Fun and Unique Second Birthday Gift Ideas (that are Better for the Environment too)

by - Tuesday, October 11, 2016



Life comes in waves- babies, weddings, even funerals seem to happen in bunches.  Right now, we are in the midst of a toddler birthday phase of life. Even though we have a toddler, it can still be intimidating to approach buying presents for little kids- there are so many choices!

Since I have an (almost) two year old, I have some solid guesses at what will be a big hit and what may not work as well.

First, this may be hard to believe, but less is better. By two years in, most parents would probably be giddy to have you take some toys OUT of their house! We, especially as Americans, feel tremendous (but often unspoken) pressure to display our love through quantity. Want to give an amazing gift? Clearly a giant plastic thing with lights and doodads is the answer! Except, that plastic is now polluting the water and land, those lights waste electricity (they don't need them! if your kid loves lights, get them a flashlight), and those cheap, imported toys may have been made by unethical or even child labor.

We are making so many problems that these children will have to face later, not to mention teaching them habits that are unhealthy and unsustainable. You want to give a kickass gift against the grain? Think about their future too!

Here are my other tips for things to absolutely avoid if you want to get a great gift and make a better for future for the kid you love:

- Anything Too Big- That tent or giant darth vader might make a big impact on the gift table, but if it takes up a ton of room, it might be a real problem. This isn't an absolute no, but it's definitely worth checking in with the parents before you do that. If you want something big, you might try these Mondo Bloxx, which we have had so much fun with.

- Fresh Plastic- I have made a resolution in our house to avoid any fresh plastic toys. They only create waste, introduce potentially toxic chemicals into the home, and pose more problems for them in the future (I don't want my kids to be the adults from Wall-E, for goodness sakes). Don't cry for my kiddos- they still have a slide in the backyard and ramps for their car toys. They are just used! If you have your heart set on something plastic, go check out Goodwill or a kids consignment shop.

-Melissa and Doug- These con people market themselves as more wholesome and well-made than anything else in the toy section, but it is a TOTAL lie. Once upon a time, they made their toys stateside, but now they manufacture solely in China. If you want to support American businesses or buy wood toys that aren't coated in nastiness, check out this post for some of the best options.

- Too Many Characters- They are getting to that age where they love the cars from Cars or Anna and Elsa. But  months from now, they may love something totally different. Giving a character gift just puts a shelf life on whatever you are giving. Not to mention, your gift might totally blend into the pile. If they really love Thomas, check to see if the train is coming anywhere near you (yes, he is always on tour from what I can tell). Or Disney on ice tickets! Or, go another route and buy them a pack of stickers with the characters on it with a gift that has more longevity. I know I have made this mistake more than once, so I get the appeal, but if the child really loves Nemo that much, I bet he/she already has a nemo stuffed animal. Next idea!

-Stuffed Animals. Trust me, the toddler you know probably already has plenty. They take a lot of room, most serve the same basic purpose, and very few are made anywhere nearby. Now that I have kids, I would probably never go this route, because we are always fighting back the hoard. If you are going that route, check out Bears for Humanity (they donate a bear for every bear you buy, are organi, use recycled polyfill, AND employ Americans for their manufacturing) or one of the super cute stuffed things from Taraluna.

You may notice, this is a short list, but it cuts out most of the toy sections in Walmart and Target. It makes me look like quite a party pooper.

 Don't sweat it, there are actually TONS of other options that are both more memorable AND more fun. You can do this! Here are my best ideas, based on my reading about child development at this juncture and my experience as a mom.

fun fingerpainting with toddler

1. Paint or Crayons


These kids have FINALLY reached the point where their first instinct with art supplies isn't to eat them. This is a big deal. Mark-making and creativity are hugely important in a toddler's life. It gives them agency, helps them explore colors and representation, and sets them up to learn letters in coming years. Markers, crayons, and paints are gifts they can come back to again and again for years.

As far as brands go, no one does better for markers and crayons than Crayola- both are made Stateside, and you can even mail the markers back to them when they die, and they will be recycled.  Many of their kids washable paints are as well. If you want something more original, you could look up "recycled crayons" on Etsy or even make your own out of the crayon nubbins in your house!

Looking for something bigger? Kids easels are one of the most common finds at Goodwill or even on Buy Nothing (that's where we got ours), so it might be easy to revamp. I couldn't find any Made in the USA, so plan ahead and jump at a good one if you see it. You could also throw in The Day the Crayons Quit or Harold and the Purple Crayon to go with the theme.

cute toddler backpack with a lion design
from Mulberry and June

2. A Backpack

We cleaned out and revamped a little backpack my brother and I kept crayons in when we were kids, and my son loves filling it with stuff, putting it on, and wearing it around. It's bright but simple, and he uses it a lot for play (and I bet it will start getting practical use this year. Kids this age love having their own bags, so you could revamp one of your old bags , find a toddler's backpack at Goodwill or get something new and American-made from stores like Happyluxe, Omac Packs (from Erie, PA!), Stitch Crafty 4 U,  Mulberry and June, or Weepereas (love these! So cute).

Remember, a character might seem like a great idea now, but I wouldn't go that route. The characters they love change fast sometimes.


3. Snappies, Buckles, and Buttons


This is the year many toddlers want to do things themselves, and this definitely includes clothes. Our son loves all kinds of fasteners, and "snappies, please" is said about 50 times a day in our house (he can't get them apart on his own). My husband bought him this fabric covered in snappies from the 5 an 10 Market. One of our friends even made one himself (so resourceful). A perfect car toy, and so simple.


monteray bay aquarium tide room

4. Tickets

Tickets for activities may not get the big box-opening moment, but how many of those do you actually remember from when you are a kid? Instead, tickets to something special, like a train ride, the zoo, or even their first movie tickets could make a great memory, especially if you are around to do the activity with them. Toddlers can really love new experiences, even more so than toys (which they have too many of already), so think about something they love and how you can bring that to life, rather than buy them one more toy that will fade into the pile.


dancing dad and toddler

5. Mix CD's (or music playlists)

I know this sounds hipster or retro, but trust me, you can be a birthday hero if you save those parents from Raffi.The Bub loves to dance and sing, and we are always trying to find new songs that he will love and we will only hate a little. If you want to step it up, you could have the first letter of each song spell out the toddler's name or find a song with their name in it. It doesn't have to cost you money to be a great gift. My Grammy and cousin have made us mix cds we absolutely love.

Want to step it up? Add in a book or two about music or get some bells or musical instruments. Sure to be a hit!

toddler bath toys

6. Bath Toys


People will think of regular toys, but especially if you don't have little ones, you can forget about the awesome power of the bath toy. Our favorites are these rubber duckies, the boats and cups from Green Toys, and foam letters we got on Buy Nothing. Cups will work, as kids love to pour. I also think color tablets like these would be really fun. The biggest thing is to avoid toys where water can get stuck inside and grow mold.

toddler and his dad building a bench

7. Brooms, Shovels, Play Kitchens, or Any Household Drudgery you Hate

2 year olds really want to do what the grown ups are doing, so you can have a big hit by gifting objects you would NEVER want as a gift yourself (or the tiny toddler version). You can split this into two categories- participation play and pretend play.

Some of their early pretending is often in kitchens because they see that modeled all the time, so play food, play kitchens, play tools, play gardening sets can all really resonate based mostly on what they watch the grown ups in their lives do.

You can find so much great play food on Etsy, and if you want to get a kitchen, I highly recommend checking your Buy Nothing or Etsy first. Little Tikes does make a few in the US, but I am suspicious of that "out of US and imported parts" add on. We have this one, which is great for a growing kid, but all of the accessory toys were made in China (bummer). You are better off to find something used.

 Even cooler, check pinterest for ideas on how to make any old janky piece of furniture into an adorable play kitchen. If you have the time, you could give such an amazing gift that costs you nearly no money.

All of this is fine and good, but participation play is easily as popular in our house. You know what would be a beloved gift for my son? A broom. He loves to sweep with us, but the poor child is usually stuck with the swiffer. He currently treasures a soft measuring tape used for sewing. He LOVES it. He even loves brushing his teeth when we do, because he wants to keep in the action. He likes playing with shopping bags, packing things into spare suitcases, and carrying my weed bucket (a former bakery bucket I got off Buy Nothing) around our yard and collecting leaves. He just wants to help.

Things that would be the worst gift in the world to an adult might be the absolute coolest to a little kid. Sure, you could buy some, but you could also look around your house and ask yourself what might be cool and safe for a toddler, because their standards for cool and fun are totally different. Will the parents give you a funny look if you give their kid measuring tape or an old keyboard? Probably, but they will also get it.

re-play forks and spoons
Re-Play from Amazon

8. Eating Tools


We never seem to have enough plates, bowls, or silverware (partially because they get used as toys). I will absolutely swear by Re-Play stuff for kids. They sell sippy cups, bowls, plates, silverware, snack stacks, and regular cups (perfect for the bath or play kitchen). It's made of recycled food safe plastic in the US, it comes in gorgeous bright colors, and it isn't all that different in price from something made of fresh plastic. They sell Re-Play at Walmart and Target now too, so this is a perfect last minute purchase if you don't have time to poke around but you still want to be eco-friendly.

As I said, I am not bringing new plastic into this house- when I see what plastic is doing to our oceans (and I think of the problems my children will face because of it), I just can't do it. This is a great gift for a child now, but it also invests in their future by supporting post-consumer recycled products and keeping plastics out of landfills and water.

toddler playing in city threads clothes

9. Clothes... One Size Up


A year before, the toddler was growing out of their clothes every few months. Now, they grow out of things... every few months. Slightly bigger basics (jeans, t-shirts, socks, simple things) may not be a hit with the bub, but their parents will love you for it. My favorite Made in America companies for basics are City Threads and American Apparel- their clothes are cute and stylish without being too expensive. Buy them basics with one fun accessory they can use now (a tutu, a dinosaur hoodie, a superhero cape), and you can please everybody.

Want bonus points? Check in with a parent and buy the kid a pair of shoes a size up. We are constantly trying to stay stocked on shoes.

There is one more trick to this, and that is to buy clothes used. If you want to spend 25 dollars on said child, you can either buy one outfit from Carter's, or you can find something equally cute in consignment and then buy 3 other things. Toddlers ruin things, with paint, dirt, all kinds of nonsense. I would rather get things from consignment than a precious outfit I can never trust him to wear. Kids consignment stores are EVERYWHERE, and if you can't find one nearby, online thrift shop Thred Up has great stuff.

10. Anything on Wheels 


Kids this size just love to move things, and wheels are almost always a favorite, regardless of gender. If you want to get all heteronormative (or they do, because even if you don't encourage these things, they creep up), you could do a car for a boy and a stroller for a girl. Or this badass pink dump truck. Green Toys again nails this category- made in the US out of recycled plastic, and they have every kind of motorized vehicle to play with. Also, animals who have been monstrously amputated to have wheels for feet.

If I had any advice, I would say go small on wheeled things; the big ones seem cool, but things that fit well in their hand get more use. And if you have to do Hot Wheels, get them used. You can find used Hot Wheel cars anywhere they sell used toys, usually for 25 cents or so. No need to buy a new one. Basically ever. There have to be enough hot wheels in the world for any kid who wants one, as long as parents donate them- don't throw them out!

 I also really love Maple Landmark's cars and train sets, so that might be a good place to start. We bought their trolley for our older son when our younger was born, and it has been a big hit.

That's the list! I hope it inspired you to think of an awesome gift! I will say, books were not included because I feel like this depends a lot on households, whether they prefer library books over owning a lot, etc. That being said, in my opinion, books are always a good idea. They love them, they build language skills, and the ones that don't go well can easily be donated to help other kids. Also picking up speed in our house is puzzles and his legos. They get as much or more return use than the cars at this point, so they are well worth considering.

Happy birthday to the little one in your life! If you want more eco-frendly shopping ideas, check out my Mega List of Shopping Lists!

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