It's amazing how many toys a child in this country is said to "need" these days. Kids must have things, expensive store-bought things, to develop basic skills such as walking and moving their fingers, or, at least, that's what both the toy industry and parenting books imply. Does anybody else notice that poor children in Africa learn to use their feet and hands just fine without Toys "R" Us?
History has shown, however, that there are some things that, if not essential, are very, very nice for a little one to have. Some of these are the cheapest items on the market—case in point, bubbles. Bubbles are magic. They come from nowhere and go back again. If you blow really slowly, you can produce one as big as your fist and watch your child's eyes widen nearly as large.
If you don't have one of those little canisters full of bubble liquid and a wand, go right now to your nearest Bartell's, where a bottle of Miracle Bubbles costs all of 59 cents. Don't feel guilty about the cheap price. Do you think your kid knows? Do you think your kid cares?
Another cheap treasure: crayons. There must be something instinctual about putting marks on paper because kids start doing so from the first moments they learn how to move their hands and invariably get addicted. You can surround them with a million pricey toys that whiz and buzz and all they'll want to do is draw or, perhaps more accurately, stab the paper with color.
Size matters, especially for the under-3 set. One toddler I know got so attached to the chunky crayons at my house that he cried all the way home. Left with no choice, his distraught parents bought him some the next day. Crayola Kid's First Crayons ($1.99) are suitably large and, just as crucially, washable (available at Toys "R" Us, 917 Northgate Mall, 361-1101). If the child you're buying for already has an ample stock, go for Crayola's Washable Markers ($3.99), which will be welcomed as delightful, superbright variations on the originals.
Kids will be happy scribbling on any old scrap of paper, but they'll love the broad canvas an easel offers. The Klatter easel ($29.95) from Ikea (600 SW 43rd, 425-656-2980 or 1-800-570-4352) is a nice one at a reasonable price. It's got a wood frame, not plastic like so many, and a chalkboard, which you can cover with paper.
For clich鬠nothing beats a teddy bear, and there is probably nothing your child will love more. My daughter has four, and she loves each and every one: Big Teddy, Little Teddy, Ivan the Bear, and Scottish Teddy (with tartan bow). She sings to them; she reads to them; she puts diapers on them; she lines them all up on the couch and cuddles with them under a blanket.
But choosing the right teddy is tricky business. They must be squeezably soft but not mushy, big enough for a quality hug but small enough to carry around, and reassuringly familiar-looking. Because of this last requirement, we categorically reject all newfangled teddies, the ones in purple and green or with outsized faces or feet. We also, on principle, rule out any teddy over $25 (and there are an outrageous number of these). For a teddy that seems just right, try the Cubbs Bear Plush from Amazon.com (on the pricey side at $19.99). It's absolutely plain, just 100 percent chocolate-brown bear. It's got a squeezable pot belly, regular features, and, as the name suggests, extraplush fur.
If your kids are anything like my daughter, there's only one thing that stands up to bubbles, crayons, and teddies, and that's books. On this very day of my writing, my daughter woke up in flu-induced misery and didn't stop crying until I offered to read Goodnight Moon (HarperCollins, $14.95 for hardcover, less for the board book). Most children's libraries have this Margaret Wise Brown classic, a popular baby shower gift, but may lack another winner by the same author, Big Red Barn (HarperCollins, $15.95 as a board book). Wise Brown's books are deceptively simple; they repeat images, whether of the moon or barnyard animals, in a creative way that helps children learn what they are.
Any book by the enduring Dr. Seuss will also be a favorite gift. If they don't crack a smile with The Cat in the Hat, you've got a problem. Since that book may also be on your child's shelves, try The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (both from Random House, $11.99), which we like even more—the cat turns up in stranger places: "Do you know where I found him? You know where he was? He was eating a cake in the tub! Yes he was." Other Seuss books that might be new to your child: There's a Wocket in My Pocket and The Foot Book.
Another wonderful book with zany, rhyming lyrics in the tradition of Seuss is Counting Crocodiles by Judy Sierra (Harcourt Brace, $16): "On an island in the middle of the Sillabobble Sea/lived a clever little monkey in a sour lemon tree." Tired of lemons, the monkey eyes a banana tree across the sea but, to get there, has to pass a lot of crocodiles in polka-dot socks and other hilarious costumes.
Finally, a good selection of nursery rhymes will serve you well. Michael's Hague's Mother Goose: A Collection of Classic Nursery Rhymes (Henry Holt, $14.50) has the old woman on her gander, of course, as well as Jack Sprat, Hector Protector, Old King Cole, and countless other figures that kids love beyond reason.
Nina Shapiro is a staff writer at Seattle Weekly.