Beyond blocks and Monopoly

This holiday season, take the guesswork out of buying the best toys

The holiday season used to be simpler: Between Tinker Toys and dolls, parents had a narrow range of options from which to choose.

Today, with many more toys on the market, parents - and grandparents - can find themselves overwhelmed when it comes time to make a decision.

According to a survey conducted by International Communications Research, 55 percent of parents said they had trouble choosing which toys would be educational and encourage learning.

Joanne Oppenheim is ready to give a little advice. Ms. Oppenheim, who has written more than 40 books for and about children, became interested in the toy industry during the 1980s when "parents were suddenly faced with hundreds of choices ... so many brands," she says.

Now she and her son and daughter - Stephanie, a former attorney and mother of two, and James, an attorney and computer consultant -review thousands of toys and test them to determine which ones educate and entertain kids best.

For 10 years her team's findings have been published in the "Oppenheim Toy Portfolio" ($12; www.toyportfolio.com), an independent guide available in bookstores, which rates toys, books, videos, music, and software for children.

Toys, Oppenheim explains, are not just mindless kid stuff. She believes toys best resemble a nutritious meal: The same way parents wouldn't feed their children just potatoes every day, they shouldn't buy toys that are all the same. "You want toys that will develop active play, motor skills, toys that will develop their imagination and language development, and then you want things that are going to challenge them intellectually," she says.

Before heading to the toy store, first ask: What toys does the child already have? What is he or she interested in?

"If they have a toy train, you might [buy] a new accessory," she suggests. "For a doll house, some new furnishings. We worry so much about having the hot toy, but you want to choose things that are going to get plenty of long-term use. After all, if a child quickly loses interest in the latest trendy doll, there is little point in spending money on it.

Oppenheim also suggests that parents not to use playthings to push their children too fast. She hopes they'll also remember that learning should be fun. "Your 18-month-old baby doesn't need to count or recite the alphabet," she says. "Learning is not about right and wrong answers. It's about asking the right questions."

Technology is another issue that confronts toy buyers. Make sure that it doesn't overpower the child or turn an active experience into a passive one. A doll that does all the talking might have a child just pushing its buttons all day long. That curtails the use of imagination instead of fostering it.

Oppenheim recommends that toy shoppers try to avoid categorizing games by gender. For example, she says building sets are not just for boys; girls also need to learn spatial-relationship skills developed through these toys. Craft kits and the new LEGO Harry Potter building sets appeal to both sexes.

Finally, she says, remember that the most impressive toys are not necessarily the most expensive ones. The best gift of all may be personal attention: Having parents, grandparents, and other children around can be more fun and teach more than any battery-operated plaything.

Award-winning toys that are kid-tested
Birth to 1 year

Discover Sounds Playstore ($40, Little Tykes)

Gymini Super Deluxe Electronic Lights & Music 3-D Activity Gym ($65, Tiny Love)

Learning Patterns Changing Sensation Mobile ($19.99, Fisher Price)

Nursery Verse Mobile ($54, North American Bear)

Lyrical Lion ($14.99, Sassy)

One- and 2-year-olds

Chicken Dance Elmo ($19.99, Fisher Price)

Big Hugs Blue ($39.99, Fisher Price)

Lego Explore Music Builder Roller ($34.99, Lego Systems)

Marble Train ($44, Kidstation)

Stride-to-Ride Activity Walker ($29.99, Fisher Price)

Three- to 4-year-olds

Cranium CariBoo ($16.95, Cranium)

Lite Brite Cube ($24.99, Hasbro)

Musini ($59.00, Neurosmith)

Small Miracles Let's Pretend Careers ($35, Learning Curve)

Five- to 10-year-olds
Best dolls

American Girl Kaya ($84, Pleasant Co.)

Kimberly & Alicia Precious Day Dolls ($70, Götz)

Les Cheries Dolls ($36, Corolle)

Best vehicles and building kits

Air Rebound ($49.99, Mattell)

Burn Out ($49.99, K'nex)

Extreme Sports X Mountain ($19.99, Ritvik)

Glow-Bot Gro-Bot ($40, Hoberman)

Best Craft Kits

Crunch Art ($6-$13, Hands on Toys)

Elmer's 3D Washable Paint Pens ($14.99, Elmer's)

My Keepsake Clock Kit ($17, Balitono)

Paint-Your-Own Chair ($34.99, Curiosity Kit)

Best games

Blast Off ($10, Gamewright)

Gobblet ($29.95, Blue Orange Games)

3D Labyrinth ($20.99, Ravensburger)

Spider-Man Electronic Pinball ($99, Funrise)

Source: 'Oppenheim Toy Portfolio'

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