What better way to learn than by answering questions about life or cheering your classmates on in a game of Math Mat? Kids and teachers in Kristi Gedville's first-grade class at Prairie School in Buffalo Grove agreed: The best toys got kids playing together.
Katie Tompkins' second-grade class at East Elementary in Lake Bluff took their toys far beyond the instructions on the boxes. At one point, they engineered an alien invasion of the desktop campground of the "Happy Campers," led by an "evil" Fisher-Price doll wielding a missile-blasting Transformer. With Tompkins' help, the kids distinguished the true gems from the mediocre toys that they made more exciting with their imaginations.
Creativity was also the key ingredient for fun in Peg Watson's third-grade class at Troy Heritage Trail School in Joliet. Toys with limited uses or little variety were quickly set aside for those that gave kids the opportunity to push the toys a bit further.
Gotta have it
FurReal Friends (Tiger Electronics, $29.99). "It feels like a real chimp," said Emily Cole, 8, of the mechanized Cuddle Chimp given to the second-graders. "It makes these really cool sounds, moves its arm and takes its bottle. You don't get bored." A group of four to five girls continually fussed over the chimp's every need and shed tears when "Bananas" returned to the toy box. A fuzzy little lion, the Jungle Cat, was similarly spoiled by the first-graders, who christened him the classroom mascot and carried him around like a baby as they tested other toys.
Conversations to Go (Moonjar, $12.95) This box of questions may not look flashy, but its thoughtful questions spurred group conversations that allowed kids to get to know each other better and explore topics they hadn't thought of before. Gedville's kids loved it when she made these questions an end-of-the-day routine, and Tompkins suggested it would make a handy car or blackout activity. "I loved the questions," said an enthusiastic Sezar Carrillo, 10. "It got us talking about a lot of stuff."
Magna-Tiles (Valtech Co., $49.50). These chunky building toys are perennial favorites since they are so easy and open-ended. "They have a bunch of different colors and they can make a billion different things," raved Issac Lucas, 7. Tompkins keeps them in her classroom year-round and says they encourage fine motor skills as well as creativity. The only concern was stability; both the first- and second-graders complained their towers fell if they built them too high.
Math Mat Challenge Game (Learning Resources, $32.95). The first-graders loved the interactive nature of this automated mat that quizzes kids on math facts. Gedville said she would use it in the classroom: "Whether it's number recognition or simple problems, it reinforces class work."
DOMINATION The Conquer and Claim Dominoes Game (Patch Products, $30). The directions on this one were a bit tough for the second-graders, but both the second- and third-graders became addicted to capturing their opponents' squares. "I like dominoes, and I like board games, so this toy was perfect," said Brooke Jacobson, 9.
Paddle Pool (FUNDEX games, $19.95). A remake of a classic '70s game, this four-player game was perfect for indoor recess, according to Gedville. The first-graders asked to play it every day. The only problem was the little ball-it kept popping out of the board and rolling around the classroom.
LEGO City Passenger Plane ($39.99) and LEGO Classic House Building ($14.99). A big pile of LEGOs is a tried and true favorite. When we asked the first-graders if they ever got bored with these big kits, the answer was a resounding "NO!" The third-graders got a kit with more specific directions, but they enjoyed working together to create their plane. "It was a challenge to build, and I really liked that," said Mari Mekoola, 9.
Junior Bureau of Investigation Deluxe Investigation Set (Action Products, $29.99). With glow-in-the-dark powder, fingerprinting tools, badges and crime scene tape, this game has everything a kid needs to set up a phony crime scene and "solve" the case. "It was very realistic and would be fun to use over and over," said Ryan Cooke, 10.
If they insist
Color Explosion and Color Wonder (Crayola, $9.99 and up). The concept behind these markers is good: They only show up on special Crayola paper or sculptures, so they won't make a mess. And the few kids who played with these markers raved about them. The problem? The paper and sculptures run out before you blink and you end up with markers or paints that don't mark on anything else.
Pet Parade and Moonlight Madness (Perler Beads, $14). These iron-melding beads were a hit, particularly in Tompkins' classroom. She plans to keep them for her summer school kids, because picking up the tiny beads is good for fine motor skills. "They rarely follow directions, which I like," she added. "They love them, even the guys." However, other teachers complained that the many tiny pieces were difficult to store and that the beads fell out of their molds easily.
Star Wars Die Cast Toys (Hasbro, $4.99). Tompkins had a big group of Star Wars fans in her class, and they spent plenty of time shooting at each other in mock battle. The bottom line: These are great (and cheap) if your kid loves Star Wars. If your kid doesn't know Princess Leia from Princess Di or if you can't stand toy guns, don't bother. Avoid TRANSFORMERS CYBERTRON (Hasbro, $9.99 and up) as well if you dislike guns, since it actually shoots missiles. Of course, the kids loved it.
Magna-Tiles Working Trucks (Valtech Co., $32.50). "If you like cars, you like this. I love cars," said Wesley Ingold, 8. He and his second-grade classmates built elaborate trucks and ran them into each other and off desks to watch them "explode" apart.
Littlest Pet Shop Get Better Center (Hasbro, $19.99). The first-graders were split on this one; eight picked it as one of the best toys and eight picked it as one of the worst toys.
Kids Next Door Trading Card Game (Wizards of the Coast, $8.99, booster packs $2.99). The kids liked playing this fancy version of the traditional card game War, but it wasn't very sturdy. "That card game is ready to rip any second," Gedville said.
Tangoes (Rex Games, $11). Although the first-graders found it challenging to fit the seven triangle and parallelogram pieces into pictures, they gave this puzzle high marks. Buy it only if your kid has a lot of patience.
Don't waste your money
Star Wars TRANSFORMERS (Hasbro, $14.99). The second-graders were looking forward to playing with this toy after seeing myriad commercials for it. But it wasn't nearly as cool as it looked on TV, they reported. "It can fall apart really easily," said Ryan Martin, 8. Little pieces kept breaking off, and Tompkins had to transform the thing herself a few times.
Wild Ones (B-Bel Inc., $10.99 and up). Within 10 minutes of the start of the first-grade test, this poseable doll for boys broke. It is billed as an action toy, but the pieces didn't hold up to the slightest strain. Plus, the biker was too big for his bike and the mountain boarder fell over when he stood up.
Mighty World Adventure Sets (International Playthings Inc., $9.99). The second-graders didn't play with these until all the other toys had been taken.
Go to Press! A Grammar Game (Learning Resources, $21.95). This game has kids edit and write headlines for a newspaper, which we think is a pretty cool premise. But the third-graders bored of it quickly.
Continent Puzzle: Europe (A Broader View, $9.95). Although some third-graders admitted this puzzle was educational, most agreed that it was too easy. Watson noted that it was also difficult to store, since the pieces kept falling out.
3-D Esphera 360 plastic puzzle ball (Roseart, $8.99 and up). Some third-graders thrived on the challenge of this colorful, transparent puzzle, but many got frustrated because the pieces were hard to snap together and kept falling apart.
We hear it over and over: Directions for kids' games should be simple and easy to read. But every year, we get games that take too long for kids to learn. On the list this year were WorldWise (Globular Innovations, $12.95); Go Wacky! (Patch Products, $14.98) and Math Dash (Toys 4 Minds, $31.99).
Diana Oleszczuk is the online content editor for Chicago Parent. Cindy Jacobson is a writer and mother of two living in Channahon. Lenna Scott is a writer living in Buffalo Grove with her husband and two children, Lauren and Andrew.