The search for the best toys is on

With more than 300,000 children's products - and 6,000 new ones just this year - the search for playful presents can be more exhausting than a ride on a brand-new scooter, more boggling than this year's three-dimensional puzzles. But for those in need of guidance, help is just a Nerf ball's throw away.

The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, an independent consumer group, has released its ninth annual guide to children's products. The 2002 edition of "The Best Toys, Books, Videos, Music & Software for Kids" ($12) laments the plethora of "toys [that] are too loud and too bossy." To counter such overintrusive toys, the group ranks more than 1,000 products on a five-point scale.

It bestows Platinum Toy Awards - the highest honor - on several dozen gizmos, from classics such as Lincoln Logs to a three-foot-tall roller coaster. There are also more specific lists, such as "gender-free products," toys for children visiting parents' offices, group toys, and big-ticket items. Blue Chip Classic awards go to older products that are as engaging as ever.

The Oppenheims applaud this year's board-game selection, wider availability of powerful women figures, improved uses of technology, and diminishing emphasis on "grossness." They decry noisy, glitzy baby toys that intrude on natural curiosity, the "Zsa Zsa Gabor" emphasis on dress-up for "tweenage" girls, and technology that bosses children through play, rather than letting them invent scenarios of their own.

For weary parents in the thicket of blaring, blinking toys and holiday marketing hype, the guide brings a welcome voice of reason before toys meet their ultimate judges: the kids themselves.

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