My first instinct when asked about what a one year old needs to play with is to chuckle. One year olds are easy! They need almost NOTHING to entertain themselves. An empty box, a stack of clean rags, a wooden spoon and a bowl. Seriously, both of my kids will play with this silicone skillet handle cover for 20 minutes at a time. They just pass it back and forth, all slobbery and covered in dog hair.
Grandparents, on the other hand, feel some kind of primal urge to spend way to much money on gigantic, eyesore gifts that make you want to scream when you see them. They have two volume settings (loud, and ear-splitting), are garishly colored ("The theme is neon transsexual Brazilian carnival!"), and/or have 25,000 pieces. Grandfathers tend towards the developmentally inappropriate ("He'll grow into the marble run/chainsaw/napalm kit!")
Who doesn't want a 900 piece acid trip scattered across their floor for Baby to aspirate?
To nip these atrocities in the bud, my friend is smart to have a list ready and available for the well-meaning (I hope) grandparent, aunt, uncle, college friend, or random vagrant whom she has invited to celebrate her child's birthday. Here are some tried-and-true toys, books, and gear.
I think the most played with toy in my home, by hours, goes to the Fisher Price Laugh and Learn Learning Play Home.
I purchased this gigantic plastic creation from a consignment store when my daughter was 15 months old, thinking that she was on the outer edge of being interested in it. WRONG! She loves the music and learning settings (when you open/close things, you can choose for songs to play or a narration (eg, "How Much is that Doggy in the Window" or a sing-song voice declaring "Uuuuup! Doooooown!" when you slide the window shade). She has played with this house literally every single day since we've owned it.
As a parent, you will go through three distinct stages of emotion regarding this house. First, delight at its novelty and admiration because your child is enamored with it, spending 15 or 20 sweet-ass minutes playing independently. "Oh, yes, the Itsy Bitsy Spider! I remember that song!".
Next, the self-loathing stage. "Why would I buy such large, ugly, plastic toy? AND THERE'S ALWAYS TRAFFIC COMING OVER THE RAINBOW BRIDGE! SHUT UP! DAMN YOOOOOU!"
And finally, the acceptance stage. This might actually be the result of your Mommy Brain losing the fight and turning to mush, but you start to sing along, "It's the sun, it's the sun, it's the beautiful sun!" like it's a Beatles hit. Your kids still love it. Win-win, I guess?
A note about this toy: I got mine for $45 at a consignment store, missing all of the accessories, and my kids love it. There are discontinued versions (a farm and a kitchen) which also look amazing. The kitchen one, in fact, was encountered at a friend's house and Shubert loved it so much that I started looking around for one. These are frequently resold at secondhand stores, garage sales, consignment sales, and message boards. Don't pay full price; at least get a 20% off coupon!
The toy that gets the most excited squeals and requests for use is the "FWIIIIIDE!"
We keep this on our balcony, although it did live in Schubey's room for a few weeks. It has it all! A steering wheel, steps, a tunnel, and a slide. For some reason, she's really scared of swings, but loves to go up and down the steps at the playground (my paraspinal muscles rejoice). I field requests to use this at least 3 times/day; the only caveats are that it's large for an indoor toy, and if you keep it outside, it gets dirty and you have to go through the shoes-and-socks routine. Anyone with a covered patio or screened porch should be golden. It's also lightweight enough to move around easily. This structure also looks fun for smaller kids.
And one item I don't actually own, but would love to have if we weren't so short on space, is a smart trike, wagon, or pushable car.
These seem awesome for play dates or family trips to the park and playground. They include drink holders and compartments for keys and phones, seat belts, and handles to push your child easily, as well as storage space for toys, towels, snacks, etcetera. It's a different experience than a stroller ride for the kiddos. Smart Trikes actually convert into a kid-powered toy when your baby is ready. The wagons seem like they'd be useful for years (when your kids are too big to ride, throw the cooler and toys in there!).
Runners up and smaller-ticket items: a huge bag of balls for a ball pit (throw them in the pack-n-play and let the kid go nuts scooping into a bucket, kicking, throwing, diving, etcetera). They also work well in a small inflatable pool. Bubbles, bubble machines, and bubble wands. Wooden puzzles (Melissa and Doug are great). Play food/play kitchen. BOOKS! Stearns puddle jumper life jacket.
Of course, new toddlers also love Amazon gift cards and spa trips. Or so I hear.