Preparing for the holidays — or just the latest birthday party? Keeping up with what kids are into, and where to find it, can be overwhelming; and a trip to a big box store is not going to help you answer those questions.

Instead of navigating the aisles of your favorite big box store, head to an independent toy store for unique treasures and a level of personal service that will make you confident that your purchase will be a hit. Like small businesses across the board, the pandemic shuttered so many favorite toy stores (R.I.P. Momo’s Tree House), so this may require getting more creative in your search for that perfect gift.

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What makes something the best? Our recommendations are based on our reporters' deep regional knowledge and advice from local experts. We also strive to represent the geographic and cultural diversity of the city and region. Spot an error or omission? Email us at phillytips@inquirer.com

Michelle Gillen-Doobrajh, owner of Tildie’s Toy Box, which has locations in Haddonfield and on South Philly’s East Passyunk Avenue, says to stay open-minded. “Especially with supply-chain issues that are ongoing, don’t get wrapped up in what the hottest toy is at the time. If you let yourself explore what the store has and trust the staff’s expertise, you will find something special. That’s why small businesses are so great — the staff is really knowledgeable and can make recommendations for your child.” For her part, Gillen-Doobrajh especially loves buying her own kids puzzles and games to do as a family as a way to create memories while unplugging and engaging. Carrie Kohs, owner of Ardmore’s pucciManuli, also favors unplugged toys that “feed your soul and allow you to create and innovate.”

“The greatest single source of innovation is boredom. Our kids don’t know how to be bored anymore — every minute of their day is scheduled,” Kohs adds.

Whether you’re shopping for babies, tweens, or simply the young at heart, here are the best spots to find some magic.

Toy stores in Philly

Tildie’s Toy Box

Best for ages 0-12

Penn alum Gillen-Doobrajh was inspired to open this East Passyunk Avenue shop when she realized the mainstream toy market was woefully gendered and inadequate. Tildie’s Toy Box focuses on creative, gender-neutral toys and books that engage children mentally, socially, and emotionally. It’s a great spot for everything from Jellycat stuffed animals for little ones to craft kits for tweens. Before the pandemic, the shop also hosted events like Drag Queen Storytimes, book signings, and parties. After two years that decimated small businesses, Gillen-Doobrajh credits customer loyalty and community support in keeping Tildie’s Toy Box open. “During the pandemic, everyone made the extra effort to shop local so that their favorite stores stuck around, and went out of their way to do so,” she says. Tildie’s expanded into a second location in Haddonfield, N.J., this past fall.

📍1829 E. Passyunk Ave. and 8 Kings Highway E., Haddonfield, 📞 Philly: 215-334-9831; Haddonfield: 856-229-7361, 🌐 tildiestoybox.com, 📷 @tildiestoybox, 🕑 Philly: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Haddonfield: Tue.-Fri. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Ali’s Wagon

Best for all ages; toys from ages 0-4

This family-owned Fairmount spot has been reimagined as a boutique since 2018, but has its origins as a parenting center. Toys and baby products still make up a large part of the inventory (and the draw), including puzzles, soft baby loveys, and lots of Melissa and Doug products. This is also a great spot for Philly-specific gifts (from adorable Ana Thorne Creative “Gritty is the New Pretty” pillows to retro-cheeky South Fellini tees) and gifts for grown-ups, too.

📍2017 Fairmount Ave., 📞 215-787-0611, 🌐 aliswagon.com, 📷 @aliswagon, 🕑 Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Born Yesterday

🧸 Best for ages 0-8

As its name suggests, Born Yesterday began as a baby store back in 1975, but has evolved into a trendy-tot hot spot with constantly updated stock occupying every available surface. In addition to clothing for the pint-size fashionista, this posh kids’ Rittenhouse boutique has a wide selection of toys from the trendy (must-have fidgets) to the classic (think Jellycat plushies, puzzles, and games). They also pride themselves on their excellent customer service and personal shopping.

📍1901 Walnut St. #B, 📞 215-568-6556, 🌐 bornyesterdaykids.com, 📷 @bornyesterdayphl, 🕑 Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Minnow Lane

Best for ages 0-5

This Fishtown boutique features natural and organic products and toys for babies, kids, and parents. Minnow Lane focuses its collection on eco-friendly and socially conscious toys made with renewable and reusable materials — including lots of wooden imaginative toys. You’ll find everything from stacking toys to doll houses to a gnome driving a tree bark-covered car. It’s also a great spot for developmental toys, baby needs, and children’s books. In addition, they host new parent meetups like developmental playgroups, parenting workshops, and breast-feeding support.

📍2029 Frankford Ave., 📞 215-291-1875, 🌐 minnowlane.com, 📷 @minnowlane, 🕑 Tue.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

The Nesting House

Best for ages 0-4

Known mostly for its kids’ clothing consignment and commitment to natural parenting products, The Nesting House also offers new (and used) toys and games for little ones. You’ll find gender-neutral toys like puzzles, simple craft sets, and hand-knit dolls, along with a selection of socially conscious books. You can apply the store credit you’ve earned from reselling your kids’ outgrown clothes toward purchasing new items, making this place easy on the wallet. The Nesting House is also a community resource for new and expecting parents in and around Mount Airy, offering free registry consultation, cloth diaper workshops, and baby carrier rentals, as well as new baby meetups to introduce you to your village.

📍542 Carpenter Lane, 📞 215-438-1600, 🌐 thenestinghouse.net, 📷 @thenestinghouse, 🕑 Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Villavillekula

🧸 Best for ages 0-7

Named after Pippi Longstocking’s fictional home, this charming Chestnut Hill children’s boutique is as quirky and colorful as its inspiration. Owner Beth Milley prides herself on unique finds and featuring local makers, so you’ll likely discover clothing and toys that you haven’t seen anywhere else. As Villavillekula has expanded into its new space, the toy area has grown significantly, and mixes in low-tech items like card games and puzzles with more fanciful offerings like high-end dress-up clothes (princess dresses and dinosaur capes) and baby items.

📍8419 Germantown Ave., 📞 215-242-0200 🌐 pippisvillavillekula.com, 📷 @pippisvillavillekula, 🕑 Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Atomic City Comics

Best for ages 8-18 and adults

A true neighborhood gem, this Black-owned comic book store in Queen Village boasts a selection of pop culture toys and figures (including Funko Pop! dolls). Of course, you’ll also find an unparalleled selection of comics and manga, as well as other collectibles. With old-school arcade machines and an enthusiastic staff, Atomic City Comics has been a haven on South Street for 20 years.

📍638 South St., 📞 215-625-9613, 📷 @atomiccitycomics, 🕑 Sun.-Tue. noon-6 p.m., Wed., Fri.-Sat. noon-9 p.m., Thu. noon-7 p.m.

Rutabaga Toy Library

Best for ages 0-8

Located in East Falls, Rutabaga Toy Library presents a different option for parents looking to be more eco-conscious or to just avoid the clutter of kids constantly accumulating and outgrowing toys. Sign up for a membership ($45 per month, with discounts for six-month and annual memberships) and browse the toy catalog online or come in during browsing hours. Next, select up to four toys at a time, and keep them for up to four weeks. Return and repeat. The toy library has items for children up to 8-years-old and boasts more than 1,400 items so kids can move through phases and keep trading in their toys without losing interest. Rutabaga also hosts weekly playgroups and new parent meetups.

📍3452 Conrad St., C2, 📞 267-297-5293, 🌐 rutabagatoylibrary.com, 📷 @rutabagaphilly, 🕑 Tue., Wed., and Sat. 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Thu. noon-6:30 p.m., Fri. 9 a.m.-noon (exchange and delivery only)

Toy stores in the suburbs

Lucky Duck Toys

Best for ages 0-12

Main Line kids (and parents) rejoiced when this suburban mainstay reopened in Bryn Mawr in 2018 following a three-year hiatus after a decade in Wayne. Happily, Lucky Duck kept its same owner and same accessible, friendly vibes — including a playhouse in the store. Unlike many places on this list, this store has plenty of mainstream toys like Barbies, superhero action figures, L.O.L. dolls, Pokémon cards, Disney princesses, fidgets, and other popular brands. But you’ll also find everything from serious science kits to wooden play kitchens. Basically, whatever your kid is into.

📍832 W. Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr, 📞 610-525-5825, 🌐 luckyducktoys.com, 📷 @luckyducktoys, 🕑Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. noon-4 p.m.

pucciManuli

Best for ages 0-13

This beautifully laid-out Ardmore store seeks to inspire kids’ creativity, and highlight small, unique, and handmade toys. “We are imagination-driven, which we think is so important in this day and age,” Kohs says. She takes pride in her boutique’s sourcing, bringing in unique items from around the world including fancy Maileg matchbox mice from Denmark, Moulin Roty dolls and play sets from France, and Londji wooden toys and puzzles from Spain. These heirloom-quality toys are not inexpensive; where else can you find a baby artichoke lovey or a one-of-a-kind rocking unicorn, after all? The shop also has children’s books, journals, and creative kits plus perfect baby shower gifts like luxe blankets.

📍2 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore, 📞 610-649-2909, 🌐 puccimanuli.com, 📷 @puccimanuli, 🕑 Tue.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. noon-4 p.m.

Monkey Fish Toys

Best for ages 0-13

Named by the owner’s then-4-year-old daughter and inspired by his desire to recapture the magic of visiting toy stores when he was a child, this West Chester shop has everything from play tents and scooters to baby toys and LEGO sets. You’ll find a great selection of most mainstream toys as well as independent brands. Pre-COVID-19, Monkey Fish Toy’s days included meetups for Beyblades, LEGO, Pokémon, and other fan-favorites. There’s free gift-wrapping and a “birthday bin” registry, which allows kids to create wish lists for friends and family — and party guests can then purchase the gifts for 10% off. .

📍662 Downingtown Pike, West Chester, 📞 484-885-7285, 🌐 monkeyfishtoys.com, 📷 @monkeyfishtoys, 🕑 Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

7th Dimension Games

Best for ages 7-18 (and adults)

A gamer’s paradise in Jenkintown for 12 years, 7th Dimension Games has the best selection of board games in the region, with so many choices for casual through serious tabletop gamers. The self-proclaimed “Friendly Local Game Store” frequently gets new inventory, has a gently-used consignment section, can recommend games, and hosts neighborhood game nights. If you are vaccinated, you can play games in the store during weekly events (a $5 gift card purchase is required for most events).

📍491 York Rd., Jenkintown, 📞 215-887-9550, 🌐 7thdimensiongames.com, 📷 @7dgames, 🕑 Sun.-Mon. noon-6 p.m., Tue.-Thu. noon-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. noon-11 p.m.

Character Development

Best for ages 0-10

This cozy Narberth spot has set its focus on books and imaginative play since opening in 2002. It’s a great option if you’re looking for toys that are more educational — including dress-up clothes, building toys, craft kits, and STEM sets. As the name suggests, the toys here are selected to “build character” by inspiring and challenging their owners.

📍209 Haverford Ave., Narberth, 📞 610-668-1545, 🌐 characterdevelopment.net, 🕑 Tue.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Happy Hippo Toys

Best for ages 0-10

With locations in Haddonfield and Moorestown, this family-owned shop has been a New Jersey favorite for more than 45 years. The shops are brimming with toys, including all the popular brands you’d find at big box stores alongside creative picks like crafts, puppet theaters, magic sets, and much more.

📍201 Kings Highway East, Haddonfield and 135 W. Main St., Moorestown, 📞 Haddonfield: 856- 429-2308; Moorestown: 856-234-1974, 🌐 happyhippotoys.com, 📷 @happyhippotoys, 🕑 Sun. noon-5 p.m., Mon.-Thu. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Fri. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

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