The best and worst presents to buy other people's kids

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You never know quite what’s lurking under that colourful wrapping paper until it’s being held in the hands of a very excited child. Rachel Tompkins looks at the birthday present sinners and winners for little ones of all ages...

Birthday presents – given with love, received with trepidation/fear/panic by many a parent. Here's how to stay in your mum mate's good books...

Newborns

Sinner: Giant teddy

‘Thank you for the giant teddy,’ said no mum ever. An enormous cot-filler of a teddy might seem like a good idea at the time. But would you really want a huge fur-ball gathering dust in your newborn’s bedroom?

Winner: Personalised picture

Personalised prints get the thumbs up in our house. My second son was lucky enough to be given a couple when he was born. Not only are they lovely mementoes of his birth date, weight etc, they’re also perfect for decorating his nursery walls in a totally unique way (and reminding him what his name is just in case he ever forgets!).

First birthday

Sinner: Ball pool

Perfect for that mate you hate! A ball pool might seem like brilliant child entertainment, indoors or out. But the reality is that the balls stay in the pool for about one minute max, and then you spend your ENTIRE life picking them up/slipping over them, removing them from under the sofa/your handbag/the cat’s bowl…you get the idea.

Winner: Wooden activity cube

It’s not noisy, it’s not plastic, and yet it keeps children (seemingly of all ages) quiet for hours (and no it’s not chocolate either!).

We were given a wooden activity cube by a friend when my first son was born and it’s stood the test of time and durability for him and his brother who arrived three years later. Babies love sitting up playing with all the windows and spinney bits, then as they start standing they can lean against it and play with the wooden beads on top. The A-Z of animals on one side is fun when they’re learning the alphabet too. And it doubles as a great place to rest a glass when the kids are in bed...

Second birthday

Sinner: Musical band set

‘Tuneful’ and ‘toddler’ are scarcely ever uttered in the same breath – for a very good reason. A musical band set is the perfect way to ensure you never enjoy a peaceful moment again. Think thumping hangover without the joy of drinking the night before. You get the picture. AVOID AT ALL COSTS!

Winner: Aquadoodle

A present that gives children the enjoyment of painting everywhere, without the mess - it’s basically painting with water. Children of all ages love it and the most damage it’ll cause is a damp patch if any water spills. You can get travel sets which are great for holidays too, and loads of different varieties and types. My little boy got his for his second birthday and still plays with it two years later.

Third birthday

Sinner: Painting sets

6am on my son’s 3rd birthday and I gasped in horror as he opened a Deluxe Rainbow Finger Paint Art set (it’s a true story but I’m not being ungrateful - it was given to him by an incredibly good friend of mine with a brilliant sense of humour, who will see the funny side now she’s got her own child). The set includes rainbow coloured paper that you have to completely cover in thick black paint and then use your fingers to draw pictures. Suddenly, all other presents melted into insignificance as the kitchen, my son, and myself, become splatted in tar-like black paint. So, to that incredibly thoughtful friend, no prizes for guessing what your son will be getting this year!

Winner: Playmobil

Think lego without so many little pieces (although there are still some very tiny parts), crossed with a human Sylvanian Family. Clear as mud right? Playmobil basically consists of sets of little toy people in real life settings – a police speedboat, a fire engine, a princess chamber. It’s unisex and universally appealing. Kids spend hours putting the people in and out of the vehicles/chamber/boat and fiddling around with all the little accessories that go with it. It’s great for their imagination and sets start for under £10 and go up to more than six times that.

Fourth birthday

Sinner: 6ft inflatable dinosaur

It’s fine in theory. But then you inflate the dam thing and find yourself literally craning your neck to see the TV over a giant prehistoric claw. Even the biggest room will seem tiny with a 6ft creature inside and how exactly does a four-year old ‘play’ with something four times its size? Plus, if you dare to take it outside it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a casualty of the wind/foxes/thorns - although I would love to see the look on next-door’s face when it pops up at their back window one morning...

Winner: Kinetic sand

I was at a friend’s house recently and was unable to contain my horror as she suggested the kids play with the ‘sand’ – at the dining room table! Play Doh is brave enough in my book (you always find it squashed into the carpet for weeks after). But sand?! Turns out it was kinetic sand. This clever stuff looks and feels like real sand but sticks together so it doesn’t go everywhere. It kept the children quiet for ages and didn’t require a massive clean-up operation afterwards. 

@RachTompkins @mushmums