by Meredith L. Phillips
I cannot wait to discover the instant hits and recognize some real misses as I review the latest toys and gifts each holiday season. My team and I test each item for quality, entertainment value, price, ease of assembly and use, among other factors. After turning these products inside out and upside down, here are my impressions and recommendations to get the most for your money this 2009 holiday season for the young gift recipients in your life.
The Best of the Season
Leap Text 'n Learn
Easily my first choice this year, the Text 'n Learn has been nicknamed the "baby Blackberry." This toddler tech toy provides an alternative to handing over your $400 smart phone to entertain a restless child. After one week of occasional use, our two-year-old tester learned to recognize five letters, and in two months of occasional use, he has learned all but two letters of the alphabet. But this is, after all, a child's toy, so his favorite application is making the mascot puppy "Scout" dance around! Text 'n Learn has three learning modes and six activities, including letters, games, and pretend browser mode. "Following Directions" is a game that teaches directions while helping Scout to find his way home. "Pretend Play" lets your child explore Scout's calendar and play music in the browser. "The Alphabet" helps identify the names, sounds, and lower and uppercase forms of the ABC's. Recommended for ages 3 and up, the Leap Text 'n Learn is a steal at Target, Walmart and similar stores for under $20. Jam-packed with learning and fun for your little one, this is truly the value of the season!
Play 'N Go Table
Mega Bloks has created
another favorite with this convenient block table. The set includes decorative stickers and 22
blocks for hundreds of combinations.
Unfold legs to set up for play.
The four building base plates unlock for removal to access storage or to
use for stacking and building. The
plates also feature a track for using the included car. After hours of fun, the table easily folds up
to go with your little one or stores nearly flat. For ages 1 and up, the Play 'N Go Table from
Mega Brands sells for about $40 at Amazon.com and Target.
Lifestyle Gourmet Cafe Kitchen
Step 2 offers a wide variety of kitchens for ages 2 and up. We assemble and test the LifeStyle Gourmet Cafe Kitchen, with a French Country decor and stainless steel-look appliances. Requiring two AA and two AAA batteries, not included, the one-person set-up takes a little time but is not overly complicated for the average parent. A few screws create a sturdy construction. We love the finished look of the window area with hooks for hanging cups and utensils. We suggest setting the unit perpendicular to the wall, so children can use this pass-through serving window as intended. The sill prevents the unit from sitting flush with the wall, but placing it nearly against the wall does not take up a lot of extra space. We enjoy the copper and brick-look stickers and the neutral tones that look great in both boy and girl rooms. The play kitchen features an extra deep sink and a swivel faucet. A prep sink and coffee pot warmer are nice touches. The burners work with the pans to create the sounds of a bubbling pot and a sizzling skillet. Coordinating blue silverware and dishes create a nice two-person place setting. A cordless phone, play food, and spice jars round out the feel of a "real" kitchen. At over 3 feet tall and almost 3 feet long, the kitchen has almost everything a little one would want, except maybe a microwave, the only complaint we have from tests. A great value when compared to other play kitchens, the LifeStyle Gourmet Cafe Kitchen rings up just under $100 at Step2.com or BJ's Wholesale.
Barbie 3-Story Dream Town House
At over 3 feet tall, this "cool pink house" takes about an hour for assembly by one of our preteen testers. The 55-piece set has a lighted hot tub, a working elevator, and a four-post bed. The toilet flushes with a "whoosh," and the fireplace lights up for a cozy atmosphere. A ringing doorbell alerts Barbie that Skipper and Ken have arrived for her party, and the kitchen timer dings to remind her to take her included birthday cake from the oven. The flat-screen TV pops out of the fireplace, and the kitchen cabinets open to store the included play food and accessories. Mattel has even included a footbath to soak Barbie's feet after a long day in those oh-so-high plastic heels! This mega-mansion has it all, except for a third chandelier. Our testers love this giant pink dream home and all its amenities but are quick to point out that the second included chandelier may be moveable between the second and third floors, but they would just prefer an extra fixture. Is a pampered princess never satisfied? Barbie's Dream Townhouse is on the market for just under $150 at Walmart, Target, and Amazon.com.
Mickey's Magic Choo Choo
This season's release of this magical train coincides with the premiere of the special episode Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Choo Choo Express. The "Choo Choo" song and Mickey's voice is heard as you push the Mickey ears to get this bright locomotive to spring into action. Just as it does in the show, Mickey's train travels around a track in "classic" mode or converts to the "magic" mode of running on just two pieces of track. In this alternative mode, the engine rolls over one piece, spits out another, then picks up the one in back again for an endless ride of fun. This train engine includes Mickey, one train car, two signs, and ten colorful pieces of track. Four AA batteries are required but not included. At $40, we see this toy to be an instant classic for ages 3 and up. To get on board, chug on over to stores like Kohl's, Disney Store, and Toys R Us.
The LIKEaBIKE is the perfect first bike for small children. Designed for ages 2 to 5, this wooden wonder has no pedals. The concept focuses on teaching balance and confidence in young riders. The LIKEaBIKE weighs less than 8 pounds, has a mostly wood construction, has no sharp edges, and features a felt in-fill between the frame and fork to prevent pinched fingers or the sharp, unpredictable turn of the handlebars that traditional bikes sometimes make. Assembly is fast as lightning. The handle bar attaches with two screws using the included Allen wrench. Voila! You are done! The seat is adjustable if needed, and the cotton seat cover may be removed for washing. Our littlest tester, age two, rides the LIKEaBIKE with ease and is not afraid of falling because there is no need to lift his feet off the ground unless he wishes to coast for a moment of carefree fun. We are amazed how fast he has learned to ride! As with all bikes, we recommend wearing a helmet and following other safe riding procedures, though you may use the LIKEaBIKE indoors for added safety and comfort. Go to LIKEaBIKE.org to order your Mini from $265 to $329.
SpongeBob SquarePants Memory
This version of the old classic preschool matching game features the irrepressible personality of Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants and his friends. Recommended for ages 3 and up, this easy to play game proves to be perfect for short attentions spans and sharpens memory and recognition skills. SpongeBob SquarePants Memory is available from Milton Bradley and Hasbro wherever board games are sold for under $9.
American Girl Bitty Twins and PJ's
American Girl has always encouraged girls to find a friend just like them. The Bitty Baby and Bitty Twins versions are no different, available in skin, hair and eye colors to mirror your child's image. Just like the full-size dolls, these pint-sized versions are supported by a line of matching clothing and accessories for girl and doll. This season offers new holiday pajamas like the Snowflake Tunic and Snowflake Tee PJ's shown here. Each set also includes the "Bedtime Rhyme" book for reading to your Bitty Baby. Girls love these adorable outfits and enjoy dressing just like their little ones. Each set of pajamas and book costs just $24.
Iron Fairies Figurines and Books
Artist and author Ashley
Sutton, a former iron miner in
Handy Manny Construction & Mickey MouseKadoer Laptops
From VTech, these preschooler laptops look quite similar in format at first glance. We quickly see when we put them into the hands of our little users that there is a big difference in preference indeed. Both have a cute "mouse," one with a Mickey shoe and one with Manny's tape measure named "Stretch." Each mouse moves directionally and has a click button. Both also include an integrated carry handle. Both laptops offer a "repeat" button if a child misses hearing the question the first time. (Mickey's even offers a "correct answer" button.) The similarities seem to work well for both laptops, but the differences work in Manny's favor time and again.
The Mickey MouseKadoer Laptop features the voice of Mickey Mouse, familiar mouse ears and overall clubhouse theme. The laptop opens downward and has a slide latch at the top, which proved to be troublesome for the younger testers. High and low volume settings are available but both are still quite loud for small ears. The MouseKadoer offers 12 activities including music, letter, number, and other games. Mickey's laptop offers auto shut-off to save power but usually does not give children time to answer a question before deciding to say "so long." Users have fun playing with the Mickey computer but do not seem ready for some of the activity levels.
The Handy Manny
Construction Laptop features the voice of Manny and a tool theme, including a
screwdriver and a hammer,
Philippe and Pat, recognizable from the TV show. These tools have their own storage area and are useable on the play screws and nails built into the laptop for the "fix-it" activity mode. The laptop is in a familiar red toolbox shape and opens upward, requiring no latch for carrying and therefore gave our testers no trouble when opening. The volume controls offer five levels and a mute setting to keep little ears from overexposure to loud noise. The Construction laptop offers at least ten games, including letter, number, matching, repair, and safety. The safety "do and don't" game gets a thumbs-up from us! The addition of pictures on the keys also gets a gold star from parents of smaller kids. Manny's laptop also automatically shuts off, but the wait time is long enough that it allows plenty of time to respond to a question before shutting down on its own. Manny also offers a Spanish/English basic word and phrase button and gives more attention to teaching hand/eye coordination using the tools.
Both of these claim durability, and we find basic construction to hold up well under regular preschooler use, though the painted characters on the outsides of both units wears off rather quickly, starting during removal from the box. The LCD screens on both units are a similar size and quite small, giving a bit of trouble for some kids to interpret what is happening in the picture for some games. Overall, we are greatly pleased with the Handy Manny Construction Laptop and recommend it much more highly than the MouseKadoer. For about $30 to $35 each, these are available at retailers such as Kmart, Target and Toys R Us.
Our kid testers rate this card game to be much faster, simpler, and "way more fun" to play than the traditional tile game. Cleanup is quicker and storage is a non-issue with this simple deck of cards. The bold, easy to read deck of cards makes for full-speed-ahead fun. Scrabble Slam has already earned several kids' and toy awards. Rated for ages 8 and up, this new twist on a classic is only $5 and available wherever Hasbro and Milton Bradley games are sold. The kid testers have the last word on this one: "awesome!"
Harumika fashion design kits
Made popular by Project
Sing Scene Pop Singing Video Game
In the format of a microphone with simple plug and play A/V cables, this video game combines the enjoyment of performing karaoke with the privacy of your own home. Just plug it in; no other installation is required. Lyrics roll across the screen, and a vocal meter shows if you are off-pitch. One or two people can play. Requiring four AAA batteries, not included, this game seems to be aimed mostly at preteen girls and is recommended for ages 8 and up. The lyrics of the 20 included songs are rated "E for Everyone." From Jakks Pacific, Sing Scene Pop runs about $30 at Target and Walmart and includes current hits from Fergie, Rihanna, Fall Out Boy and more.
Star Wars Motion Flight Game
This plug and play is another "out of the box" install, using only A/V cables and four AA batteries. Geared more toward boys this time, this Jakks Pacific video game has graphics that are much better than many plug and plays we have seen though still comparable to the Sega Genesis. This flight and battle simulator senses motion of the controller and offers an 8-foot range of cord. Somewhat sluggish in responding to controls, this Motion Flight Game still offers quite a value for an all-in-one system. Most video games require an expensive console plus the cost of individual game cartridges. For $30, we get the excitement of participating in five flight campaigns and multiple missions per level. Built-in training shows how to play and use the controls. Overall, testers were impressed with what you get for the money. Recommended for ages 5 and up, the Star Wars Motion Flight Game content is rated "E for Everyone ages 10 and up."
UCreate Games & Artimation
UCreate brings your toys and imagination to life with a simple USB connection and your computer. Draw or trace objects on the drawing table to transfer them into the computer world. Add photos with the built-in camera and animate them with the UCreate system. Design your own games and personalize with the included sounds effects and templates. Visit the special website to get even more ideas and add-ons. Designing your own game and bringing it to life is one of the biggest hits of the season in our age 8 and up testing category. The unit comes with an installation CD, instructions, dry erase markers, interactive booklet. UCreate Games & Artimation is from Radica and Mattel and is available at Target under $70 and at Walmart under $60.
EyeClops Mini Projector
One of the most exciting products of the season, this little wonder offers the ability to project movies onto the side of the house or play video games on the ceiling. We love the excitement of finding new ways to jumbo-size our fun, and this does the trick, up to 60 inches, launching a big-screen showing of whatever we choose! We can hook this to our MP3 players, DVD players, and digital cameras. Possibilities keep coming to us and we love every one. Routing our multimedia through this little projector truly supersizes the fun for our teen testers, though this device is highly recommended by us for anyone on your list who wants major excitement! The projector runs for about 5 hours on 4 D batteries, or the included AC adapter may be used. Roughly the size of a digital camera, the EyeClops Mini fits right in your hand or mounts onto its stand. The EyeClops Mini Projector from Jakks Pacific is just under $100 at Walmart, Target, and Amazon.com.
Streetz City Pursuit from Mega Brands contains 221 pieces to build a customized city to maneuver while performing 10 different stunts using the two included street rods. A helicopter with an LED search light and an ambulance are also a part of the set, for those "dangerous" high-speed chases. For ages 6 and up, this action building set requires two AA and one AAA battery. Find this and other Mega Brand toys at Toys R Us and Walmart. Streetz City Pursuit costs about $40.
American Girl activity books
A variety of craft and activity books are available from the American Girl team. Find our favorites, described below, at AmericanGirl.com and in bookstores.
Our favorites include Spa Fun, which has tons of tips to help unwind, sections for skin, hair, nails, and yoga, right down to setting the mood and sensitivity skin testing. Party and sleepover ideas are included. For under $9, this is a wonderful choice for girls age 8 and up.
Funky Felt Crafts and Button Crafts are two titles worth checking out for those who like creating handmade items and are both available for under $10. Funky Felt Crafts has dozens of craft and gift ideas. Forms and patterns are included. Button Crafts shares new ways to dress up clothing and accessories, create jewelry, decorate a room, and personalize gifts, all by using buttons.
A Smart Girl's Guide to the Internet is a great way to let your child know how to navigate cyberspace without lecturing or nagging. Some of the topics covered are
privacy, safety, a parent's role in computer use, emoticons, net lingo, how to handle instant messaging and chat rooms, cyber bullies, social networking, blogs, and sharing media. Using the net to keep in touch with family, help with homework, and help others is also addressed. A site log is included to keep track of favorite websites. For ages 10 and up, this book is priced under $10.
Our favorite title from American Girl is Earth Smart Crafts, recommended for ages 8 and up for under $10. All of the projects make good use of items that would otherwise be thrown away. Suggestions include making beads from paper, pouches from melted plastic shopping bags, and hair accessories, totes, and book covers from other rescued items. Patterns and instructions are included. Fun and educational, this book teaches social responsibility with a new perspective.
Klutz activity books
Chicken Socks' Super Simple Sewing and Clothespin Cars are the best activity books we have seen for kids ages 4 and up. Sewing offers instructions for four projects, including a purse and a bracelet, and everything needed is packaged with the book. No scissors are necessary, and a safety needle is provided. All supplies and instructions to make three cars, including decals and a paper city, come with Clothespin, as well. These titles are perfect for preschoolers and are priced at $12.95 each.
Boom, Splat, Kablooey - Explosive Science That's a Real Blast is full of messy, loud, and crazy hands-on experiments that actually teach lessons in science and dozens of cool facts. The experiments have full instructions and use common items or the parts provided in the package. For ages 8 and up, this educational and entertaining book is under $20.
Paper Fashions Fantasy is not a truly practical or educational book. But really, who cares? It is all about fashion! Even the adults love this one. Filled with inspiring quotes from famous people, this book includes stencils, patterns, colored paper, embellishments, and tiny hangers for creating a fabulous paper wardrobe. The book suggests styles and designs ranging from fairies, witches, and mermaids and contains all you need to be the greatest paper doll fashion designer ever for just about $20!
Find our favorites we have featured here and other Klutz titles at retailers such as Kmart, Target, Amazon, and Klutz.com.
Kooky Klicker Pens
In a variety of popular licensed characters such as Mickey Mouse, Tinkerbell, Star Wars, and SpongeBob SquarePants, as well as MLB and NHL team logos, these Kooky Klicker clip-on pens are as practical as they are whimsical. Collectors can get sets with stands, or individual pens may be purchased for $3.49 in stores everywhere.
Skelanimals Stuffed Toys and Collectible Figures
Usually dead animals would not be the most appealing item to put on a gift list, but as the subtitle of the book Skelanimals by Mitchell Bernal reads, "Dead animals need love, too." In the case of these cute little critters, we will oblige. Described as "cute, dark, and cuddly," the characters feature silly skeleton and heart designs on both the plush and vinyl figurines. Usually relegated to the Halloween season or found in alternative stores such as Hot Topic, the "Adorable Dead" go mainstream this season. Packed two in a tube, the vinyl creatures are perfect for stuffing a stocking, and the $8 price tag is perfect for not emptying your wallet. Recommended for ages 5 and up, Skelanimal characters range from Dax the Dog and ChungKee the Panda to Marcy the Monkey and Kit the Cat. The small collectible plush toys cost about $6 each and include a fifth option, Jack the Rabbit. Look for these toys and the book on www.Skelanimals.com and in mass retailers.
Hello Kitty Designer Collectible Figurines
Available in 2-packs, these adorable and trendy renderings of the cute and classic kitty run about $8. Packaged in mini tubes, these Hello Kitty Designer Collectibles fit right into a stocking and slide right out to surprise and delight those on your "nice" list. About four assortments are currently available. Find them at stores everywhere.
Smart Animals Eco-Systems
These miniature wild animal habitats from Discovery Kids are collectible and connectible. Each one contains an animal such as a lion or shark, info on the species, and appropriate accessories. For ages 3 and up, these tiny habitats cost about $5 each.
EA SimAnimals Africa
The new SimAnimals Africa from EA Games is available for Wii and Nintendo DS platforms. Users build a habitat with animals, plants, trees, and more. Storing away extra food in your backpack, you can feed a hungry lion to keep him away from your baby giraffe. Discover new animals and encourage them to breed. Shake a tree to release seeds for feeding the wildlife on the savannah or in the jungle areas. Plant new grass and trees, and water them by stirring up a raincloud. Just like other Sims games, SimsAnimals Africa can be personalized but must be maintained to protect your wild kingdom. Using the birds' eye view or the animal ground view, petting and playing with the animals is important to winning the game. Collecting bugs and other rare items and feeding them to animals unlocks some special surprises. The DS game features more species than the Wii game and allows players to talk to the animals. SimAnimals Africa is rated E for Everyone and is available from Walmart, Sears, Best Buy, and more for $40 for the Wii game and at a better price for a more developed level of play, just $30 for the DS game.
Project Runway Silk Screen Fashion Design Set
Fashion Angels has produced a Project Runway Silk Screen Fashion Design Set for silk-screening clothing and accessories. The easy-to-use set includes silk screen machine, 50 patterns, 10 silk screens, six fabric paints, over 25 stencils, and more. Kids add their own custom art to shirts, purses, scarves, and more to personalize their wardrobe, just like a real fashion designer. Designs are as endless as a child's imagination, and refill kits are available to accomodate them. Recommended for ages 8 and up, Project Runway Silk Screen Fashion Design Sets are available at Target, Toys R Us, and similar stores for about $30.
Design A Heavenly Equestrian Wardrobe Kit
Design A Heavenly Equestrian Wardrobe kits from Fashion Angels allow girls to create over 100 flashy fashions for their two paper dolls and two paper horses. The kit includes fabric, paints, sequins, stickers, buttons, ribbons, beads and more to design Western and English riding gear. Girls from 8 and up who love horses can create hats, boots, saddles, and blankets for their riders and animals. An even better reason to purchase is that a portion of the proceeds from the sale of these design kits goes to the Wild Horse and Burro Program of the U. S. Department of the Interior. Just under $20 at Amazon, Growing Tree Toys, and other online sites, these kits pack a bunch of fun into every little box!
You might want to reconsider...
SuperWhy Touch and Learn Super Duper Computer
At first glance, this little laptop is as attractive as the bold colored characters in the PBS series SuperWhy. The box promises many educational activities, and with this much learning potential hidden inside, we want to love it. Unfortunately, the testers have trouble getting the attached pen to communicate with the touchscreen and understanding the games and activities. The games are cute and educational but seem to work better with our school-age child testers. The unit is easy to open and to power up but just doesn't appeal on an interactive level to the lower range of the recommended age group of 3 and up, even on the easiest setting. Super Duper Computer is selling at ShopPBS.org and Toys R Us for nearly $40, so make sure your little one is up to the challenge before investing, or we recommend holding off until they reach Kindergarten.
WowWee Alive Husky Pup
Activated by squeezing his ear or petting his back, he blinks, howls, whimpers, growls, and barks. This little pup is cuddly yet fierce. The age recommendation is 3 and up, due to the small batteries. Otherwise, this guy is appropriate for any age. WowWee Alive also offers three other species: Koala Joey, Seal Pup, and Leopard Cub. While we appreciate the realistic sounds, we are a bit disappointed that the only movements are facial. We also find that there is little interaction between "pet" and owner, so the $60 price tag is a little steep for us. If this pup still looks too cute to resist, find him at retailers everywhere, including Walmart and Toys R Us.
Daisy Greenway Interactive Camper
Learning Curve and Caring Corners present the new Daisy Greenway Interactive Camper as a way to teach children about living green and being a responsible part of the community. We love the presence of an onboard recycling bin and the songs and sounds of nature, but we think the construction is a bit flimsy for toddler use. The younger testers have trouble closing the camper without pinching little fingers or popping the door off the hinges. They struggle to open some of the cabinets and doors without help. Folding out the side of the bus results in a play surface that tips easily, interrupting playtime and requiring more set-up. The camper is certainly not on our list for the younger end of the ages 3 and up group that the manufacturer recommends but seems okay for school-age children who can be a bit more careful. For the suggested $35 retail price, we would expect a toy that teaches about the environment to be sturdier and not seemingly disposable!