Preschool toy roundup The good, the bad and the broken By Laura Bayard, Angela Schneider and Etoya Johnson
Gabriel, 5, raced his Radio Control Tonka Mighty Dump Truck around Pilgrim Community Nursery School in Oak Park for hours.
"When I’m bored, this makes it more fun," he said. "Sometimes I hide when I’m driving it," he added as he ran under a table to show he can control the truck ($44.99) without being seen.
This is what teachers like to see-versatility in toys. "For us, when a child can use their imagination or change their play creatively, that’s educational," said Pilgrim teacher Mary Cullen.
"Toys are the child’s first art experience," said Stevanne Auerbach, known as Dr. Toy for her work on children’s play and toys and her toy-rating Web site, www.drtoy.com. "They are color, design, shape, form and creativity. A good toy like blocks or LEGOs or a dollhouse has multiple purposes and becomes so many different things for children.
"They get into exploration and it keeps them happily occupied and involved."
Chicago Parent gave 17 boxes of toys to two local preschools, Pilgrim and Wee Care Day Care Center in Wilmette, to see what the children and teachers thought of the toys manufacturers are marketing this season to the 2- to 5-year-old set.
After two weeks, teachers reported back to us on what worked, what fell short and what fell apart.
Their favorites were often the most simple, such as a series of food-themed toys that teach children about shapes, colors and numbers. Learning Resources’ Smart Snacks, including Counting Cookies, Sorting Shapes Cupcakes and Rainbow Color Cones ($12.95 each), received high praise at both schools. Children learn basic skills, but also can create games or play kitchen.
Play-Doh is as popular as ever for the creative-minded child. In the 2- and 3-year-old classroom at Wee Care, the Play-Doh Creativity Table ($29.99), a work station with a variety of tools, was a hit, despite one malfunctioning attachment. "There’s always someone at that table," said assistant teacher Meredith Wren.
What makes these toys so appealing? "The best toys are the ones that can be used in different ways," explained Pilgrim’s Kim Conner.
Creativity, not batteries At Pilgrim, teachers were apprehensive about electronic toys such as Fisher-Price’s Disney My First Princess Spin ’n Surprise Castle ($29.99). As a rule, they try to avoid the battery-operated. "Children can’t do anything" with an electric toy, said Cullen. "They sit there and watch it. It doesn’t really promote creativity in the children."
"An electronic device is not going to substitute you as a parent reading and sitting with your child playing," said Auerbach. "But I will say if you need a break, you need to prepare dinner, to spend time with another child; if it is a choice between an electronic device and television show, I’d say go with the electronic toy."
Despite the adults’ dislike, kids were attracted to the brightly colored castle featuring three Disney princesses who speak, sing and waltz. "We weren’t crazy about it, but the kids really loved it," said Pilgrim teacher Jayne Petrick. "I wanted them to like the [Pretend and Play] tape measure." ($6.95)
One exception to the no-batteries rule: the Music Blocks Composer by Neurosmith ($49.99). It struck a chord with many Pilgrim teachers. "That is a battery-operated toy that I would say thumbs up to," said Donna Landa. Children experiment by rearranging five colored blocks to create common melodies or compose songs. Landa said the toy captivated her 3½- and 4-year-old class for an entire morning.
Milton Bradley’s Elefun game ($19.99) was also top with the kids, but adults had a different opinion. Players must use nets to catch butterflies that pop out of a 4-foot-tall elephant trunk-too tall for this age group, teachers said. Also, all the butterflies fly out within 20 seconds, but setup for each round took at least four to five minutes. "They loved it, but it’s not fun for the adults," said Landa.
What kids like Adults can never know for sure what will work. Teachers said some toys they expected to fail were surprisingly popular with the kids. Go Go My Walkin’ Pup by FurReal ($49.99), a mechanical dog that moves, barks and follows the sound of voices, was initially a hit for kids at both preschools.
"It’s hard and not squishy. I thought it was going to be a bomb," said Pilgrim teacher Rebecca McLane, who left out the batteries, but said kids loved carrying the dog and brushing her hair. Added Conner, "They care for it in such a way that is so beautiful."
At Wee Care, teachers put the batteries in and said kids enjoyed listening to the dog’s sounds and trying to train her to do tricks. However, they added that her white fur quickly turned gray and dingy. Within two weeks, the fur was also falling out from frequent brushing. "It was out of control," said Susanna Han, who removed the brushes from her classroom. "There were mounds of hair on the brushes."
"I would call that one a flash in the pan," said Wee Care’s director Eva Hartwig. She said, like the other electronic toys, the kids were excited about it but it didn’t last. "Only a couple of the older girls really enjoyed playing with it but it was a short period of time."
Disney’s Lion King toys are big this season. Pilgrim received the Feed Me Pumbaa plush toy by Hasbro ($19.99), but never took him out of the box. Teachers said the wart hog burps, farts and eats bugs, and agreed he is better suited for adolescent children. At Wee Care, Wren said she was surprised the 2- and 3-year-olds in her classroom enjoyed My Singin’ Simba by Hasbro ($29.99), a singing lion cub that moves its head and tail.
"Mostly they were able to just walk around with it, carry it and listen to it sing," she said. "It would have been nice if it had been a little more cuddlier." Wren also said, "They never tire of hearing Simba sing the same songs."
"It’s one of those toys that tends to be more passive and does not promote interaction," said Hartwig. "They love the toys that talk but it doesn’t really last."
In the classroom, preschoolers crowded around Simba as soon as someone pressed a button to make him start singing. But sometimes the simplest toys outlasted the novelty of high-tech, new toys. Jonathan, 3, watched Simba for a while and then went to a corner to get his own small stuffed lion, which does not move around, make noise or sing. Jonathan said he liked his small stuffed lion better than the more showy Simba.
"This is mine," he said, hugging his lion. "It’s really pretty. You can pet it and it makes it look really good."
Other hits and misses What works: Pretend and Play Doctor Set by Learning Resources ($24.95), includes a thermometer that reads both Fahrenheit and Celsius, enough pieces for several to play doctor and to inspire many creative scenes. Speedstars Maximum Thrills Raceway by Hasbro ($29.99, additional cartridges $19.99), Wee Care teachers called this good for boys and girls. It folds up and stores well with all pieces staying connected. But recharging the cars is a bit tricky. Let’s Pretend career and adventure outfits by Small Miracles ($29.99 each), costumes include a doctor, cheerleader, pilot, bride and equestrian. "I love anything that enhances their fantasy play," said Pilgrim teacher Kim Conner. "The children all liked to play with it," said Eva Hartwig, Wee Care director. Be Happy Chou Chou doll by Zapf Creations ($19.99), giggles when you tickle its tummy. "It’s a basic, nice doll," says Donna Landa of Pilgrim. Pretend and Play Multicultural Play Foods by Learning Resources ($29.95), 13 foods from around the world, including sushi and flan. "It’s exposing them to different kinds of food," said Wee Care assistant teacher Meredith Wren. What doesn’t work: Teaching Cash Register by Learning Resources ($44.95), a favorite for many 4- and 5-year-olds at Wee Care. Director Eva Hartwig said, "It talks and they like it, but the skills are way far above them." Playskool Fold ’N Roll Kitchen ($19.99), lost kids’ attention quickly and assembly was not easy. "Even I had difficulty trying to put it together," said Wee Care teacher Susanna Han. Design and Drill Activity Center by Educational Insights ($39.95), teachers were never able to open the drill to put in the batteries. Musini Preschool by Neurosmith ($39.99), the kids did not have the patience to play some of the game settings, said Wee Care’s Wren. Gigglepants by Games for All Reasons ($22.95), deemed inappropriate for preschoolers, requires players to put on a pair of pants as quickly as possible. "It’s a bad concept to work on the speed thing for 3- to 5-year-olds," said Ruth Martin from Pilgrim. Learning Screen Karaoke by LeapFrog ($29.99), "It plays obnoxious songs," says Pilgrim’s Landa. "It wasn’t pleasant to listen to." She adds that the microphone distorts singers’ voices. What broke-even a little: Learn Through Music System by Fisher-Price ($34.99), one of the buttons broke after the second day of play, rendering the toy useless. Disney My First Princess Spin ’n Surprise Castle by Fisher-Price ($29.99), "It comes apart easily if you don’t pick it up from the bottom," says Pilgrim teacher Jayne Petrick. Pretend and Learn Cash Register by LeapFrog ($39.99), the coins frequently get jammed in the register, although removing them was easy. Pretend and Play Doctor Set by Learning Resources ($24.95), It’s still a winner, but the pocket clip on the beeper snapped off. Play-Doh Creativity Table by Hasbro ($29.99), also a winner, but one of the tools doesn’t stay together and requires an adult to help fix it, said Wren.
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