I've trudged through toddlerhood with two darling girls now, and I've learned a few things along the way that may be helpful to the novice toddler gift-giver :). So, here goes!
This stage of development is all about moving into more complex learning. Cube puzzles and shape sorters challenge children to problem solve. Role playing gives them a platform to mimic their parents and older siblings, and learn about social norms and basic life skills. It also develops the imagination. Stringing toys develop fine motor skills. Building toys draw out the engineer. Silly books provide an introduction to the world of humor. The right toys and books during this time are a parent's best tool for cooperative and fun toddler learning.
My girls LOVE the Little People collection from Fisher Price. They offer such a variety of structures and characters that you can create an entire town and enjoy hundreds of hours of play with these toys. My recommendation: BUY THEM USED! The larger sets can run up to $50 each, so if you're budget-savvy (like me) keep an eye out on Craigslist, at yard sales, and at your local thrift stores to save a few (or more than a few) bucks. I found a brand new princess castle set at Goodwill for $6.99 ($44.99 retail!)
We also love Mooshka dolls. These precious, washable cloth dolls are soft enough to snuggle and come in a variety of hair colors to match to your little one :). Target carries these in stores, as well as discount places like Ross and TJ Maxx on occasion.
A toddler-sized play kitchen will prove to be a GREAT investment, especially if you have more than one child. We purchased the KidKraft version pictured below at Target over a year ago, and the girls still play with it every day! A shopping cart with a dolly seat is a great addition to the kitchen set-up. Check out the DIY section of my blog for felt food patterns, too!
There are a variety of toddler-age puzzles on the market which are great for teaching problem solving, letter and number recognition, shapes, etc. I personally love the wooden options from Melissa and Doug, especially the cube puzzle shown below. The cupcake shape sorter is also a real bang for your buck, because you get food for the play kitchen AND a color and shape learning toy!
Lastly, dress-up! My girls have a dress-up chest with doctor sets, princess dresses, animal ears, safari hats--the whole shebang. Do your bank account a favor and purchase these items on clearance after Halloween, or at your local dollar store. Just make sure that you purchase lead-free costume jewelry, if you decide to go that route.
I hope this has been a help to an overwhelmed mama or two out there. Leave a comment if you have some other ideas to add!