NEW YORK — To the uninitiated, buying gifts for kids can feel like a treasure hunt without a map through store aisles and websites packed for the holidays. But sussing out clues may not be as difficult as it looks.
Has the young recipient ever offered you one of his homemade cupcakes? Have you seen her tear around on a little ride-on bike? Is the living room often strewn with building bricks or stacking blocks?
Casual buyers looking for presents for children they don't know well need only focus on general interests. Mom and dad will likely take on the "it" gift of the season, or farm it out to grandma, leaving lots of room for other shoppers, whether the giftee is a builder, baker or bookish.
If that sounds too complicated, reach for the classics — in books, apparel or toys, said Rachel Jarrett, general manager of the children's department for the sale site Gilt Groupe. A sweater with room for size variation, or mittens or hats, for example. Try toys in wood, including eco-friendly bamboo.
"We do incredibly well with wooden toys," Jarrett said.
Anne Keane, fashion director for Lucky magazine, suggests keeping it simple. "Generally, staying with moderately classic, small gifts is the easiest route to take for all age groups," she said. "Especially if you don't know the kids that well."
The handcraft site Etsy.com has unique felt toys, Keane said. And Plan Toys makes a fun wood-and-canvas shopping cart on three wheels for toddlers.
Don't be afraid to think outside the box, Jarrett urged. Wall decor may not feel terribly gifty, but Wallcandyarts.com has chalkboard decals in the shapes of elephants, apples and circles that would please lots of kids. Room organizers that play into a favorite theme can also be fun.
And there's nothing wrong with asking your giftee's parents for a suggestion.
"I think parents do appreciate it when you ask what might make a nice gift," Jarrett said. "They want to make sure you're not getting something that maybe somebody else is also getting. It's a lot to return a toy."
A few suggestions by interest:
HARRY POTTER KIDS
Wands: What might the young fan not already have? A beautiful, nearly $40 replica of his favorite character's wand, perhaps. The HP area of the Warner Bros. site, Wbshop.com, has a nice selection of collectible wands complete with fancy boxes straight from the Ollivanders shop. Warning: While fun to hold, they're true collectibles and could break if treated roughly.
Harry Potter Lego: HP sets abound. Reach for the Knight Bus. The purple triple-Decker bus set just out over the summer includes three mini-figures, of Harry, Stan Shunpike and Ernie Prang, along with Harry's owl Hedwig. It can be rebuilt as a regular bus and kids likely won't grumble at having more than one. From Lego.
"Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7": For Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 3, PSP, Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS and Games for Windows PC. Continues the saga of "Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4." Recommended for ages 10 and up as the HP world turns darker. From Warner Bros.
T-shirts: Chances of you buying a different one than your young HP fanatic already has are in your favor. Look around for quality and sales. A call to mom or dad for the child's favorite house at Hogwarts will help you drill down to just the right crest, robe or scarf, and lead to more token HP-by-house gifts like key chains, magnets and writing journals.
Lego lunch set: Licensed Lego lunch box in the shape of a brick, with two mini-boxes also made to look like the real thing, along with a drinking bottle topped by an iconic yellow Lego head for the cap. From Plast Team.
Giant Lego brick for room storage: Also licensed, storage boxes with lids that stack, wastebaskets with yellow-headed lids included. Heads also come as storage in two sizes. From Plast Team.
Lego Life of George: For use with iPhone and iPod Touch. A new, 122-piece building game in a box featuring a little dude named George that's interactive with the two devices. One or two players build models based on challenges received on phone or Touch using a building base included. Various difficulty levels. Works with iPhone 4, iPhone 3Gs and iPod Touch fourth generation. Marked for ages 14 and up due to social media tie-ins, the game would be good for kids as young as 8.
Lego calendar for 2012: 28 pages, wall-size, features constructions from top Lego designers, including a space shuttle, the White House and an entire city block. From Workman Publishing.
Lego watch: Lots and lots of Lego-themed watches are out there. There's one called the Lego Make-N-Create with links that look like brick in the brand's classic blue, yellow, red and green. The set includes 22 links in assorted colors and two bezels. From Lego.
"The Lego Ideas Book": Tips from master builders on taking what a child already has and making something new. Divided into six themes, including transportation, buildings, space and kingdoms. By Daniel Lipkowitz. From DK Children.
BIT Bikes: Curved wood bodies and two wide wheels in neon pink, blue, orange and green with seats to match for new walkers or toddlers who love to roll. Handlebars built into front of the unusual design. From Glodos.
Go Cars: Easily graspable rolling hand toy for toddlers with a shiny, sleek design that includes eyes and rubber-coated wheels. In blue, red and green. From Kid O Products.
"Meet the Cars": Colorful but not too wordy hardcover encyclopedia featuring 200 characters from the Disney Pixar movies "Cars" and "Cars 2." With a poster. From Disney Book Group.
Play-Doh "Cars 2" Mini Box Playset: Molds to create 12 characters from the movie, includes four, 2-ounce cans of Play-Doh. From Hasbro.
Tip Trucks: Minimalist but high design trucks with hinged beds. Small enough for little hands. Rubber wheels and a face-like front. From Kid O Products.
Red Bullet Balance Bike: Looks like a regular bike, only there are no pedals or training wheels. Children learn how to ride a two-wheeler through balance. Seat adjusts to keep feet low to the ground. By Chicco.
Tegu: Magnetic blocks made from sustainable hardwood harvested in Honduras. Buyers can send a child in Honduras to school for a day or plant a tree there to replenish rainforest with every purchase. Candy-colored sets finished with nontoxic, water-based colorings. Good for a range of ages. Made in Honduras.
Eco-kids: Art supplies from a Portland, Maine-based mom and pop company with nontoxic, natural ingredients and environmentally friendly packaging. Handmade molding doughs, finger paints, crayons and paste. Kids will love the packaging — a set of doughs comes in a cardboard tower and the crayons in rocklike shapes in little tins.
Futbol: The One World Futbol Project sells a durable, no-stitch blue ball designed like a traditional soccer ball but for all terrains, and has a "give one, get one" offer to donate a second ball to partner organizations around the world. Online only at Oneworldfutbol.com.
Rock Paper Notebooks: Spiral-bound sketchbooks with slick, strong paper made from chunks of limestone ground to dust (80 percent of content) bound with a nontoxic resin (the other 20 percent). No trees chopped, no water used in the manufacturing process, no bleach, no post-production waste.
Actual earth: Put together a planter kit of your own with seeds, soil, pots and any of a variety of small-handled tools on the market.
Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven: Sure, cooking on the real thing is great, but this version of the classic is space-agey in purple and doesn't require a light bulb. The baking pan is bigger and it also comes with a cupcake pan. Two mixes included. From Hasbro.
Nest kitchenware: Go with real tools that kids and parents can both enjoy. These sets from Joseph Joseph of six or eight pieces include durable measuring cups and mixing bowls in bright, child-friendly colors.
Go Anywhere Grill: Parents looking to keep their 3-year-olds away from the hot backyard grill will appreciate this 33-piece wooden hibachi-like play grill set. With charcoal bits and two play shish-kabobs. Add on the My Backyard BBQ Fix-ins Starter Set with condiments, also wood. Both by Hape.
Kid cookbooks: Many exist. Find one with step-by-step instructions and color photos of the finished dish. Have a kid-size apron personalized or wrap up a play food set. Melissa and Doug make a great selection in wood, but more real-looking play food is widely available.
"Every Thing On It": More than 100 never-before-published poems and drawings from Shel Silverstein's personal archives. The second original book published since Silverstein's death in 1999. Parents and little kids love him for read-alouds. HarperCollins, ages 9-12.
"Wonder Struck": In the style of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," Brian Selznick's newest mystery alternates two stories focused on the American Museum of Natural History in New York. One, that of a boy struck deaf, is told in words. The other, of a girl named Rose who lived 50 years earlier, is told in pictures. Scholastic, ages 9-12.
"The Hunger Games": A cloth-cover collector's edition of the runaway best-seller by Suzanne Collins in a gifty slipcase. Scholastic, ages 12 and up.
"My Name is Mina": David Almond's prequel to his "Skellig" from 1998. The new book focuses on the girl who lives next to Michael, the narrator of "Skellig" who finds a mysterious man in his garage. Random House, ages 10 and up.
"Dork Diaries Box Set": First three books in the heavily illustrated Rachel Renee Russell series chronicling the not-so-fabulous life of middle schooler Nikki Maxwell. Good for reluctant readers or more enthusiastic ones just growing into the age range. Aladdin, ages 9-12.
"The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories": Collection of seven original stories written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss. Originally published in magazines in 1950-51 but never in book form. Looking to impress the parents, much? Random House, ages 6-9.
"The Betsy-Tacy Treasury": The first four books of the Maud Hart Lovelace classic series in highly portable trade paperback. Bonus material at end includes photos of the real people on which the series is based, and details on the life of author and illustrator Lois Lenski. HarperPerennial, ages 4-8.
"Steampunk!": Beautiful new anthology from 14 writers in the quirky science fiction-fantasy and very '80s genre of steampunk. Edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant. These are, as the book's subtitle notes, "fantastically rich and strange stories." Candlewick Press, young adult.
"Bumble-Ardy": A new one from Maurice Sendak featuring a pig and a belated birthday bash. It's the first book in 30 years both written and illustrated by the 83-year-old Sendak, though he first created it in the '70s. HarperCollins, ages 4-8.
"Goodnight iPad": Yes, a board book parody in the style of the Margaret Wise Brown classic "Goodnight Moon." The little bunny characters are tech-crazed and the old lady in the rocking chair is overwhelmed by the "bings, bongs and beeps of e-mails and tweets." By Ann Droyd, a cheeky pseudonym for David Milgrim. Penguin, all ages.
"T is for Titanic": In time for the 100th anniversary next year of the sinking of the luxury liner. Co-authored and well researched by husband-and-wife team Debbie and Michael Shoulders. Sleeping Bear Press, ages 6-10.