Gifts to keep your children entertained (and off your back) for hours

Keeping your children busy has become an around-the-clock pursuit. Here are the best ways to help, wrapped up in a bow

by SARA CLEMENCE

WHO can blame parents for craving a break? In this strangest of years, they’ve served as teachers, playmates and quarantine enforcers. They’ve been deprived of vacations, date nights and just plain private time.

When you’re shopping for kids this holiday season, keep those hard-working parents front of mind — especially if you are one.

Look for toys, games and activities that do double duty, keeping children happily occupied for extended stretches of time, with minimal mess and little to no adult supervision required.

Here are 16 ideas to get you going, for a range of ages. They’re intentionally light on screen time, with just a few worthy and educational exceptions.

Ages 2 to 4

Asweets Baby Activity Walker

Hit a trifecta with this activity centre on wheels — good for kids as young as nine months, but with features that will hold their attention well into toddlerhood.

It has numbered flaps, a shape sorter, bead maze, mirror and abacus, which help kids practise counting and fine motor skills — all while giving you a few minutes of peace.

Plus, the Scan-diesque design coordinates with grownup decor, so your living room will feel a little less like a pint- sized yard sale. US$89 (RM362), crateandbarrel.com.

Sago Mini Box

Subscription boxes are nothing new, but here’s one that even preschoolers can do on their own. Each Sago set includes three themed paper activities for three- to five-year-olds — such as making a finger-puppet theatre, gnome home, or paper airplanes — plus a mini figurine.

The packaging is purposeful too, transforming into stages, construction machines and other toys. (Because let’s face it, the box is always the most fun, anyway.) From US$19 a month, with a three-month minimum, sagominibox.com.

The Nugget

What looks like a soft foam couch is actually the cult toy of the year: Its base, cushions and triangular pillows can be taken apart and reconfigured into climbing structures,

forts, reading nooks and even a makeshift slide. It comes in 15 colours, with fabric covers that can be taken off for easy laundering. It may take an actual lottery to get one, though. Covid-19 production delays have resulted in months-long backorders, but Nugget is making holiday season orders available to the lucky winners of a weekly drawing. US$229, nuggetcomfort.com.

Janod Reverso Kitchen

Mid-century colours and curves make this play kitchen easy on adult eyes and especially “real” to kids.

It packs in lots of opportunities for make-believe, with a kitchen on one side, a washing machine and shelves on the other, and just enough lights and sounds to be exciting — but not annoying. US$231, janod.com.

Ages 5 to 7

Toniebox

This clever, intuitive device gives your kids access to songs and stories without the need for screens. Children place a compatible character, or Tonie, on top of the padded box to start playing a mini-album; they can skip forward and back with taps and tilts, and carry it from room to room. The Toniebox comes in six colours and has dozens of options for tales and tunes, from classics to modern favourites such as “Frozen”, “Finding Nemo” and the “Gruffalo”. US$100 for the Toniebox, US$15 for each hand-painted Tonie, tonies.com.

Gardenuity My First Garden Kit

Getting grade-schoolers into the dirt doesn’t just keep them out of your hair — it’s been shown to reduce stress and improve their problem-solving skills. The My First Garden Kit makes it easy, with a reusable grow bag, pre-measured compost and nutrients, a mister and plants. It’s also compact enough to fit on a balcony or patio. US$72, gardenuity.com.

Clixo

This toy may not look like much at first glance. But Clixo’s flexible plastic shapes with magnetic connectors can quickly become addictive, in a good way. They’re fidgety and fun, and their freeform shapes let you build anything from crowns to airplanes to elaborate geo- metric objects. They’re also super easy to clean up and take up almost no storage space. From US$30, myclixo.com.

Ultimate Fort Builder

Forts are fun — until you actually want to use your sofa. Lakeshore Learning’s building kit includes dozens of sturdy plastic poles and connectors that kids can configure in countless ways, topping off their creations with sheets or blan- kets. If they somehow run out of ideas, a guide offers step-by-step instructions for making castles, igloos and more. US$50, lakeshorelearning.com.

Ages 8 to 10

Toybox 3D Printer

What’s better than a toy? A toy that makes toys. This compact 3D printer was designed specifically for children, who can print from a library of more than 2,000 toys, including working padlocks and tiny replicas of the Taj Mahal. It takes anywhere from a few minutes to several hours to make the objects out of biodegradable polymer — a process that’s mesmerising for kids and grownups alike. From US$299, make.toys.com.

iRobot Root rt0

Don’t be put off by its pedigree. The company behind Roomba, the game-changing robot vacuum cleaner, has also created a winning educational toy. Released in July, the Root rt0 teaches kids how to code a disk-shaped robot via an app so that it can drive, draw, or perform a wide array of simple tasks — no parental involvement required. Three different learning levels include graphical drag-and-drop to more advanced text-based coding, and they all facilitate a library of fun activities. Younger kids will love the paper costumes — including unicorn and pirate — that they can colour and place on the robot for an additional flourish. US$129, irobot.com.

Bakery Bling Designer Cookie Kits

Let your kids make Instagram-worthy treats — without having to supervise the oven or touch the stand mixer. Bakery Bling’s kits come with pre-baked, nut-free cookies, icing, trademark glittery sugar and other decorations for making picture-perfect desserts. There are seasonal kits (snow globe, Hanukkah, Christmas tree), perennial favou- rites such as unicorns and fire trucks, and a few quirky picks — llama RV, anyone? US$13, bakerybling.com.

Kid Made Modern Craft Classes

Elevate your kids’ arts and crafts game with- out having to spend a weekend relearning how to braid friendship bracelets. Kid Made Modern, long a source of stylish art kits, now offers live online classes with professional art teachers. Choose among one-off sessions or multiday workshops, all conducted on Zoom with a maximum of 12 students. Each class includes a KMM kit for creating water- colours, holiday ornaments, jewellery gifts, or (yes) friendship bracelets. From US$50 per class, kidmademodern.com.

Ages 11 to 13

The One Smart Keyboard Pro Essential

Though it’s no replacement for real-life piano lessons, the One digital keyboard and app can definitely make practice more fun. Link the piano to a tablet or phone, and musically-inclined kids can learn new songs from games, videos and interactive sheet music — which highlights the notes on the screen and keyboard as they go. The new version, the Pro Essential, has a full 88 keys versus the previous model’s 66. US$650, smartpiano.com.

Lego Spike Prime

Lego’s newest teaching toy was designed mainly for educational settings — but for many families, that’s now synonymous with, um, being at home. The Spike Prime set combines regular Lego bricks with sensors, motors, a Bluetooth hub and a pro- prietary coding app, thereby allowing them to turn simple blocks into complex machines. Kids work their way through online challenges that intertwine creativity, ingenuity, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills. One of them cleverly invites kids to create a claw grabber — and then use it to clean up their mess. US$330, lego.com.

Crafter’s Box

This subscription box is designed for grownups, but perfectly suitable for tween-aged makers. Each month brings high-quality supplies for making a differ- ent (non-cheesy) craft project, such as a brass mobile or macramé hanging, by following an online video. If an upcoming craft isn’t quite your style, you can always pause the subscription or swap it for something more appealing. US$65 a month, thecraftersbox.com.

Backgammon

It’s not just pretty to look at. This brightly coloured wood backgammon set from New York’s Museum of Modern Art can help kids learn math, resilience and flexibility. Plus, isn’t it about time they know how to play something that’s fun for you, too? US$96, store.moma.org. – Bloomberg