Toys forever

Toys come and go. Some of the best have staying power, while others are destined for the dump.

A well-meaning grandfather stepped into Teri's Toybox in Edmonds, Wash., and made a pleasant discovery. While shopping for a hotly marketed fad toy that was not available, he saw that the store carries Tinkertoys and Pick-Up Stix.

"His face lit up, and it was like he said, 'Ahhh,' " said Teri Soelter, the proprietor. "Finding we had these toys took the man back 60 years in an instant."

Toys with enduring play value are a source of satisfaction to consumers and toysellers alike, as well as to manufacturers happy to produce established winners.

"If one generation enjoyed a toy, chances are there is going to be a second and third, and possibly a fourth generation that's going to enjoy it, too," says Diane Cardinale, a spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers of America.

A revived interest in classic toys is one of the three major toy trends Consumer Reports magazine identifies this season, the others being high-tech toys with lots of electronic bells and whistles, and the latest wave of video-game systems.

"As people in the baby-boomer age are becoming grandparents," says

Carole Segal, owner of Treetop Toys and Books in Washington, D.C., "they're remembering the things from their childhood that they really liked to play with, and are going back to some good basic, classic toys."

Among the hot sellers are Tinkertoys, the rod and spool construction sets first made in 1913, and Lincoln Logs, the invention of architect Frank Lloyd Wright's son in 1916. Both toys are again available in either all or nearly all wooden parts.

Although wood may seem retro, wooden blocks have never really gone out of style and wooden-track trains are as hot as they've ever been.

Visually, wood isn't as exciting and stimulating as brightly colored plastic, says Crispin Richey, co-owner of the Construction Site store in Waltham, Mass., a building-toy specialist. Mr. Richey's store sells plenty of both plastic and wood construction toys, but the latter, he says, put youngsters in more of an architectural mindset. "With wood blocks, the only thing you have to focus on is the shape, and that makes it a different experience," he says.

While a wooden toy has an old-fashioned feel, classic toys are by no means limited to wood. Look at the metal scooter, which is experiencing a spectacular revival.

And the classics don't need to be old, either. Modern versions are emerging all the time, says Stevanne Auerbach, who studies toys, once owned a toy museum, and maintains an extensive Web site on the subject, using her professional moniker, "Dr. Toy" (www.drtoy.com).

In her latest book, "Toys for a Lifetime: Enhancing Childhood Through Play," she showcases more than 50 timeless toys, from Radio Flyer wagons and LEGO bricks to such perennial board game favorites as Chutes and Ladders, Pictionary, and Monopoly.

In identifying blue-chip toys, she asks a series of questions, including:

* Is the product age appropriate?

* Is it well designed and safe?

* Does it stimulate creativity?

* Will it frustrate or challenge?

* Will it help nurture childhood?

* Is it appealing and fun?

"I think one of the things parents need to look for are products that make the transition between home and school, that help children at home to continue the play and continue the learning process," she says.

Some tech-loaded toys are fine, but too much electronic gimmickry too soon can bring the wrong result. Ms. Auerbach tells of a little girl whose response to a new talking, alphabet-reciting doll was, "Oh, is that all it does?"

What the child needs first, she says, is a doll that sits on the shelf until the girl brings it to life. The challenge for many grownups during the Christmas buying season is to avoid fixating on heavily marketed new toys, which children may request, but have the potential to be passing fancies. Ms. Segal, for example, admits to a sinking feeling when customers say they're on a mission to acquire an 'NSync puppet, made to look like a member of the pop male singing group.

"If only the parents and grandparents would take the time to find out what else is there," she says, speaking of a too-narrow focus on aggressively advertised toys.

This is partly the result of placement in big-box toy and discount stores, where the strategy is to "presell" items via advertising blitzes. To stand out is not easy, given the 150,000 toys on the market, including roughly 5,000 to 6,000 new ones each year. No wonder nearly half of all toys, according to Consumer Reports, have tie-ins to books, movies, or TV shows.

Wandering toy aisles can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are many helpful sources, especially on-line ones, that carry toy reviews.

"Parents need to look at what their children are playing with now, and see what's missing," Auerbach says. "Complementary play is very important."

In thinking about the variety of toys found in her store, Carole Segal mentions Madeline dolls, Brio trains, and the latest from LEGO, a working movie camera. Then, as an afterthought, she adds, "There's never been a better toy invented than the ball. Manufacturers do lots of variations and they are always successful." Call it the ultimate classic.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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