Sure, you've seen the commercials. You've flipped through the catalogues and paced the aisles of your local toy store. You've asked all the right questions. Will it last? Does it need batteries? Is it worth the money?
For the fifth year in a row we've sought answers to those questions from the most qualified experts we know-kids.
This year's totally unscientific toy test reminded us of some timeless truths. Parent interaction is key. The classics are always in style. Age guidelines really do matter.
We also learned some new lessons. There is such a thing as a fun math game (see page 37), and cardboard office supplies can be cooler than Game Boy.
Chicago Parent distributed tons of toys to seven classrooms throughout the six-county area. In return we got priceless information that should help you survive that annual battle-holiday shopping.
You can tell Santa you've got this year covered.
Some toy companies are great at providing the tools kids need to have fun. We think the best tool any kid has is an active imagination. So it's no surprise toys that encourage imaginative play are high on our list of favorites.
Learning Resources' Pretend and Play Office set was the hands-down favorite toy of Maria Higgins' kindergarten class at McCarty Elementary School in Aurora. The kids put each other to work, assigning jobs and handing out paychecks at the end of each play period.
The office set's popularity might surprise fans of flashy products. It's just a nylon case filled with plastic and cardboard office supplies. The only high-tech parts of this kit are a battery-powered cell phone and a calculator, which aren't likely to impress the tech-savvy. But don't be fooled. Not only did it keep kids entertained for hours, it drew shy students out of their shells. The set costs $32.95.
Action Products International's Junior Bureau of Investigation kit was equally popular with the 6- to 8-year-old crowd.
With both toys, adding dress-up clothes to the equation can only increase the fun.
Even big kids love blocks, and when it comes to building, two companies did it best: LEGO and Valtech Co.
We've said it before and we'll say it again-almost every age group can find some fun with Magna-Tiles. The plain magnetic blocks (Valtech Co., $49.50) and the new transparent blocks ($51.50) keep kids busy for hours. Be warned-if you buy one set, you're bound to want another. The regular blocks were more popular-and more durable-than the Working Trucks ($32.50).
Our fourth- and fifth-graders loved the LEGO Dinosaur Building kit ($19.99) and the LEGO City Hospital ($49.99). The simpler passenger plane ($39.99) and zoo ($15.99) challenged kindergarten and first-graders to work together.
If you want a departure from these classics, try the Gears! Gears! Gears! Floppy Jalopy puzzle car (Learning Resources, $52.95). Higgins' classes combined the pieces to create lots of different cars and tested each to see how it ran.
The fourth- and fifth-graders enjoyed the challenge of global puzzles by A Broader View ($9.95-$15.95). The cheaper puzzles like the Africa edition are smaller and simpler, so they're better suited for a younger crowd.
Few toys can boast 50 years of popularity, but since it was first introduced in 1956, Play-Doh has kept kids entertained. They love it because of the colors, the texture and the endless molding possibilities.
Does it break easily? Are there a million tiny pieces? Is it too complicated? Too simple? Then we're not interested. Oh, and if it makes noise, we probably don't want it either.
Forgive us for sounding picky, but over the past five years we've learned to be wary of toys with these telltale characteristics.
A lot of the electronic and battery-powered toys drove teachers nuts, but Charlie Coal the Grill (Playskool, $24.99) takes the cake for most annoying.
"The first day the kids didn't know you could press the buttons. They played with it very nicely, just like it was a pretend grill," says Donna Landa, a teacher at Pilgrim. "Once they figured out [the button] it became totally annoying."
We've also learned to be wary of all things over-commercialized. Appearances-and TV ads-can be deceiving. The Wild Ones action figures (B-Bel, $10.99-$14.99) looked cool at first but broke almost immediately in our kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. Star Wars TRANSFORMERS (Hasbro, $14.99) were similar-our second-graders were disappointed to find they didn't survive a few days of play.
Anne Halliday is a senior at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Susy Schultz, former Chicago Parent editor and associate publisher, is the mother of two boys and works at the Chicago Foundation for Women.