Sensory toys like these Nee Doh options are popular with kids of all ages. Photo courtesy of Off the Wagon

By Lauri Gross
The elves have spoken: Northeast Ohio kids will find inspirational, educational and of course fun goodies under their trees this year. With so many toys clamoring for attention, families might want to consider input from area experts who appear to have a direct line to the North Pole, as these local elves share insights about what kids really want.
Regardless of what you choose, remember that, “Play is how children learn,” as Hattie Kotz, director of marketing and development at The Children’s Museum of Cleveland points out. “There truly is no such thing as ‘just playing’ when it comes to early childhood,” she adds. “Every aspect of play promotes a child’s development, both cognitive and physical.”
Michelle Sahr, owner of Off the Wagon in Chagrin Falls and Kent also knows the benefits of play. Shoppers at her store enjoy talking to Michelle and her staff for suggestions on how to choose from the store’s many options. Of course, age is a key indicator of what toys will be appropriate for any child. Then, Michelle says, “I want to know what they are interested in and possibly what struggles they may have because toys and playing are great ways to work through some struggles,

These hand-knit dolls from Cuddle+Kind are popular for little ones, and, for every doll sold, the company donates ten meals to children in need. Find them at Little Babet.

including math or just how to play well with others.”  For instance, Michelle mentions a game called Tenzi which helps strengthen kids’ math skills while they have fun. “And nobody has to mention the word ‘math’ during the process,” Michelle adds. She also points out that cooperative board games like The Crew or, a Mystery challenge game encourage participants to play well with others.
Samantha Probst is the owner of Little Babet with stores in Chagrin Falls and Eton Chagrin Blvd. While her stores offer a lot of clothing, accessories, gear and furniture for little ones, she also carries plenty of toys, all sustainably made with the environment in mind. For revving up young minds, Samantha mentions toys that teach colors, letters, and numbers, plus shape sorters. “We also have architectural blocks,” she adds. “You can build the Empire State Building and cities and parks out of the wood bocks.”
Michelle adds that this year, many parents are seeking sensory toys that appeal to a person’s sense of touch with a tactile component. “Sensory toys are not just for young kids,” she says. “Our top-selling toy has been the set of three Teenie Nee Doh balls along with the other variations of Nee Doh balls. These are super-soft squeezable balls that all ages of kids LOVE. In fact, teens and even adults love to fidget with them.”
Michelle mentions other popular sensory toys including Dimpl Pops Deluxe (a frame of colorful, pokable plastic bubbles that appeal to everyone who loves to pop bubble wrap) and Sensory Bins by Creativity for Kids. With themes such as garden, ocean, space, and ice cream, these kits contain materials of all colors and textures that invite little hands to develop fine motor skills through imaginative play.
Michelle points out that plenty of classic toys continue to captivate kids, including updated versions of the Jack in the Box and tin tea sets. Samantha also carries updated classics, including beautiful wooden dollhouses, wooden puzzles, a kaleidoscope that resembles an old-time camera, and something known as a Cubebot that recalls a classic Rubik’s cube that can be fashioned into a robot. Samantha also carries classic rolling toys like firetrucks but the Little Babet versions are made from 100 percent recycled plastic.
MGA Entertainment owns the Hudson, Ohio-based Little Tikes, whose toys have been fulfilling childhood dreams for generations. “There is an irreplaceable magic that comes from toys – whether it’s collectibles, dolls or playsets – no matter your age,” an MGA spokesperson explains. Plenty of Little Tikes classics remain popular as they continue to enchant children, including the Cozy Coupe, now also available in a mini replica.
Many people seek gifts that enable family and friends to play together, the MGA spokesperson adds. “Playing together is what inspires the thinking behind our Little Tikes toys – our Crazy Fast Dunk’n, Stunt’n, Game’n Set includes many different interactive games in one set. And the Little Tikes Glowstick Scooter is perfect to scoot outdoors together,” the spokesperson explains.
With seven unique exhibits designed to promote different aspects of early childhood development through interactive play and hands-on exploration, The Children’s Museum of Cleveland captivates young visitors and inspires parents seeking to re-create some of that magic at home.
For instance, to help build a foundation for STEM learning (which kids can do in the Museum’s Wonder Lab), Hattie suggests toys or supplies that allow children to engage in experiments at home. Also, the Museum offers many areas where kids can explore loose parts and building materials. “Toys that encourage building play are incredible resources for early childhood development,” Hattie says. “This type of play promotes early engineering and math skills, spatial reasoning, and problem solving.” Look for construction and assembly toys to keep this spark going at home.
The Museum’s Arts & Parts exhibit, with rotating stations, lets kids practice fine motor skills, explore different materials, and engage creativity through different artistic processes. Hattie suggests, “A few ways to practice these skills at home through art can include stringing beads, weaving, and building with clay.”
Imaginative play is infused throughout all the Museum’s exhibits, promoting creativity, and giving kids an avenue to express emotions and develop language and social skills. To bring this type of play into your home, Hattie suggests costumes, figurines, and “pretend play” toys like pretend food.
Samantha adds, “Pretend is very important for kids above age two, as part of their development, including pretending to cook or teach.” To meet this need, Samantha carries a wooden pretend coffee maker, a complete wooden pretend kitchen and more.
Little Tikes also feeds kids’ need to pretend. For instance, kids can become a pretend wizard with the Little Tikes Magic Workshop, where kids enter a world filled with pretend potions and spells, plus singing, laughter and more.
For the younger than one set, Samantha mentions hand-knit Cuddle+Kind dolls. “These are very trendy and collectible,” Samantha says as she explains that, for every doll sold, the company donates ten meals to children in need. Kris Kringle would surely approve.