The wish list for older kids Sometimes a gift certificate is the best bet By Cindy Richards, Laura Bayard and Susy SchultzCindy Richards/Chicago Parent Laura Kraseman's fifth-grade class at Highland Elementary School in Downer's Grove tested 35 toys and games. Most would prefer to get gift certificates as presents.
Fifth-graders can be a fickle bunch. Consider the fate of Clikits, the new girl-friendlier version of LEGO. When the students in Laura Kraseman's fifth-grade class at Highland Elementary School in Downers Grove first played with the toy, they liked it. A week later, it ranked No. 1 on the list of least favorite toys.
"I liked it because I got to build and make things and that's exactly what Clikits are. Plus, you can take them apart after awhile and then you can rebuild it differently," Liz Paulin wrote in her evaluation. Later she had a different opinion: "It was OK because they had a lot of variety, but after awhile, it got kind of boring."
Her classmate, Zia Scott, had a more intense before-and-after reaction to Clikits. At first, she was attracted to the stylish design and enjoyed playing with the system that asks kids to "click" small beads into place to make jewelry and decorate picture frames, tote bags and other products. Later, she said: "It hurt my fingers. It looked like fun, but the next day, my thumbs were hurting."
There was no such ambivalence about Cranium Conga. The game, the latest in the popular Cranium series, was the hands-down favorite among this group. Many said they added it to their holiday wish list as soon as they played. And it didn't matter that the kids had played other versions of the Cranium games.
"It was a whole different thing," said Bridget Long, who chose to play the game because she has enjoyed playing Cranium Cadoo in the past. She said she was right when she figured that if she liked one, she would like another.
"It also took 45 seconds to set up," said Adam Roth, "and then you had to use a lot of brain power."
The fifth-graders spent a week playing with more than 30 board games sent by Chicago Parent and then donated to the classroom. After each round of play, kids filled out evaluation forms. At week's end, they spent about an hour sharing their opinions.
Among the honorable mentions were: Guinness Book of World Records 2004, the Polaroid i-Zone Instant Pocket Camera, Catch Phrase Junior and the Alex Candle Painting Kit.
Board games, including Oodles of Doodles and Simply Suspects, were popular picks, especially for the girls. But no junior editions for these kids, they prefer the adult versions. Brittany Brady played WordXchange and WordXchange Junior and said the regular version was better by far.
"I thought WordXchange Junior was too easy," she said.
These kids are savvy consumers. They understand the Bionicle fad is powered by the huge LEGO marketing machine. And they aren't buying the hype. These fifth-graders voted Bionicles their second least favorite toy.
"It looks flashy at first, but then you put it together and you're done," said Mark Pfeiffer. "If it's LEGOs, you can make other things with it."
Tom Doyle added: "Sometimes when you open the [Bionicles] box, there are pieces missing, so you can't build it." Bionicles still had some fans-four boys even counted it in their top five.
But these kids had definite opinions all around. The majority of kids rated the board game Blokus a favorite. But several felt it could be improved.
"Blokus should make the game board bigger," said Peter Laganowski. "No, they should make it smaller for more of a challenge," said Christopher Petranek.
Ultimately, games and toys may not be the gifts most likely to net you a big thank-you hug from this group. That result may come from a gift certificate-to Toys "R" Us, Best Buy, Gap or any of a dozen other adolescent-friendly stores.
Why gift certificates? Because these kids don't trust us to make the right choices. They would rather do it themselves.
"Let's say Aunt Matilda buys you a sweater. And she's cheap. She cuts off the tags so you can't return it," said Bridget. "If it's a gift certificate, it's your choice."Cindy Richards/Chicago Parent Laura Kraseman's fifth-grade class at Highland Elementary School in Downer's Grove tested 35 toys and games. Most would prefer to get gift certificates as presents.
What our experts told us Here are some of the details about the best and the worst. What worked: Cranium Conga, one person answers a question on the game cards and the other players guess the response, for three to six players. "It was a really fun game," said Bridget Long. "It was great," said Deividas Gaizutis.
Guinness Book of World Records 2004, this 288-page book has more than 700 new records.
Polaroid i-Zone Instant Pocket Camera ( includes two AA batteries; $5.99 for non-sticker film, $6.99 for sticker film), a portable camera that makes it easy to take instant photos. Kids just wanted more film. Electronic Catch Phrase Junior, get your teammates to guess the word on the small screen and then pass it on to the other team before you get buzzed. This game requires at least four players in two teams and three AAA batteries, which are not included. "It was fun because it's kind of like charades," said Stephanie Drummond, but the junior version is too easy.
Candle Decorating Activity Kit, comes with six candles, including one shaped as a butterfly, brushes, six paints and four 3-D paints. A set of six additional 3-D wax paints sells for $5. "I love painting and I like art," said Zia Scott, who took the kit home to share with her sisters. She said it makes a good family activity.
Blokus, is a strategy board game, easy to learn and easy to set up, according to the kids. The goal is to cover as much of the board with your colored pieces as possible. "It really makes you think," said Peter Laganowski. What didn't work: Clikits, these craft kits, marketed to girls, have you piecing together fashion accessories. "On the commercials it looks fun, but when I took it out, there was nothing really to make," said Bridget Long. Gaby Ephram said, the colors were "too girly-girl." Most kids agreed the pieces are too hard to snap together and hurt their fingers.
Bionicle, LEGO's attempt at TransFormers. "Once you put it together, all you can do is take it apart," sid Zia Scott. Deividas Gaizutis said the toy comes with too few pieces. To be fair, most of the votes against the Bionicles were from girls. Four boys voted it among their five favorites. "It's like an action figure as well as a LEGO," said Adam Roth in his written evaluation.
Mind Mania Math and Spelling are electronic games that have three different skill levels. "It was fun for about 15 minutes," said Liz Paulin, who took it on a five-hour family car trip.
Math Mat Challenge is an interactive talking floor mat. Kids listen to an equation and then must step on the correct answer.
Reading Rods Phonics Activity Sets, the kids say they were turned off to this game because the marker and eraser did not work.
Double Take, the object of the game is to take your opponent's cards away and then "freeze" them with a "double take" card. This was voted among their least-favorite toys because they said it did not come with directions.
Toys fifth-graders tested What passed: Cranium Conga by Cranium ($19.99) Guinness Book of World Records 2004 ($19.57) Polaroid i-Zone Instant Pocket Camera ($17.99) Electronic Catch Phrase Junior by Hasbro ($19.99) Candle Decorating Activity Kit by Alex ($17) Simply Suspects by Spy Alley ($24.95) Gription Football by CoopSport International ($14.99) Oodles of Doodles by ThinkFun ($19.99) Pig Pile by R&R Games ($15.95) Blokus by Educational Insights ($29.95) Table Top Greenhouse by Creativity for Kids ($25) Jenga Extreme by Hasbro ($16.99) WordXchange Junior by Prodijeux ($24.99) Aha! Brainteaser Classics by ThinkFun ($19.99) Green Gators by Vida Games ($9.99) What squeaked by: Metallic Art by Creativity for Kids ($15) River Crossing by ThinkFun ($14.99) WordSense by ThinkFun ($9.99) Missing Link by Aristoplay ($25) 3-D Space Projector by Uncle Milton ($29.99) LEGO Space Shuttle Discovery ($49.99) atollo Construction Sets ($4.99- $19.99) Bucket Blast by LoLo Co. ($29.95) Patriot Challenge by Patriot Challenge ($35) PDQ Word Game by Gamewright ($9.99) Maya Madness by Gamewright ($11.99) What failed: Clikits by LEGO ($9.99- $29.99) Bionicles by LEGO ($5.29 and up) Mind Mania Math and Spelling by LeapFrog ($14.99 each) Math Mat Challenge by Learning Resources ($29.95) Reading Rod Phonics Activity Set by Learning Resources ($29.95) Double Take by Vida Games ($9.99) Boggle Game Folio Edition by Hasbro ($19.95) Skyrail Marble Roller Coaster by Quercetti ($29.99-$49.99) Sum Swamp by Learning Resources ($12.95)
Cindy Richards, Luara Bayard and Susy Schultz are members of the Chicago Parent staff.