By Meredith L. Phillips aka Ms. Cheapskate
Gator Golf: Preschoolers testers love this almost as much as parents do. After 15 years, Gator Golf no longer requires batteries. The googly-eyed gator is ready to gobble up the ball as little ones take a swing. The point counter is built right into the putter for easy scoring, and the first player to four points wins. Clubs snap into the game console for easy storage. Ages 4+. 1 to 2 players. $15 - $20.
Twister Hopscotch: Also for preschoolers, this new twist on two old favorites offers a customizable layout of 13 colored non-slip rings. This game has our testers up and moving for healthy activity and offers indoor/outdoor play, anytime, anywhere with no batteries required. Ages 4+. 1 or more players. $15 - $20.
Littlest Pet Shop Hideaway Haven: Milton Bradley has players searching for pets with help from cute characters. The first player to round up all pets and get the Dragonfly, who helps them to get home, wins the game. This game is also available on Wii, DS, and DVD, though serious LPS fans will appreciate the board game, which requires no batteries and includes game board, spinner, cardboard pets, instructions and, most importantly, four collectible pets: Tiger Cat, Dragonfly, St. Bernard, and Ferret, available only with the game. Ages 6+. 2 to 4 players. $10 - $17.
Hullabaloo: This award-winning active play game from Cranium teaches colors and shapes while encouraging kids to get up and move. Winning Oppenheim's Platinum Best Toy award and the Toy Industry Association's Game of the Year award, Hullabaloo wins our hearts for easy set up. 3 AA batteries are required, but not included. Otherwise, the audio console is turned on and set for beginner or advanced mode, and the 16 play pads are tossed around to start the kids moving. As the musical console calls out "touch a square," "skip to blue," and other commands, kids are encouraged to play together and use listening skills and creativity. We love any toy that encourages kids to move and to learn, so this is a huge hit with us! 1-6 players. $16 - $25.
All three Hasbro games and Cranium's Hullabaloo are available at mass merchandisers, including Target and WalMart.
Leapster 2: More than 5 million of these handheld games have now been sold in the U.S. As your child learns, Leapster 2 learns your child's skill levels based on his or her progression, so the games adjust accordingly and are always challenging. A USB port allows online connection through a PC or Mac, so parents can connect the handheld to create online custom profiles and to see what kids are practicing and learning. Leapster 2 features a 3" touch screen and comes in two color schemes, blue/green and pink/purple. Ages 4+. Add-on games such as “Wall-E” are sold separately. Available at Target, Walmart, and other retailers. Console $60 - $70, Games $15 - $20.
UB Funkeys Dream State: The Dream State interactive adventure game starter kit includes a UB hub and two character Funkeys for $20.
Our twelve-year-old tester says the set-up disc and USB cable makes getting started a breeze. Popping a Funkey into the hub, she navigates cute creatures through a virtual world, earning money to use for filling a Funkey home. Swapping out her Funkey figurine, she unlocks a new game. Told she is "one funky Funkey," she assesses her character for bad breath or stinky feet. Cleaning up to fix the problem, exploring undersea worlds, dancing, or gardening with her current character earns her more cybercash to spend on tomato juice, cheese or other Funkey treats.
Though computer games have a general appeal for kids, this Mattel/Radica cyberworld has a special place in the hearts of our testers. They love collecting the unique characters and exploring new worlds. Single Funkeys and starter sets with up to four Funkeys are available at Kohl's and Walmart, and other local and online retailers. Requires Windows Vista or XP and an internet connection. Ages 8+. $5 - $45.
Jumpstart 3D Virtual World: These new CD-ROM games by Knowledge Adventure (a brand from which my own child gained a great deal of knowledge in her preschool and elementary years) are available for four age levels from 3 to 8. Children explore the online adventures while parental controls keep them safe. Designing characters and surroundings, adopting virtual pets, participating in learning activities with furry friends and earning special rewards are just part of the fun inside these exciting learning games. My kids love the bonus collectible cards included with each game that give them access to online extras. A parent is needed for installation and setup. Full online memberships may be purchased during setup for more online fun but is not required. This software is compatible with Vista and XP, and a DSL, Cable, or broadband connection is required. Available at Target, Best Buy, Sam's Club, Office Depot, Office Max, and other software retailers. Ages 3+. $20 each.
MySims Kingdom and SimCity Creator: Both from EA Games, these are new Sims series releases (October 28, 2008) for Nintendo DS and Wii platforms. These games allow personalization of the player’s world, including creating a character profile that best reflects the player‘s own image or a fantasy persona, right down to the skin color, facial features, and clothing. Our tester loves joining in to help King Roland on his quest to thwart evil wrongdoers in MySims Kingdom.
In SimCity Creator, our tester enjoys building his own city, acquiring landmark buildings, creating transportation systems, and more. Both are 1-player games, rated E for Everyone. $30 (for DS), $50 (for Wii).
Toys and other Kids Gifts
2008 Holiday Barbie: Our 12-year-old tester (and known tomboy) says Barbie's packaging and her silver shimmer dress are very eye catching and immediately opens the box. After seventeen minutes of intense unpacking, Barbie is ready for play. (In Mattel's defense, this Barbie is packaged securely for the benefit of doll collectors.)
Unfazed by this delay, our tester gushes over detailed makeup application, the "nicer, elegant" look of the eyelashes, defined collar bones, beauty mark, and how the "Holiday Barbies always look thinner."
Mostly, though, our usually un-girly girl just loves the frills and layers of this holiday gown. She finds the stand easy to assemble and comments on adding this Barbie to her own holiday wish list, noting that the African American doll “looks better in the dress.”
She says she would definitely play with a collectible Holiday Barbie out of the box but try to keep it in very nice condition. She deems the seventeen minutes of unpacking "well worth" the wait. We do, as well. Ages 6+. $40.
Fur Real Friends Newborn Chimp and Tumbles My Roll Over Pup: Our kid testers have fallen in love with the realistic animal noises and cuddle-friendly moves of these Fur Real Friends.
Newborn Chimp sits up and blinks to wake up, nurses his bottle, raises his arms for a hug and if left alone gets "sleepy-eyed."
Tumbles the beagle whimpers, pants, rolls over, and wiggles around like a real pup, responding to sensors in his back, belly, and paw to become a child's best friend. He gets more content the more our tester plays with him and falls asleep as our tester strokes his back.
Both come with adoption certificates, which the kids love, and pre-installed AAA batteries, which our parent testers love. Ages 4+. Chimp $10 - $15, Tumbles $35 - $40.
Handy Manny 2-in-1 Transforming Tool Truck: Opening up the bright red tool truck, they find about 40 projects to tackle, including a clock to repair and an engine to tune.
Our testers push a button on the door and recognize the voice of the favorite bilingual friend Manny giving them instruction on what to fix first.
Manny's friends, the "Tools," from the hit cartoon series are included and have their own trunk mounted toolbox that kids recognize from the show. A blueprint helps kids find new activities to keep them working, and a foldout, pop-up tool bench allows for extra workspace. Other characters from Sheetrock Hills "call" Manny's cell phone, asking for help with various projects. Sound effects encourage kids to finish projects and let them know when they "Fix It Right." The cab has space for a Manny doll, not included.
Parents seem surprised at the lightweight, compact product offered for a not-so-small price. However, this little truck holds up well and gets credit for giving little Manny fans hours of entertainment. However, 3 AA batteries are pre-installed. Available at Kmart, Walmart, QVC.com, and other retailers. Ages 3+. $50 - $60.
Elmo Live: The in-store displays only hint at Elmo's silly joke-telling and loving side. Our testers truly are in love with Elmo outside of his box!
This guy really delivers, telling stories and jokes, singing, dancing, and finding fun ways to interact with your child. As a mom, I loved the easy-open box! No one wants a tearful toddler on Christmas morning, waiting for a difficult package to be opened, and this was the best toy packaging I have seen yet. The doll and stool were out of the package and entertaining us in about one minute!
As the box says, use on a hard surface for Elmo to perform at his best, and perform for you he does! We love this product, we love this packaging, and though the price is a tad high, we highly recommend this toy for your favorite little Elmo fan!
As if more selling points are needed, here is just one more: purchases of Sesame Street items always help support education of children around the world. What could be better? Available at Target, Walmart and other mass retailers. Ages 18mos+. $50 - $65.
Potty Elmo: Many girly potty dolls are on the market today, as they have been for years, from Betsy Whatshername to Pretty Posey Pees in the Potty. What we moms have wanted for a long time is a more gender-neutral doll that focuses on encouraging our child, not cleaning up after leaky dolls. After all, we already have toddlers for that.
Elmo hits the spot, with that familiar face and lovable charm. His potty and sippy cup included, Elmo asks for drink, has occasional “accidents,“ and as always has an encouraging song for our child, because “Elmo can do it - and you can, too.” A DVD sampler is included with highlights from the video “Elmo Potty Time.” From Fisher Price, this interactive doll requires 3AA batteries. Ages 18mo+ $60.
Matchbox Power Scouts Skull's Challenge: Rugged Power Scout 4x4 vehicles travel over rough terrain and dodge falling boulders to reach Skull’s Challenge. Kids like the difficult course and the challenge of collecting the crystals from inside the skull. Requires 1AA battery for vehicle. Ages 3+. Available at Walmart, Toys R Us, and other retailers. $30 - $35
Colgate Nick/Nick Jr. manual & battery-powered toothbrushes: With extra soft bristles and handles designed for smaller hands, the SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer manual brushes are designed for age groups 2+ and 5+.
A colored bristle area shows the recommended amount of paste for each age group. The 2+ Dora and Diego models are designed for developing teeth, and the 5+ SpongeBob models feature a super soft tongue cleaner. Colgate's SpongeBob power toothbrush has an easy on/off button and oscillating head with soft bristles designed for ages 3+.
These colorful stocking stuffers encourage healthy habits and bright smiles. Both our boy and girl testers say brushing with their favorite Nickelodeon characters makes the experience "so much more fun!" Available at Walmart, Target and other mass retailers. $3 - $8.
Struxx Robotrixx: From MegaBloks, this construction set includes a ball, socket and rod system and allows projects to be built on a large scale.
Sound effects, lights, and robotic movement are among the special features of this impressive set that is already racking up toy awards for this season.
This set includes 502 pieces and requires 4 AA batteries. For all skill levels, ages 8+. Available at Walmart, Target, and Toys R Us, among others. $60 - $70.
Webkinz: Our little testers have been using the featured Reindeer and Snowman to enter the real and virtual worlds of Webkinz.
Kids love these plush pets and the accompanying codes that allow online play on Webkinz.com. Our testers adopt a pet into a virtual world where "Kinz Cash" allows decorating and personalization of their world. More Kinz cash is earned by playing in the arcade or trivia areas of the site.
Webkinz plush animals provide real and virtual play along with educational fun while collecting these adorable pets.
Webkinz and Lil' Kinz have are winners of the Toy of the Year 2007 iParenting Media awards. Available at Hallmark, Amazon.com, Dillard’s, and other fine retailers. $8 - $15.
American Girl: 2008’s Doll of the Year is Mia, a girl dreaming of becoming a figure skater who arrives in her sweater, skirt, and skates. This 18” poseable doll arrives with a hardback book of her story.
Not just for girls, American Girl also offers boy dolls in their Bitty Twins line. We like the 15” poseable Bitty Twin dolls, customizable for gender and hair, skin, and eye color to mix or match. They include two plaid and denim outfits and a “Learn to Share” book. Available at AmericanGirl.com. Mia is $90, Bitty Twins set is $95.
All prices are based on advertised offers from local and internet sellers as well as manufacturer's suggested retail pricing.