When you shop for toys, there is always the conflict between what you think is appropriate/adorable and what the child being shopped for might actually want/play with.
You may find the Moulin Roty Le Jardin botanist case -- a beautiful, fey little kit for the would-be botanist housed in a charming lunchbox-style case -- to be irresistibly cute, nontoxic and French. Your kid may find it to be somewhere between mystifying and boring. And French.
One shopping site classifies toys not only according to the age and sex of the child, but in a section called "My Kid's Obsessed With...," toys are grouped according to familiar sub-worlds including "princesses," "firemen," "dinosaurs" and "horses." When an obsession rules the home, there's not much to do other than pacify it, with occasional teasers as a lure to the world beyond. If your kid has more catholic tastes, there are plenty of toys out there besides the Furby that may speak to you both.
Toddlers can enjoy cantering around the house on the manically grinning, indoor-outdoor bouncy Rody Horse, which not only improves coordination and balance but can inspire Old West play for cowboys and cowgirls. Trot Old Paint up to the campfire rug (kidcarpet.com) with its two-dimensional rocks, log and roaring campfire, and set up the play tepee (Haba Toys). More contemporary is the Crayola Imagination Tent, which sets up like most modern tents with fiberglass poles and is a retreat for art making, thinking or just getting away from it all. Fill out the campsite with the Learning Resources Camp Set, with a battery-powered play lantern, a first aid kit, camp stove, utensil set and compass.
Or press the tent into service as a puppet theater. The Puppet on a Stick offers an alternative to the sock-hand-style with these expressive, friendly sea-monster characters, Kai, Lex and Fez. A little lever on the stick makes it easy for kids to move the puppets' mouths.
Ways for kids to build things continue to proliferate, from Legos to Minecraft. Minecraft, the virtual building environment for computers, phones, tablets and Xbox, now also exists as 3-D paper craft kits and, indeed, as Legos. To escape the Möbius strip of real/virtual/real, there are still Lincoln Logs, which so far are not an app or a Wii, just little logs. These can be constructed into cabins, homesteads and forts, with the familiar green roof.
Structures (Keva Toys) is one version of the plank kit that enables kids to create buildings and sculptures; the Contraptions version lets them add on ramps, funnels and chutes in a Rube Goldberg fashion. The planks are made of pine; an upgrade to maple is available.
In an initiative to make engineering principles palatable to the princess-obsessed set, Goldie Blox combines a building kit that introduces spatial and problem-solving skills, a plucky girl inventor character and storybook that appeals to girls' preference for narrative, and a princess-friendly color scheme (honestly, it may be more peach than pink). "Goldie Blox and the Spinning Machine," for instance, introduces the concept of a belt drive, with 16 design ideas; more permutations are possible.
It's popular in these parts to familiarize both kids and adults with where their food comes from, to "know your farmer." Plenty of toys raise consciousness of what working in the fields is like. There are a vast array of farm-implement toys, in John Deere and Case models -- and not just tractors, either (though the tractors are very cool). There are combines and round balers and mulch masters and gravity masters. Those who filled in the "My Kid's Obsessed With" blank with "trucks" will find a Kenworth W900 semi and a Peterbilt cement mixer worthy additions to the fleet.
A John Deere scooter-style tractor and trailer (Ertl) with a battery-operated front scoop comes with (alas) "two different engine sounds."
Nimble thinking is the byproduct of the card game Fluxx (Looney Labs), now out in a new basic version called 4.0, as well as themed sets like Oz, Eco, Zombie and Monty Python. The rules for all of these games are ever-changing; that is, as players draw cards, the cards themselves change the goals and rules. The game is also available for iPhone/iPad.
A different kind of nimbleness is required for Beyblades, a Japanese/manga-inspired update of the old battling-tops toy, and there's a collect-'em-all quality to the playing pieces. Players launch the tops into a plastic "stadium," and the last top spinning wins.
Nimble fingers are needed for the Rainbow Loom, which helps kids create flowery-looking bracelets (from special latex-free rubber bands), but also teaches motor skills and spatial relationships. Or pick up a scarf loom like the Boye Small Round Loom and learn to pre-knit, without dozens of different-sized needles or dropped stitches.
In the realm of the stocking-stuffer comes the temporary tattoo. There are EZ Tattoo Sleeves (the design is printed on nylon, an actual "sleeve"), Christmas-motif finger tattoos, and animal-hand tattoos that could prompt an impromptu Señor Wences-style puppet show (all from Toysmith); Color-In Tattoo Jewelry (from Creativity for Kids); and, for the budding tattoo artist, the Tattoo Pen (from Schylling). Ink lasts for a couple of days, though if you need to wash it off before the family photo with Grams and Gramps, soap and water should do the trick.