LITTLE Johnny has just presented you with his carefully printed holiday wish list: It's as long as a jump rope. If only it were that simple.
Such lists underscore a challenge parents face this time of year: how to surprise children with engaging, long-lasting gifts without surrendering completely to commercialism - or draining the family savings account.
Toys are an $18.7-billion industry in the United States, according to the Toy Manufacturers of America, an industry trade group. The average family spends from $100 to $500 on toys every year - the majority around the holidays. How can parents spend that money wisely?
Toy-testers, child-development experts, and family groups can eliminate some of the guesswork. As the Siskel and Eberts of the toy world, they give toys the thumbs up or thumbs down in their books, magazine articles, and now, increasingly, on the Internet.
Some recommenders have higher standards and better procedures than others, but for the most part they all consider safety, age appropriateness, durability, educational and play value, money value, design, and ''message.''
Take the mother-daughter team of Joanne and Stephanie Oppenheim. They issue ''The Best Toys, Books & Videos for Kids'' every year, a ''Guide to 1,000-Plus Kid-tested, Classic, and New Products for Ages 0-10'' (Harper Collins, 297 pp., $13). The Oppenheims also publish a newsletter on the Internet's Family Planet (http://starwave.com).
''We look for fun and engaging products that stimulate a kid's own sense of curiosity and imagination,'' says Joanne Oppenheim. Products that make the Oppenheims' first cut are sent to families for their feedback.
The operative phrase in choosing a toy is ''age appropriateness,'' says Joanne Oppenheim, reached by phone. Keep in mind that the age range printed on the box is as high and as low as a manufacturer can go. Parents must decide if a toy is appropriate based on their child's abilities and interests.
Ms. Oppenheim is discouraged by what she sees as a trend to ''push things onto younger children.'' For example, two companies came out with fake fingernail kits for preschool girls this year. Other toys reinforce gender stereotypes or celebrate bathroom humor and violence, she adds disapprovingly.
''Kids bring a lot of pressure to bear,'' she says. If your child is nagging you for the newest gizmo he's seen on television, it might help to go to the store and look at it. ''If it violates your values,'' she counsels, ''you have the responsibility to say 'No.' ''
On the positive side, Oppenheim is encouraged by the large number of toys that involve children's creativity, such as craft kits, as well as the breadth of multicultural dolls and proliferation of educational software for computers. Toys are also safer, with the new warning labels now required on all toys sold in the US that may pose a choking hazard.
You can't completely ignore a child's Christmas list, says Judy Ellis, chairwoman of the toy-design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. ''All parents get a wish list from their kids during holiday time, and if you don't get them something from it, you'll be in the doghouse. Figure out what your child wants, and work that into your plan.''
Child-development expert Stevanne Auerbach says, ''If you pick the right products, children are going to be absorbed and learn at the same time.''
Ms. Auerbach (alias ''Dr. Toy'') prides herself on her list of toys, often ''quality products that aren't heavily advertised.'' Auerbach recently introduced a World Wide Web site featuring her selection of the ''100 Best Children's Products'' (http://www.drtoy.com).
Auerbach sees a healthy trend toward products that supplement what teachers are doing in school. ''Ultimately, it's the parents' responsibility to turn off the TV and encourage kids to turn on the imagination,'' she says.
Many parents have the tendency to shower their children with gifts just once a year. ''It's a mistake to pile it on just at the holidays,'' Auerbach says. ''Toys need to be introduced at other times of the year, too.''
Technology has brought a whole new world of products for children, she adds. ''Anything that helps children understand their world through play is wonderful.'' She mentions Leap Frog's Phonics Desk, Playskool's All-in-One Learning Center, and Fisher-Price's Discovery Desk as examples for younger children.
Software for children is already being rated by several consumer experts. Cathy Miranker and Alison Elliot have written ''The Computer Museum Guide to the Best Software for Kids'' (Harper Collins, 282 pp., $16), which reviews software for children aged 2 to 12. New and noteworthy software that didn't make it into the guide is on The Computer Museum World Wide Web page at: http://www.tcm.org.
At the end of the day, it's important to give your child a nutritious toy menu, Oppenheim says: Toys that challenge physical activity, that encourage pretend, that require children to sit down and be quiet, that ask them to be artistic and creative.
Play value is the key, she says. ''Ask yourself: What does the toy do? What will my child be able to do? Is this something my child will be successful with or is it something I'm going to end up doing while my child watches?
''Assess what your child already has - make an inventory,'' Oppenheim suggests. ''Get rid of things they don't use or put some toys away for a while.''
All toy enthusiasts are quick to say: Don't forget the classics (such as Etch-A-Sketch, Lego Building Blocks, View Master). As the movie ''Toy Story'' points out, new toys go in and out of style, but the classics have staying power.
Very often you can ''add on and refreshen,'' Oppenheim notes. Could that wooden train set use a new bridge to rekindle interest? How about adding to the art-supply collection?
A word of caution about toy-testers and guides - whether they are associated with safety groups, publications, or consumer-advocate organizations: ''Look at the lists and where they come from,'' Oppenheim advises. Some testers require toy companies to pay a fee just to have their toy considered; others may be dependent on advertising, a fact that could affect their judgment.