can easily use it. (Note: Like most computer games, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? doesn’t teach in a systematic and integrated way, but it makes review fun.)
Child’s Celebration of …
Child’s Celebration of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Includes “Rock Around the Clock,” “Lollipop,” “The Name Game,” “Purple People Eater,” “Monster Mash,” “La Bamba,” the immortal “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor,” and others, all performed by the original artists.
Child’s Celebration of Showtunes. Includes songs from Oliver!, Peter Pan, The King and I, Bye-Bye Birdie, The Sound of Music, and Fiddler on the Roof, all from the movie soundtracks. And then, of course, you move on to the movies.
Amazon has some others in the Child’s Celebration of … series.
The Mikado (D’Oyly Carte Opera Company)
The Mikado: Vocal Score. I recommend reading the libretto after you first watch or hear any Gilbert & Sullivan operetta: there are so many delightful jokes you’ll have missed. This link is to the vocal score, because … why not? If you want to buy a libretto only, be sure to check the Amazon reviews: there are a couple trashy reprints for sale. You might be better off looking for a libretto online and printing it out yourself.
Les Miserables (1987 Original Broadway Cast Recording). The Broadway version of Les Miz includes many wonderful songs, and it’s absolutely fascinating to study how different melodies reappear used by different characters.
Les Miserables – The Dream Cast. Tenth-anniversary concert with Colm Wilkinson (Valjean), Michael Ball (Marius), and Alun Armstrong (Thenardier). From Broadway came Judy Kuhn (Cosette), Lea Salonga (Eponine), and Michael Maguire (Enjolras); from a later London production came Ruthie Henshall (Fantine); and from Australia came Philip Quast (Javert). We have a VHS tape that shows the singers in costume, but performing at microphones rather than while acting; they’re spectacularly backed by a 200-member chorus and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Missing plot information was provided in subtitles.
Les Miserables (2012 movie)
I’d recommend letting your kid get familiar with at least one of these versions if you’re thinking of taking him/her to the Broadway show.
A logic puzzle, much more appealing than the grown-up version because you hide brightly colored plastic animals. We played this for years.
Card game. Addictive. Because some day, you’ll get tired of playing War.
Bach battles for the right to write his own type of music, much of which is included in this video.
Pirates of Penzance (Gilbert & Sullivan)
Pirates of Penzance. Very good adaptation of the operetta, with Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith, Angela Lansbury … and it is, it is, a glorious thing to see Kevin Kline as the Pirate King.
The Pirates Of Penzance Cast recording with Linda Ronstadt and Rex Smith. (Angela Lansbury didn’t perform for the soundtrack.) Double CD set, with the lyrics in the CD liner. Or, download the whole libretto here.
And then you can move on to HMS Pinafore, Ruddigore …
It’s inconceivable that you won’t love this movie. Based on William Golding’s The Princess Bride.
Greathall Productions Presents a Storyteller’s Version of Greek Myths
As of November 2015, Amazon doesn’t carry this one-hour audiotape (very well narrated by Jim Weiss) that includes King Midas and the Golden Touch, Arachne, Perseus and Medusa, and the adventures of Hercules. The other Greathall Productions might be worth trying. For myths, see also D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, on my Book Recommendations for Kids page.
Gin rummy with words rather than numbers. Give a young child a handicap – extra points or a warning that you’re about to go out, so he can dispose of the Qs and Zs.
Kids Can Draw series by Philippe Legendre
Excellent basic introduction to drawing, and likely to make a child much more observant when looking at other people’s artwork.
Kids Can Draw Animals.
Kids Can Draw Anything.
We had ones on dinosaurs and fairy tales, too, but they aren’t on Amazon’s Philippe Legendre page right now.
Lots of severely logical challenges disguised as cartoon adventures in a computer game. You can play, too, but your kid will probably beat you.
Board game. Because some day, you’ll want to know where Kazakhstan is. We still have this in the basement, and have played it within the past 1-2 years.
Card game. Collect the ingredients, make the potions, win. If your kid’s interested in Harry Potter or fairy tales, this is a great game.
Better than Play-doh: you can shape it and bake it so it lasts forever. Toys, jewelry, favorite characters from stories …
Board game. Make money and buy Stuff in a Revolutionary War setting.
Great for the car, a playdate, or for a vacation when you can’t pack many toys. When you run out of pipecleaners, buy more. We got a lot of mileage (hah!) out of many of the Klutz books.
Action-adventure computer game with a James-Bond-style hero who happens to be a fox; requires collecting gadgets and working out puzzles to defeat the villains.
A cautionary tale about the effects of just a little bit of compromise. Humorless dentists allege that Steve Martin’s role set the profession’s reputation back by decades.
Soundtrack includes “Somewhere That’s Green,” “Some Fun Now,” “Suddenly, Seymour,” “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space,” and more. Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman also collaborated on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid (see Third Year).
More puzzles. Buy the version with automobiles (Rush Hour Junior) or with animals (Safari Rush Hour Game). Both come with cards that show set-ups from beginner to advanced, and give the solution if the player is unable to work it out.
Similar to Monopoly. Judging from the Amazon price, it’s not currently being produced.
My daughter used this as bedtime music for months after the first Harry Potter movie came out: a good alternative to too much pop music. See also my op-ed on Harry Potter and Rowling, on my Book Recommendations for kids page.
Harry Potter: we had two of the 600-piece sets. Fun to assemble and fun to play with afterwards.
Bionicles. Great item for party favors at age 9 or 10; when the kids are exhausted from running about, they can sit at the table assembling their critters, and then play with them. Also a great Christmas-afternoon activity, when you reach the “Is that ALL the presents?” stage. Buy a couple extra—you can always hide them and pull them out in times of desperation.
My kid loved this, and it probably did wonders for her reflexes. Bop It Extreme requires hitting five different buttons, rather than 3 as on the original Bop-It. Like the original Bop-It Extreme, it can be played as a party game. Unlike the original, it’s got a jack for a headphone, so if your kid wants to practice it in the middle of the living room for hours, you’ll only hear shouts of glee or disgust, not that smart-alecky announcer’s voice. (NOTE: No one on the Amazon site mentions a headphone jack, so I’m not sure it’s still part of Bop It Extreme. Also, I don’t remember paying the outrageous price currently listed on Amazon.)
Bill Nye the Science Guy
Board game based on the TV show. Doesn’t seem to be for sale any more, alas, but I’ll leave the mention here just in case.
Board game. This is another Gamewright game: we’ve never gone wrong with their card games and board games.