Life for little kids is playtime all the time, so 3- to 5-year-olds need toys that grab their attention and keep it. When the initial charm of all things battery-powered wore off, our toy testers were still captivated by the basics.
The teachers at Pilgrim Community Nursery School in Oak Park favored versatile toys like Play-Doh and Magna-Tiles, and kindergarten teacher Maria Higgins from McCarty Elementary School in Aurora loved the way a pretend office set drew her shy students out of their shells. In short, if it encourages creativity, it's worth the money.
Gotta have it
GoGo Rollers (Corgi, $3.99 and only available by ordering online at www.corgi.co.uk). Although these cars-in-a-ball are accessories to other Corgi playsets, the kids played with them without the other parts. Try tossing these in the bathtub or taking them to the pool.
Snap 'n Style Dolls (Fisher Price, $10). "The snap-on dolls were very well-loved. They are good for fine motor skills and for more social play, and they're very easy-most snap-on toys are difficult to do. Every 3-year-old could put the clothes and shoes on," said Mary Cullen, a teacher at Pilgrim. These dolls are a good size (7 inches tall), and their hair is easy to comb and style. The testers' only complaint was each doll didn't come with enough clothes.
Littlest Pet Shop Get Better Center (Hasbro, $19.99). It's cute, small and pastel-a sure-fire favorite for little girls, and some boys, too. "They just loved doing imaginary play with it," said Higgins. Warning: The set comes with a lot of little pieces that are bound to get buried in couch cushions.
The Puzzle Set table and two chairs (Portasmart $99.99, www.portasmart.com). This practical plaything is colorful and kid-sized. "The table and chair set was awesome. It's gorgeous," said Rhona Taylor, who teaches 4- and 5-year-olds at Pilgrim. Keep an eye on kids when they play with this toy-some teachers worried little limbs could get caught in the openings in the bottom of the table and chairs.
Magna-Tiles (Valtech, $49.50, www.magnatiles.com). Magna-Tiles are durable, colorful and encourage sharing and imaginative play. The only drawback is that one set of Magna-Tiles won't seem like enough. You also can buy translucent Magna-Tiles (Valtech, $51.50).
Pretend & Play Office set (Learning Resources, $32.95, www.learningresources.com). This toy is a hidden treasure. It doesn't sparkle or perform any technological miracles, but it captured the attention of all the kindergartners. "It was fun because you could pretend. You could write on the computer and you could draw," said 6-year-old Macy Werner of Aurora. "I was thinking, there's no way kids this day and age are going to play with a cardboard computer, but they loved just that pretend play of their parents. Some of my shyest kids loved playing with this," Higgins said.
Play-Doh Classic Colors and Themed 4-Pack (Hasbro, $1.99, www.hasbro.com). This toy is nothing new, but it hasn't lost its charm. "We love Play-Doh," Taylor said. "It should be in every house. It's open ended, it's creative, it's sensory, it's social."
Deco Blocks (Clio Toy Company, $24.95, www.cliotoy.com). This set of 24 basic-and beautiful-wood blocks makes a great gift. "Our children play with them every day. They're very durable. They love to build, stacking and making towers," Taylor said. To spice up simple play, help your little ones build.
Gears! Gears! Gears! Floppy Jalopy puzzle car (Learning Resources, $52.95, www.learningresources.com). The toy is as goofy and fun as its name. "They really enjoyed trying to build different cars each time to see if it would work," Higgins said. The toy invites kids to use their imaginations. It's durable, which is key, and the 133 pieces have a distinct look so they don't get mixed in with other toys or games.
LEGO Fun Zoo (LEGO, $15.99, www.lego.com). Kids enjoy playing with the little animals and zoo keepers as much as building with the LEGOs. Higgins' students thought the set didn't include enough blocks, so they used wooden blocks and LEGOs from other sets to build an even larger zoo.
Write and Learn Letter Pad (VTech, $14.99, www.vtechkids.com). This electronic toy made learning letters fun. It is especially helpful for kids with fine-motor trouble because it talks to them about what they're doing, Higgins said. "They seemed to love that you could hear it, you could see it, and you could feel it-it touches into all those different senses."
If they insist
Castle Playset (International Playthings, Inc. Viking Toys, $54.99, www.intplay.com/viking.htm). Think twice before paying for this plastic toy. While the kids did enjoy it-especially because you can fill the moat with water-it requires a lot of effort to assemble. When you're done playing, you have to drain it and dry it before putting it away.
"Dolly Goes to the Beach" doll with book and clothes (Dolly Adventures, $19.95, www.dollyadventures.com). The soft baby doll and her sparkly Velcro swimsuit were a hit, but no one was very interested in the book.
Wheel Pals Triple Track Tower (Playskool, $14.99, www.hasbro.com/playskool). "My only complaint is whatever car you put on the blue (lowest) track doesn't work," Petrick said.
Curious George Board Game (Roseart, $12.99). This educational game can be fun, but it requires adult direction. "If I pulled kids and played the game with them they liked it. If I let them choose freely what they wanted to play with they chose the dolls or the pet center over a board game," Higgins said.
GoGo Splashin' Ferry and Carrier Truck (Corgi, $9.99 each and only available online at www.corgi.co.uk) These products help kids sort and transport the GoGo Rollers. There's nothing wrong with the basic game, but the boat broke after a few weeks of play.
Shape Sorter Gator (Learning Resources, $21.95, www.learningresources.com). A great toy for littler kids, but this simple matching game won't hold older children's attention long.
Don't waste your money
Charlie Coal the Grill (Playskool, $24.99, www.hasbro.com) This toy will give parents a major headache. " It said corny phrases like, 'It's not done 'til there's ketchup on the bun,' " said Landa. If you're going to buy a toy that repeats phrases over and over, you might want to choose something more educational than a plug for condiments.
Piano Wizard Learning System (Allegro Rainbow, $199.95 with the keyboard, $139.95 without, www.allegrorainbow.com) The program is difficult to install (it took our testers an hour to set it up) and you'll need an Internet connection. The game teaches kids to read music by slowly morphing bugs into notes with each level. "I think you'd have to play it night and day for years before anything like that happens. You're stressed out playing this," Landa said.
Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper Crazy Cuts (Hasbro, $9.99, www.hasbro.com) Some preschoolers called this "the worst toy ever." Our testers were all fans of Play-Doh accessories, but this one required more cleaning and care than it was worth.
Smart Splash Memory Clams (Learning Resources, $15.95, www.learningresources.com) This memory game comes with a small fish, crab and starfish. But the clams broke easily and the game didn't interest kids.
Maxiums' Deep Sea Sub Adventure (B-Bel, $19.99, www.b-bel.ca). Don't be fooled by this toy's cool appearance-our testers were disappointed when it broke after two days. Once the lid broke off the submarine, the toy lost its charm. "I was like, 'Oh good it broke.' Just because there were parts everywhere and I was always trying to fix it for them. It just didn't seem something that kids could do on their own," said Higgins.
Nick Jr. Let's Make Shapes! Book and Blocks (Nickelodeon, $12.95, shop.nickjr.com) This set of six puzzle blocks confused the 5-year-olds.
Nick Jr. Let's Count! Book and Blocks (Nickelodeon, $12.95, shop.nickjr.com) This set of six blocks can be arranged to form six puzzles, but Higgins' students didn't see the point.
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.