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This year, buy toys with lasting playing value

Considering the proportion of parents' toy dollars that's spent at this time of year, it's important to bring home toys that will continue to hold kids' interest after the holidays have come and gone. ToyPortfolio.com's Stephanie Oppenheim, a TODAY contributor, offers good advice on what to get.

CLASSIC DOLLS AND PROPS Dolls are wonderful props for pretend, and they can say anything your child wants them to say. They're also ideal for language development and storytelling.

What's so special this year is that there are more multicultural doll collections, so it's easier to find dolls that reflect your child. The collections come at all price points.

Les Cheries Dolls (Corolle, $45 each): Multicultural collection of 13-inch dolls from the French doll company. These dolls look like girls, not girls trying to look older.

Go! Go! Sports Girls (Dream Big Toy Co., $22.95 each): Sports-minded dolls are all done up in outfits for such active play as softball, swimming, dancing, soccer and tennis.

Accessories for dollsBringing home a new accessory can give existing dolls new life in the eyes of a child.

Bitty Baby Twins' Striped Stroller (American Girl, $58): "Great design" and "easy to put together" were the comments from our testers. Just right for any of the multicultural sets of twins from American Girl.

Blue and Green Umbrella Stroller (Corolle, $30): It's often hard to find a stroller for boys, but this green and blue number is just right for playing dad!

OPEN-ENDED PLAY/PRETEND SETTINGS
Open-ended construction toys — made of either plastic or wood — are basic gear. They are the type of toy that kids come back to again and again. Our best tip: Leave them in a basket that's easily accessible so that kids can take them out and play with them.

Magneatos Building Set (Guidecraft, $30 and up): This is one of our favorite construction toys. These primary-colored plastic rods and balls are oversized, safe and easy for preschoolers to manipulate. Exactly right for small hands and big results! Comes in sets of 36  ($30) or 72 pieces ($50).

A dollhouse that will grow with your child is also a toy that will be used in different ways over several years. Playing with a dollhouse is a great way to encourage language development and storytelling. The complexity of children's stories will grow as they get older.

Plan Toys Green Dollhouse With Furniture (Plan Toys, $199): This five-room, eco-friendly dollhouse is not only made of chemical-free rubberwood, it is also a model for our homes of the future. It comes with furniture AND a wind turbine and solar panel for generating energy. It has recycling bins, a rain barrel for collecting rain, an electric inverter and a blind that adjusts the sun and air. There are small bushes, and the furniture has small cushions for decorating. Best of all, from a play standpoint, it's easy to get your hands into the house from many angles. This means that several children can play at one time. This is a pricey toy, but one that will stand up over time. For ages 3 and up.

ARTS AND CRAFTS
Bringing home a basket full of new art supplies is something that will spark a child's creativity. It doesn't have to cost a lot, either — just bring home new crayons, markers, paper and paint.

Here are some other kits that will be enjoyed:

Crayola Color Explosion Glow Dome (Crayola, $28): Use the six glow markers to decorate the see-through dome and the center wall that slides into place. Turn off the lights, turn on the switch and abracadabra! The dome lights up and moves. There is a spin-action button to set your scene in motion. This comes with two starter scenes, but it's open-ended so kids can make their own drawings. Best of all, the images wipe off, leaving the dome ready for a new look.

Money Monster Bank (Creativity for Kids, $19.99): Two ceramic monster banks come with acrylic and puff paint, paint and sponge brushes, adhesive dots, wiggly eyes, fun fur hair and ideas for decorating. The big bank has a big enough mouth to "eat" bills, while the smaller one has an opening for coins. Both have removable plugs that allow kids to get to their savings without breaking the bank. You'll find the acrylic paint needs two coats for good coverage. For ages 8 and up.

Doodle-Track Cars (Day Dream Toys, $15 each): Wait until you try these amazing little vehicles that will follow any dark line you draw! They're small enough to fit in your hand, yet loaded with play power. Each vehicle comes with its own set of colorful stickers, a thick black marker and a small pre-drawn track. The little vehicles have an optical sensor that will follow lines drawn by a thick washable marker or crayon. The company also plans to make tracks with signs and seasonal decorative themes available online that kids can download and print out at DoodleTrackCar.com. For ages 4 and up.

BOARD GAMES, HIGH-TECH GAMESGames are a great choice; if kids like a game, they'll go back to it again and again. This year there is a stellar collection of games for all ages.

Busytown Eye Found It! Game (I Can Do That Games, $16.95): Put together the 6-foot-long playing board to create a huge Busytown scene. Players race around looking for the objects pictured on the cards they draw. This is a matching game that is a bit more challenging than a simple lotto game. The big playing board is full of the vitality of one of the many Richard Scarry books that is chock-full of characters in action. This is a good choice to help kids develop language skills, cultivate visual perception and note details. For 2 to 4 players, ages 3 and up.

Chickyboom (Blue Orange Games, $22): You start with a bunch of wooden hens (enjoyably purple), bales of hay and wagon wheels — all sitting on a perch. The object is to remove pieces without making everything fall over. The hens, hay and wheels all have different values. The player with the highest number value at the end of the round (when things fall off) wins. Fast-paced, easy to learn — and a hit with our testers. Requires dexterity, adding skills and a sense of humor. They say it's for ages 4 and up, but we'd say it's even more fun for the 6-year-old crowd.

Ringo Flamingo (Gamewright, $20): Our testers thought this was "fun" and really "different." Parent testers thought the directions were clear and the start-up time was very quick. The game design is, in fact, unique. You take the pink flamingos and alligator play pieces and lock them into the board. Each player is given a lifeboat with color-coded lifesavers on them. The idea is to save the flamingos from the alligators — and you do this by flinging your lifesavers off your boat and onto the game board. The more flamingos you save, the more points you get. This is a fast-paced game that will be enjoyed by kids and grown-ups. We found the best place to play this game was on the floor.

Whac-A-Mole (Mattel, $20): Here's a new version of an old game that can be played with the hammers or a tap of a hand. Designed for preschoolers, this version has fewer moles to tap. Players choose to be red or green, and they hit the moles that light up with their color. The player who hits the mole in the middle with the white hat gets extra points. The question is: Who can hit the most moles before the time runs out? It's a fun game that can be played by two or even solo. They say it's for ages 4 and up, but we'd say it's more fun for school-age kids.

Xbox 360 Arcade (Microsoft, $199): (With Forza Motorsport 3, Beatles Rock Band and NBA 2K10.) If you're buying a game console, this will be great for the entire family's entertainment. You can download movies in HD. You can use Twitter and Facebook. And remember: Bring home games your kids will enjoy, as well as games for the entire family.

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