With Sissy, our first daughter, we didn't know anything about toys. We bought practically everything Fisher-Price put on the market between 2002 and 2005, and if we didn't buy it, the grandparents did. Both of us come from single-parent homes where money was tight, so when we had Sissy I think we subconsciously decided that she woud never have to "do without" something that other kids had. Unfortunately, that mindset resulted in an overwhelming amount of toys, most of which never got played with. With that in mind, here's a list of toys that actually worked for us:
Fisher-Price Ball Popper -- I can't find anyone, adult or child, who doesn't love this thing.
Stuffed Animals -- depending on the child, these can lead to hours of imaginary play
Puzzles -- wooden puzzles are educational, long-lasting, and fun
Play Food -- the wooden variety is sturdiest, but check around the web to find felt food patterns
Blocks -- for younger kids, the bigger the block, the better!
Art Supplies -- a no-brainer
Fisher-Price Piggy Bank -- my 2 year-old is still going strong with this; good manipulative toy
Add a baby doll & stroller if you've got girls, or a cars and trucks with a road-map rug for boys, and you're set!
It's really hard for parents not to buy into the hype of the latest "developmental" toys being marketed today (& don't even get me started on video games!), but the basic toys are always the best. Fundamentally, what young kids like to play hasn't changed in generations. Head on over to We Are THAT Family for more tips and inspiration!