'Tis the season for parents to race from store to store in search of the hottest toy, gadget or stuffed animal for their young child.

This year, make the gift-giving experience easier.

Check out First Things First interactive guide to free or inexpensive gifts for babies, toddlers and preschoolers that promote learning and language development at www.firstthingsfirst.org/giftguide.

First Things First is a voter-created, statewide organization that funds early learning, family support and children's preventive health services to help kids be successful once they enter kindergarten.

Keep in mind, quality time with adults is the best gift an infant, toddler or preschooler can receive, and books are one of the best, most long-lasting gifts for all ages. Daily reading helps young kids, even babies, develop language skills and increase vocabulary. This is how to create good readers in the future.

Other good choices for different age groups include:

For babies under 1 year old, focus on toys that stimulate curiosity. Babies are fascinated by their surroundings, especially faces and bright colors. They enjoy playing hide-and-seek with different objects.

Look for things such as board books, toys with mirrors and safe, chewable toys.

For toddlers between 1 and 3, look for toys that encourage imagination and problem-solving such as pretend versions of everyday objects, balls to roll or catch and building toys, including fill-and-dump varieties. Other good options include simple puzzles, large crayons or markers with plain paper, and matching and sorting toys.

For preschoolers, which covers ages 3 to 5, look for toys that help them relate to each other and the world around them, including dress-up clothes, simple board games and counting and letter games. Also: sports equipment suitable to their size, musical instruments and art supplies such as play dough, safety scissors, glue, etc.

Above all, keep in mind that quality time with you – playing, talking or reading – is the best gift you can give this holiday season or anytime.

Francisco J. Padilla

Regional Director, First Things First Santa Cruz Regional Partnership Council

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