Toys and Gifts for Emotional Development

{Ideas for toys and gifts that promote emotional development and kindness in kids. Games that teach emotional skills, books that promote kindness and fun kindness activity boxes for kids.}

My four-year-old was at it again.

He, his big brother and I were doing our usual Target run and they had convinced me to go to the toy aisle. What was I thinking?

The whining and begging from the little guy began pretty much as soon as we entered the first aisle that contained Hot Wheels or Nerf guns.

"Mom, can we get this?" he asked-whined (parents, you know that's a real phrase)

"No, sweetie," I say in my trying-to-not-get-upset voice. "You know I said we are just looking, not buying today."

"But Mooooooom, it sooooo cool," he says in that dramatic voice.

You parents know how this goes and it hardly ever ends well. Many times, we leave the store with someone crying (hopefully not me).

I get it. He's only four. Only recently has he gained any mental capacity for thinking of anyone outside himself. He's emotionally immature; he's still learning to regulate his emotions. And those toys are SO tempting. Luckily, my eight-year-old has matured to the point where he can handle the toy aisle without fits of whining.

Unfortunately, as any holiday approaches this focus on toys, rather than gratitude or giving tends to only increase in our kids. So this year, in thinking about how to approach the holidays, I decided I will focus on helping parents find gift ideas promote positive child development. That is, toys and gifts that will actually help kids develop the emotional and social skills that we want to encourage.

In other words, gifts that will help them grow more towards gratitude than "gimme." The core of this mindset is a set of social and emotional skills that take years to build. However, parents can be key guides in this development process. Through interaction, connection and modeling your kids' emotional development can blossom. Unlike the "hot" toy of the moment, the gift that these social-emotional skills bring is happiness and contentment that is much deeper than one season.

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So without further ado, here is this year's gift guide for raising kids who care:

Games and Activities for Emotional Development

These games may just seem like family fun (which they are) but they all involve trying to perceive another person's thoughts or feelings--key emotional skills that our kids can develop.

Gift Guide for Raising Kids Who Care

What's It?
A family game that focuses on cooperation, instead of competition. Players try to think like other players--now that takes some emotional skills.


I didn't realize this was an actual game! We have played versions of this classic alphabetical listing game for years. Good for practicing the skill of working together (plus you get to review the alphabet for younger kids).

Q's Race to the Top

Q's Race to the Top
I'm really excited about this one because it involves both active play and social skills. Kids have to advise the characters on what to do in certain social situations. Plus there are cards to perform physical skills involving balance and coordination.

Gift Guide for Raising Kind Kids

Wonder Crate

Wonder Crate
Now, this is an awesome idea! A kids' subscription (or one time) activity box all focused on building social-emotional skills like empathy, resilience, confidence, and mindfulness. I just found this box but it is definitely on my list to try out with my boys.

Kindness Activities for Kids

In addition to learning about sharing and kindness, we also have to act on these values too. There are many fun and meaningful options for doing kind or charitable acts together with our kids.

Little Loving Hands Kids Subscription Box

I have just heard about this subscription box but I'm so excited to try it with my kids. Most kids love doing crafts, but parents, you know the drawback--tons of crafts just laying around your house collecting dust. This solves that problems in a charitable way! Kids make the crafts but then they are shipped off to charities that can use them. Awesome idea!

The Doll Kind The Doll Kind

The Doll Kind
A doll that actually teaches kids about the value of kindness...and then models that very lesson. Each doll comes with kindness tokens that kids can give to others to "pay it forward" when someone has been kind to them. Bonus--for each doll purchased, another one is donated to a child in need (like hospitals or shelters). Brilliant!

Building Emotional Connection with Kids

Of course, the best way for kids to learn crucial social-emotional skills is through a warm, responsive relationship with parents. Parents modeling empathy and kindness with their kids is the best way for kids to see emotional regulation in action and learn it themselves.

In our busy world, however, it is often hard to find those moments to really build connections with our kids. Between school, extracurricular activities and job responsibilities, finding time to really connect with our kids can be tricky. These gift ideas help make finding that connection time easier and still fun.


storieChild Books
I have only recently heard about these beautiful books. We are all used to those generic books that you can have your own child's picture or name included. These are SO much better than that. You get to choose your child's pictures, but also their story. You can include details about their birth, their interests, their dreams. Each story is unique to your child with your text embedded in a beautiful storyline. This is such a great idea! What a better way to bond with your child than to sit down and read their story together.

The Read-Aloud Family

The Read-Aloud Family
If you are not familiar with Sarah Mackenzie and her blog, The Read-Aloud Revival, you should be! I love all her writing and book suggestions, but I am really excited about this new book. It illustrates how reading aloud with your kids, even after they can read on their own, can help strengthen relationships and build their emotional skills. She understands how the stories that we read can give us strength and teach us all foundational emotional lessons. This one is even on MY list.

Resource: Download this e-book to understand the WHY behind your child's behavior: Understanding Your Child's Temperament

Podcasts are another why I find time to connect with my kids. It may sound silly but all that time riding in the car can quickly turn into wonderful conversation or fun bonding time just by the addition of a podcast topic.

Here are a few of our favorites:

Pinna podcast

My new absolute favorite venue for listening to kid-friendly podcasts. This app provides a huge selection of podcasts--stories, interviews, music shows and yes, even games. My boys are HUGE fans of ExtraBlurt, a podcast quiz show. We have had tons of fun listening and answering back while driving in the car. They have even picked up some new vocabulary words just from listening.

Leela Kids

Leela Kids
If your kids are like many I know and have a Kindle Fire Kids Edition, then it may be tempting for them to be glued to games all the time. This podcast app offers an endless variety of listening choices for kids--stories and shows centered on their favorite topics like space, science, animals, and music. It helps pull their minds off games and enlightens their imaginations and understanding of feelings and characters. IOS version Android version

Dream Big Podcast

Dream Big Podcast
This great show is hosted by 8-year-old Eva (with a little help from her mom). She interviews ordinary people who have "dreamed big" and are now living out those dreams in cool jobs like astronaut, neuroscientist, or gymnast. The show is inspiring to kids and entertaining for adults.

Circle Round podcast

Circle Round
If you love getting caught up in a story, this is the podcast for you (and your kids). These short stories are engaging, legendary and sometimes even teach a good lesson. Great listening for helping kids understand feelings, characters, and develop a wonderful imagination.

Short and Curly Podcast

Short and Curly
If you kids are like mine, they ask questions all the time. The other day, my 4-year-old actually asked why the sky is blue. Now, I may have a higher education, but even that one stumped me! This is the podcast to help answer all those questions (and ones even 4-year-olds haven't thought of). Great bonding time while listening.

Related reading: The Hidden Way that Kids Learn Empathy (and how parents can help)

Children's Books that Teach Kindness 

Books are the best way to share a variety of important lessons--friendship, traditions, being brave, etc. Books also have the wonderful ability to help kids learn how to put themselves in another's shoes and understand feelings. Plus, spending time together reading is a time of connection that you and your child will cherish forever. 

Lovely (children's book)

The message focuses on the idea that although we are all different, we are each lovely in our own way.  (ages 4-8)

Pass it On

Pass It On
A book with a simple message of passing on kindness and good cheer to those around you. (ages 3-7)

We Are All Wonders

We Are All Wonders
Most of you are probably aware of the book Wonder. Well, this is just the shorter, picture book version for younger kids. I got this a few months ago and have read it with my 4-year-old about 100 times! He loved it and it sparked a lot of good conversations about why people are different.

The Invisible Boy

The Invisible Boy
A lovely book for all kids, but especially the quieter types who may feel "invisible" at times. A story of friendship and learning that we all have talents--even if we're quiet.

Myra Makes
This book falls more under the category of a workbook, but it still focuses on promoting empathy in kids. The workbook itself tells a story and with each activity, the kids try to help Myra get to Cloud City. The lessons focus on care for the earth, healthy living, and cooperation. Great to keep little minds busy on those long road trips or plane rides.

Not Fair: A Kid's Guide to Handling Envy and Jealousy

Not Fair: A Kid's Guide to Handling Envy and Jealousy. I'm embarrassed to admit that we need this book in our house...badly. My kids are notorious for saying, "it's not fair," any time any reward or treat is handed out. I was about to pull my hair out! I checked this book out from the library and I was so impressed with how well the authors approach this topic from a kid-friendly perspective. An added bonus is that it also helps them learn some cognitive skills to keep a positive attitude in a variety of situations.

Pretend Play for Emotional Development

As I've written on many occasions, play is really the engine of learning for young kids. There is no better way to gain social skills than through pretend play. It allows kids to gain insight into another's perspective (the basis for empathy), test role and boundaries. Of course, there are tons of pretend play toys out there. I tend to gravitate towards ones that are simple and represent roles that kids see commonly in daily life.

Police costume
I've written before about the developmental benefits of dress-up play and it doesn't have to be Halloween for this to be the case. Kids love dressing up and taking on all the details of a different role or personality. Perspective-taking skills at their best!

Pretend cleaning set
Okay parents, you will love this one. A toy that encourages cooperative skills and reinforces the need for chores! My boys always loved helping me clean when they were about 2-3 years old. Encourage that love of cleaning with real, hands-on toys that look and function just like the adult version.

Dollhouses are not just for girls anymore! Now that there are these nice gender-neutral ones on the market, any kid will want to try it out. Role-playing "mom," "dad," or "baby" is one of the best ways for kids to learn empathy and perspective-taking.

Puppets are really underrated in today's world of high-tech toys. We have only had a few in our house, but the kids always come up with such creative ways to use them--reenact stories, battle each other, or take on all sorts of silly voices. Believe it or not, this all helps build emotional and cooperation, and language skills.

Okay parents, I hope these ideas give you a little jumpstart on gifts. Focusing on items that promote positive child development and build social-emotional skills will result in meaningful benefits for your kids for years to come.

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Toys and Gifts for Emotional Development

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