Top toys for 2012

Dear Santa:

All I want for Christmas is a job as an elf.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been lurking in the aisles of toy stores checking out some of the season’s merchandise and, even though I have never been to elf-school, with a little on-site training at the North Pole, I think I could do it. My other experience includes looking through toy catalogues, interviewing toy-store owners, and poring over some of the consumer guides. Here’s some of what I’ve learned along the way:

1.  The most important thing about toys is the fun factor

As parents we often look past the “is this fun?” question and instead obsess about educational value, “are my children learning something while they play?” A 2010 report by the Canadian Council on Learning says that while toy makers are quick to slap a label on their particular toy to reassure parents that it will somehow make their child smarter, there’s very little scientific evidence to establish that kind of link. Titled Lessons in Learning, the report reminds us that toys that foster imagination, role-playing and social interaction all have strong benefits for a child’s development.

2.  Toys are not getting cheaper

Quality and value for money are big considerations. So is determining what will have enduring play value. Some of the higher-priced theme toys like Playmobil and Lego usually score well on this front, but often little games and gadgets do, too, especially props that can be used in imaginary games, and they’re generally less expensive. Judi Meade, owner of Art-Enfant, loves the Brio wooden train sets. They’re sturdy, and while they were eclipsed by the Thomas the Tank Engine series for years, she says she find children’s fascination with Thomas ends when they stop watching the TV shows, and they tend to play longer with the Brio sets.

3.  Most of us have a soft spot for the classics

“I still own the Scrabble game my mom and dad used to play with,” said Ramzi Soueida, co-owner of Kidlink. Lots of us remember the games we played with our siblings, friends and parents when we were young. It’s okay to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. Go ahead and browse whatever it is that’s new and cool, but remember that sharing things with your children that you enjoyed when you were a kid can be really fun, too.

4.  Age guidelines are just that – guidelines

Some toys that clearly appeal only to very young children are marked for ages 3 and up, in some cases because manufacturers don’t want to go through the safety testing that would get them approved for younger ages. In other cases, toys that clearly aren’t interesting until children get older have a lower age range, as marketing departments hope to convince a greater range of parents to buy them.

5.  Gifts should be special

“As a parent, you want your child to appreciate (what they get),” said Marisa Rauch, assistant to the general manager at Oink Oink. Amen. Sometimes new toys just end up being buried in an avalanche of stuff. She suggests that one special present that you have to take care of, say, a little piece of jewelry for a girl, will help give them a sense of responsibility, as well as establishing a memorable connection between the gift and the giver.

6.  Toys are a little bit like books

No matter how “great” one reader or player or critic thinks they are, there’s always the chance the next person or child who picks it up will look it over and toss it aside without a glance. So, do the research, check out what others recommend, but trust your own inner “elf” to figure out what will be most popular around your house.

With all that in mind, these are some of this elf’s favourites, selected with the help of experts from three local stores: Art-Enfant, Kidlink and Oink Oink.

So, what do you say, Santa? Do I get the job?


Babies & Toddlers

Fish & Splish
by B., $36.99 at Oink Oink, ages 6 months and up.
A bath toy with lots of parts that can entertain them for years: there’s the ship, the ship’s captain, some coloured fish, a rod to catch the fish, three nesting cups to stack or pour, even an octopus comb and a floating life preserver that all work together to encourage creative play. Best of all – all the parts can be stored together in the boat.


Baby Stella Sweet Sounds Doll
by Manhattan Toy, $42.99 at Kidlink, 12 months and up.
One of the few dolls designed specifically for children under 3, this squishy fabric doll has no glued-on eyes or other parts that could fall off and pose a safety risk. She giggles when you squeeze her foot, says ‘mama’ when you squeeze her hand and, like the original Baby Stella, her magnetized pacifier can be taken off and reattached again and again.


Pound and Tap Bench
by Hape, $34.99 at Art-Enfant, 12 months and up.
Starting at about the age of 12 months, children seem to love to whack things, even when they miss. This sturdy wooden toy features a hammer they can use to pound the ball through a set of wooden holes. As the ball rolls down, it hits the xylophone keys and makes music. The xylophone is removable and can be played on its own.


Roll & Play
by Thinkfun, $21.99 at Kidlink, ages 18 months and up.
This is an easy introduction to game playing for little ones. Roll the large, coloured-fabric die, pick a card that corresponds to the colour you rolled, then act out what’s on the card: make an animal sound, point to a body part, act out an emotion, etc.


Zebra Scooter
by Vtech, $59.99 at OinkOink, ages 1 to 3.
This electronic interactive toy converts from a push walker to a ride-on scooter. The zebra’s mane has light-up buttons that teach animals and colours, some numbers and letters.


Alphabet Activity Cube
by Vtech, $74.99 at OinkOink, ages 1 to 3.
This all-in-one toy has five sides to discover, including building blocks that teach alphabet letters, an electronic side that features piano keys and a telephone, another side with a peg maze and more.


Chicken & Egg Stackers
by International Playthings, $19.99 at Art-enfant, ages 6 months and up.
This classic stacking toy comes in an eight-piece set, with four egg sizes that nest inside each other.


ABC Blocks
$44.99 at Art-enfant, ages 2 and up.
This is the old-fashioned, classic wooden building block set with wood-embossed letters comes in French and English sets. “They’re a keeper,” said owner Judi Meade. “These will become an heirloom.”


Arts & Crafts
by Alex Jr., $15.99 at Kidlink, ages 18 months and up.
This is one of the first craft kits designed specifically for the very young. It  lets them make collage-art picture frames, and comes with peel-and-stick crinkly paper, streamers, stickers and triangular easy-to-hold crayons for little fingers. No glue required.


Preschoolers

Bristle Block Sets
by B.: Stackadoos, 68 pieces, $27.99 and Spinaroos, 75 pieces, $58.99 at Kidlink, ages 2 to 6.
These sets of plastic building blocks stick together easily, limiting the frustration factor for little fingers. Because of that, they can keep building bigger and higher. These two sets are similar, but Spinaroos has a greater variety of pieces that allow you to make people and other objects.


Musical toys: The Woofer and the Meowsic
both by B., $49.99 each at Oink Oink., ages 3 to 6.
The Woofer is a plastic, dog-shaped, four-string guitar with eight button-notes. You can set it to play music in three modes: acoustic, electric and howl (yes, it sounds a bit like a dog!) and it has a volume control button.
Meowsic is a keyboard toy, but also acts like a karaoke machine so you can sing along with a microphone and even record the music you make. It plays in five modes: rock, blues, samba, techno and disco.


My First Super Science Kit
by Be Amazing Toys, $47.99 at Kidlink, ages 3 to 5.
Science kits have always been popular with older children, and this one is designed for younger kids. You can grow a jumbo water ball or make fake snow. The experiments are easy to carry out and understand.


Kimochis
by Plushy Feely, $29.99 at Art-Enfant, ages 3 and up.
There are six different soft fabric animal stuffies featuring a kangaroo pocket into which you can drop a little pillow of whatever ‘emotion’ you happen to be feeling: happiness, sadness and more. These are great for children who need a little help to open up or might not yet have the words to express themselves. Smaller versions and sets of additional emotional pillows are also available.


3D City Scape
by Alex Little Hands $20.99 at Kidlink, ages 3 to 6.
A puzzle with a twist: first you spread out the jumbo puzzle pieces to build your city foundation, then you build the 3-D buildings on top of that.


Kidoozie Build-A-Road
by International Playthings $29.99 or Deluxe Build-A-Road with elevator, $49.99 at Kidlink, ages 3 to 6.
Plastic pieces of road track snap together following a pre-set layout or your own design. It comes with two cars. The deluxe version has two levels of road track, and an elevator to raise and lower vehicles. Needs AA batteries, not included.


School Age – 5 & up

Friends by Lego
Heartlake Vet, $54.99 City Park Café, $42.99, Stephanie’s Cool Convertible, $19.99 at Oink Oink, ages 5 and up.
The classic building toy maker has branched out from its successful line of Star Wars and other sets popular mostly with boys, to launch a line of toys aimed at girls, where they can build everything from a veterinary clinic to stables and cafés to houses where the included action figures can play. Smaller sets featuring one character are available, too. For boys, the Ninjago series is finding its way onto many wish lists, and Samurai Mech at $52.99, ages 8 and up, is expected to be a hot item this year.


Magic School Bus Science Sets
$49.99 at Oink Oink, ages 5 to 10.
The popular animated show for kids is marketing three different boxed science sets: the slime and polymer lab, the chemistry lab and the microscope lab. They each feature different experiments, for example: turn slime into a bouncy ball, grow polymer flowers, make a milk rainbow, make a balloon rise, or test for acid rain.


Perplexus Twist
by Perplexus, $29.99 at Art-Enfant, ages 6 and up.
The standard models of the globe-shaped maze puzzle are still popular, including the Rookie, the Basic and, for total addicts, the Epic, and now this year they’ve added a twist, literally. Instead of just guiding the little silver ball through the maze, now you need to turn both halves to realign the maze tracks inside and keep things interesting.


Qwirkle
by Mindware, $30.99 or the travel version, $20.99 at Kidlink.
Similar to dominoes, Qwirkle looks like simple matching game that can be played even by young children, and it can. But it gets much more interesting with older players, as it becomes a game of strategy and tactics as you build on tiles already laid down to increase your score.


Orbeez Mood Lamp
by Maya Group, $23.99 at Kidlink, recommended age 5 and up, most popular with girls 8 to 12. Soak the Orbeez beads in water so they expand, then turn on the light and watch them change colour. The downside is that you have to keep adding water every few days or the beads dry up and shrink.


Pre-teen – 10 & up

Make Your Own Headphones
by Bojeux, $25.99 at Kidlink.
Protegez-Vous gave this “toy” high marks for its sound quality. The kit includes pink headphones that plug into an iPhone or iPod, plus paint, stickers and markers that can be used to personalize them to someone’s particular style.


Competition Cups
by Speed Stacks Inc. Stack Pack is $38.99, includes a play mat, instructional DVD and extras, the small set is $20.99, both at Kidlink.
To play this game that’s turned into a craze, stack up and then stack down the cups into specific patterns as quickly as you can. This fast-growing and addictive sport builds hand-eye co-ordination, and can be played alone or against friends.


Loopdedoo
by Ann Williams Group, $39.99 at Oink Oink.
Wrap the embroidery thread around the machine, turn the knob and guide the thread and then make bracelets, necklaces, belts or other accessories.  Use as many or as few threads and colour combinations as you choose. Includes the embroidery thread and a drawer to hold the equipment.


Pathwords
by Thinkfun, $24.99 at Art-Enfant, for ages 12 and up. (There is also a version for children as young as 6)
This is a single player puzzle game that looks a bit like Tetris meets Scrabble. You play by placing the coloured-tile pieces over the board so they spell a word. The words can read forwards or backwards, but not scrambled. There are 40 challenges at a range of levels.


Fushigi Magic Gravity Ball
by Idea Village, $20.99 at Kidlink, ages 13 and up. Warning: this is not as easy as it appears on YouTube! But with a little practice you can make this ball within a ball appear to defy gravity and float in the air.