It doesn’t take flashing flowers or musical critters to capture the attention of preschoolers at play. Simple, imaginative toys that allow kids to be creative fared far better among our toy testers at Pilgrim Community Nursery School in Oak Park than those that needed batteries installed before kids could get their hands on them.
Likewise, Kristin Larson, a former kindergarten teacher at McCarty Elementary School in Aurora, said her students were much more interested in exploring the limits of their own imaginations than playing within the parameters prescribed by a toy manufacturer.
Here, based on recommendations from Larson and the teachers at Pilgrim, are the best and worst toys to buy for children ages 3 to 5:
Gotta have it
Magna-Tiles (Valtech Co., $49.50-$64.50, www.magnatiles.com). "I can think of so many things to do with these," said Rhona Taylor, who teaches 4- and 5-year-olds at Pilgrim. "Children would play with them all day, every day if they could." While kids enjoyed building towers and houses out of the magnetic tiles, Taylor said she liked how they encouraged kids to cooperate and use problem-solving, math and science skills. And they are sturdy, said Ruth Martin, who now runs the preschool. She got her first classroom set in 1998 and has never had a tile break. Stick with the regular tiles rather than the new Working Trucks magnetic trucks ($32.50). The trucks are less creative and more difficult to get apart, the teachers said.
Remote-control anything. OK, we generally think toys that run on kid power are best, but sometimes kids want toys that run on batteries. And remote-control toys are always on that list. The ones we tested were from Kid Galaxy—Morphibians Gator ($24.99), My First RC Buggies Inchworm ($19.99), My First RC Go Go Auto Fire Truck ($19.99), KG Racer buggy and green car ($17.99 each) and KG Sports Radio Control Bullpen Car ($24.99). They all were hits with the kindergartners.
Write & Learn Artboard (Valtech, $17.99). This educational toy is a fun way to teach children to write letters. "I would use it in school if I was doing reading groups for kids that need it," Larson said. "If I had that at one of my reading centers, people would die to be at it." The board talks, but Larson said it’s not too loud or annoying.
Thomas and Friends Wooden Railway. While the ones we tested used batteries, we recommend you stick with the wooden, hand-powered variety of BRIO trains. The battery-powered Sir Topham Hatt Figure 8 Set and Conductors Figure 8 Set (Learning Curve, $45) didn’t hold up under intense preschool play, according to Pilgrim teachers. The batteries died within a week and once "the batteries die, the wheels don’t roll." And, teachers warned, you’ll need to keep a screwdriver handy to change the AA battery and you’ll want to tie back any long hair. The packaging warns hair can get caught in the battery-powered turning wheels—and one girl’s did.
If the kids insist
V. Smile Pocket learning system (Valtech, $89.99). This is a Game Boy-like system that plays educational games. Although the kindergartners liked it because it felt as though they were playing video games and Larson liked it because it plays educational games (the kids tested Learnin’ Wheels Smartridge, Spiderman and Friends Secret Mission Smartridge, Bob the Builder: Bob’s Busy Day Smartridge, $19.99 each), the toy needed new batteries constantly and broke after four days.
Elmer’s Squeeze ’n Brush paintbrushes (Elmer’s Products, $3.99). The kids loved these, but they didn’t stand up to the wear of a kindergarten class. The top popped off after half an hour and the paints ran out quickly. Larson said she might buy these for her own kids, however, because they might perform better and last longer if only one child is playing with them.
Potty Time Tinkles doll (Goldberger Doll Manufacturing Co., $9.99). Pilgrim teacher Jayne Petrick said this is a good toy for kids who are just beginning to potty train and the doll is a good size for 3-year-olds. But the hats proclaiming "I’m a Potty Animal" had elastic bands that broke immediately.
Happy Hands Hound and Happy Hands Kitty (Mary Meyer Co., $15). These puppets were "very, very, very soft and snuggly," said Pilgrim teacher Nadine Brockman. But teacher Rebecca McLane said, "Kids couldn’t maneuver the mouth. Their hands are too small. They couldn’t move the dog’s arms either."
Wildlife Tent Set (Mary Meyer Co., $20). These just didn’t capture the preschoolers’ attention. "They were too small. Kids wanted to pretend to be the raccoon, not play with the raccoon," said Pilgrim teacher Kim Conner, who suggested the toy might be better for slightly older kids.
Don’t waste your money
Lamaze Infant Development System—Chime Garden (Lamaze International, $24.99). The preschool teachers disliked everything about this toy. The design makes it tough for youngsters to feel the different textures and there isn’t enough feedback for kids.
Pretendables Explorer—Eric and Ellie Explorer: Egypt (M.O.G. Kids, $34.95). Another definite "no" from the teachers; they said that besides a flashlight, there are few props to spur a child’s imagination. One of the snaps on the vest broke the first time a child played with it and the flashlight didn’t stand up to heavy play.
Lil’ Critter Concert (Kidz Delight, Ltd, $19.99). Kids are supposed to tap an animal with a stick to play music. But the preschoolers "just whack it and they don’t know what they’re whacking," Petrick said. Cullen said, "The sounds aren’t different enough. They don’t sound like the instrument they’re holding." Teachers soon took the "whacking stick" away.
Electronic Animal Party—A Wildly Fun Way to Learn! (Kidz Delight, $20.99). Again, the teachers vehemently disliked this toy, which is supposed to make animal sounds when kids pull on it. But "it made the ugliest sounds," McLane said, such as the cow moo that sounds like a burp. Even more irritating for adults, the toy decides when it’s done playing, Pilgrim teacher Donna Landa said.
Wiggly Pug (Mary Meyer Co., $20). The Pilgrim teachers called this the "dead dog on the stick." The stuffed dog is attached to a stick so it can be "walked." But the boys immediately took the dog off the stick and used the stick to whack other kids.
Others on the don’t buy list, because they didn’t have staying power: Bendos Sports MLS Bendable Soccer Figure (Kid Galaxy, $6.99), which didn’t hold kids’ interest, and See ’n’ Write (Educational Insights, $39.99), which has only two options—push a letter and watch it get drawn or guess which letter the game is drawing.
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