The countdown to the holidays has started, bringing with it ads and displays hawking the newest toys and gadgets for children. We’re all looking for those special items that our kids will use, and yes cherish, as they grow up. But finding toys with real play value can be a challenge. It’s no wonder that many parents feel paralyzed as they peruse the aisles of toy stores packed with hundreds of games and toys.
To help beleaguered parents find the true little gems out there, we’ve turned to some of Montreal’s top toy experts: Judi Meade of Art-Enfant in Westmount, Heejin Jang of Bilibaloo (formerly Reve d’Enfant) in Pointe Claire and Hania Brooks of KidLink in N.D.G. These folks spend their days reading about and trying out toys, and they hear valuable feedback from customers. But most of all, they are passionate about toys and below is a selection of their favourite picks for this season.
Ages 0 to 2
Flow ‘N’ Fill Spout, Yookidoo, $20
Make a splash in the bath with this ingenious toy. Attached to the side of the tub, the spout operates like a miniature fountain, with water being drawn up and out of the top via battery power. Kids can place three different cups under the running water to create various effects. There’s a tiny shower (perfect for a rubber ducky), a propeller just waiting to spin and a peek-a-boo game where the water makes a second toy pop out of a cup.
Sweet Pea3, Sweet Pea Toy Company, $70
Created by a Canadian dad, this solid, almost indestructible MP3 player opens up baby’s ears to music and stories. Covered in soft, rubber coating in blue or violet, SweetPea3 is incredibly easy to use, requiring one push of a button to start. Volume control is set by the adults, who can load new songs or audio books by plugging the player into a PC or Mac. However, it comes pre-loaded with songs and stories, so it can be used right out of the box.
Shopping Cart, Melissa & Doug, $50
Supermarkets provide miniature shopping carts for one simple reason — children love them! Thanks to the Melissa & Doug toy company, toddlers can have their own sturdy shopping cart to fill up and wheel around the house. The cart is made from steel and features a unique braking system that prevents it from moving if a child tries to actually sit in it. It’s a toy that will provide hours of use, as kids wheel it around, filling and emptying to their hearts’ content.
Ages 3 to 5
Smart Car, SmartGames, $29
Using a set of four wooden blocks, children can build various cars while developing their spatial and concentration skills. The game is designed for a single player, but could easily be adapted for group play. A child selects a card showing a particular model of car, and then must recreate it using the blocks. There are 48 different challenges, ranging from easy to quite difficult (watch out parents, your kids may end up beating you at this one!).
Ludamino, Djeco, $40
Ludamino, a set of blocks and animal figures allows kids to use it in different and creative ways. Little ones can create structures for the animals to play in. Older kids can play a memory game, figuring out which animal is hiding under which box. It can also be used as a racing game, where children roll the dice and move the figurines across different coloured dots to the finish line.
Endangered Species 2-1 Puzzle, Anouk’s Ark, $25
Art, education and entertainment come together in these beautiful puzzles created by Toronto artist Anouk Bikkers. The two-sided, 16-piece puzzles each feature luminous drawings of endangered species, along with information about the animals. The puzzles, manufactured in Canada, are made from recycled materials and vegetable-based ink. These will be used and admired for years to come.
Ages 6 to 9
Paper Jamz Guitar, Paper Jamz, $35
The craze for play-along instruments like Guitar Hero and Rock Band is taken to a new level with this paper guitar (yes, paper) from an Australian company. The instrument has touch sensors embedded in it, so running your fingers up and down the strings emits sound. The guitar comes with three pre-recorded songs to play along with. More advanced players can pick out their own tunes. Also available are a paper drum kit ($35) and an amplifier ($21).
Scattergories, The Card Game, Winning Moves, $16
Everyone from school-age kids to adults can fire up their brain cells with this wacky, fast-paced game. A card is chosen from a category deck (a beach, for example) and then from a letter deck. Players must figure out an object beginning with the letter that can be found in that place or category, such as sand at the beach. Before calling out the answer, players must slap the “I Know” card, adding another element of fun. Suitable for two or more players.
Q Ball Marble Maze, Q-Ba-Maze, $20
Unleash that inner architect with this set of interlocking blocks used to make marble runs. The beauty of this 50-piece kit is its versatility: the cubes can be used to create both simple and highly-complex structures. In fact, you can find many videos on YouTube where people show off their creations. The kit can be used by 6-year-olds all the way up to adults. Try it as a group game to see what elaborate structures emerge!
Ages 10 and up
Buckyballs, Zoomdoggle, $35
Finding gifts for teens — beyond gift cards, video games and cash — can be difficult. But young people seem attracted to toys like yo-yos and this season a new trend is Buckyballs. These 216 magnets can be formed into thousands of different shapes (visit YouTube to see some amazing creations). Playing with them is entertaining and even addictive. (Warning: families with small children should not have these at home. Magnets, if swallowed, can cause serious harm or even death.)
Smartrix, FoxMind Games, $15
This card game demands concentration and good visual skills as players place cards in rows by matching up patterns. Strategy is required to make sure you don’t place a card that will then enable your opponent to finish the row of five and “win” all five cards. Games move fairly quickly — 10-15 minutes — and the cards are easy to tote around for an impromptu session. While easy to learn, the game is quite challenging and will provide many hours of fun.
Kirigami, Djeco, $12
Kirigami is a variation of Japanese origami, but rather than folding paper, you cut it. Djeco has created this beautiful kit, which allows users to create flower-like ornaments from a multitude of patterned papers. The instructions are crystal clear and everything you need to complete the project is included. Patience is required but the results are stunning and would look appropriate on a Christmas tree, as a table decoration or simply hung from a window.