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How to Choose an Age Appropriate Gift for a Child

Buying a gift for a child is a deceptively difficult task. The assumption is that they (and their grateful parents, by extension) will like anything. Make sure it's bright and indestructible and everybody wins, right?

The truth, however, is that kids are a lot smarter and more perceptive than they look, even when it comes to toys. Spatial, visual and aural cognition begins at a very early age and the toys that babies, toddlers and young children pick up every day are going to have an impact on development that continues until the child arrives at college and promptly forgets everything she or he ever learned.

Of course, that's not to say every toy and bauble bought has to be Mensa-approved and certified by NASA. But, toys should be of good quality and clothing or bedding gifts should have the proper fit. The most general way of getting this right is to put the gift recipient in the most convenient of categories when it comes to kids: their age.

Gifts for Kids Aged 3-5 Years

Safety should be the first thought when choosing a gift for child in this age range. It's always going to depend on the child, but there are some standard questions that should come to mind. Does this require supervision? Will she fall off of that? Will he swallow it, or jam it up his nose?

Beyond those issues, though, it's all about stimulation and having fun. There is no kid in the world this age that doesn't want a toy big enough to ride in or on. Toy tractors, fire engines, wagons, trains, cars … if it has wheels it's a winner.

Building sets are also a good idea and many children are ready for them by the time they reach this age range. Some kids may be better suited to bigger blocks or Lincoln Logs, but others do develop a level of coordination that allows them to use more complex block sets.

Mazes, puzzles, letter games, drawing sets, flashcards and other educational multimedia tools are also an excellent idea. Scientists say a human will never learn at the same relative rate or capacity as they do in these formative years, so giving them something with letters and numbers on it is always wise.

Gifts for Kids Aged 5-8 Years

This is a cool age for kids (and the adults around them) because it's when they start developing definable interests and opinions about stuff. It's the time they begin shaping their identities and involves all kinds of neat developments like getting crafty at games, having a particular style and establishing "favorites."

It's a general rule that every kid's house shall be filled with board games. Chinese checkers, backgammon, chess, Connect Four and all the rest - these are the staples of growing up and always make great gifts.

While educational gifts are basically a good idea anytime, gifts that encourage creativity are also a plus at this age. Arts & crafts sets are way cooler than they used to be and companies like Melissa & Doug have helped to redefine what to expect in the quality and complexity of what kids can create nowadays.

And speaking of identities, this is the time when kids want to start exploring different ones on their own (as opposed to being antler-bedecked and photographed for adult amusement). Costumes are great gift ideas, and not just for Halloween. Kids like to dress up and pretend all year long and are in a privileged position to get away with it.

Gifts for Kids Aged 8-12 Years

Gift buying in this age group requires the consideration of true personality. Kids this old have defined likes and interests, and gift choices more often come with themes. Clothes and bedding may reflect sports allegiances, favorite movies, and fictional characters that they love.

Companies like to make it easy by merging tried and true concepts with what is trending. Popular computer games like Text Twist or TV shows like "Futurama" are made into themed board games, and educational toys take on a new level of intensity when they're designed by the Smithsonian.

These kids are definitely still in the building phase, too, and the more complex building sets from companies like Eitech and Teifoc give them the chance to create some really crazy stuff. Solar-powered models that really work and to-scale sets of iconic architectural structures are just the tip of the engineering iceberg.

Reimagined arts & crafts kits and puzzles are still popular at this age, as are classics like rock tumblers and remote-control toys.

Gifts for Kids Aged 12 Years & Up

Kids this age and up are definitely looking for all the bells and whistles, even if they don't know what they are. They're also (hopefully) thinking a little more about organization and can appreciate a gift of storage or shelving - as long as it comes with something to go into it or onto it.

Of course, a new shelf is not considered the big enchilada to a 12-year-old. Toys with motors are where it's at, whether it's a mini dirt bike, an electric scooter or a hold-onto-your-health-insurance motorized skateboard.

Collectibles and classic toys are great for the young end of this age group, too, while cool rugs, backpacks and stylish lunch pouches are great ideas for the older set.

When in doubt with this older, hipper class of kid always remember that they'll never be too old to love jumping on trampolines or playing games outside. Toss games like horseshoes and bags or classic games like bocce ball and croquet never get old - and neither do the people who love them.

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