The good news for parents is that there are really amazing toys for all budgets this year. The big trends of the year include dinosaurs, toys with a green agenda, active play, and going back to basics with board games, puzzles and art supplies.
Games and puzzles
Games are a great present for the whole family. While we are all plugged in most of the year, the holiday season gives us an opportunity to slow things down a bit and take some time to reconnect. It’s through playing games together as a family that you are able to pass down some important lessons about being a good sport — win or lose! Classic board games are one of the best values in toyland, with most under $20 and many under $10. Bring home some of the games you enjoyed playing as a child or try some of these new games.
Eric Carle Brown Bear Floor Puzzle (Mudpuppy $16)
A really over-sized (2' x 3') floor puzzle that features the animals in Eric Carle's classic book. The 24 jumbo pieces are pleasingly large and will be enjoyed by preschoolers after they have read the book. As you're working on the puzzle with your preschooler, you can enjoy making the sounds each animal makes.
Eeboo Travel Games ($9.99 each)
A perfect stocking stuffer or take-along on a trip card set. Lizzy Rockwell’s delightful multicultural faces are printed on small cards that can be matched for solo play or in a concentration style game. Also cute, a set of small “Once Upon a Time” cards with Humpty Dumpty, Red Riding Hood and others. For young nature lovers, also consider the matching game of “Life on Earth” with kangaroos, peacocks, lemurs, and many more plants and animals. For younger players, there is a new travel set of Color Dominoes. Saxton Freymann used bold graphics of stars, hearts, blueberries and a sleepy lamb to make these colorful dominoes a delight to handle. Again, kids are matching familiar shapes and learning to recognize them outside the nursery.
Go Nuts! (Gamewright $6.99)
Our testers laughed out loud as they played this fast-paced and easy-to-learn dice game. Hold onto one dog die as you roll the others. You get points for every acorn you roll while you avoid rolling a car. Two cars and no score! Roll all squirrels and you get to call “Go nuts!” That signals your opponent to start rolling his dog die, which has dog houses and dog heads on its many sides. You keep rolling for points until your opponent rolls a dog die and barks to end your score! Takes about 12 minutes a round. 2-4 players. Take this out when you need some silly time. 8 & up.
Sorry Sliders (Hasbro $19.99)
Most slider games require big tables and big bucks. This mini-slider game is perfectly scaled for the kitchen table and doesn’t cost a bundle for a variety of satisfying games. Players set up their small token-size sliders and take turns sending them toward the target. Add the score and move small “markers” on individual playing boards. There are a variety of target boards that change the game and become more challenging. There’s some skill involved in sending the sliders to the target, but this is really a game kids and adults of mixed ages can enjoy together. No reading and only simple adding involved with score keeping. Plenty of opportunities to win and lose, an important learning ingredient for young players. 6 & up.
Fundomino (Blue Orange Games $19.99)
Thirty-two curved dominoes with numerals and colors to match as well as action symbols to avoid or draw — wild dominoes that can set your game back seriously or propel you to a winning streak. Play it one round at a time or keep score on the special board with playing pieces that keep track of your score. Comes in a good metal tin for safekeeping.
Arts and crafts; All under $20
Open-ended supplies make a wow-wee kind of gift and will be used long past the holidays!
Crayola Color Surge (Crayola $7.99)
There's magical drawing when these color surge markers touch down on the brilliantly colored double-sided paper. The colors brighten up as you draw and turn colors as one marker glides over an earlier line. Sets come with 8 or more markers and 20 or more sheets. This makes a great open-ended travel toy or a good choice for some non-messy creative time for a play date. Take it to Gram’s — chances are she will want to try it! 5 & up.
SNAP (Special Needs Adaptable Product) Activity: Use these magical markers and paper to encourage kids to practice writing their names and turn the finished work into signs for the door to her room or cover of his notebook. First you write a letter ... then have the child trace your letter. This follow-the-leader game is a great way to make work into play with a happy payoff!
Elmer 3D Paint Pens (Elmers $14.99)
Imagine getting a set of 31 squeezable "pens" with writing tips for drawing on posters or cards. Paints puff when dry and the set includes primary colors plus pastels, glitter, and pearlized pens. This is a wow-wee kind of present that will get lots of use.
Editor's note: These pens have been updated this year with gender-specific themes from Disney (fairies, cars, and princesses). While we preferred the gender-free cast of the original sets — these are still a great choice and the price still makes this a really affordable gift.
SNAP (Special Needs Adaptable Product) Activity: Motivating kids to practice writing just got easier with this huge set of colorful gluepens. To get the feel for shaping letters or numbers, this is a terrific material. Write letters that he needs to practice on separate index cards. Now have the child trace the letters and make them big enough to see with ease. Make one card with the upper case and a matching card with the lower case. When the cards are dry, your child will be able to play a match-it-up game, matching the upper- and lower-case letters.
Create Your Own PopUp Books (Creativity for Kids $18)
We are huge fans of pop-up books! So we were particularly excited when this kit came in for review. Complete with two blank hardcover books that have some built in pop-ups already loaded and then a collection of fun to add "do your own" pop-up features — including pull tabs for revealing your own surprises! Fans of pop-ups will enjoy giving this one a try. Comes with 8 markers, stickers, wiggly eyes and die-cut pieces.
It’s always a good idea to bring home toys for active play. Here are two of our favorites:
Color Roller (Schylling $20)
Finding a great toddler toy can be really tough going — they're done with baby toys and not quite ready for more complicated preschool toys (they tend to sit on them!). So we're really always excited when we find a great new toy right on the mark for this age group. This color roller has a big color wheel built into the enclosed base. At rest, you can see blue, yellow and red. .. but start pushing and those colors combine to create the colors of the rainbow. Very neat. One parent found the clicky noise annoying, but other testers really thought it was fun. We loved the elegance of the design. No batteries required.
SNAP (Special Needs Adaptable Product) Activity: Holding on while letting go is not so simple for kids who are just getting up and about on their wobbly feet. Letting go of your hand or the furniture can be encouraged with this kind of push toy that makes sounds and spinning colors.
Jingle Bell Skirt (Acting Out $40)
Totally in tune with the holiday season! This red-and-white net skirt has a peppermint-striped bow with a bell and plays Jingle Bell Rock music when your little dancer begins to move. Action activated, this is good fun for getting up off the couch and moving. Also see Acting Out's Musical Waltz Dress.
SNAP (Special Needs Adaptable Product) Activity: Finding ways to encourage kids to play actively comes built into this motion-activated skirt. For children who may not be able to dance, this is still a fun skirt to wear and use the music maker for stop-and-start games. Have the child hold the toy and when they shake it, you do the dancing. .. freeze when the music stops. This is an empowering game that puts them in charge of the action.
Green for all budgets
Green toys are also a huge trend in toyland. Toys that deliver a green message and/or are made of repurposed materials are vying for your attention this holiday season.
Sprig Toys Side Kick Vehicle-Rally Racer and Baja Scout (Sprig Toys $24.99 each)
A new, truly green collection of vehicles that are just right for the preschool set. The line is made of what the company calls "sprigwood," which is a composite of recycled milk jugs, bottles, containers, and reclaimed pine sawdust. There is also no added paint — so the colors are somewhat muted. Another plus: No batteries are required. Kids can get the lights to go on and the sound effects to kick in by friction. Hats off to this innovative company — we look forward to seeing how they expand their line.
Recycling Truck (Playmobil $24.99)
With energy conservation looming large, Playmobil has brought back their Recycling Truck. A perfect hands-on prop for making recycling part of your child's world — both real and pretend! Truck comes with three bins and two play figures.
Cheekeyes Wooden Dinosaur and Farm Animal Sets ($24.99 each)
You know that we're big on wooden blocks as basic gear for the preschool set. Adding props to blocks can spark new directions for dramatic play. We love this new line of handsomely crafted wooden dinosaurs. The company also offers a set of farm animals, trees, a cave and a mountain. The dinos and the animals are outstanding in this category. They are very smooth (as all wooden toys should be) and they have paint only on the sides. Available only online at oompa.com.
Parking Garage (Plan Toys $65)
If you are looking for a nonelectronic, old-fashioned garage, look no further. Here's a handsome three-level parking garage with working elevator, ramps, heliport and space for many small cars. Comes with figure, gas station and car washing machine and one car. 3 & up.
Dinos are big this year
Each year there is one animal that takes over toyland. Last year’s penguins have been replaced with dinosaurs!
Kid Galaxy My First RC Dino (Kid Galaxy $23)
If you have a preschooler who has caught the dino bug, these small remote-control dinos will be a hit. Part of the bigger "back to dino" trend this year! We like both the T-Rex and the Triceratops — both are easy to control (both with one button). They're friendly, not scary. A great first remote-control vehicle for the 3 and up crowd.
Lego Stegosaurus (Lego Systems $49.99)
With 731 pieces, advanced builders can build three different ferocious dinosaurs. The lead creation, Stegosaurus, has armor fins, moving jaw, spiky tail and eyes that light up! This is a challenging set, not for beginners! Knock it down and you can build T-Rex or Pterodactyl. 9 & up.
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Imaginext Spike the Ultra Dinosaur (Fisher-Price $129)
This is the clearly the year of the dinosaur! Spike, a green remote-control dino that really roars, lights up and moves (his neck also moves independently), is a leading part of this trend. Spike's controls are easy to learn. He's marked for kids 3-10. It really depends on your child —we had mixed reactions. He's not nearly as scary as Wowwee's dinos of the past, but not as warm and fuzzy as the larger Kota from Playskool. If you have a 5- or 6-year-old in the "dino-zone," this will be a hit.
Kota (Playskool $299)
The ultimate fantasy toy for the youngest dino lover. This fabric-covered, huge, life-size baby dino comes loaded with animatronics. No, it does not walk, but kids can sit on is back, hold onto the handle hiding behind its head and, by touching one of 11 areas on its body, make Kota move its head, tail and horn. Forty inches long, this gentle monster makes some not-too-scary dino sounds. Kota, a plant-eater, “munches” when fed “leaves” and plays a little music as well as making jungle noises and laughing sounds. Looks like a gift that will not be forgotten — for better or worse.
Editor’s note:Don’t be upset if some children find Kota a little over-the-top scary, despite his smiling face and gentle sounds. Maximum weight of child is 60 pounds. The company has signed a verification form complying with our safety requirements. We did not independently test this toy in a lab.
Stephanie Oppenheim, a frequent TODAY contributor, is co-founder of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, an independent consumer organization that rates the best, and worst, in children's toys. For other top picks for toddlers, visit toyportfolio.com.