For professional resources for BCBAs and RBTs, check out Behavioral CUSP Academy

2021 Holiday Gift Guide from Parent Like a Professional

Mom handing daughter holiday gift | 2021 Holiday Gift Guide from Parent Like a Professional

I know that it seems far too early to start talking about Christmas and the holidays.  Despite the fact that it’s my favorite time of the year, I at least have the willpower to wait until after Thanksgiving to start decorating or even really thinking about the holidays… until this year, that is. As we all know, the supply chain disruptions are going to wreak havoc on ordering presents and having them delivered on time (or be in stock by the time that you want them). So for the first time ever, we are ordering all of our kids’ Christmas gifts, and then storing them in the attic until the holiday. 

For the last few weeks, I’ve been researching and curating a list of amazing gifts for kids at each age range. We think that toys should check a number of boxes for our kids; they need to enjoy them, they should be pushing our kids’ development in some way, and they are serving a purpose. We are not fans of just buying toys for the sake of having gifts under the tree. Not only is it problematic for our kids to have too many toys (READ: How to Keep Your Kids Interested, Not Overwhelmed), but it’s also problematic to have the wrong kind of toys. We want our kids to have toys that push them to grow and develop, not just entertain them.

Welcome to the 2021 Holiday Gift Guide from Parent Like a Professional!

Click on the links to jump to your kids’ age list!

Baby/Toddler Preschooler Child (5 to 10 Years)


2021 Holiday Gift Guide: Baby/Toddler 

As an Amazon Associate, Parent Like a Professional earns from qualifying purchases.


ThinkFun: Roll & Play

This is a wonderful first game for your baby/toddler.  Your child can throw/roll the die and work on color identification, which they can then use to match to the correct color card. The parent (or older sibling) can then read the action from the card, and your child can work on their imaginative play by acting out the action (e.g., roar like a lion). It works on turn taking, color identification and matching, pretend play, following instructions (e.g., spin two times). All in all, this is a great first game for your toddler.

Lovevery: The Block Set
To be honest, we love most everything by Lovevery (cleverly named for how much we fall in love with everything). Our kids had the tummy time mat/play gym and we’re big fans of their developmental toy subscription service as well. However, we think this block set is perfect for your toddler (and even preschooler). As the world of technology has rapidly advanced over the last 20 years, it’s easy to think that we need to get our kids really techie, flashy, toys. But the truth is, our kids have to be creative with the more basic toys, like plain blocks (READ: How to Improve Your Child’s Creativity). The more that a toy does FOR your child, the less that your child has to figure out what to do.

Hape: Pound & Tap Bench with Slide Out Xylophone
This is probably a geared toward a baby or young toddler (our son walked at 10 months…so technically a toddler, he was very much still a baby). We love this toy. Obviously, you can work on color identification with this toy. Your child will experience cause and effect (which leads to better understanding of how the world works and allows them to start making predictions), as well as fine motor control (holding the hammer and aiming to get the ball through the hole). Then there is the music piece where the xylophone comes in, which can be extracted from the toy and used separately with a stick that attaches. All in all, big fans of this one!

Mega Bloks: First Builders Build 'n Learn Table
For kids that might still not have the fine motor control to build using plain wooden blocks, these chunky lego type blocks are a nice alternative. These open-ended blocks allow for optimal creativity, and the table allows for more than one child to play with the blocks at the same time.

Strider: 12 Sport Balance Bike, Ages 18 Months to 5 Years
Balance bikes are a great introduction to riding an actual two-wheeler bike. It allows your child to experience the instability of a two-wheeler but allows them to regain balance using their feet on the ground. These bikes also allow your child to build better coordination.

Melissa & Doug: Wooden Peg Puzzle (Set of 6)
Before I started working with children, I’d see these wooden insert puzzles and think, “how boring!” But honestly, I can’t even begin to tell you how many amazing things are targeted through these simple puzzles. Each puzzle works on concept building; they are all part of the same category and have shared features (“look at all of the vehicles that have wheels”).  Each puzzle piece has a visual match on the board, so your child is learning matching skills. Additionally, it requires fine motor AND planning to get the pieces into their place. You can also start introducing the concepts of letters and numbers. For such a simple (and inexpensive) purchase, this has a big bang for the buck. 

KidKraft Deluxe Wooden Easel
We think allowing our children ample time and space to create is so valuable. In our creativity post, we have a variety of different art products that we recommend, so I’ll avoid repeating that here. However, we do love this little easel station that serves multiple purposes. You have the butcher paper for drawing, coloring, and painting, with a chalk board underneath. It evens comes with a white board for dry-erase markers, and a shelf to hold all the goods. 

Asweets: Wonder & Wise
For the not quite toddling yet, this push walker also checks a lot of boxes. It obviously supports your wobbler (what we fondly called out kids when they weren’t quite steady on their toddler feet) as they maneuver through the house learning how those legs work. Then there are all the gadgets on the front that will amuse your child; discs to slide, beads to push, and even a built-in shape sorter! 

Lalaboom: Preschool Educational Beads
This is a very cool set. Each of the balls has a different texture/design so it is a sensory experience for your child to just handle and manipulate the balls. The smaller beads can be popped into the holes on the different ball sets, so it allows for creativity in addition to fine motor development. The balls can be thrown, rolled, and kicked which works on hand/foot eye coordination and visual-spatial planning. 

Learning Resources: Big Feelings Pineapple
It may look like an alternative version of Mr. Potato Head, but it goes a bit deeper than just learning how to put the pieces in the correct spot. Big Feelings Pineapple comes with a variety of different eyes and mouths that convey several different emotions. This is a great way to start working on your child’s socio-emotional development; awareness of different emotions, the names for different feelings they themselves may be experiencing but not know the words for yet. Plus, all the parts clean up and store inside of the pineapple’s head so it’s easy clean up! 

Crisschirs: Sensory Bin Tools
Given that a lot of our work has been with children with autism, we are no strangers to sensory bins, but the reality is that sensory play is good for every kid, with or without autism. We really like this box because it’s not giant (there are a lot of sensory bins that are large and in charge, and mostly need to be used outdoors), and has a variety of different manipulatives that can be used. Also, you can use a whole host of different material in the bin, such as rice (pictured), Pluffle, Kinetic Sand, and beans.


Educational Insights: Playfoam Pluffle
Experience a super-soft, fluffy texture that provides a sense of calm and relaxation. Run your hands through Playfoam Pluffle to see the magical “alive, melting” movement. Mix your favorite colors for an even more mesmerizing experience.

Kinetic Sand: Super Sandbox Set
The original, squeezable play sand kids love! Fluff the sensory toy sand, feel it flow through fingers like slow-moving liquid! Satisfying oozes, moves and melts! 


Shape Sorters

There are several different types of shapes sorters that we have tried and loved, from the very basic to the slightly more advanced. They all work on similar skills; color recognition, fine motor development, matching shapes, and provide for a tactile/sensory experience.

Our favorite shape sorters for babies/toddlers are listed below:

Melissa & Doug: Shape Sorting Cube
A run of the mill wooden shape sorter, this checks all the boxes. There are a variety of shapes beyond the traditional circle, square, and triangle. The primary colors are good for color matching, color selection, and color identification. 

Fat Brain Toys: InnyBin
A less traditional shape sorter as there are no specific shape fields for the shapes to go into, the Inny Bin allows for exploration and the fine motor tasks of separating the elastic bands to get the shapes in and out.

Skip Hop: Yeti
This is a bit more of a techie shape sorter, but it has three different levels of difficulty so it has been a cool toy that bridges between our toddler and preschooler. It also spins around and spits out the shapes which both kids crack up at every time.


2021 Holiday Gift Guide: Preschooler 

As an Amazon Associate, Parent Like a Professional earns from qualifying purchases.


Osmo: Little Genius Starter Kit

Full disclosure, we haven’t used this item before, but it is on our daughter’s Christmas list. It’s won a ton of awards, is geared toward introducing concepts of numbers, letters, and phonics, in addition to fine-motor skills, attention to detail, social-emotional, imagination, critical thinking, empathy, problem solving, early literacy, colors, emotions, and spatial reasoning (per the product description). We are super excited to get this and start playing around!

Hey Clay: Monsters
As great as play-doh is (and we think it’s great), clay is really where it’s at when you’re advancing toward actually building things with the material. Because clay is less malleable and more firm, it’s easier to put different colors together to create something, and not risk that they are forever enmeshed and subject to a life of dull brown forever after. Hey Clay comes in a variety of different sets, though we picked the monster set based on a recent obsession with Monsters Inc. Great for creativity through art and pretend play, as the figures that are created can then be used to act out different scenes.
Fat Brain Toys: Squigz 2.0
Squigz are a cool new take on constructing, building, putting together pieces. They are a soft rubbery material, so they are easy for little hands to manipulate. The suction cup ends can stick on to flat surfaces (e.g., windows, walls, doors), but also to each other. So your kids can construct a complex mish-mashery that extends off the side of the wall in their room. This works on creativity, fine motor skills, interaction, playful experimentation. Plus, they don’t leave marks on the wall once they come down – win, win!
HAPTIME: Creative Mosaic
This is another toy that we haven’t played with but have on the list for Christmas. It looks like a lot of fun, and it also works on the engineering part of the brain—putting things together and taking them apart again. Plus, our kids are always enthralled when they see a drill being used in real life, so we know that they will be drawn to play with this set, which will then also end up teaching them some things as well!
Peaceable Kingdom: Friends & Neighbors
This board game is great for our kids’ socio-emotional development. Through the game, your children will learn about different emotions, and what you can do when you see someone that could use some help.  When our children are young, it’s super important that we work on developing their sense of empathy; of care for the people around them. The beginning of empathy simply comes from being aware of other people and their feelings and emotions, which this game highlights.
Peaceable Kingdom: Feed the Woozle
This is a game that can grow with your child, since there are three different levels of play. Like most games, this is good for the development of turn taking, appropriate game play, and sportsmanship behaviors. As your kids take turns to spin and feed the Woozle, they’ll, have to count out snacks and maneuver their spoon into the Woozle’s mouth thereby developing fine motor skills.
Learning Resources: Coding Critters
Another item on our list that we haven’t yet had the chance to play with, Coding Critters touts itself as your child’s first coding toy. To be fair, it did win a Toy of the Year award last year, so it’s safe to say that quite a few people have fallen in love with this STEM toy designed for 4 years and up. We’re excited for Santa to drop this at the bottom of our tree!
National Geographic: Glowing Marble Run
Marble runs are such a fun way for your child to play the role of an engineer. Because all of the parts can fit together in different ways, there are endless possibilities in the construction of the marble run. Building the run addresses visual-spatial planning, and through repeated use (building and watching the marble go through), your child is gaining a sense of physics and how things move through space. Plus, it’s mesmerizing to watch the marbles go through the maze, so it’s a crowd pleaser! There are expansion packs too, so your child can continue to expand their construction with bigger and more complex runs!
Bravokids: LCD Writing Tablet
We love this doodle board because our 3-year-old can use it for years to come since it’s designed for 3 to 6-year-olds. This is a super fun way for your child to not only explore their creative side (drawing things from scratch), but also a fun way to practice writing their letters and numbers. As your child is scribbling around and learning how to hold their pencil in a better way, you won’t have to waste paper every time they’re ready for a clean slate.

Kitchen Set, Cooking Toys, & Food

Toys that are geared toward pretend play are always going to be on a list of “must haves” for kids. And there are a world of different types of pretend play sets that are great for kids – this just happens to be on the list for our kids this year, which is why it’s making it to this list. Children who are just sort of entering the world of imaginative play or pretend play often start by recreating scenes that they have observed or participated in.

Our daughter had a pretend cell phone that lit up and made sounds, which she loved to just press and play with as a baby. I’ll never forget the first time that she “made a call” on the phone and had a conversation with her Gam-Gam, saying things that we would say on the phone, and even holding up her pointer finger to us as if to say, “please wait, I’m on the phone,” which I’m sure she’d seen us do a hundred times.

All that to say, a kitchen set is a great way to begin the imaginative play for your kids, since they most likely watch you (or participate with you to) cook or prepare food in the kitchen. They are familiar with the set up and parts, which means that they can begin to use them functionally at the start, and hopefully incorporate some symbolic play by branching out beyond what they already know and getting creative with their play.

Our favorite pretend play toys for preschoolers are listed below:

KidKraft: Wooden Farm to Table Play Kitchen
WHOHOLL: Wooden Cooking Toy Set
iPlay, iLearn: Pretend Cutting Toy


2021 Holiday Gift Guide: Child (5 to 10 Years)

As an Amazon Associate, Parent Like a Professional earns from qualifying purchases.


Lego Dots

We all know and love Legos, right? But how many times has your child built a really cool thing, only to then want to keep the built thing intact and sitting on a shelf? I mean, how many lego houses can we have on the shelf?? So along comes Lego Dots, which allow your child to do the building that they love, and then, in the end, they’ve built something cool and useful!

All Legos sets are good for building attention span and patience, following visual directions and imitating with their own parts. With the Lego Dots sets, upon completing the build, your child now has a cool rocket ship pencil holder for their desk, a picture frame to put a prized picture inside, or a cool bracelet to wear.  These are definitely big winners! 

Our favorite Lego Dots sets for kids are listed below:

LEGO DOTS: Pencil Holder

LEGO DOTS: Creative Picture Frames LEGO DOTS: Bracelet Mega Pack

General Arts & Crafts

If you’ve been with us long enough, you have already read about how you, as the parent, can work toward improving your child’s creativity. (If you're new to Parent Like a Professional, we encourage you to read: How to Improve Your Child's Creativity.) It’s hugely important to have a variety of avenues through which your child can practice being creative; materials that they can use to bring something from nothing.

Our favorite picks for general arts & crafts are:

Prismacolor: Premier Colored Pencils OOLY: Chunkies Paint Sticks
OOLY: Lil' Pods Watercolor​ Paint
Arteza: Watercolor Pad
Dan&Darci: Marbling Paint Art Kit
ZMLM: Scratch Paper Art
ESSENSON: Magic Clay
Pixicade: Mobile Game Maker

STEM Activities

You’ve probably seen the acronym around, but in case you are still unfamiliar with it, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Over the last 10 years, there has been a significant increase in awareness of STEM and how important it is for our kids. In short, STEM education and activities create critical thinkers, increase science literacy, and enable the next generation of innovators. I think that we can all agree that we’d love to see our kids become the next innovators!

Give your child opportunities to nurture his brain with these STEM toys:

Educational Insights: GeoSafari Jr. Kidscope
National Geographic: Break Open 10 Geodes
National Geographic: Mega Fossil Dig Kit
Snaen: Science Experiment Kit
Jasonwell: STEM Toys Building Blocks
Dan&Darci: Paint & Plant Rainbow Toyfrog: Straw Constructor National Geographic: Earth Science Kit
Dan&Darci: Light-Up Terrarium Kit Snap Circuits: Beginner Learning Resources: Botley the Coding Robot 2.0 jackinthebox: Space Explorer
LEGO: Gadgets LEGO: Chain Reactions Osmo: Genius Starter Kit Osmo: Creative Starter Kit

Pretend/Imaginative Play

Building and LEGO sets that are designed to create imaginative scenes are a great way for your child to combine their STEM engineering with their imaginative play.

We love these building sets for 5-10 year olds:

OBUBY: Build & Play Construction Fort
We absolutely love this system! Building forts is always fun for pretty much every kid (I still remember loving this from when I was a child). However, sometimes it can be difficult to find enough building materials throughout the house (not to mention that it can create an utter disaster in your house as your kids move furniture around). This system gives your kids the chance to build forts that they never could have just using the furniture in your house, with the added benefit that your dining chairs and barstools get to stay in their place while they build happily in their room!
K'NEX: Building Set
K’nex is a classic, oldy but goody to develop your child’s creativity and imagination. The possibilities of build are endless, and it also touches on the STEM engineering piece of building and constructing.
Another classic building set that allows your child to construct something from nothing. Build a house and then use figurines to populate that house as a family. Build a ferris wheel and then use figurines to take some rides at the carnival.

We recommend the following LEGO sets:





LEGO City: Mars Research Shuttle LEGO Classic: Medium Creative Brick Box LEGO Classic: Around The World LEGO Friends: Forest House Alimtois: XX-Large Toy Storage


Games are a great for a lot of reasons. Firstly, it allows your child to develop skills that will be beneficial when they are engaging with their peers; turn taking, paying attention when it’s not your turn, good sportsmanship even when losing, etc. Games are a great activity around which your child will practice good social communication, good pro-social behaviors, and most games on our list are also teaching your child something in the process.

Here are our game recommendations:

The original game of Sequence has a board full of playing cards. Then all of the players get cards in their hands and they are able to put chips down on the board on the cards that match the ones in their hands. The first player to get five chips in a row, wins. This game is about planning, strategy, thinking a few steps ahead... all amazing critical thinking skills. If your child is too young for the playing cards version, Sequence for Kids turns the board and cards into animals, which makes it easier for your young child to match their cards to the board, but still involves the same skills as the original game.
Uno is one of those classic games that never goes out of style (and now comes in so many versions that your kids are bound to stay interested in it for years). The card game centers on players getting rid of the cards in their hands by matching colors or numbers of the discard pile. There’s a twist with wild cards, reverse and skip cards that again require your children to learn strategy and planning. All the while, they practice their good sportsmanship by not having a total meltdown when they get skipped holding their final Uno card.
Kids Against Maturity
If you have ever played the adult version of this game, Cards Against Humanity, you can understand why they wanted to make a family friendly version of it. It’s a super hilarious game that allows your children to get creative with their word associations and foster their senses of humor. Definitely good for family laughs around the table at game night.
Okay full disclosure – this is one of my all-time favorite games, and one that my husband and I still play, a LOT, to this day (my three and one year olds are a bit too young yet to partake). It holds a super soft spot in my heart  because my Grandfather taught me to play when I was seven years old. I can attest that I am a MUCH better player now than I was at seven, but it’s a fantastic game for all ages, and one that really challenges the brain in a lot of ways. Rummikub is all about strategy. It plays a lot like gin rummy, but using tiles instead of cards. There is a ton of strategy, thinking 2, 3, 4, and 5 steps ahead. The game can be played with just two players, but gets even trickier (and more reliant on strategy) with the more players you have.
TRENDY PRO: Scavenger Hunt
This is a super fun game that gets the family (or just the kids while you cook dinner) outside! Plus, it incorporates some pretend/imaginative play as your children become secret spies, on a mission to discover things around the house and yard (or neighborhood if they are old enough).
Highlights: Hidden Pictures
Calling all only-children! This is a game for one! Well, though not technically a game, it is a fun activity for your child to work on all on their own. The books look like your typical coloring book, however flanking the picture to be colored are tons of little items that your child will be searching for within the big picture. If you do have more than one child, give each kid a page of their own to work on. When they’ve hit the ceiling and cannot find any more items, have your kids swap pages to look for the sneaky remaining items.

Social-Emotional Development 

Children who develop good social and emotional skills ultimately enjoy greater successes in life by being able to identify, articulate, and manage their emotions.

Our book recommendations are as follows:

What Should Danny Do? and What Should Darla Do?
We HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend these books!!! When I was a kid, I loved the “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series. I thought it was so cool to have the power to dictate the course of the story. These books follow a very similar path, in that your child gets to make choices for the main character. This type of activity is so powerful in really hammering home the concept of evaluating options for action, determining what the potential outcomes of each choice will be (making predictions), and then making the best choice given the information that you have. As your children take different paths through the book, they will also learn the powerful lesson that one small change/action can have a profound impact on the long-term outcomes.
The 3 Minute Gratitude Journal for Kids
We think that journaling can be a powerful tool for kids (well, anyone really), as a means of articulating in words some of the internal thoughts and feelings experienced throughout the day. It is a great way to develop more complex vocabulary to describe the incredibly vast world we contain within us. On top of daily check ins on feelings (how did I feel today?), it teaches and helps promote the concept of gratitude, what and who brought joy, appreciation for things and people. We really love this exercise!
I Can Do Hard Things
We say this all the time, but the way that we talk (about ourselves, each other) completely affects how we FEEL about those things. There’s research that shows positive self-talk influencing increases in positive feelings. And people who are more positive and optimistic lead healthier and happier lives. So, start the practice young with your kids – not only should you be modeling this behavior, but give them some tools to help them facilitate it for themselves.
Me and My Feelings
This is such a great resource designed to help your child better understand her emotions, identify how she is feeling, and uncover strategies on managing some of the more difficult emotions when they pop up. It’s an engaging workbook with quizzes and activities for children to complete throughout.

The experts at Parent Like a Professional wish you and yours the happiest of holidays!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published