ABOUT 1.7 billion toys are sold in the United States yearly ($17 billion worth), and up to 80 percent of them are carted out of stores between Thanksgiving and Christmas. With this avalanche of playthings, it's little wonder a satellite industry has grown up to help moms and dads spend their toy dollars wisely.
Best-toy lists are published by a number of organizations, magazines, and individuals in the US. Compiling these lists consumes most of a year, and the people involved are typically old hands at the toy-assessment business. All draw on the judgments of parents and children, but all bring to their work some strongly held views about which toys merit review.
Diana Huss Green, editor-in-chief of Parents' Choice Magazine, has been surveying toys, as well as children's books and videos, since 1978. She says the importance of guiding parents through the maze of products for their children has grown as two-earner families have become more common.
Toys that can give both parents and children a little ``cool-down time'' in the evenings are ``such a help in a family,'' she says. The annual Parents Choice toy awards, as well as the ``Parents' Choice'' source book (Andrews and McMeel, $9.95), put a premium on items that kids will return to repeatedly - that is, toys with a high ``play value.''
Parents' Choice keeps an eye out for toys that teach as well as entertain, but Ms. Green emphasizes that dull toys never fit the bill: ``If they're not fun, they're not educational.''
Finding out what's fun, from a child's perspective, is at the heart of the toy surveys. Parents' Choice asks manufacturers to submit toys for its awards and charges an entrance fee. The toys are reviewed by a panel of experts, and those that don't pass muster for safety are eliminated. The toys then are sent out to families and day-care centers for grading over a period of weeks.
Another well-known survey, ``The Best Toys, Books, and Videos for Kids'' (Harper Perennial, $12) is put together by a mother-and-daughter team, Joanne and Stephanie Oppenheim. Their sifting process begins at the annual New York Toy Fair in February.
``We look at a great slew of products in the course of a year,'' says Joanne Oppenheim, and many ``are distasteful, violent, sexist, or just dumb. I make that judgment by myself, without any difficulty at all.''
She takes the toys out of the boxes and plays with them herself, says Ms. Oppenheim, to discover, for instance, which trains don't stay on the tracks and which toy phones are too loud. Toys that survive the initial scrutiny are sent to dozens of families around the country. Oppenheim is leery of relying on tests done in day-care centers, she says, because children easily distract each other in that setting.
A newer entrant on the toy-assessment scene is Ellen Rosen Zuckert's ``The Kidstuff Survey'' (Cove Point Press, $9.95). She follows the trade magazines and catalogs to get a sense of what's on the market, then sends survey forms to a ``network'' of hundreds of parents. The results are compiled in her book, which gives letter grades ``A'' through ``C'' for play value and durability.
Ms. Zuckert makes a point of including low-rated toys as well as those praised by her testers. ``Sometimes the best is not available,'' she says (``or too expensive,'' she might have added), ``and people are choosing from among the runners-up.'' Her book concentrates on toys for children up to age six; the other lists mentioned extend to ``10 and up.''
Ruth Roufberg, a Toy Fair veteran of ``about 20 years,'' she says, helps organize a best-toy survey for the Duracell battery company. She admits to being particularly alert to ``things that are action-oriented,'' since they will be tested at group centers -
YMCAs and other such facilities. Duracell puts out a ``Top Ten'' list, six of which, by the way, don't require batteries (though four of its top five do).
Ms. Roufberg notes some ``patterns'' over the years she's been doing toy surveys. For instance, all kids - girls and boys - gravitate toward toys that provide a lot of action, like highly animated games or radio-controlled cars. When you get to things like construction sets or art sets, gender preferences surface.
Do kids from different backgrounds show different preferences? ``You see some differences at first,'' says Green, ``but after a month and a half, everybody is playing with the same toys,'' whether the parents are stock brokers or truck drivers.
As for age-appropriateness, all the toy experts agreed that age labels should be noted for safety reasons. But Oppenheim commented that manufacturers often stretch the labels as far up and down as they can. ``The truth is in the middle,'' she says.
All note that some of the old standbys - from wooden blocks to sports equipment - remain sure bets. On the other hand, some of the newest toys - like the interactive figures that ``talk'' to children - can be sure losers for some kids.
``We generally don't recommend talking toys,'' says Oppenheim. ``Children can bring their own stories to life.''
Green cautions against the promotional onslaught during the holiday season. ``It's hard to say `no' to something that's heavily advertised,'' she says. ``But that helps people grow.''