I haven't had much luck with Christmas shopping for the kids this year. I've tried. Repeatedly. But every time, I find myself in a store surrounded by gadgets and gizmos of all sorts, glancing from toy to toy thinking, "That won't last. ... That will annoy me. ... They'll lose interest in that in five minutes. ... This one doesn't even work in the store. ... There's no way I'll be able to figure out how that one works. ... That will just be clutter." And on and on until I leave empty-handed, lost in thought about giving the kids empty cardboard boxes to play with.

But it's not a total loss. My lack of toy-shopping luck has made me appreciate what we already have, so much so that I'm thinking the kids would really enjoy finding them under the tree again this year.

So, while trying not to sound like too much of a promotion for major companies that have offered me no money to say nice things about their products, here are a few toys that have already proven their worth at my house.

Balance bike

I love this thing. I wish they made one in my size. It's a bicycle without pedals. The kid uses his legs — Fred Flinstone-like — to propel himself forward and, if he gets up enough speed, he picks up his feet and away he goes. The idea is that he'll learn to balance on it and, when he's ready, will move up to a pedal bike without the need for training wheels. We'll see. In the meantime, the bike gives him mobility that he otherwise wouldn't yet have and allows him to keep up — sort of — with his bike-riding big brother. The bike is a hit everywhere we take it and keeps the little one entertained when we have to drag him to things like brother's baseball practice. It was a little pricey, but we definitely got our money out of it.

Magna-Tiles

Plastic tiles of various shapes and colors with magnets in them that can be connected to build all sorts of contraptions. It's one of the preferred toys in the house and can keep both kids entertained for long stretches. Most of the fun, I think, comes from the demolition of whatever new thing has been engineered.

Keva planks

When I was a kid, I used to play with the scrap wood in my dad's shop. Still do. But these blocks of wood might be better. The small planks are identical and can be stacked to create any number of things. It even comes with a book of ideas. It's good for kids and adults, and like with the Magna-Tiles, much of the fun is in knocking it over once it's all done.

Twilight Turtle

It's a cuddly, stuffed animal and a night light all in one. The lights inside the shell project stars on the ceiling and around the room in one of three color options. It's much cuter than leaving the bathroom light on all night.

Legos

No list of the best Christmas toys would be complete without Legos. My 9-year-old can play with Legos all day, building whatever he happens to dream up at the time. It hasn't been as hard for him to keep track of all the little pieces as I once feared, or at least he has somehow managed to keep them from all getting sucked into the vacuum.

So those are the top 5, but honorable mentions have to include this marble maze doodad and the 3-year-old's doctor kit, which he uses to give me my weekly checkup. "Not good," he'll say after checking me over and scribbling something on the prescription pad.

And I don't dare skip the Hot Wheels this Christmas, even though we already have several hundred of them. What's a few more? Plus, they're good for crashing into whatever we build with the Keva planks.

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