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My son just turned 8 and buying his gift this year proved to be a challenge. Looking back, though, I have to admit it was a largely self-imposed challenge.

It all started when my husband and I started talking about what birthday present we should get him. I reminded my husband that we should try to avoid that thing that happened a few years ago.

That thing was this: For one birthday we only gave him games. We only bought games because my then five-year-old son loved playing games. He loved them so much so that that he and I would play a card or board game before breakfast every morning, including school days.

So, foolish me — I thought that for his birthday he would like some more. But on the day he turned 6, after the the final bit of wrapping paper was torn away from the very last present, I saw a shade of distress and sadness on his face. I asked him what was wrong and he didn’t answer. So I asked again and this time he looked away and said, “I … I thought I was going to get a toy.”

I am admittedly biased when I say this but I don’t think this was about my son being spoiled. If he had an expectation of receiving a toy for his birthday, it was probably due to his parents having set up that expectation. And it’s easy to see where he got the idea; he has received toys (mostly Lego) on every other birthday, and every Christmas too for that matter.

I think he was just being honest about his disappointment.

To his credit, he didn’t sulk about not getting a toy — I saw him try and put those bad feelings behind him. And it wasn’t long before we had much fun playing those games he got for his birthday. Still, this story is the reason why I have a personal rule when it comes to birthday gifts:

For every birthday we give our children three gifts: A Game, A (Comic) Book and A Toy.

The trouble is that as my son gets older, it’s harder to find a toy for him. This year was especially difficult as my husband, his feet raw wounds from stepping on stray pieces, asked for a moratorium on Lego. I find also that 8 is a weird time in terms of child development; Toys for five to seven-year-olds are too babyish but toys geared for ages 10 to 12 are either too mature or too complicated.

Add in the complication of my other personal rule when it comes to toys. I know. But it’s not unlike Food Network host Alton Brown’s rule of kitchen gadgets: no single-task objects. For a kitchen that means no garlic press. For us, it means no one-time toys like the Potato Battery Clock.

Now — I love science, I love toys, and I love education. But somehow I cannot love most science-themed educational toys. Most are tremendously overpriced and also probably oversold in terms of ‘educational benefit.’  Seriously: why are marbles on a ramp more educational than a stack of plastic tracks for toy cars that you can assemble in infinitely more ways?

That is, in fact, exactly what I told my husband when we eventually found ourselves standing together, starting at the shelves of uninspiring educational toys, still looking for the right gift.

My husband doesn’t particularly feel the need to develop rules when it comes to buying toys, but our sensibilities are alike enough that we tend to align. And since we were both uninspired and at a loss to find a toy, we decided to follow up on the suggestion of our son’s younger sister: buy him a Nerf gun. And while we were not quite comfortable with the prospect of bringing projectiles in the house, we did recognize the wisdom of our five-year-old. Yes. An eight-year-old would love a Nerf gun.

But once we saw the wall of high-tech, high power, high-capacity foam arsenal we both balked at the idea of going through with it. It just didn’t feel right. All that was available were expensive battery-operated, rapidfire, high-calibre Nerf assault weapons. The smallest simple shooters were sold out. So again we were at a loss and it was closing in on time to go home and pick the kids up from school.

And that’s when we found the perfect perfect toy for our eight-year-old boy: Nerf walkie talkiesHe and his sister have been playing with them all weekend and each time they do, they figure out a new and strange way to use them. 

As my son gets older, I feel a new rule for toy-buying coming on: when you can, try to buy a cool tool instead of buying a cool toy. Because kids will find fun in most anything. Even educational toys.

Mita Williams is a User Experience Librarian in Windsor and involved with a makerspace called Hackforge. Activity Book is a regular column about family, games and tech. Mita is @copystar on Twitter.

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