Choosing winners & losers

Editors offer their picks and pans for kids’ toys and games


Cindy Richards and Susy Schultz

It’s been four years since we began this adventure to gather together bunches of toys and get them tested by the experts—kids. We’ve waded into this each year with a new approach but the same goal: to give parents as much information as possible about which toys work, which keep kids engaged and which break in the first 15 minutes, if the kids haven’t already abandoned them.

This year, like last year, we sent the toys to preschool and elementary classrooms in the six-country Chicago Parent circulation area. Those classes spent about two weeks playing with the toys before our team of reporters arrived to interview the kids and debrief the teachers.

Unlike last year, however, we didn’t write about each class. Instead, we combined results and put together toy recommendations by age group (preschool and kindergarten, early primary grades, later primary grades and board games).

And we think we have done this enough times that we have some expertise. So, we share the secrets we have learned in four years and offer our list of the best and worst.

The best

This is easy: Magna-Tiles. The geometrically shaped magnetic tiles are great for preschoolers and just as engaging for older kids, even much older kids (a college-age Chicago Parent intern couldn’t stop playing with the set we had in the office).

The brainchild of LaGrange-based Valtech Co., this toy has long been a staple for schools such as Pilgrim Community Nursery School in Oak Park. And Kristin Larsen, former kindergarten teacher at McCarty Elementary School in Aurora, says, "There’s such an unlimited use for them. They can turn them into whatever they want."

But these sets were not sold commercially until the last few years. You can order directly from Valtech at, or from It is not cheap, sets are $49.50 to $64.50. But this great toy will last. Stick with the standard geometric shapes. While kids like the new Working Trucks, and it is cheaper, $32.50, the trucks proved less creative and less durable.

Cranium, the line of games for kids and families, has a new edition this year: Bumparena ($17.99). This is a sort of build-your-own pinball game, but the kids pronounced it as fun as other Cranium games, which let you act out silly sayings, sculpt clay figures or guess answers in a defined period of time. The makers of Cranium games have found a nice balance between fun and intellectual challenge, often with an electronic timer thrown in.

Also on our "best" list are some classics.

 BRIO train sets. These sets, especially the Thomas the Tank Engine series, are constant favorites. But stick with the standard wooden kid-powered trains. The battery-operated ones Pilgrim preschool tested stopped working within a week and once the batteries died, the wheels wouldn’t turn. And, when the batteries were working and the wheels turning, it was tough to stop them—a feature that proved dangerous when one girl got her hair caught in the wheel.

 LEGOs. We love the way kids dive into their imaginations when they dive into this toy. LEGOs are sturdy and intriguing. But again, stay with the standards. We’re recommending the ones that come in the big box with no directions, not the ones with directions and the precise LEGOs needed to make one figure. The third-graders we asked at Oscar F. Mayer Elementary School in Chicago agreed. Nineteen said they would rather make their designs from a pile of LEGOs; only eight voted for prepackaged kits.

 FunSlides Carpet Skates™. These are genius--a piece of plastic, two strips of Velcro, a carpet and you're off. They are perfect for spicing up a cold, must-stay-indoors Chicago winter day and they are a good introduction to skating. These didn’t make it to the classrooms, we couldn’t get them off the feet of our kids and our interns. They are $17.99.

 Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. Nearly everyone’s first board games, these have stayed around for a reason: Kids love them. We parents sometimes tired of playing for hours with our toddlers. But what is better than watching their eyes light up as they realized the card they picked was the right color to move them to the Candy Castle.

 Wooden blocks. It was best said by an expert in child education in an old Chicago Parent story. "People just don’t understand the value of blocks. It’s the one material we have that covers all the curriculum areas: math, science, literacy and social studies." Read The Block Book by Elizabeth Hirsch. Then, buy a set of wood blocks.

 Scarves or dress-up clothes. Should we say it again: It’s all about imagination. You can buy manufactured dress-up clothes or you find outfits at a second-hand store or go to your closet.

 A cardboard box. This is the all-time kid favorite toy—the bigger, the better. Every year, we have asked and our experts have agreed, enthusiastically with so many stories about what you can do with a box. Cut out a door, a few windows and it’s a house. Turn it over, add a few plastic dishes and it’s a table. Turn it on its side, add a blanket and it's a fort. Or stand it up for a puppet stage. This is only the beginning.

The worst

Ironically, our worst list is topped by another LEGO product: Clikits. These tiny, decorative shapes come in kits and are designed to attach to specific picture frames, purses, jewelry, barrettes and other girl-friendly things. But, for four years now, we have had the same results: Girls love them for the potential but find them difficult to use and consistently say their fingers hurt when they’re done playing.

Also topping our worst list are items likely to top tweens’ holiday wish lists: cell phones and violent video games.

Kids don’t need cell phones. And if you wonder about the marketing hype that cell phones make it easier to keep track of kids, the opposite is true from our experience. The phones are never on—or never with the kids. They are hidden in a pocket or deep in a purse. You ring and ring--no answer. And the kids don’t feel they need to check in because, "I have a cell phone, Mom. Why didn’t you just call me?"

As for the video games, don’t be lured into believing the T (for teen) or M (for mature) ratings are silly. These ratings, set by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, are a good guideline for parents to violence. T games are supposedly OK for kids 13 and up, but can contain sexually suggestive themes and may be aggressively violent, despite no blood on the screen. M games can be intensely violent and often contain serious sexual themes. This is appropriate for players only age 17 and older; definitely not for a tween.

The rest

Each year, toy manufacturers come out with a host of new gadgets, games and gizmos. This year, we found a couple with staying power for kids.

 Hide & Seek Safari (R&R Games, $34.95). This is an electronic, battery-operated version of hide-and-seek. Someone hides an object, in this case a tiger, then leads another player to it by telling him, "You’re getting warm. You’re really hot. Yes, you’re burning up." In this game, the finder stick does the telling—by lighting up all four red lights when the searcher is really hot and then emitting a shrieking sound when he’s burning up. This toy, aimed at 7- to 11-year-olds, kept everyone who tested it—ages 3 to 16—entertained for hours. Sixteen of the 21 kids at our final toy test voted Hide & Seek Safari as their favorite among the more than 50 toys and games they tested that day.

 Back Yard Flyer (Kid Galaxy, $16). This yellow and blue foam airplane is shot from a launcher and swoops through the air. It was a hit with both the fourth-graders at McKinley Elementary School in South Holland and the fifth-graders at Orrington Elementary School in Evanston.


Kids love ’em. There’s no getting around it. If it requires batteries and exercises their thumbs—whether it is a remote-control car or a video game—kids want it. And we must weigh, as indulgent parents, will we buy it?

It’s up to you, your shopping list and your budget. Just beware: Remote-control cars have a short life. Most of the ones we have tested over the years went dead within hours. That meant either a frustrating wait of several hours for the rechargeable controls to power up or frequently replacing the batteries and using that mini screwdriver for the maddeningly small screw on the battery compartment.

On the video game front, once the game is on, little else exists to that child but the screen, the controller and the game. Hold out as long as you can against a game system, then make sure it comes with a set of rules on screen time.

Keep it simple

What have we learned from the experts? The best toys were simple, with easy-to-understand directions and the worst toys had elaborate setups or long instructions.

Our testers want to get straight to the fun. Complicated directions were bad news for Laura Anderson’s fourth grade class at McKinley Elementary in South Holland. Anderson let her students figure out the toys without help and found they often ignored the rules. "Kids don’t want to take the time to read the directions," Anderson says. "It just turned them off."

Often, and here’s the best part, the kids made up rules and played their own game--one they said was more fun than the one they were given.

This story was written by Cindy Richards, mom of two and Chicago Parent senior editor and travel editor, and Susy Schultz, mom of two and Chicago Parent editor and associate publisher. It was reported by Richards and Schultz, along with Associate Editor Lorien Menhennett and interns Diana Oleszczuk, Hannah Schroder and Teresa Dankowski.

As reporters, we are taught to go to the experts to find out what’s going on. And that’s what we do with our annual toy test. In this case, there are no better experts than the kids themselves.

Our toy test is a massive undertaking that involves nearly 300 kids, ranging in age from 3 to 14. Some of those are our kids and their friends, who spent their Columbus Day holiday in our office playing with and evaluating more than 40 board games. We so appreciate their time and admire how seriously they take their role as testers.

But the vast majority of our testers come from our six-county readership area. For the second year, we enlisted schools to test toys. The toys were sent out to classrooms in May 2005. Our heartfelt thanks goes to:

 Preschoolers at Pilgrim Community Nursery School in Oak Park along with their teachers: Karen Lembecke, Kim Conner, Rhona Taylor, Mary Pucci Cullen, Jayne Petrick, Nancy Hogan, Rebecca McLane, Donna Landa, Nadine Brockman, Debbie Wirkiowski and Maryanne Peterson, and the director, Ruth Martin.

 Kindgergartners in Kristen Larson’s class at McCarty Elementary School in Aurora.

 First-graders in Amanda Patterson’s class at Chalmers Specialty School in Chicago.

 Second-graders in Katie Rauch’s class at East Elementary School in Lake Bluff.

 Third-graders in Tracy Yu Stronsky’s class at Oscar F. Mayer School in Chicago.

 Fourth-graders in Laura Anderson’s class at McKinley Elementary School in South Holland.

 Fifth-graders in Michael Likhite’s class at Orrington Elementary School in Evanston.

Cindy Richards

Kids Eat Chicago

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