Best Kids Gifts: How to Avoid Giving an Inappropriate Gift

The Secret to Choosing Holiday Gifts for Kids

Who among us hasn't spent hours online, trying to pick the perfect gift for the kids in our lives? More often than not, our efforts find their way into the giveaway bin.

My biggest misfire came in the form of an anthropomorphic robot, at the Christmas I like to refer to as "RoboSapien's Revenge." For those of you unfamiliar with RoboSapien, he's a black and white robot whose movements -- dancing, grunting, and throwing his hat -- are determined through a series of remote control commands. The ideal thing -- I thought at the time -- for a precocious 6-year-old.

But RoboSapien was a colossal flop. His remote controls were too complicated, and his robotic antics were no match for my son's obsession at the time: Bionicles. These build-your-own toys offered the kind of imaginative play that RoboSapien lacked -- and that 6-year-old boys love: a mysterious backstory, secret codes, "good guys" and "bad guys," and the ability to construct your own and match them up against your friend's creations.

Stinging from the Robo catastrophe, I approached my son's seventh birthday with a little more care. Taking my cue from the growing piles of plastic Bionicle body parts, I got him the DVD Bionicle: The Mask of Light. Bull's-eye! Nothing made my son happier than seeing his favorite characters come to life.

Then it dawned on me: Picking presents that kids will really love means factoring in more than just their ages and interests. You also have to consider their developmental stage. Mask of Light engaged my kid at his level. At that age, he had a love of make-believe, budding social skills, and (well, maybe this was just him) a fascination with decoding messages.

Developmentally and age-appropriate choices are especially important when choosing kids' entertainment -- like movies, games, DVDs, and apps -- because of the level of immersion and interactivity they offer, as well as what they expose kids to. Study after study shows that what our kids see, hear, and play with really does impact them.

Matching kids' gifts to their ages and stages eases them into the worlds of technology and media at a manageable pace -- plus, it really cuts down on returns.

Ironically enough, my son recently rediscovered RoboSapien. At 11, he has the patience to figure out the controls. And judging by the peals of laughter coming from him and his friends, something tells me that grunting and hat-throwing are perfectly developmentally appropriate.

The more you think about it, the more fun it is to give gifts that correspond to your kids' age and stage -- lackluster as it may sound. You're helping to stimulate their developing skills -- social, physical, thinking -- by meeting their needs. Plus, you're getting them things that enhance their discovery and play long after the presents are unwrapped.

Find a Gift for Every Kid on Your List

Every child, of course, is different. But these general guidelines and age-based gift recommendations may help you pick a winner this holiday.

Kids under 6

Where they are Acquiring basic literacy skills; still afraid of the dark, loud noises, and strangers; love humor -- especially slapstick; still can't distinguish between fantasy and reality; do not understand the intent of commercials is to sell something.
What to watch: Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue; Beauty and the Beast
What to play: Dora's Big Birthday Adventure ; The Cat in the Hat

Kids ages 7-8

Where they are Learning to type; beginning to play team sports and socialize in groups; still very literal; can make up their own minds.
What to watch: Fantastic Mr. Fox ; How to Train Your Dragon
What to play: Club Penguin Game Day ; Guilty Party ; LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4

Kids ages 9-10

Where they are Becoming more body conscious; looking to older kids to "age up"; more susceptible to peer pressure; can follow several storylines at once.
What to watch: Diary of a Wimpy Kid ; The Karate Kid (2010)
What to play: NBA 2K11 ; Toy Story 3

Kids ages 11-12

Where they are Preadolescence hits, secondary sex characteristics developing; moody, independent, breaking away from parents; peer relations and group dynamics become very important; ability to understand abstract ideas.
What to watch: Invictus ; Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
What to play: Sid Meier's Civilization V ; Professor Layton and the Unwound Future