Making a list and checking it twice might be Santa Claus’ job, but it’s also a responsibility that falls to parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. But while you don’t have the elvish assistance at the Big Guy’s disposal, you do have this: our comprehensive guide to what’s hot in Chicagoland this year. They’re all available at some of our favorite independent toy stores, and they all cost less than one bill with Grant’s face on it.
Top ideas for kids ages 3-5.
Learning math has never been so fun! This e-writer lets kids learn their writing and ‘rithmetic without wasting reams of paper, thanks to traceable letter and number cards. And the whole thing can be erased with the touch of a button.
Boogie Board Jot 4.5 Clearview, $26.99, 3+ (BM)
Last year’s favorite holiday gift can go the extra mile with the help of this expansion kit. Kids easily can turn their magnetic masterpieces into formidable vehicles that are both colorful and stealthily educational. Plus, you’ll be supporting a local company. (Win-win.)
Magna-Tiles Cars 2 Piece Expansion Set, $14.99, 3+ (BM)
Monsters under the bed are no match for this game, which puts the power in the hands of fearless kids. They’ll love shouting ‘Go away!’ at the not-too-scary brutes, while you’ll love putting them to bed with nary a monster-dreading tear.
Go Away Monster!, $15.99, 3+ (BM)
It’s way more fun to learn to count if you can do it while getting some wiggles out. The cushiony base is safe for your hardwood, and there’s a digital counter, too — just in case you lose track.
Counting Pogo Jumper, $19.99, 3+ (BM)
It feels like sand, molds like Play-Doh and stretches like Silly Putty, but this irresistible dough is definitely its own thing. The material comes in six different colors and is great for kids with sensory needs. Best of all: no mess!
Mad Mattr, $14.99, 3+ (P)
Building’s not just for the boys, and playing with dollhouses isn’t girls-only. This groundbreaking magnetic building set combines both areas of play in a mashup that will appeal to 100 percent of kids. And it’s compatible with MagnaTiles, which we know are spilling out of the toy box already.
Build &Imagine, $49.95, 4-8 (P)
Tom Hands in Big has nothing on this oversized keyboard. Let their little feet do the work (‘Heart and Soul,’ anyone?) with eight different instrumental sounds and record it to play back their masterpiece later. Like, say, when they start taking piano lessons.
Gigantic Step and Play Piano, $49.99, 3+ (BB)
Happy, sad, mad, hurt. Feelings are a hard thing for kids to grasp, but it’s a little easier with these magnets that let them create facial expressions that represent a whole range of moods. And it can be especially useful for kids with special needs who may need extra help identifying emotions.
Magnutto Junior Make a Mood, $24.99, 3+ (G)
Aspiring engineers can build all sorts of structures (even dinosaurs and elephants!) with these unique pieces that easily snap together. The connectors allow for all kinds of angles that really let kids use their imaginations. The sky’s the limit — or more accurately, your living room ceiling.
Brackitz Inventor 44 Piece Set, $32, 3+ (M)
Fairies are always welcome in our house, but these tiny doors make that more than lip service. Place the doors inside or out — wherever you think the winged ones like to be — and then see what magical treats start to show up. Keep an eye out for fairy dust!
‘lil Fairy Door, $29.99, 3+ (P)
Show some Chi-town pride with this CTA-inspired backpack. Your kid will go to preschool looking like they’re heading toward the Loop for a fun day out — sans the smells and suspicious substances found on an honest-to-goodness L car.
‘L’ Train Kids’ Backpack, $27.99, 4+ (BB)
Becky & Me Toys, Evanston
Building Blocks Toy Store, Lakeview and Wicker Park, Chicago
Galt Toys + Galt Baby, downtown and Lincoln Park, Chicago and Skokie
*play, Logan Square, Chicago
Moore Toys & Gadgets, Wheaton
Where we shopped