VICENZA, Italy (Dec. 3, 2018) -- It's almost time to break out the chestnuts roasting on an open fire, star-shaped cookies, decorations and dancing lights … and those gift lists.

Parents wanting to make the season magical for their children may need help wading through the toy aisles. If you do, read on for some general tips to help you choose well and avoid breaking the bank.

Think about who your child is
Remember that you're buying a gift for your child, not the inner child in you that never got that super cool train set you always wanted.

Ask yourself who your child is and what he/she really likes. Consider temperament, personality, likes and dislikes. Is your child shy and quiet with an obsession for dinosaurs? Perhaps a big book of dinosaur facts with lots of cool pictures would be a great choice.

Also, don't forget age and developmental stage. A game that requires a lot of reading will be difficult and frustrating for a toddler who doesn't read and doesn't have much patience, whereas a toy covered with smiling pink bunnies may feel too babyish for a 10-year-old.

Think classic
Think back to the biggest toy fads of your childhood. Does anyone still fight over buying a Tickle Me Elmo or Teddy Ruxpin? Biggest, brightest, newest and most popular today doesn't always mean best.

Classic toys have delighted children, generation after generation, for a reason: there's something about them that captures the imagination, stimulates and keeps children occupied and coming back for more. Think about the toys your parents or grandparents probably played with, such as blocks, dolls, puzzles, puppets, balls, simple musical instruments, toy cars and trains, and so on (but, for safety reasons, consider getting the modern versions).

Think simple
Leave blinking lights to holiday decorations and sound effects to those wonderfully tacky singing greeting cards. In other words, don't be fooled by fancy bells and whistles: simpler is almost always better. The more the toy does by itself, the less room the child has to make his experience with it his own.

The best toys are tools that let children take the lead and use their own imagination, skills, knowledge, experiences and personality to guide their play and take them to amazing places.
An easy general rule of thumb: if it requires a battery, it's likely that it does too much.

Think balance
Consider the big picture and think about, over time, acquiring a collection of toys and activities that tap into multiple aspects of your child's life. Have some toys for quiet individual play at a table and some that get the whole family involved. Get some toys that encourage big whole body movements and others that require fine motor skills. Think also about where your children's strengths are and what areas you want to encourage her to develop. Have trouble sitting still? Find something that appeals to her interests and requires sustained concentration.

Think limits
You want to give your children the world, but it's better for them (and your wallet) if you limit yourself to a few well-chosen gifts. One easy way to think about this is to plan on choosing something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read. With this simple rhyme, you can put together a well-rounded collection and limit your spending spree.

Share the plan with your child to help him develop reasonable expectations. And feel free to tweak it to meet your family's needs-- try, read, wear, play, share. Or swap in do, create, move or experience (like a trip somewhere).

Most importantly, have fun and enjoy the extra family time the holidays allow. Spending quality time with your kids is hands down the best gift you could ever give.

The following are some general starting points to help you focus your search.

Babies: Look for simple toys for them to grab, squeeze, and feel. Give them things they can experience with all five senses or that allow them to experiment with cause and effect (i.e, if I push the ball, it rolls across the floor).

Toddlers: Think about ways to get them moving safely in and outside the house. They can also practice fine motor skills with large puzzles, big building blocks or sorting toys.

Preschoolers: In addition to big and small motor challenges, preschoolers enjoy arts and crafts. Items like dress-up clothes that inspire their imaginations for pretend play are also right up their alley.

Elementary school age: Introduce strategy and skill games like card or board games or sports equipment. Encourage their interests with science and magic kits, or help them nurture hobbies with craft-building kits (like model airplanes).

Tweens and teens: Look for something that can help them connect with their peers in a healthy way. Rather than "things," consider gifting experiences like trips, classes or outings that will make lasting impressions.

*Editor's note: This article has run previously in the USAG Italy newspaper, Outlook.
(VanderBorght is the Parent/Child Educator and Emergency Placement Care Coordinator for the Family Advocacy Program, U.S. Army Garrison Italy.)