-Aim to get them outside all winter! Do they have a sled, skates, ski's, snowshoes, boots, a couple snowsuits, proper mittens and hats (several)? (P.S. make sure Mom and Dad have the same- they'll want to have fun WITH you!) They don't have to be new- Play It Again Sports, yard sales, Goodwill, ask your friends, and Craiglist are all awesome places to start.
-And still outside the rest of the year!! Tricycles, bicycles, scooters, rakes, shovels, wheelbarrows, wagons, buckets, sidewalk chaulk, stuff to dig in the dirt. Kites, frisbee's, balls.
-Art Boxes. Fill it with an apron, crayons, markers, colored pencils, a pencil sharpener, FISCAR good scissors, glue bottle, glue stick, paper, hole puncher, stapler, tape, stickers, etc. Let them know it has "rules" and has to be used correctly (at the table, etc.) and safely.
-Blocks and things to build with. Lincoln logs, tinkertoys, poploids, Knex, things that can be used over and over with different outcomes. How about little people, cars, trucks and trains.
-Dolls. Raggedy Ann type dolls, baby dolls, Barbie dolls, teddy bears, stuffed animals.....any kind of toy that they can give a personality too and play with. For baby dolls, try to get the size that can wear preemie real baby outfits- a whole lots cheaper than buying doll clothes.
-Dress up clothes. A container filled with boa's and hats and other things so that they can play "make believe". Old costumes, Salvation Army finds, fabric, scarves, jewelry, Marden's $1.00 sequined shoes. Doesn't have to be new, or expensive.
-Puzzles (Doug & Melissa floor puzzles are great- 3/4 year olds are capable of doing 24 piece, 4/5 year olds can do the 48 piece ones- these hold up GREAT). Lauri also has crepe rubber smaller puzzles that are wonderful. Also books are a great gift.
-The gift of a "memory". A coupon or letter explaining that you will be taking them on a fun outing (York's Wild Kingdom, Santa's Village, Storyland, the movies, Disney on Ice, etc.) and what the "coupon" is good for. What time will you be getting them, what they will do EXACTLY- maybe put a flyer or a menu in. Then take lots of pictures for them to remember and show their friends. They will have you read and re-read it a million times!
You will notice that I did not include anything that plugs in, runs on batteries, has a label "educational" (although they all are!), or needs a charger. Nothing telling them what to push, when to push it, or a bell ringing when they did it right. Nothing walks, talks or pee's by itself. Go back to your favorite toys as a child.....don't get caught up in the hype of the season. Be sure to start a tradition, make some cookies, snuggle with hot cocoa (with TWO marshmallows), and enjoy every single second of this season. They will only be this magical wonderful age for such a short time.