If it runs by remote control, the kids in Katie Rauch’s second-grade Lake Bluff classroom want it. The children at East Elementary put KG Racers (Kid Galaxy, $17.99) through the paces—crashing them and driving them off the desks—but the cars came through unscathed, although fourth-graders in a separate test did break one.
Among first-graders in Amanda Patterson’s class at Chalmers Specialty School in Chicago, speed and creativity were king. They liked the remote-control Morphibian Gator (Kid Galaxy, $24.99), which the kids dubbed "the army car" because it goes faster than other cars. But they also loved our favorite toy, Magna-Tiles (Valtech Co., $49.50-$64.50).
In Tracy Yu Stronsky’s third-grade class, another Chicago Parent favorite, LEGOs, was the class favorite. The kids at Oscar F. Mayer School in Chicago played with LEGO Racers ($3.99 and up) and built Bionicles ($8.99) during their entire 30-minute play period. But, no matter what age child you’re buying for, stick with the big box of LEGOs. As second-grader Ian Pearson, 8, of Lake Bluff, noted: "I’d rather have a big pile [of LEGOs]. I’ll just build something. I don’t care what it looks like. I just get creative and go." And third-grader Yvanka Rivera, 9, of Chicago said: "Sometimes you don’t want to build it that way."
Gotta have it
Cardboard box (free, from a grocery or appliance store near you). This is the toy we most heartily recommend for these young elementary students for whom the world of imagination is their favorite place to play.
Magna-Tiles (Valtech Co., $49.50-$64.50). The first-graders voted 10-to-1 for the more versatile, regular Magna-Tiles shapes over the new magnetic truck sets. "We can make anything when we get them to stick," said Jada Campbell, 6, of Chicago.
Remote-control anything. The ones we tested were from Kid Galaxy—Morphibian Gator ($24.99), My First RC Go Go Auto Fire Engine ($19.99), My First RC Buggies Inchworm ($19.99) and KG Racers ($17.99 each). They all were hits and were sturdy enough to stand up long-term use.
Swap! (Patch Products, $5.60). This fast-moving card game is similar to UNO. Although Rauch at first had to help decode the directions, her second-graders voted this game one of the best toys.
Chameleon (Educational Insights, $29.99). This stacking game was another second-grader favorite. It got big groups of kids to play together, and the chunky pieces changed color as the kids stacked more on top. "You never know what’s going to pop up," said Scott Yandell, 8, of Lake Bluff.
Other toys and games Patterson recommended for early elementary-age students are Magna Doodle (Ohio Art, $14.99) to help teach writing, puppet theater toys to develop children’s storytelling and acting skills and games such as Guess Who? (Milton Bradley, $17.99) to develop descriptive writing skills.
If the kids insist
P-Brains (Uncle Milton, $19.99 for two figures). These vocal action figures with interchangeable brains proved popular with second-grade boys. "They feel like a real brain, they feel sort of slimy," said Emery Thompson, 8, of Lake Bluff, as he squeezed the jelly-like part. But they didn’t keep the kids’ attention for long and Patterson disliked the rude phrases the toys repeated, such as "Are you my mommy?" and things involving pooping.
Earth 2 Jane dolls (Learning Curve, $14.99). These dolls—basically Barbies with tight pants and baby Ts instead of poofy dresses—were popular with some girls because of their many accessories, including cell phones, shopping bags and cards with the dolls’ likes, dislikes and dreams. But not even die-hard fans saw these stick-thin dolls as "inspirational" or "role models for the tween demographic," as Learning Curve claims on its Web site. And the first-graders who were taken with the dolls at first soon abandoned them and returned to Magna-Tiles, Patterson said.
Datamax Junior (Kidz Delight, $24.99). The first-graders said this hand-held Palm pilot-like toy is educational—it has 20 different programs designed to promote spelling, math and art skills as well as games—but Patterson disagreed. "It looks educational but it isn’t," she said. She thought kids liked it because it’s electronic.
Don’t waste your money
Bendos Sports Major League Soccer Figures ($6.99) and National Hockey League Figures ($12.99). Rauch heard the word "boring" when the kids played with these Gumby-like sports figures. For Lake Bluff second-grader Christopher Munson, they were "too boring right away." As classmate Patrick Chan said, all you do is kick the soccer ball in the goal.
Isolate (Educational Insights, $19.99). This game with its sliding tiles kept the kids amused for a only short time, but Rauch approved of it.
Clikits (LEGO, $4.99 and up). This girl version of LEGOs always gets some votes from girls as a "best" toy. But, for the most part, the pieces are hard to snap in place and leave girls with sore fingers. Patterson wouldn’t recommend Clikits for kids under 10 because the tiny parts could be dangerous.
See ’n’ Write (Educational Insights, $39.95). The first-graders pronounced this toy, which is supposed to help kids learn to write their letters, "not fun." Patterson recommended it for younger children.
Also on our testers’ "don’t bother" list: Cuckoo Zoo (Gamewright, $9.99), Leaping Lizards: The Colorful Game of Racing Reptiles (Gamewright, $11.99) and United States Cards (Games for Your Brain, $9.95).
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