gifts they might actually want

The Best Last-Minute Gifts for 1-Year-Olds

Best One Year Old Gift
Photo-Illustration: Photo-Illustration: Stevie Remsberg; Photos: Courtesy of the retailers

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The key to delighting 1-year-olds is in finding toys that will stimulate and surprise their growing minds. “Babies’ brains develop so quickly — something like a million neural connections per second,” says Sarah MacLaughlin, a child-development expert and the author of What Not to Say: Tools for Talking With Young Children. “To keep them interested, you have to add sensory or mobility features to the mix.” So an engaging toy for a 1-year-old could be anything from a touch-and-feel book or a musical instrument to an interactive stuffed animal or a ride-on toy.

My 1-year-old son’s favorite toys are those that let him practice new skills like opening and closing a box or recognizing common objects in his life — dogs, fruit, buses. My favorite toys are open-ended ones that encourage him to play independently and look nice in our apartment. With that said, he is also drawn to brightly colored plastic toys and a book we inherited that plays “The Farmer in the Dell” as sung by Elmo. So I try to strike a manageable balance. And when buying gifts for other babies, I always take the parents’ taste into account as well, since they could end up playing with and staring at my gift for years.

Keeping all this mind, I set out to find the best toys for 1-year-olds that will provide hours of fun while challenging their rapidly growing brains. All 36 of the thoroughly vetted gifts below have been a hit with the 1-year-olds or soon-to-be 1-year-olds in my life, including my son, or come recommended by teachers and arts educators, child-development professionals like MacLaughlin, cool parents, and toy experts.

To make it easy to stay within your budget, I’ve organized the list by price, so you can use the table of contents to jump ahead or read all the way through to get a full picture of the best toys for 1-year-olds.

If you are looking for a Christmas present for a 1-year-old and shopping online, you’ll have to move fast to ensure they are delivered before December 25. I’ve double-checked everything below and made notes for any toy that might not arrive on time. That said, prices and availability are likely to change, so don’t dillydally.

And if you’re also shopping for older kids, the Strategist has gift guides for 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 11-year-olds, and 12-year-olds — plus the meticulously curated Strategist Toy Store filled with all our greatest hits.

Under $25

From $23 for 12

Whether with fingerpaint, Play-Doh, or crayons, 1-year-olds love creating art— especially if they see big siblings drawing or painting. But most art supplies aren’t especially suitable for small, less-than-deft hands: Pencils have a dangerous point, paint makes a mess, and regular crayons snap into pieces. “Palm-grasp crayons are a great way to get young children to have interest in writing and drawing,” says Dr. Alexandra Figueras-Daniel, an assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research. “These are perfect for tiny hands to build fine-motor skills.” They’re almost impossible to break and washable, making it easy to just hand them over and let kids go to town. Even if the results just look like messy scribbling, this kind of exploration is key to laying the foundation for getting them to eventually write letters and numbers.

According to Shannon Lockhart, a manager of early-childhood applied practices at HighScope, an early-childhood-education research foundation, “If we want children to eventually write their names, they have to have lots of experiences with different writing materials.” With that in mind here’s a set of chunky triangular crayons that kids can “graduate” to from the palm-grip crayons above, as they help promote the pencil grip kids will eventually learn in school. They’re made of 100 percent beeswax and food-grade colors, so you don’t have to stress about them ending up in your kid’s mouth.

Babies (my son included) love these miniature board books with animal finger puppets attached. I found out about them from fellow Strategist writer Lauren Ro, who loves reading them to her 1-year-old. The books are small enough to fit in a stocking and the series features lots of different animals including a baby otter, sloth, llama, unicorn, and tiger.

From $20

Crawl tunnels are a thrill for this age group and get big giggles, to be sure, but they also help young toddlers with spatial awareness and a better understanding of object permanence. Older kids and adults know that the person whose face leans into and out of the tunnel is always nearby, but for a 1-year-old, these types of lean-in, lean-out peekaboo games genuinely help them learn about the way the world works. The pop-and-play tunnel offers six feet of play space, and collapses into a flat carrying case when it’s not in use. To expand the fun, you can even buy a two-pack.

According to mother of two Shirley Kim, who works as a clinical dietitian, these big colorful interlocking Mega Bloks are an amazing first building toy. “My kids played with them from age 1 to now — they’re 8 and 4 and a half,” she says. The blocks’ bigger size makes them easy for small hands to grab and more appropriate for this age than, say, Lego Duplos (which happen to make an ideal gift for 2-year-olds). This set includes 80 pieces in all shapes and sizes that come packaged in a convenient storage bag.

Figueras-Daniel loves and recommends this bath toy because “it allows children to arrange and fill the tubes with water and observe the way to make the spinners go,” she says. This kind of observation teaches kids cause and effect, which helps develop cognitive skills. In this case, it also keeps them happy and engaged while in the bathtub.

[Editor’s note: If shopping on Amazon, you will have to choose the darker colorway of this toy if you want it to arrive before Christmas. If shopping at Fat Brain Toys, you will need to upgrade to expedited shipping.]

For kids who love vehicles, I recommend this sweet yellow submarine bath toy from PlanToys, a brand beloved by parents looking for baby-safe and sustainable materials. I’m a fan of all the company’s toys and bought this for my son’s upcoming first birthday. The diver can be removed from the sub to swim free and the rear propellor spins when you push it through water.

[Editor’s note: This toy will not arrive before Christmas.]

Figueras-Daniel suggests this bath book by beloved children’s author Mo Willems for 1-year-olds. The book is waterproof and can be read in the tub, making it a great way to encourage a reluctant child — like the pigeon protagonist itself — to take a bath. “Somehow, the simplicity of Willems’s books make them engaging and fun for little kids,” says Figueras-Daniel.

I recently started dropping this adorable color-changing bath book into the tub each night so that my son can “read” something while I wash his face, hands, and toes. I talk to him about the colors of each object — orange tiger, red cherries — and he has fun turning the pages over and over again.

[Editor’s note: This particular bath book will not arrive in time for Christmas. But a similar color-changing bath book from Mudpuppy will.]

Engaging sensory toys make great stroller accessories because they can soothe a bored baby when you’re stuck in line or on the subway. “I’m sure the temptation for a lot of parents is to hand them something like an iPhone. But the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend consuming electronic stimuli in that way for children under 2 years old,” MacLaughlin explains. This squishy bead toy will hold their attention and stimulate their motor-skill development. “It’s like a more sophisticated rattle. It makes some noise when you shake it, but it also has beads that move around the bars, and it has a sensory aspect to it,” MacLaughlin says.

Photo: Retailer

According to speech-language pathologist Ellice Kim Lacerda, you can never go wrong with the gift of books, especially if they come in a curated box. Lacerda’s favorite book subscription comes from her local Bay Area bookstore, the Reading Bug — which happens to ship nationwide. “It was fun receiving books we had never read or even heard of,” she says, adding that many of the titles her family received became fast favorites. You can either choose a curated box with preselected titles or opt for a personalized one based on age, gender, interests, and reading level. As far as curated boxes go, the store has lots of options, but the “Baby” box of board books for 0- to 30-month-olds or the “Read to Me” box of developmental read-aloud titles would both make excellent choices for 1-year-olds.

[Editor’s note: The first shipment will not be delivered before Christmas, but a note about its forthcoming arrival tucked into any of our favorite kids’ books would make for a nice bit of presentation.]

Or you can gift your own favorites. Tze Chun, founder of Uprise Art and mom of two, loves the TouchThinkLearn series by Xavier Deneux. “These books are so beautifully constructed. Each page is super-thick and has embossed areas so that babies can feel the surface of each one,” she says. Her favorites include ABC (shown here), 123, and Colors. “The pages really hold up, even after years of playtime and bedtime.”

And for when you aren’t able to read aloud, educator and homeschool mom Britt Hawthorne recommends giving your child an aptly named “quiet book” to encourage concentration as they explore the soft pages. Though keeping a 1-year-old’s attention for more than a few minutes isn’t easy, “quiet books are like gold for toddlers,” Hawthorne says. Typically made of felt or quilted materials, every page of a quiet book has something for little hands to manipulate — including velcro, zippers, buttons, or crinkly fabric — which helps kids practice fine-motor skills. This peekaboo activity book from Melissa & Doug lets toddlers cover and reveal the face of a new animal from behind long ears, a big basket, and a set of fluffy bangs on each soft page.

[Editor’s note: This book will not arrive before Christmas. But many of these ones will!]

Photo: Courtesy of the vendor

Children love emulating their caregivers: That’s why play kitchens, play lawnmowers, and ride-on cars are so popular. When Strategist contributor Steven John’s daughter was 1, she loved playing with her toy Dyson, just like her big brother before her. “If my wife or I grabbed our actual Dyson from the closet, she ran full-speed across the house to grab her own little vacuum and followed us around laughing as she ‘helped,’” he says. Not only does it look remarkably like the real thing, it has a motion-activated suction that can pick up little bits of paper, adding a dose of realism to playing make-believe.

For kids who love music — and hitting things — this two-in-one toy ought to be, well, a hit. The multifunctional bench features a pullout xylophone and three wooden balls that can be banged on with a mallet. Once they’re pushed through, the balls either land on the xylophone to create a pleasing melody or simply roll down the ramp to be fetched. Remove the xylophone from the bench and you have a stand-alone musical instrument. Publicist and mother of two Sonya Li Casino says her now-3-year-old son loved it so much, “I ended up purchasing it for a few other 1-year-olds.”

Kids this age love to put things together and take them apart, and these squishy textured nesting cups by Loulou Lollipop hold my son’s attention for a surprisingly long time. They can also be stacked to create a tower, and because they have small holes in the bottom, they make great toys for water play. They’re BPA-free and made of 100 percent food-safe silicone, so they’re safe to use as a teething toy too.

[Editor’s note: This toy may not arrive in time for Christmas.]

Under $50

The ever-popular “magic touch” piano from Baby Einstein lets children play classic tunes or create their own melodies with a gentle tap of the colored keys. As Dr. Sarah Roseberry Lytle, director of outreach and education at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, explains, “Young kids love making music and noises and exploring things like, ‘Can I make it softer? Can I make it louder? What happens when I hit it harder? Does that make it louder?’ That’s a really interesting learning process.” The piano comes with a handful of color-coded song cards that babies and parents can play together.

Strategist senior editor Simone Kitchens, whose daughter recently turned one, recommends any kind of small drum or tambourine to help children work on their rhythm. “Something that we learned in her music class — and that research backs up — is that playing with these things can have a positive correlation with a whole slew of things, like reading, vocabulary, math, music, and physical coordination,” Kitchens says. I love the whimsical nature of this set and that the instruments can all fit inside the turtle-shaped drum.

According to Strategist senior editor Ailbhe Malone, who has an almost 2-year-old daughter, this bug-themed ride-on toy is the trike of choice for every cool 1-year-old in London. Malone likes that the wheels don’t scuff up her floors and that it folds up flat and can be popped into a tote bag for trips to the park. Based on her recommendation and another one from Ro, whose 1-year-old tried the Scuttlebug and loved it on a recent play date, my parents are planning to get one for my own son this Christmas.

They might look simplistic, but these jumbo knob puzzles from Melissa & Doug will keep toddlers busy for a shockingly long time. My son has an older version of this same type of puzzle from Melissa & Doug that he plays with every single day. The wooden knob makes it easy for his little hands to pick up as he attempts to put each piece back in its place. They are also pretty indestructible and will last for years and years.

Children love to play house, so why not get them their very own place? Eater restaurant editor Hillary Dixler Canavan recommends this low-commitment house made out of cardboard, and her 1.5-year-old daughter loves it, too, especially “sitting in there with books or opening and closing the window.” Inexpensive, customizable — it’s a blank canvas, after all — and perhaps best of all, sustainable, it’s a great option for city folks who don’t have access to a backyard. “We set this up in our living room, and while it’s not inconspicuous, it’s also pretty small,” she says (it’s about four feet tall). “And if we ever decide we just can’t take it anymore, we’ll recycle it.” Still, she cautions, “It’s a commitment to have it in our living area, but it’s worth it for her to have a little imaginative play space.”

“This set is a winning combination of magnetic train cars and mix-and-match animals that kids can build, disassemble, and make again,” says Holly Magelof, toy buyer for the Dolphin Bookshop and a 20-plus-year veteran of the toy-buying industry. “There’s even a conductor included. It’s always a favorite of our pint-size customers.” And it’s compatible with other SmartMax sets to keep the building going (and easily set you up for future gifts).

These curved wooden rainbow and water blocks can often be found in Montessori and Waldorf classrooms alongside more basic rectangular versions. Each arc in the set can be stacked, balanced, and combined with the others to create imaginary city scenes with bridges and buildings or to simply allow for experimenting with texture and gravity. “Stacking is fun, but even if they’re not coordinated enough to stack their toys, they would love to watch you stack and then be able to knock it down,” says MacLaughlin. This is also a classic “grow-with-me” toy that older kids can get surprisingly creative with — say, by pairing two pieces to form Skee-Ball rings, talking into one of the arcs as if it’s a phone, or building obstacle courses for dolls and toy cars.

[Editor’s note: Only the rainbow blocks will arrive before Christmas, and you will need to select expedited shipping to ensure on-time delivery.]

Gund Flappy the Elephant

All little children need a stuffed friend to cuddle with at night (and tote around tucked under an arm all day). “Let me apologize in advance for recommending this singing elephant,” says Fiorella Valdesolo, a writer, creative consultant, and mom. Tap one of its feet and the cuddly toy plays peekaboo; tap the other and it sings “Do Your Ears Hang Low” in what Valdesolo describes as “a creepy childish voice.” And yet “your baby will find it endlessly entertaining,” she says.

For a more humanlike plush toy, Figueras-Daniel says that a doll with removable clothes, like this one, provides “opportunities for children to use fine-motor skills in fun ways.” She says such a doll will also help with symbolic thinking and sociodramatic play — or imaginative play with a social element — which begins at age 1. “Items that facilitate pretend play, like dress-up clothes, play phones, dolls, food, and dishes, allow children to start to carry out these play routines on their own and with others,” she says, adding that this kind of play “ties in with language development as they engage with other adults and children.” Figueras-Daniel loves that Baby Stella comes in various styles, including what the brand calls “peach” and “brown,” saying it’s important “to get dolls that reflect the children who are playing with them, as children need toys that reflect who they are.”

Under $100

Ro swore by these kits — which contain a curated mix of developmentally appropriate toys and books — for her kids when they were as young as 1, and my own son has been playing with them since he was 3 or 4 months old. Ro says, “I was impressed with the quality, design, and thoughtfulness of each box, which came with in-depth instructions and suggestions for use as well as a breakdown of what you can expect your baby to do in that two-month span.” (There’s also an app with instructional videos and a chat space for parents.) One shipment might include a simple stacking toy; another might feature a soft baby doll. My son’s favorite one to date is a set of faux keys that feel real since they’re made of stainless steel. He loves to shake them at me and drag them around as he crawls across the living room floor. While you can buy a lot of similar toys individually, the convenience factor is undeniable; plus, when you are done with each box the Lovevery brand name makes them easy to resell.

[Editor’s note: Only orders placed by December 19 will arrive before Christmas.]

Artist Anna Bak-Kvapil loved playing with these silk scarves from Sarah’s Silks when her daughter was around 1. “The pure-silk nature of the scarves make them really soft and spectral,” she says, and they’re great for games of peekaboo. Strategist senior editor Jen Trolio notes that, while the silks are a great 1-year-old toy, they are another “grow-with-you” toy and very useful in pretend play. One of her own daughters wore a blue one for a couple of months straight as an Elsa cape when she was 3 years old.

[Editor’s note: This set of six individual playsilks may not arrive before Christmas, but this giant rainbow one will.]

This little car has been delighting toddlers for more than 40 years now, and it’s surely got many decades of popularity left. By the time they are about 18 months old, most toddlers will be able to “drive” the classic coupe themselves — meaning use their feet to scoot it around. The smooth plastic exterior won’t mark or scratch most surfaces, so it’s suitable for use indoors; the plastic tires can handle brick and concrete, too.

“This wagon is great for the stage when your baby begins to ‘cruise’ or walk around the room by holding onto things,” says Zahra Kassam, founder of the at-home Montessori program Monti Kids. “It’s a Montessori-teacher favorite because it allows babies the opportunity to practice their walking skills while building their independence.” A tip she shared: “Weigh it down with heavy books or free weights to slow it down at first.”

[Editor’s note: This wagon toy will not arrive before Christmas.]

“Blabla dolls are my go-to gifts for all the little people in my life,” says postpartum doula Julie Arvan, who invented the Nesting Days baby carrier. She adds that she starts giving them at age 1, telling us, “The dolls are more than toys. They’re whimsical companions for young children.” Arvan explains that transitional objects like these dolls “are key for gradually learning to separate from mother and explore the world.” The dolls are handmade in Peru from 100 percent cotton, and for each one sold, the company promises to plant one tree in partnership with the nonprofit organization One Tree Planted.

[Editor’s note: This doll may not arrive before Christmas.]

“My oldest would sit forever and try to work on these little locks when he was a toddler,” says Hawthorne about her now-teenage son. This lock box incorporates shape sorting and color matching in addition to different styles of locks. Though the age recommendation for this toy begins at 2 years old, many 1-year-olds will enjoy playing with it, especially after watching you model how it works. The buckling and unbuckling also allow them to exercise their developing fine-motor skills. 

[Editor’s note: This toy will not arrive before Christmas.]

$100 and up

While this is definitely an investment, mom Jennifer Beall Saxton, the founder and CEO of Tot Squad, calls the Doona the “most versatile tricycle ever” and promises that it’s something that can grow with a 1-year-old, with the recommended age range being 10 months to 3 years. According to her, it’s “the only ride-on toy that allows you to adjust each element, from who steers to who pedals or pushes, so that parents can relinquish some control at each stage of development.” The Doona Trike starts off as a stroller with a partially enclosed seat and a handle for pushing, both of which can eventually be removed to leave just a trike in its most advanced mode. Says Saxton, “We got it just after my daughter turned 1 and had to steer and push for her, but as we spent time exploring our neighborhood she got more proficient, and now we can let her loose.” If you’re worried about gifting something that looks cumbersome, know that the Doona Trike folds up for easy transport and storage.

I have long been a fan of Manhattan Toy’s astonishingly not-ugly wooden activity centers. But that fandom was always from a distance — until now. I recently attended the first birthday party of a close friend’s daughter who is also my son’s very first baby bud. At the party, my son found his way to this space-themed activity center and could not be pulled away. He was mesmerized by the beads, doors, and little space explorers that travel through tunnels on a track. My husband quickly declared that we need to buy the same one, and I agreed. The quality and level of detail is incredible, and it’s sturdy enough to keep my very wobbly baby upright. Best of all, it’s a toy I’d want to show off. My friends cleared away a lot of their baby’s toys for the party but left the activity center out right next to a tasteful moss-colored Brentwood Home play couch.

[Editor’s note: This activity center may not arrive before Christmas.]

Greg Davidson, CEO and co-founder of baby brand Lalo (which just launched a toy subscription box of its own) bought a mini ball pit like this one for his son’s first birthday, and now both of his children love playing with it. “It’s a toy that has lasted us forever,” he says. While it’s more expensive than a lot of other ball pits, this one has a machine-washable cover and comes with BPA-free plastic balls.

[Editor’s note: This toy will not arrive before Christmas.]

Additional reporting by Lauren Ro and Steven John.

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The Best Last-Minute Gifts for 1-Year-Olds