We had a general criteria for gifts for our kids when they were babies that we politely asked people to consider when buying gifts for them. No battery-operated anything. Kids are loud enough as it is that they don't need toys that add to the din. Some of those kinds of toys are just plain obnoxious and loud and I would worry about the kids' ears. Some of those toys were annoying as hell to Chris and myself as well. Plus, I swear my kids use their imaginations much more now because of the lack of toys that told them what to do, when to do it and had flashy sounds and lights to divert their attentions.
I think we had only two or three toys that used batteries in the past five years! One of the good ones we found which was a huge hit with my kids was the Fisher Price piano, which unfortunately they don't make anymore. It was simple, it was not LOUD and it it had a volume control and an off switch (amazing to me how many electronic toys don't have off switches!!). You could set it to play classical pieces when a key was pressed or you could just set it to play the note. We usually had it set to play the note that they pressed. Maya loved it and it was one toy that we made sure to keep for Nadia.
Anyway, the way that we accomplished the no-battery-operated presents thing was to have themes for our parties. For my baby shower during my Maya pregnancy, the theme was books. I asked everyone to give us a new copy of their favorite childhood book. I think out of all the books we got, we only had two repeats! It was awesome...she got all levels of books too, from Dr. Seuss books to Madeline to the full set of the Narnia books. I bought the full set of the Little House books. Board books and regular books, picture books and read-on-your-own books. We had our kids' library all set from that. We were SO happy with that theme.
Then for the first birthdays, we had the loose theme of Imagination. Which meant, again, no battery-operated toys. We wrote in the invites what the theme was and what we meant by it. I can't remember how it was worded exactly (I'm sure I have the invite still in my stash of memories but don't ask me to find it!), but I remember that no one was offended in the least. As a result, she got wooden blocks, puzzles, games, stuffed animals, dolls, a pound-the-ball toy, a wire bead toy, etc. Erik was dubbed "Uncle Lego" because he'd always give them Lego sets. Again, we were very happy with that.
After that, all our friends knew our stance on the battery thing, so we never had to really say it again. They got lots of arts and craft gifts as well, since I was always into that stuff too. Those were the gifts that I would get excited about!! And whenever we gave gifts, we always tried to give in the same way. Action figures, games, tea party sets...I had a tradition of always giving a FULL set of Ikea kids dishes for the first birthday.
Everyone loved it because they were perfect for little fingers and easy to clean and very durable. And for one-year-olds, they loved the colors and that there were enough that they could also play with them (each set had a six different colored plates, bowls, cups, knives, forks and spoons). The set I have made the cut and came with us to Seoul. :-) By the way, Ikea is AWESOME for kids' stuff. Most of the furniture in the girls' room came from Ikea.
Anyway, what was interesting to observe from all this was that whenever we went to someone's house, the girls would play with the battery-operated toys at first, lured in by the flashy lights and loud noises, but would get bored with it when they realized there wasn't anything THEY could actually DO with it. Even now, we have things like Baby Leap and LeaPad, but Maya and Nadia seem more content with looking at picture books and doing their puzzles (Nadia is obsessed with puzzles!) and using their imaginations with their horses, stuffed animals and doll house.
This thing with no-battery-operated toys started more as a way for Chris and I to avoid the annoying sounds (and they were less annoying back then than they are now!) we would no doubt hear all the time. In the end, though, it turned into a huge benefit for the kids as well.