TOY consultant Ruth B. Roufberg tests a pre-school toy's durability by doing what a child that age might do: She throws it on the floor. Gift-buyers may be reluctant to try this while shopping for the holidays, but they can benefit from some other recommendations by experts like Ms. Roufberg (she's been testing toys for 19 years), who regularly evaluate what America's $13.3 billion-a-year toy industry produces.
While this year has been called a "back to basics" year for toys by many in the news media, some in the industry say "basics" are not new to 1992.
But with an estimated 120,000-plus toys on the market (many claiming to be "fun!" or "safe!" or "improved!"), how are toy-store patrons to decide?
"A good toy is a toy that entices a child to play more with it," says Roufberg, a toy editor for Parents' Choice, the nonprofit guide to children's products based in Newton, Mass. "The most important thing for the toy is that the child should play, the toy shouldn't," she says.
Roufberg suggests that when shopping for your own children, get them something similar to a toy they already have, but more complex or slightly varied.
For shoppers buying for children they don't know as well, Roufberg says, "Pick one of the classics that has stood the test of time." Select items with wide age ranges, she adds, or things you can never have too much of, such as Legos, art supplies, or sports equipment.
Consumer editor-reporter Tom Vacar of Los Angeles has tested almost 30,000 toys on 20,000 children at day-care centers around the country since 1980.
"Children are pretty much in a world of their own," he said by phone. "They can look at a wagon and see a rocket, an airplane, a bus." The ability of a toy to have multiple purposes is what makes it a "classic," he says. This year, he evaluated all the toy tests he's done to arrive at a "Hall of Fame" of top scorers. (See accompanying list.)
"Price has nothing to do with whether a child likes a toy or not," he says, noting that the prices of the Hall of Fame toys range from several dollars for a few cans of Play-Doh, to around $50 for the Radio Flyer wagon.
In Vacar's 1992 brochure, he includes a short section on "doing your own last-minute test": Consider quality (Is it built well?), durability (Ask parents who have bought one.), set-up (Easy to assemble?), versatility (Does it have multiple play options?), and maintenance (Is it easy?).
Safety is another factor. Both Vacar and Roufberg offer the same simple precaution: Give age-appropriate toys. Not only does this help protect children, it guarantees them more enjoyable play, they say.
"Parents assume that the age range has some influence on the child's intelligence," Roufberg says. "It is not necessarily that at all. Sometimes, it's what the child is interested in at a particular time or what a child is ... physically able to do."
Parents should also remember, Vacar adds, that younger children with access to older children's toys need close supervision.