Looking for toys that won’t be broken or abandoned soon after the package is open? How do you find the right holiday gifts that will delight your child, encourage curiosity, and build skills?
“Good toys have staying power — they engage,” says Diana Huss Green, founder of Parents’ Choice. “They help build attention spans, not fragment them. A good toy does not offer answers; it stimulates questions and presents problems for solving.”
Tips to guide your holiday shopping
1. Don’t be lured by the hype for the “hottest toys.”
These toys may be advertised heavily, but they may not hold your child’s attention for long. “The ‘hot toys’ are OK, but don’t depend on them as the only gifts. There are so many excellent active, creative and educational products that offer more value,” says Dr. Stevanne Auerbach (a.k.a. Dr. Toy), Director of the Institute for Childhood Resources, and author of Dr. Toy’s Smart Play/Smart Toys. The editors of Toy Wishes magazine warn on their Web site: “The hot toy is only hot if it’s hot for your child. Lists are great, but kids are the ones who make toys truly popular.”
2. Follow your child’s interests.
“Some children may want to read about a certain culture or its art, while others may want to create art of their own, some of it inspired by the art in a museum,” says Mike Norris, associate educator in charge of family programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “Most parents have a sense of which toy is effective in teaching something to their children, but because each child has her own way of learning, a toy that is great for one child may not be effective for another.”
What does your child like? Dinosaurs? Birds? Cars? Know your child’s passions and look for a book, CD, or game to cultivate his or her curiosity about these subjects. For a few recommendations, check out “Bundles of Learning Gifts.”
3. Make sure the toy, game or book is age-appropriate.
Always check labels on boxes or read the full description when shopping by catalog or online, to see what age the toy is recommended for.
4. Pose the right questions to find out what your child will learn.
Children learn from playing. You can try to understand what the toy you’re selecting will teach. Dr. Toy suggests asking these questions: Does it help expand positive self-esteem, values, understanding and cultural awareness? Does it offer practice in skill building? Eye/hand coordination? Fine and large motor skills? Communication? Does it educate the child about the environment? Community? World? History? Computers? Other skills? Toy Wishes magazine offers these guidelines on its Web site: “Look for toys that help your kids express themselves, discover their world and develop their imaginations.”
5. Check out the award-winners.
Many organizations have annual awards for the best toys and educational products. A few noteworthy ones are:
- Parents’ Choice Fall 2008 Toy and Audio Awards, from the nation’s oldest nonprofit guide to quality children’s media and toys.
- Dr. Toy’s 100 Best Children’s Products for 2008
- The National Parenting Publication Awards (NAPPA), now in its 18th year, gives its award-winning designations based on judging by an independent team of industry experts who have professional experience working with children and parents.
- Toy Portfolio 2009 Platinum Awards is published by the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, an independent consumer review of children’s media; all toys are tested by parents and kids, as well as judged by child-development experts; Oppenheim also publishes a quarterly ad-free, subscription-based newsletter on toy selection geared to parents.
- Toy Wishes Magazine’s “Hot Dozen” has been cited in the media each year since the magazine’s debut in 1999; also check its ” Fab 5″ (the ones with “no bells, no whistles, no batteries – they just guarantee incredible fun”).
- National Parenting Center Seal of Approval winners for Fall 2008, represent consumer-tested products from this organization whose aim is to “advise, support and guide parents with sound, responsible advice.”
6. Check museum catalogs and visit museum gift shops, which often have an area devoted to products geared to children.
These are excellent places to find toys that stimulate curiosity and creativity. A few to get you started:
- In New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art also has 21 stores throughout the United States.
- The Exploratorium, a popular science museum in San Francisco, has a full online catalog.
- The SF MOMA Museum Store says its children’s toys and books are “specially selected to be both educational and fun.”
- The American Museum of Natural History in New York has an online catalog for its museum store with a section for kids, subdivided into categories by plush, apparel, toys and books, and also by subject, such as dinosaurs, space, African animals, sea life and butterflies.
- Check the Association of Children’s Museums Web site to find a Children’s Museum gift shop near you, or to locate one with an online catalog.
7. Ask for suggestions from teachers, other parents, childcare providers and knowledgeable toy retailers.
Although you’ll want to base your choice for learning gifts primarily on your child’s interests, you can get some useful suggestions from others who have had firsthand experience with products you are considering.
8. Pick toys that fit your budget and your values.
Sometimes that “gotta have” toy is out of line with your budget and/or your values. Don’t be worn down or made to feel guilty if everyone else on the block is buying the latest expensive video game or the GI Joe doll that doesn’t mesh with your anti-war stance. There are plenty of reasonably priced, high-quality alternatives that fit your values.
9. Consider safety.
Avoid buying toys for younger children that have lots of small parts or sharp edges. If your school-age child must have that chemistry set to stimulate her interest in science, plan for a responsible adult to be available to supervise.
10. Make sure it’s fun!
“A toy or children’s product is supposed to entertain the child. It should amuse, delight, excite and be enjoyable,” notes Dr. Toy. No toy or game is going to keep your child’s interest unless it is fun to play with, offers lasting play value and puts a smile on his face.
Toys that made the cut
From the San Francisco Museum of Art:
Uglydoll Card Game
An awfully fun, awfully funny card game. For two to six players. Ages 6 and up. ($12)
Gordian’s KnotGordian’s Knotpad
The world’s most difficult brainteaser! Perfect for puzzle enthusiasts and players who enjoy a challenge — everyone will want to solve the mystery of Gordian’s Knot. It takes 69 different moves to dismantle the puzzle, so a handy solution book for perplexed players is also included. ($12)
Just wrap the bangle with different ribbons and stick down with double-stick tape! It’s so easy and oh, so fashionable! Comes with five plastic bangles, lots of ribbon, double-stick tape and glue. Ages 7 and up. ($20)
From the Exploratorium:
Photon Solar Racer
Build your own Solar Racer and tap into the power of the sun! This easy-to-assemble kit comes with everything you need including a sleek, transparent plastic body (made from recycled soda bottles) that looks great as is, or add your own custom paint job. The Photon can travel 10 feet in three seconds on a smooth, flat surface, when exposed to full sun. ($36.95)
Jiggly Gems and Crystal Creations
This kit includes the materials to make three kinds of crystals and one jelly-like substance in a rainbow of colors and a variety of textures from faceted to rough to squishy. Adult supervision required. Ages 8 and up. ($19.90)
Sure, you’ve probably heard of a chemistry set. But how about a physics set? This kit by Thames and Kosmos gathers plastic building pieces, gears, pulleys, string, and a motor to provide all of the parts for 36 different models to demonstrate a range of physics concepts. A well-illustrated and detailed experiment manual not only shows how to build experiments but also gives real-world examples and explanations. Ages 8 and up. ($49.90)
This interactive hardbound book from the Exploratorium is filled with ideas, hands-on experiments, fascinating facts, detailed diagrams and eye-popping photos. Want to learn how to mummify something? Break secret codes? Launch a rocket? Detect counterfeit money? Build a motor? From physics to forensics, from clouds to ants, from Isaac Newton to elephant droppings, Exploratopia overflows with things to explore using the simplest everyday objects. It not only shows you how, but it explains the ideas and background behind each exploration. Ages 8 and up. ($29.99)
Wise Alec is the all new multi-generational, family party game of trivia, tongue twisters and sassy social strategy. The game is a great variety of brainteaser challenges, silly-natured abstracts, and personal behaviors that allow players of various ages and abilities to play together, because in Wise Alec there is a choice of two levels of difficulty on every turn. Since Wise Alec was created as a total forum for wholesome fun, it incorporates positive lifestyle habits and encourages good manners that can continue in between rounds of the game. When families play Wise Alec on a regular basis, everyone will think twice about holding the door for someone or eating a piece of fruit instead of a candy bar, because next time the game is played your recent actions can help you out. Ages 9 to 12. ($24.99)
Creative Writing Story Kit
This is a great new product to help children to think and write. It is a write-your-own creative writing story kit for kids that can be completed in soft cover, and online, that is transformed via the Internet into a young author’s very own hard cover, professionally illustrated book. There are five blank wordless creative writing story kits to choose from, all available from the Web site. Selections are appealing to both boys and girls. They come with creative writing tips and vocabulary help. Young writers fill the creative writing story kits in with their story using a pencil and Post-its (supplied for drafting) or they can work online, using their own imagination. The following titles are available: Bees, Cat and Dog, Monkey, Red Alien, and the most recent, Katrina. The innovative book enables children to share their story and be published. Children can write about the tree house, the community coming together to rebuild it, or they can tap into their experiences with Katrina. Ages 4 to 12. ($9.95)
Roylco® Scents Sort Match-up Kit
A new game to test your olfactory senses. Let your nose lead the way with a unique matching game! Explore a world of rich and wonderful smells. Smell a scent and then match it to the correct picture card. Set includes 30 distinct scents, from apples to flowers to freshly mowed grass. A variety of games and challenge levels keep children learning and having fun! The scents are in solid form and stored in self-sealing cups so they will last for years. Each of the double-sided picture cards contains a colorful illustration and is printed on plastic for years of use. Each set includes 30 scent cups, 30 picture cards and a comprehensive teaching guide. This is a good product for children and adults with special needs. Ages 4 to 8. ($39.99)
Planet Earth DVD Board Game
A visual feast and a entertaining board game may be the best way to describe the newest interactive DVD game from Imagination. The original presentation of this game, from the stunning Hi-Def movies right down to the playing pieces thoroughly impressed our testers. The Planet Earth brand is familiar to many for its breathtakingly beautiful photos and video, and it is all on display in eye-popping splendor. The educational component is superb and the lasting impact of the beautiful imagery is remarkable. The game play is quite straight forward and the video instructions ensure that everyone is on the same page. This is a great family game night package. Ages 8 and up. ($29.99)
Teach Me Time! Talking Alarm Clock & Nightlight
A number of our parent testers expressed initial reservations about a child’s clock that promises to teach children how to tell time. Upon seeing the adorable design of this wonderfully innovative clock and giving their children a chance to experience the method employed by America Innovative, those reservations quickly faded. They watched their children interact and quickly learn all about time, using games and a terrific face that lights up and the clock itself glows different colors. Children not only “got it,” but they were eager to learn and show off their new knowledge. When they proudly announced that they had stayed in bed until the light turned green and it was 7:00 a.m., parents were on board and ready to proclaim this clock a winner. Ages 3 and Up. ($39)
Not every child begins their bicycle riding life on a tricycle; in fact, many parents are of the school of thought that the sooner children learn balance, steering and coordination, the sooner they can transition to a “regular” bike. Our testers were impressed with the solid construction and quality of the Skuut and the fact that it is easy to assemble with straight forward, clear instructions. There are no pedals or training wheels, but as children push off and scoot (or Skuut) along, they pick up the concept of finding a balance point. Ages 2 to 5. ($89.99)
Silk Screen Factory
Would you like to create colorful, silk-screened masterpieces like those by Pop artist Andy Warhol found in the Museum’s collection? This extraordinary kit makes it easy to learn a popular, and easy, stenciling process. Just snap the silk into the frame, slide in the stencil, and print. Perfect for transforming T-shirts, bandanas, cards, and more, the creative kit includes a bandana, 14 stencils, four brightly colored inks, silk sheets, and easy-to-follow instructions. Ages 7 and up. ($26)
With Magneatos, kids can now experience the thrills of magnetic construction in a bigger-sized format that is designed for small hands and huge imaginations. The strong magnetic balls and rods are a snap to put together and create an endless array of neat geometric configurations. The unique extra large size and bright colors of Magneatos can help kids develop fine motor skills and teach them about color and form. Magneatos will capture a child’s attention and stimulate their imagination for hours on end. Ages 3 and up. ($27)