Christmas Gifts for the Little Urbanist

Your grandpa played with toy trains. Your mom loved her wooden school bus. You loved to construct public buildings out of Lego, and now your kid can’t stop reading Richard Scarry books. Whether or not we realize it, children are fascinated by how a city works.

It’s never too early to get your little one interested in cities and what makes them great places to live. Here are my recommendations on some excellent gifts for the little urbanist in your life.

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We Built This City

Kids of all ages love to build things, and they especially love to construct essential city infrastructure like public buildings, roads, and train tracks. Your young toddler could construct a city with wooden city building blocks likeMelissa and Doug’s Town Blocks or she could build the next city hall with theirArchitectural Unit Block Set. For your older child, The Lego City series offers kids the chance to build a high speed passenger train, a town square, or a marine port (If you are from Vancouver, my friend and fellow former city planning commissioner Mike Klassen suggested using Lego to construct the “Georgia/Dunsmuir Viaducts that you can build and demolish at will.”)

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Essential Services

Cities would not function without essential services like garbage disposal, recycling, hospitals, schools, construction workers and fire and police services. Children actually find these things kind of cool. There are many toy options to teach kids about city services including Recycling and Garbage Disposal Trucks, Fire, Police and Construction worker outfits and of course, toy versions of schoolshospitals and police and fire stations.

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The Urban Farmer

Farming is no longer outside city limits. You can help your children appreciate this by farming in your own home or backyard. Just purchase a vegetable or herb garden starter set like Growums Garden in a Box or Miracle-Gro Kids Ready, Set, Grow Vegetable Garden.

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The Cyclist

In the Netherlands, most children ride their bikes to school, sadly this is not the case in most North American cities. Cycling can bring children great joy and independence, so find a safe bike trail and get started! There are many gifts to support your little cyclist, like Wishbone’s beautiful wooden push bike or theMEC version. If he is already a cycling pro, there are some fun accessories, like the Nutcase Classic Street Helmet to protect his watermelon. And, if it’s too early to get her on a bike, cart her around while you ride with a child bike trailer or afront facing bike seat.

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Planes, Trains, Automobiles…and Monorails!

This list would not be complete without the obvious mention of TRANSPORTATION. Kids love toys they can move around like planes, trains, cars, ships and even public transport buses and monorails (now also available as toys). Some of the best wooden transportation toys can be found by Brio, including their airport monorail or the cargo harbour set. Unfortunately, many transportation toys still embrace the freeway urban renewal model of transport, like the road-intensive City Life Play Carpet (where are the bike lanes and sidewalks?). If you want to avoid this, choose toy train sets and buses instead.

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How Cities Work

If the child in your life really wants to know how cities work, there are some excellent books, board games and computer games to get him started. Classic children’s stories like Richard Scarry’s Busytown and What Do The People Do All Day?  are full of colourful iconic characters that illustrate city life (such as foxes as janitors and bears as school teachers). There are also some more recent books like In the Town, All Year ‘Round, The Planetizen’s Where Things Are, Near and Far, and as urbanist Heather Garbo from Downtown Colorado Inc. suggested to me: In Lucia’s Neighborhood (inspired by Jane Jacobs!) and Franklin’s Neighborhood.

Heather also suggested a board game called Community (for kids 5 and up): “What’s cool about this game is the goal is to collaborate, not compete, to create a community—obviously a concept that is mirrored in real-life community-building.”

As for computer games that allow you to build cities, the most obvious choice is SimCity,  the only computer game that I and most planning nerds ever played as a kid.

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Little Citizen Naturalist

No city is complete without nature, to teach your child about the importance of urban parks and nature in cities, you could give him or her a Butterfly Nursery,  aWood Observation Bird House , a season’s pass to your local botanical garden, or – since its hard to see the stars in the city, a “Moon in My Room.”

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Jillian Glover is a communications advisor who specializes in urban issues and transportation. She is a former Vancouver City Planning Commissioner and holds a Master of Urban Studies degree from Simon Fraser University. She was born and raised in Vancouver and is very interested in how people in urban environments engage in their cities. In her spare time, she writes about urban issues at her blog, This City Life – which you can visit at www.thiscitylife.tumblr.com.