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It would be more than safe to say that the turkey and cranberry sauce had barely passed our lips when the 2011 holiday season began. But in truth, this year, the winter holidays seemed to step on the heels of Halloween! As it has for the past few years, the sport that is Black Friday continued to dominate the headlines, with workers protesting Thanksgiving evening openings, retailers desperately trying to control  crowds bursting through their doors in a 5 am deluge by staying open all night. But like the many Americans who made Cyber Monday – the armchair quarterback version of the previous Friday’s shopping sprint – the biggest in its short history, we prefer to shop online.

TV advertising of youth-targeted trinkets seems to be surging in this period (although it’s still too soon to tell how this year will compare to last), but when shopping for youth, many parents and gift-givers will rely on the implied expertise of websites to provide them with age-appropriate recommendations for every child or teen on their list. In some ways, these search engines serve as virtual concierges, curators and, in the least, filters – helping gift-givers get it right, and more importantly, avoid getting it horribly wrong this holiday season. Whether it’s gifts.com, yoyo.com (the newest addition to the family born of diapers.com) or the online shops of bricks and mortar stores like Toys R’ Us, the items they recommend are sure to synch up with the biggest buys of the season. So we’ve taken some of the most commonly recommended items for each of the four age groups (preschoolers, kids, tweens and teens) and took a look at what they say about them, and why they stand out from the crowd…

In this post, we’ll focus on a few of the products that pop for preschoolers, with our take on the most recommended kid, tween and teen products to follow in the next few posts.

Preschoolers

For parents of preschoolers, the holidays might still feel more magical than manic. Preschoolers are just coming into their own asks, but can clearly imagine and fantasize what gifts they might get on Christmas morning or on the nights of Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. But they’re also easily surprised and parents can still delight them with items of their own choosing…Of course, many parents put educational products under the tree, but they’re also paying attention to their children’s budding passions (be it of the princess, pirate, or super hero variety) and looking to give them the goods that will get the biggest reaction when the bows come of the packaging.

In 2011, three products serve as symbols of the preschool market right now:Let’s Rock Elmo

  1. Let’s Rock Elmo follows in the distinguished tradition of Elmo automatons, which have managed to entertain many parents and kids in equal measure. Tickle Me Elmo may have caused a craze many holiday seasons ago (and could be seen as one of the products that, unexpectedly, started the habit of parents behaving badly in the face of toy scarcity on Black Friday), but this latest rendition seems to capture both the sweet essence of the lovable Sesame Street monster, and the precocious attitude that is increasingly ascribed to the preschool set. Preschool fashion has gone edgier (and even mainstream brands like Carter’s feature a line of products that shout “Mom Rocks” or “Dad’s a Rockstar” from 3T- and 4T- sized shirts).  This year, Let’s Rock Elmo will face-off with Rockstar Mickey, bound to be another top pick among parents of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. May the best icon win!
  2. Today’s parents of preschoolers are as likely to blog about their little boys and girls as they are about their own passions. Between sharing their best shots on photo sites like Picasso (Picasso.com), and capturing their every move on their cell phones, it’s no surprise that one of this year’s hottest heists lets preschoolers put their own stamp, quite literally, on the pics they take. Fisher Price’s Kid-Tough See Yourself Camera puts photography in preschoolers’ little hands, and allows them to take a picture of these little narcissists’ (which we say with affection!) favorite person, themselves, with a lens they can turn to face them. Once they’ve caught a great pic of their mom, for example, they can accessorize right on screen…Suddenly dad dons a cartoon cowboy hat on his head, or their cousin wears a clown wig. Vtech offers the Kidizoom, but we think the added assurance that the Fisher Price version can stand up to the rough play that makes us love the preschoolers with whom we reside will appeal to parents.

Whenever we talk about an age group as a whole, we inherently minimize the many differences – particularly in the consumptions habits and attitudes – of the very different types of parents who have children of any given age group. The new line of products from eco-brand Seedlings may make for a great gift from parents who prefer to buy their preschoolers do-it-yourself products with a seemingly nostalgic simplicity. With products like “make your own family” dolls, that invite girls and boys alike to turn works of art into actionable objects (not just display pieces), this brand capitalizes on parents’ desire to foster their little kids’ creative instincts, these totally self-contained craft kits (with many – like make your own car, or decorate your own magic wand - also available from Melissa and Doug) might also make family fun night a bit easier to plan.