There's no greater critic than a forthright three-year-old who isn't impressed with the birthday gift you've just handed over.
However, the task of present buying becomes even more fraught when you don't actually know the child in question that well. There are so many variables to take into account: one person's superhero figure is another person's jig saw puzzle, after all...
So how you can find the right gift every time? Once kids start at school or nursery the invites will start coming home thick and fast and it's impossible to know every classmate's likes and dislikes - sometimes even memorising their names can be a challenge! Think about what your own children like to play with, and maybe rope them in to helping you find the right present. If you get the chance you could also ask the parent what the birthday child is in to too. And that child you think has everything? They're probably happiest with something simple like a book, doodle pad or new ball.
If none of that elicits the perfect present, we've collected some gift ideas that are sure to be hits with all children and even sorted them by age group. We've focused on the younger ages as these tend to be the years when whole-group parties are the done thing; as kids get older the invites tend to go to just their firm friends which means you should have a better idea of what they're into.
One Year Olds
Board Books: All kids love books at this age, the bolder and brighter the better. As they reach their first birthday kids will also appreciate tactile books that they can touch, stroke and feel. Try to avoid the over-popular choices to make sure your gift is unique.
Clothes: While the birthday boy or girl may not be so appreciative, picking out some clothes can be helpful for the parents and at age one many kids will be overrun with toys. But, a word of caution if you don't know the child – go for simple basics such as sleep suits rather than attempting to guess the parent's sense of style.
Bath Toys: While they may already have lots of toys for the bath, these are the type of items that parents replace quite often as they tend to go mouldy over time. So you won't go far wrong with rubber ducks, pouring cups or water cascades.
Two Year Olds
Small World Play Stuff: Little ones will love acting out experiences with dolls houses, figures, farmyard animals and the like. If you're not sure what they already have, try to find something that they can play with as a stand alone toy – for example a gift including a set and figures.
A Water Drawing Mat: Help encourage budding artists with this mess-free suggestion. It comes with pens that parents fill with water and then toddlers can scribble to their heart's content. Once the water dries the picture vanishes, so it can be used all over again the next day.
Kinetic Sand: Little kids love sand – parents not so much. This sand can be squished into shape to create sandcastles and flows through the fingers like regular sand – but as it's coated with oil it never dries out and is easy to clear up. Over time the amount of kinetic sand dwindles as some gets swept into the bin, so topping up their supply is a good choice.
Jig Saws: Look for the wooden variety where kids have to place pictures into the correct shape or basic 6-9 piece sets. We all know someone owning a jig saw with a missing piece, so now it can be replaced with your thoughtful gift.
Three Year Olds
Dressing Up Sets: Feed their imagination with a gift they will love! At this age kids go through more costume changes than Superman in the average day so it's a good choice to add to their dressing up box.
Art And Craft Kits: Three year olds can never have too many googly eyes and sticks of glue. Look for more general art kits stuffed with markers, crayons, pencils and stickers rather than kits where they'd need to follow instructions.
Playdough: The choice is endless and you don't need to stick to just buying tubs of the squishy stuff. You can get sets themed around cooking, dinosaurs, even carton characters.
Magnetic Blocks: Track down a set of magnetic tiles or blocks to make youngsters happy. There's hours of fun to be had playing with these - they can build houses, cars, towers and more. The magnetic quality also makes it easier for younger kids as their structures will be more solid and they're usually indestructible. If they already have some, it's a case of the more the merrier!
Four Year Olds
Hidden Picture Books: They may have only just started on their reading journey but a hide and seek style book will go down a treat. You can find all varieties from the traditional 'Where's Wally?' through to unicorns, pirates or animals. Plus, as a gift for a child you don't know well it won't break the bank.
Simple Card Games: Looks for decks of cards with well-known characters on that can be used to play a variety of different games, from snap or bingo to matching pairs. It's a great way to encourage turn taking.
Building Blocks Or LEGO: Children of this age always need more LEGO! The chances are they already have quite the collection but a new set will always be appreciated so they can create even more imaginative designs.
Five Year Olds
Slime Kit: A slime kit is always a winner. You could just buy them a tub of slime but where's the fun in that! A kit will have everything they need to create and personalise their own slime. Once it's used it's used, so this gift doesn't take up space for too long.
Board Games: Encourage strategic thinking by gifting them a board game. There's lots of choices and if you avoid the old favourites you should find something they don't already have.
Garden Games: If it's a summer birthday, delight kids with something they can use in the garden – space hoppers, frisbees and bubble machines will all be winners. If you don't know for sure if they have a garden then opt for something that can be easily taken to the park such as a kite.
Craft Kits: By this age kids will have better developed fine motor skills and so will enjoy trying their hand at some new crafts. This could be anything from set your own bag or making a fairy house through to building a model aeroplane or a book on paper folding.
Six Year Olds
Sports Equipment: Kids of six are on the go all the time so anything that keeps them active and occupied is a good choice. Think skateboards, basketball hoops or a table tennis set.
A Growing Kit: Nurture their inner gardener by getting them to nuture a plant themselves. Easy sow-and-grow sets can be used indoors or out. Plus it's something different from the default toys they're likely to receive.
Books: Think about your own children or other kids you know and what their favourite books are. If you don't want to spend too much, a well-thought out book will always get a big thumbs up.
Bubbles: Kids love bubbles, but why not elevate your gift and go for a giant bubble maker! This type of item is perfect for kids you don't know well as it can be used up quickly and if they enjoy it the parent can replace the bubble mix.
Seven Year Olds
STEM Kit: There are so many science-orientated kits available that the chances of duplicating one they already have is low. Plus, seven year olds are notoriously curious.
Personalised Item: You may not know the child but if you have an invite you have a big clue for your gift – their name! You can have their name added to just about anything, from water bottles to bracelets and t-shirts to caps.
Stationery: Get prepared for the year ahead and buy multi-packs of notebooks, pens, colouring pencils and rubbers. You can then divide up the multipacks and put together your own stationery sets as your default present idea for all of the classmates.
Sweets: A jar of lollipops, slab of chocolate or pick 'n' mix selection is likely to always be a hit with the child – we can't promise how the parent will feel about it though...
If in doubt include a gift receipt with the present so it can be exchanged if it's not right.
Try to ask the parent what the birthday child is interested in.
Consider gifting older children a voucher for a small amount, with your child writing a note to say they can pick their own present.
If you have a local attraction – such as an ice cream shop, farm or soft play – think about buying a voucher for there.
Check the invite for any clues. Is it a themed party? If so it gives a clue as to what the child loves.
Get older kids to make a home-made card with our great ideas.
If you don't want to add more plastic toys, consider an eco-friendly toy gift.
At Kidadl we pride ourselves on offering families original ideas to make the most of time spent together at home or out and about, wherever you are in the world. We strive to recommend the very best things, that are suggested by our community and are things we would do ourselves - our aim is to be the trusted friend to parents.
We try our very best, but cannot guarantee perfection. We will always aim to give you accurate information at the date of publication - however, information does change, so it's important you do your own research, double-check and make the decision that is right for your family.
Kidadl provides inspiration for everything from family days out to online classes, arts, crafts and science experiments. We recognise that not all activities and ideas are appropriate and suitable for all children and families or in all circumstances. Our recommended activities are based on age but these are a guide. We recommend that these ideas are used as inspiration, that ideas are undertaken with appropriate adult supervision, and that each adult uses their own discretion and knowledge of their children to consider the safety and suitability.
Kidadl cannot accept liability for the execution of these ideas, and parental supervision is advised at all times, as safety is paramount. Anyone using the information provided by Kidadl does so at their own risk and we can not accept liability if things go wrong.
Kidadl is supported by you, the users. When you buy through the links on our site we may earn a commission. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.
All prices and product availability were correct at the time of publication.
We also link to other websites, but are not responsible for their content.