When it comes to kids on the verge of teen-hood, the only things as cool as electronic gadgets are things that blow up, fly or otherwise give them a rush.
So, while we were surprised the kids never even opened the package for the electronic FLY Pentop Computer (LeapFrog, $99.99), we were not surprised the low-tech rocket launcher toys we sent to Michael Likhite's fifth-grade class at Orrington Elementary School in Evanston were the hands-down hit of this age group.
The fourth-graders at Oscar F. Mayer School in Chicago, however, were happy with decidedly less thrilling toys, such as the Pet Detectives card game (Morning Star Games, $14.99). The game isn't big or flashy, noted fourth-grade teacher Tracy Yu Stronsky, so it didn't capture students' interest at first. But once they played, they loved it.
"When you play this game, it makes you happy," Brianna Smith, 10, said.
Out of the toys the kids tested, here are the favorites and not-so-favorites:
Gotta have it
LEGOs, in any incarnation. We prefer the big box of LEGOs that fuels creativity over the smaller, but more expensive and less creative kits that allow kids to build only one thing. The fourth-graders tested a LEGO Dino Attack kit (LEGO, $19.99) and the fifth-graders tested the LEGO City Hospital (LEGO, $49.99) The testers, mostly boys, gave them all the highest ranking. Just to drive home how much he liked playing with the LEGO dinosaur builder kit, Jonathan Santos, 10, put stars around the top ranking on his score sheet.
Rockets and things that fly, in any incarnation. The fifth-graders shot, stomped, jumped and did whatever else was necessary to propel the Pump Rocket (Geospace, $10.50), Jump Rocket (Geospace, $14.99) and Fly Wheel basic assortment (JAKKS Pacific, $4.99) A few notes: Go for the big Pump Rocket. Even the little kids wrinkled their noses at the miniature ones. And, as Shannon Ellis, 11, noted, don't expect these to last long. The foam and rubber of the Jump Rocket, in particular, didn't stand up under the playing power of a bunch of enthusiastic rocket scientists-to-be.
Telling lies proved popular with both groups when the students played You're Pulling My Leg! (Morning Star Games, $19.99), a true or false game that asks players to roll the die to find out whether they should answer a question truthfully or make up a lie.
SWAP! (Patch Products, $7) has been a favorite of kids throughout our five years of toy testing. The card game is sort of a combination of Slamwich (Gamewright, $9.99) and UNO (Mattel, $3.99) and is more fun with more players, the kids said. Isabel Sturla, 11, liked the card game because "You kind of want to get revenge on other people."
A new board game version of dominoes, DOMINATION (Patch Products, $30), was a hit with second-graders and fifth-graders (who understood the strategic aspect of blocking your opponent's moves) but the fourth-graders complained it was too tough to set up and put away.
The Global Puzzle (A Broader View, $14.95) has 600 pieces and requires players to figure out where each country goes to finish the puzzle. It's one of those toys that is educational without kids noticing. The African edition of The Continent Puzzle Family (A Broader View, $9.95) has the same benefit, although it is simpler and might be better for younger children. Likhite pointed out that The Global Puzzle teaches spatial skills and throws in some educational details such as capitals, longitude and latitude.
And, of course, the iDog Electronic Pet Dog and Audio Speaker (Hasbro, $29.99). For the students who already had one of the coveted iDogs, this was a must-have, even though they did nothing but sit at a desk, chin in hand, watching the thing's ears move. But then fourth grade is the starting block for entering that world of peer pressure known as the teen years and if someone else has one, most likely your kid will want one, too.
If they insist
Also a variation on dominoes, Highrise (Fundex Games, $29.99) asks players to stack the dominoes to build a tower. It proved popular with the kids but several found the directions overly difficult.
Boomophone XTS Whack Pack (Whacky Music Inc., $49.95), is a Chicago Parent favorite, but it drew mixed reviews from the two classes. The fifth-graders generally thought it was too young for them. Among the fourth-graders, some thought it was too hard to put together and others thought it was a little boring. Parents beware, however, it can be loud.
Electronic Sudoku (Radica, $19.99) was popular with Sam Miller, 11, a Sudoku fan, because there's no erasing necessary, he said.
Conversations in a Can: Did Ya Know? (Tootti, $4.99) drew mixed reviews. The biggest complaint: It needs more interesting questions. The girls also complained that everyone was anxious to talk at once, which sounds to us like the game achieved its goal of getting conversations started.
SmartLab Door Alarm (SmartLab, $18.99) Don't buy this one unless you're prepared to put it together for your kids. It was far too difficult for the fourth-graders.
World Wise Geography Card Game (A Broader View, $12.95) was simply too difficult and confusing for the fourth-graders, despite the packaging saying it's aimed at kids ages 10 and up. The fifth-graders never even tried it.
Farah Mohd Alkaf contributed to this story.
Cindy Richards is the travel editor for Chicago Parent and Diana Oleszczuk is the online content editor.