Chicago Parent's Second Annual Unscientific Toy Test By Cindy Richards, photos by Frank Pinc
It's that time of year-when we buy, wrap, give and wait anxiously for the look that will say we have chosen wisely. It doesn't always happen. Sometimes we miscalculate badly and get that other look. But, assuming we at least are on the right wavelength-and choose toys rather than underwear-the whole gift-buying thing is still far from easy.
"The toy can be stimulating, wonderful and appropriate, but children still might prefer the box, the crayons or the paper," said Stevanne Auerbach, known as Dr. Toy for her work on the importance of children's play.
Still, kids are bombarded by advertising that tells them what they must have. They add each new product to the wish list and you have to decide whether to cave into their desires even though you know they won't play with it for more than a few minutes.
After all the shopping, wrapping and opening, chances are good they'll be back to the box and play with it longer than the toy.
Auerbach, the author of Dr. Toy's Smart Play: How to Raise a Child With a High PQ (Play Quotient), said it's best if parents keep things simple, particularly when the children are younger. So, start with a box, she said. "Sometimes play begins with the most simple things."
Still, what do you do when they ask for the toys the television tells them they want? "It's not wrong to to get that," Auerbach said, "but you don't want to spend all your money on the hot toy that gets cold really fast."
So what's a parent to do? In our never-ending quest to help parents navigate the potholes of life, Chicago Parent conducted its Second Annual Unscientific Toy Test. We asked manufacturers to send us the toys they are pitching this holiday season and invited 16 children, ages 5-9, to put them through their paces.
We received more than 300 toys. Some, such as Disney's Showtime Celebration Playset ($24.99) and GI Joe Ninja Showdown ($19.99), both by Hasbro, were never touched by the testers. Others, such as the Creativity for Kids kits ($12.99-$19.99) that are favorites of artistically inclined kids, were too involved to give the testers adequate time to play with them during a two-hour test. Still others, such as the Harley Davidson Radion Controlled Bike by Racing Champions Inc. ($19.99), proved too complicated for the testers (and their adult assistants) to figure out. However, at least one, the Transformer Armada by Hasbro ($39.99), has subsequently provided hours of fun for an 11-year-old who considers it "way easy and way cool."
What we learned: • Age guidelines are just a guide. The age guidelines set by manufacturers have little bearing on the toy's popularity. A case in point: the First Goal Hockey Set by CoopSport International ($19.99, including net), aimed at 3-year-olds, was popular with the 7- to 9-year-old set. Likewise, the Transformer Armada for 6- to 10-year-olds was well beyond the capabilities of any of our testers. Conversely, the board game Pizza Fraction Fun by Learning Resources ($17.95) is aimed at slightly older kids but was a hit among a group of second-graders who haven't yet started to learn fractions in school.
•"Some assembly required" is an understatement. It's not unusual for parents to spend more time freeing these toys from their plastic prisons and putting them together than kids spend playing with them. The biggest offender: the Matchbox Hero City Ice Mountain Playset by Mattel ($39.99). Three people worked for an hour to put it together but the kids quickly grew bored with the game. "It looked like fun, but it didn't do what I wanted," said Anthony Santillo, 8, of Plainfield. "All you do is make the car go down," he said of the toy, which does little beyond allowing children to race a car around the track and crash it through the ice. On the flipside, the Crossword Toss Phonics Game by Learning Resources ($17.95) gets big parent points for being the easiest to set up-it folds in and out of the box. It's the kind of toy parents crave: one with little or no assembly required. Even Paige King, 7, of Chicago, understood the benefits of the game. She liked it because "you can learn your alphabet if you're a bab." • Our children's fun is battery-powered. It is rare to find a toy that doesn't run on some sort of power-AA, AAA, 9-volt, even those little round watch batteries. And most of them require a screwdriver to open the battery compartment. Even LEGO, the king of low-tech toys, now offers Inventor Sets, a line of toys that can be put together and then moved by battery power ($19.99-$69.99).
• Not all great ideas are well-executed. As parents, we were taken with the Micro Machine Super Stunt City by Hasbro ($29.99). It seemed like such a great idea-an oil tanker that opens up to a city, complete with streets and cars to race around. When the kids finish playing, it folds back into the truck for easy storage. At least that's the way it's supposed to go. In reality, the instructions are hard to understand and after we finally got it transformed into a city, we couldn't turn it back into a tanker. And it was cheap-it broke in the first 15 minutes.
• Video helps. One of the most popular toys among our testers, regardless of age, was the Rescue Heroes Play TV by Radica ($49.99). The console attaches to the television and becomes a sort of video game that allows players to drive the firetruck, helicopter, fireboat or hydrofoil to rescue those in need. Dylan Brady, 6, of Plainfield, gave up the controls only when another tester asked for a turn, or when an adult gently suggested that he try another toy. Likewise, the VideoNow Personal Video Player by Hasbro ($49.99) was passed from child to child even though it only plays brief cartoons on a miniature black and white screen that measures just 1.7 by 1.3 inches. Auerbach reminded, "With television, they are sitting passively but when they play they are exploring and being active."
• Bells and whistles matter. Even Twister, the game that started as a low-tech way to have fun while bending your body into impossible shapes, has moved into the 21st century. The new Twister Moves by Hasbro ($19.99) requires a CD player to play one of the threes CDs that gives the dance commands the four players must follow to stay in the game. It's got a square dance mixed with hip-hop flavor to it. While it's hard to follow and there is a small crash factor involved when you all jump into the middle, it provided great belly laughs and many smiles.
Similarly, Beyblades by Hasbro, an updated version of spinning tops that uses a remote control launcher ($34.99 each) to battle the Beyblades in a stadium ($16.99), is more intriguing than the Original Battling Tops by Mattel ($9.99) that asks kids to wrap a string around the top to send it spinning into the battle arena.
• Accessories matter, too. The Madeline dolls by Learning Curve ($19.99) were popular with our testers because they come with a foldout Storybook House ($29.99) and furniture (about $14.95 per room full).
• This can be a bloody business. The Madeline dolls and their accessories come nicely packaged in thin cardboard boxes. An adult and a child ended up with nasty paper cuts. Although the cuts bled profusely, they were minor injuries compared to the scrapes and gouges we endured as we ripped other toys from packaging.
• Complicated isn't always attractive. Tim Geraghty, 9, of Oak Lawn, was drawn to the X-Trek Racing System by Silverlit Toys ($49.99). When he saw the number of tiny pieces, he was quickly discouraged. Later in the test, however, he picked up the box again and dug in. Once he had the track set up, it became a beacon for several of the testers. Tim, however, said building the track was the best part. Racing the cars would have been more fun if Silverlit took a hint from Hot Wheels. "I'd like them to make the ramps like Hot Wheels, with jumps," he said.
• Classics are always in style. Vaughn King, 9, of Chicago, spent much of his testing time putting together the LEGO NBA Challenge ($14.99) that allows kids to build their own basketball court and then play the game with spring-loaded mini LEGO players. "I like basketball and I really like LEGOs," he said.
Another group had a great time playing Tip-It ($9.99) and Tumblin' Monkeys ($9.99), both by Mattel. Tip-It is a new version of the classic balancing game that requires players to carefully remove one piece at a time without tipping the entire set. The kids, second-graders all, were frustrated at first but quickly got the hang of it. (Warning: This game has small pieces that could pose a choking hazard in small children.) Likewise, Tumblin' Monkeys is a version of the classic that asks players to pull out one stick at a time without letting an object (monkeys, in this case) fall to the ground. The player with the fewest monkeys at the end wins.
• Parents are important. Not only are we the ones who figure out how to assemble all these products, sometimes we're the ones who make them fun to play. Consider the Measuring Monkeys game by Learning Resources ($17.95). When an adult played alongside the kids, they had a great time. When the adult bowed out to let a fourth kid into the game, they all quickly lost interest. Same for several of the more complicated toys such as the Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream Maker ($14.99) and the JELL-O Frozen Pudding Treat Center ($19.99), both by WHAM-O. Even under the watchful eye of an adult, the ice cream-making process got a little complicated and the pudding pops stuck to the mold.
"Parents actually have to spend time playing the board games, making the doll house," said Auerbach. "Toys are a way for parents and children to come together."
Still, kids don't always like what parents like. We gravitated toward the educational games. Some were hits with the kids, such as Pizza Fractions, and some were misses, such as Totally Tut math board game ($17.95), both produced by Educational Learning Games.
A couple of the games were a much bigger hit with parents than kids. Chief among them: the Donkey Game by Mattel ($19.99). The kids were quickly bored, but we were endlessly amused by this electronic pin-the-tail-on-the donkey game that scolds players who misplace the donkey's tail. He has joined Chicken Dance Elmo and Hokey Pokey Elmo in the Chicago Parent office. Hey, the holidays aren't only for kids.
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