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My Favorite Kids Toys/Gifts Of All Time – What They Actually Play With All Year And Doesn’t End Up In A Landfill

Once again we have to make the decision of what goes under that tree and won’t end up in a landfill but every year we get a bit better at it. So while this list is specific to my kids I can tell you that these things, below, were worth every single penny and they really have played with them for years and years.

Arts And Crafts

photo by sara ligorria-tramp | art direction by me and styling by emily bowser | from: keeping the good of last Year: new family (and kid-only) activities – plus the value of “me” time

We craft a LOT at our house – long sessions together and many hours just the two of them. The key to this is having the right crafting inventory to spark their creativity so they’ll do it with or without you. And I’m sorry to tell you that like most fun things that kids actually want to do, crafting is super messy and we’ve accepted it (and no, you don’t have to have a designated space but it sure is nice).

1. Arts and Crafts Library | 2. Red Rainbow Craft Case

We’ve LOVED this craft kit and have this one now with all the fun bells and whistles, and our kids seriously just go to town for hours without us. And yes they make a massive mess, but it’s really inspiring creatively.

1. Cosmic Bucket of Crafts Set | 2. Create-Your-Own Superhero Masks Kit | 3. Seek & Find Coloring Poster

If you don’t want something quite intense and more affordable, this craft kit is good. Our kids also really enjoy the mask making kit and this illustrated poster is an awesome stocking stuffer that I colored with both kids last year while listening to music and it was so relaxing.

1. Dual-Tip Brush Marker Set | 2. Washable Markers | 3. Plastic Caddy

Birdie is EXTREMELY into drawing. She has called herself an artist since she was 18 months old, so we take our marker game seriously. We love these markers that are double-ended because the colors are so good and there is both a fine tip and a strangely satisfying large tip. They are my favorite, hands down. HOWEVER, if you are fussy about cleanliness they aren’t that easy to clean up if you don’t wipe up immediately. They are so much brighter than normal washable markers (but these are good, too for washable), but just make sure it’s on a play surface. We have them all in this caddy and she carries it around the house to wherever she wants to draw (often next to me working which is so cute/fun). They just have really good coverage, multiple tips, and awesome colors.

1. Flower Press Kit

We did a lot of pressed flower art during quarantine and used this microwave flower press kit which was very satisfying.

1. Crayola Spin & Spiral Art Station Activity Kit | 2. Fun and Easy Crafting with Recycled Materials

Elliot got the paint spinning and spirograph kit from a friend and while it’s a lot of plastic (and be sure to buy extra round paper) she created so much art with it and still pulls it out. And if you are looking for some guidance, this is hands down our favorite crafting book for the recycled stuff you have around the house. We have done probably 20 of the projects together, it’s clever, so cute, and pretty easy.

1. How to Draw 101 Animals | 2. Easy Origami

Last year I gave Birdie this ‘How to Draw Animals‘ book and she referenced it a lot (and it actually was very satisfying for me, too). Charlie is obsessed with this ‘Easy Origami‘ book and while I have a hard time at it, he’s super into it.

1. PLAYmake 4 in 1 Workshop

This tool kit is intense and SO AWESOME, with real blades that are safe for kids so they can actually make stuff, not just pretend (but you should be nearby). Charlie made a lot during quarantine. He made swords, badges, necklaces and cut out a lot of cool shapes. It’s one of those things that if we get it out and give him the prompt they’ll get inspired and spend a long time working on a project. It’s AWESOME.

1. KiwiCo Subscription

Lastly, KiwiCo is seriously awesome. We don’t have a subscription anymore but it’s one of those that they looked forward to getting and we could do them together.

Building Sets

photo by mike garten | from: my house tour from good housekeeping 

We are Lego people and while they will make any lego kit, (as most parents know) they just play for hours with all their bits and pieces once you’ve established a large enough inventory.

1. Lego Table (plus cover)| 2. Toy Storage Bin

We just bought this awesome Lego table from Etsy that they love and we still love to put any extra in this genius lego bucket that is super easy to clean up.

1. Straw Constructor STEM Building Toys | 2. Magnatiles

This straw construction set is still a huge favorite and one that they take out ALL THE TIME.

Magnatiles – A classic that can drain hours and are so fun and educational and I’ve been known to sit down with them for hours to make a skyscraper (get the set with more pieces if you want to do that).

1. Create-A-Chain Reaction STEM Kit | 2. Snap Circuits

Create a Chain Reaction Kit and Electronic Snaps are two awesome Stem toys that you guys recommended to us last year and you really nailed it. They do require some parent help at first, but it’s pretty fun to do together and it certainly feels like they are learning a lot about science and engineering.

1. Foam Wood Blocks

We bought these when the kids were tiny and still have them. They are an investment (which is why they’d be a great gift for a family with young kids) but they are big and soft so they can build really high without blocks falling on toes. We would build worlds for cars and action figures (and they aren’t offensive to look at! Best big foam wood blocks (that look like wood)

Board Games They/We Love

photo by sara ligorria-tramp | from: mountain house reveal: how we designed our super kid-friendly family room

Thanks to you all who turned us on to specifically “collaborative games” after asking last year. If you don’t know what that means, they are board games where everyone works together to win the game together rather than compete and it just feels super positive and fun.

1. Gnomes at Night | 2. The Secret Door | 3. Outfoxed! | 4. ChickaPig

We love all four of these games all the time – even tonight on a gloomy Portland night, they make us feel way better than turning on the TV.

1. Storytime Chess | 2. Guess Who?

Storytime Chess is a new way to teach kids how to learn and play chess by setting up a very easy-to-remember story for each type of chess piece. Charlie learned how to play in a couple of hours and now it’s a super fun shared interest with Brian (I want to learn now). And Guess Who is just a total classic.

Random Tech

1. Green Screen Stop Motion Kit | 2. Electronic ATM Piggy Bank

Green Screen Stop Motion Kit – Now this is NOT something that our kids have yet (I just ordered) but our kids loved making stop motion videos with our iPad during quarantine, with superheroes and legos, but we had to tape together green construction paper to make the green screen. So this kit (including gloves) seems like it might be really fun for them.
Electronic ATM Piggy Bank – It looks like garbage, but for whatever reason we are going on year #3 with this bank. I think it makes them feel like a grownup having a “pin number”.

Imagination Play

from: our kid’s attic playroom – update (and mini-reveal) + the five parenting fails/mistakes i made

I think nothing occupies our kids more than imagination play and most parents know that a lot of that can happen without buying anything. But there are a few things that we found really successful that helped encourage the play and kept them engaged longer.

1. Freestanding Wooden Fresh Mart Grocery Store | 2. Food Groups

Play Store – This store is AWESOME. It has an operable conveyer belt, a scanner that beeps, and a working credit card machine. We have clocked so many hours up here both with them (“math”) and on their own. I highly recommend this wood toy food that is NOT plastic, not just for the environment but kids much prefer the heaviness of wood. You can obviously just turn anything into a “store” with a cash register. And lastly don’t get a cute wood grocery cart, kids like the real stuff that looks like a grownup would actually use, so we have this metal one.

1. SpyX / Night Ranger Set

Spy Kit – THIS KIT IS SO FUN. It has night goggles, a voice recorder, booby trap lights – HOURS of sneaky fun that both our kids have played with very much.

HOT TIP – any and all fun costumes that involve shields, crowns, wands, swords, wings, literally anything that puts them in a different world (doesn’t have to be full costumes) are gold. I go to Goodwill and get wacky costumes, wash them and shove them in a box and they get very excited.

Stuffies – But Not The Pretty Ones We Love

from: a current tour of our new rental house in portland

Our kids are “stuffie kids”(as you can see above in their room in our rental), and they really do play with them A LOT. They’ll set up scenarios in their rooms, talk in weird voices and I don’t know what they are doing but when I go check in on them they have all their stuffies placed strategically around the room and they are in it. It’s painfully sweet. But unfortunately, they are not into the cute ones that are embroidered, knitted, handmade, or look heirloom quality, much to my chagrin ( I want to do a separate post for heirloom gifts for kids). Sure, I buy these to decorate their rooms (I love these ones from Goodee) but I know that as a present to THEM this will not do. What do they want? The cheap ones with big eyes, anything colorful/unicorn/kitty cat OR it must be SUPER DUPER SOFT. Charlie likes realistic-looking ones and Birdie loves anything rainbow and sparkly.

1. Dragon | 2. Butterfly

Jellycat (super soft) are so cuddle-able.

1. Leopard | 2. Owl

Beanie Boos – TY. Listen I’m not happy about this either, but for our kids at least don’t try to get the prettiest or the least offensive beanie baby. Birdie wants the leopard unicorn with glitter eyes EVERY SINGLE TIME.

But here are some more in case you’d like some more ideas:

1. Glow Brights Toy Plush | 2. Seaborn The Shark | 3. Baby Bunny Stuffed Animal | 4. Plush Toy Sloth | 5. Paris Poodle | 6. Nori Multicolored Narwhal

1. Stuffed Hedgehog | 2. Whimsy Sequin Blue Cat | 3. Plush Toy Unicorn | 4. Buckley Brown & White Spotted Deer | 5. Pinstripes the Giraffe Stuffed Animal | 6. Horse Stuffed Animal

Now, this gift guide is the ‘what they have and love’ but I’m still considering doing ‘What we’re thinking of getting them this year (they are 6 and 9)’ as well as ‘their favorite books and clothes’ and might finish with ‘heirloom quality kids gifts from makers and small businesses (the stuff WE love)’. Let me know if any of those sound useful for you 🙂 It can be so overwhelming so we are hoping to help the gifting process.

Also while we’ve linked everything up I do implore you to shop small and local when possible and just know that 10% of all our affiliate sales (the commission we get through these links with many of the companies) will be donated to Pen + Napkin for future makeovers of families transitioning out of homelessness. So if/when you are buying through our links know that it is supporting families and community. While gift guide season is a large revenue driver that supports our team and design projects for the whole year, we are committed to paying it forward. xx

Want some more ideas? Here’s more: My Favorite Things – The Official “Emily” Gift Guide Just Landed: PART 1 Home Decor

Opening Image Credits: Photo by Sara Ligorria-Tramp | Styled and DIY’d by Julie Rose and Emily Bowser | From: Mountain House: The Kids’ Room Reveal!!

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1 year ago

Would love to see the other guides you mentioned! It’s so hard to sift through the crap and make sure you’re not just buying things for the sake of buying them.

also, amazed at how much it sounds like your kids play independently! My 3 yo will play by himself for a while, but my 6 yo wants you working with him all the time. Feel free to add any tips on encouraging independent play to a gift guide for moms!

1 year ago
Reply to  K

My older son (7) got better playing independently with Legos etc when he could listen to a kids podcast or audiobook. He loves the podcast Circle Round (20 min folktales from around the world with a full cast) and the classic Boxcar Children series.

1 year ago

Hey Emily!
Thank you for your ideas! You often reference your Lego storage.
Please support small American businesses. Creative qt has a trademarked! Lego storage we used for years and is basically the same as the one you linked.
Thank you!!

1 year ago

You are kidding yourself. Think about it. You may like them more than other toys, and they may be cool or cute or educational, but all these things will still end up in the landfill. It may not be for a few more years, but where ELSE will they end up? Unless they are made entirely of compostable or recyclable materials, and you dispose of them that way, yup they are in the landfill.

1 year ago
Reply to  LL

I think this gift guide is fine, and I appreciate that Emily has tried a lot of the stuff out rather than linking to million random things that look cool. That said, I kind of wonder if they’re trolling with the “not going to landfill” description at this point? Pretty much everything we buy other than food is going to a landfill, yes. My cloth diapers are going to a landfill eventually and will probably last for a million years there, but I think they’re still better than disposables. The way I’d think about kids toys and sustainability might be based on less plastic, more potential for long term use rather than novelty, and possibility of passing on to younger siblings or other kids. We have some Fisher price plastic stuff that’s probably been through 10 different families and it might be better than something from Etsy that my kids hate.

1 year ago
Reply to  Lucy

Yup, each disposable diaper doesn’t begin to break down for an estimated 1,000 years! 💥🌏

1 year ago
Reply to  Lucy

the cloth diapers should technically be compostable if they’re 100% cotton 🙂
the title of this post makes me sad. i would hope any toys your kids aren’t into are at least being donated. buy nothing groups and trades with other kids are also better ways for them to not end up in a landfill. WWF sells stuffed animals that help animals. i’ve found a lot of cool craft supplies at my reuse store and i love the idea of repurposing what you already have instead of buying kits like another commenter said. like a mask making kit with some repurposed cardboard pre cut and ready – the options are endless. also never underestimate the power of experience gifts. probably something they’ll remember much more than the toy they didn’t like and got thrown away.

1 year ago
Reply to  steph

Buy Nothing groups are gold!!!

1 year ago
Reply to  LL

You could also use this gift guide to shop second-hand. We’ve given our kids several items on this list that we got from Ebay, Craigslist, or Facebook Marketplace; and we try to keep things in good enough shape that we can resell or regift when they are done.

1 year ago
Reply to  Emilie

We resell or hand down 100% of toys. Kids like toys everywhere on earth. They like other kid’s toys. They like new stuff. The end.

1 year ago

We have 5.5 year old boy/girl twins, and we are also a huge crafting family. I was thinking of buying crafting kits but have decided instead that I’m just going to fill their stockings with crafting supplies, some of which I already own and am just going to repackage. String, ribbon, glue sticks, pom poms, scraps of cardboard, colorful post-it notes, Google eyes and washi tape are a few of their favorites. They love to make their own books so I’ll be just stapling white paper together as blank books to put in there. I have a feeling this hodpodge stocking of scraps is going to be their most-used gift.

1 year ago
Reply to  Jordan

My son also likes making books and we got him a comb binding machine for Christmas last year. Not terribly expensive (less than $40 I believe) and made him feel very official!

1 year ago

Thank you for the great gift guide! I love that these toys are kid-tested / things you’ve owned & can vouch for.

Emily Honeycutt
1 year ago

Emily, this is the first guide that I have read that was super helpful. Thanks!! I am so excited about these ideas!!

1 year ago

OMG! I can’t believe that Charlie is 9! Where did the time go? I remember his nursery reveal. I’ve been rocking with you for a long time, Em!

1 year ago

That first photo is the bravest I have ever seen. All that paint over that white rug! So brave! ; )
All so many great ideas! Thanks!

1 year ago

I would appreciate a gift guide for young kids from aunts and other non-parental relatives. Toys that aren’t super expensive and won’t be a burden to parents, and also maybe some info about what kids enjoy at different ages

1 year ago
Reply to  R

I can’t speak for other parents, but for me things that have a bunch of little pieces and are hard to clean up feel like they are not worth it. We have one of the craft kits linked above, and yeah my 4 year old loves it, but it sucks to clean up and has a bunch of stuff my 1 yo could choke on, so I hate it.

1 year ago
Reply to  R

The best thing we receive from family and friends for our kids are books! If you call or stop by your local independent bookstore, the folks who work there will likely have tons of recommendations for you based on the kid’s age and interests.

Jen A
1 year ago
Reply to  R

1.    Games that pack up small and are easy to store: Story Cubes, Spot It, Flipside (electronic puzzle), IQ FIt, Dominos, Dice Games, Farkle, Left-Right-Center which is tiny but we can play as a family, Rubik’s Cube, Jenga (fun variations like Jenga Quake was a huge hit) 2.    As someone else said books (but please don’t write in them so we don’t feel guilty putting them in the Little Library box eventually when we outgrow them). 3.    The best gifts from Aunts & Uncles have been experiences! Spending a few hours taking my kid to a movie, carnival, or arcade is a gift to the kid and to me as a parent getting a few hours to myself. It also extended the holiday celebration – having a fun outing in January or the weekend after a birthday was such a treat for an excited kid. If you have the relationship – an overnight at your house just doing normal everyday stuff is exciting. 4.    For toddlers – bath toys always get gross and need replacing. This is almost always a big win It’s also okay to reach out and say, “We’d love to get something for Kid, what kind of stuff are they into… Read more »

1 year ago
Reply to  R

#experiencesnotthings forever and ever!!!

Reply to  R

How about a cute kid’s bathrobe instead of a toy? We have super adorable ones in pink and blue terry cloth that have little birds on them. So fun for bath time!

Sarah L
1 year ago
Reply to  R

things like Lego and magnatiles have small add-on sets, so if you know the family is into those they’ll always enjoy getting more, especially if it expands the possibilities of their current sets. Agree with others about books, and if you have a close relationship with the kids, take them somewhere! It’s a gift for both the kids and their parents 🙂

1 year ago
Reply to  R

I have learned the best thing you can do is just ask the parent.

1 year ago

I agree with BW’s comment about giving books. I have always loved giving books as an Auntie & friend. My sister in-law was the absolute best book giver, with super thoughtful book gifts that were always perfectly matched to the receiving niece or nephew & she often included some small toy. I remember the “silly straw glasses” being a big hit, but it’s really the books. I’d say one of my son’s (now 16) most treasured gifts is the copy of Polar Express he received from his Aunt when he was 3 or 4, with a special note inscribed. We still bring that book out every holiday season and read the inscription first, all the more special because she died when he was 10. For us, books are the most lasting, while also realizing that many will get passed along for someone else to enjoy.

1 year ago

Would love the other gift guides for kids as well. Thanks Emily!!!

1 year ago

Another aunt who loves giving books here! Green Bean Books and A Children’s Place are two wonderful kid-focused independent bookstores in Portland, with knowledgeable staff if you need help and wonderful picks. (Not just saying that because they’re fans of my Unusual Chickens books — but if you know a kid who’d love to read about moving from LA to a farm and taking care of chickens for the first time — make that chickens with superpowers! — tell them I sent you!)

1 year ago

Question for Emily and other crafty parents here! What do you do with their genius creations?? I’m currently sitting next to a giant box of “papel picado” my son painstakingly cut, hasn’t done anything with for weeks, and would be devastated if I threw away. We usually display some projects for a while, give them as gifts, or sneakily throw them away and hope they don’t notice. If anyone has come up with better strategies I’d love to hear!

1 year ago
Reply to  Allie

I hear you! I have an extremely prolific five year old artist. Here is what we do with his creations:

1) He gives them away. We have a few elderly lady neighbors as well as a very sweet 12 year old neighbor girl who he likes to visit and share his masterpieces with.
2) He mails them to grandparents
3) He gives them to his dad to take to the office
4) We display them for a while and then throw them out after a week or so
5) He puts them in his Special Drawer with his other treasures. Both of our kids have Special Drawers. They can keep anything they want in there. When the drawer is full, they need to go through it and get rid of anything that isn’t as special anymore.

1 year ago
Reply to  Allie

I save them and every few months together we go through them together. We take a picture of every.single.thing, and we ( OK mostly I) decide which ones are special enough to keep. And I make sure that is mostly flat stuff 🙂 .

Amazingly, after that they’re fine with getting rid of the rest. More amazingly, they will initiate these sessions, I think they enjoy getting one last look, seeing the development they’ve made and picking out favorites.
To be honest, I have not gotten round yet doing anything with the pictures, but a collage or book is still on my todo list.

1 year ago
Reply to  Hanneke

Agree! Take pictures of everything, flat on a white background. You can create chatbooks, prints, just keep them in an album on your phone, a shared album, possibilities are endless. I have also seen people make poster size prints by scaling the art WAY down and arranging the art like a grid with lots of white space. So from far away it looks like some modern art, but up close you see all the tiny art.
As far as the actual art, I love Taryn’s idea to mail it to relatives. I would get a letter size box, throw everything in there, then go through it at the end of the month and decide what to take pictures of, what to toss, what to mail, and what truly should be kept.

1 year ago

We have found some great stuffed animals over the years at gift shops at aquariums, museums, and zoos. They usually have a nice variety of animals and it’s a good way to support places that were forced to close for a good part of the pandemic. Also, if you have a membership you usually will receive a discount.

1 year ago

How do you handle keeping vs throwing out of all the art projects that the kids create? I get paralyzed around throwing out things they make that I think are genuinely cool, but you can only display so much.

In fact, I would love a post about how to monitor/save/purge/organize kid creations in general. We’re drowning in treasures.

1 year ago
Reply to  BG

Assigning containers/setting limits has helped our kids so much in general, and specifically with art treasures. We have X amount of space to display art. When that space is filled up, they get to decide what to discard and what to replace it with. We have X amount of space to store treasures. When that space is full, they get to decide what to part with.

I think it’s been really helpful for our kids to practice letting go of things. We always say, “We love more than we can store.” We live in a time of such overwhelming abundance. Learning to manage this is extremely important.

I have read about this service:
where you can send in your kid art treasures and they professionally photograph them and make a book for you, but it’s not something we have ever used before.

A free option- make a video of your kid showing off the projects, explaining how and why they made them.

1 year ago

Great ideas! In stories a while ago, you posted a kids kreg jig toy that looked awesome. I haven’t been able to find it, would you have a link for it please?

1 year ago
Reply to  Jas

It was a jig saw, not a kreg jig!

1 year ago

When my boys were little we filled an old target 3 drawer cart with crafting supplies. Paper, tape, glue, trim, fake jewels(biggest hit) glitter, paint etc. My friends used to send their kids over for crafting sessions- it was so fun!

1 year ago

I know Target is endlessly convenient and their kids’ art supplies have leveled up recently, but I’m also here to make a plug for Lakeshore as a resource for toys and gifts! It’s not just for teacher/classroom supplies, for those who might be thinking that. They have versions of many of the things listed here that have proven sturdy and engaging over time. I like to filter by age and see what they have that looks interesting!

1 year ago

It is always fun to see what other kids play with and love! I have a lot of kids and very few toys (they play better and longer with them, and there is less to clean up, which I love) I love toys they can use independently, because then I don’t have to hover around them while they play. Over the years the toys that we still have and love are legos, duplos (they love to play elaborate games of pretend with these), really basic craft supplies (one too many glitter and Pompom explosion has led me to keep it super simple) like paper, tape, pencils, pens and colored pencils and a few coloring books, small figures, like action figures or Schleich figures or playmobil figures (no playmobil sets, because they come apart like legos but aren’t universally buildable like them), play silks and some ballerina clothes and shawls and capes for dress up, and I have one three year old that loves his small cars, monster trucks and construction vehicles. None of my other kids care at all about these, which just goes to show that every kid is different. Oh, and we have some stuffed animals which my… Read more »

1 year ago

Art supplies are hands down the most used items by my 5 and 3 year olds. I prefer open-ended options vs pre-made kits. My kids’ favorite these days is their set of Stabilo 3-in-1 wax crayons. I love that they’re not encased in plastic, and they can be used on windows, as watercolors, or as crayons. The Eric Carle museum has a wonderful website with a list of basic art supplies for kids, as well.

1 year ago

Ok so again not earth friendly. I have a almost 11 year old and an almost 2 year old. Art supplies: colored pencils. Watercolors in tins. Beeswax crayons they are from a NZ company, they also have paints. Earthpaints are great too. Wee one toys: wood toys, play kitchen (very pass on able once done with it) metal or wood push bikes. Green toys, yes plastic but made from recycled milk jugs last forever (our oldest is 7 years old and lives outside)and pass on able. Hot wheels can find used and pass on able. Wood toys. Big kids: lego (highly pass on able). Books even used. Kid magazines pass on able and recyclables. Bath items even for boys fun smelling bar soaps. Bike or scooter. Yes we have some crappy plastic stuff but we minimize it. When big birthdays happened pre covid we asked for donations for place of kiddos choice (usually the shelter). Getting gifts from us and his grandparents is plenty. I love your site but please quit labelling things as not landfill/eco/green it is really annoying and is making me not wamt to read the site as much

1 year ago
Reply to  Lynn

You shared some great ideas Lynn. And, yes, there is no Planet B 🌏

1 year ago

Craft+Boogie ( is a small Portland company that makes the CUTEST craft kits…and they are committed to donating kits to kids in foster care, hospitals and under-served schools. Really great small company to support for those out there looking for a unique gift for crafty kids!

Sarah L
1 year ago

As an add-on to magnatiles, you can now buy marble run pieces that integrate into the magnatile sets! We got a set for Christmas before the pandemic and we’re still playing with it (and by we I include the adults in the house). I recommended it to a colleague months ago and she still thanks me for the reco. We’ve been happy with the ones from the Picasso Tile brand but I see that there are now other players in the market. You’ll want a good selection of regular magnatiles to be able to do cool things- the ones that come with the marble run sets aren’t sufficient, so best if you already have magnatiles and want to get new life from them.

1 year ago

As the childless one of my friend group and family, I really appreciated this post. I always ask parents what they’d like me to get but I still want to make sure what I purchase adds to their lives – not the landfill. The commentary was delightful and helpful. Plus I loved knowing how the affiliate links help the team and do good.

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