Parents

Smart gifts: Try these toys that make the grade

Thousands of kids across the country tested hundreds of this year’s new toys to see which ones they liked the best. For “Toy Test 2005,” “Today” contributor and consumer specialist Herb Weisbaum has the winning results.

In the sixth part of the series, Herb looks at the educational category. Parents always love to find toys that are both fun and educational for their kids, and there are some really great options this year. Read more about the top winners in the educational category below, and be sure to check our complete list of winners.

Toddler
Bilingual Talking Smart Driver (Chicco, $35)
This brightly-colored steering wheel/dashboard combo is interactive, educational and loaded with fun electronic features — flashing lights, sound effects and music — that are sure to engage a little driver. The ignition key, brake, horn, accelerator, fuel button, and turn signals all make the appropriate sound effects. The gear shift counts from 1 to 10.

When a child turns the steering wheel, the Smart Driver takes them to one of five pretend destinations: home, school, a supermarket, the park, or an auto repair shop. By pressing the horn button they’ll hear about that place; for instance, “at the mechanic we have our car fixed,” or “here’s the supermarket, let’s do some shopping.” Teachers told us the kids really enjoyed “acting like mommy and daddy driving in the car.”

The Talking Smart Driver is bilingual; just flip a switch and the friendly voice changes from English to Spanish.  It’s a fun way for kids to experience another language. (Requires 2 AA batteries; manufacturer’s age: 1 year and up)

Preschool
Soft & Sturdy Jumbo Blocks (Step2, $35)
Building blocks made from foam have a number of advantages. Unlike wooden blocks, they’re quiet; when a structure falls down they won’t damage the furniture; and they’re a lot safer if kids throw them.  They also float in the bathtub!

These foam blocks are something different for Step2, a company known for its heavy-duty plastic toys. The 44 blocks in this set – various geometric shapes in bright primary colors — are made from durable high-density foam.

Because they’re big, they’re simple for little hands to grab.  Because they’re lightweight, they’re easy to pack up and take along with you. (Manufacturer’s Age: 3 & up)

Touch & Discover Alphabet Town (VTech, $20)
Once again VTech proves that learning can be fun. Alphabet Town has eight interactive activities: letters, spelling, vocabulary, counting, phonics, and telling time.  Kids respond to the friendly electronic voice by pushing on the chunky light-up buttons. When they want to tell the time, they just turn the hands on the clock.

Alphabet Town is also filled with songs. Just switch to the music mode and your child will hear a different song — a funky little tune — and see a little light show every time he or she pushes a different letter. Push the big musical note, and Alphabet Town plays “The Wheels on the Bus” song.

“This toy engaged the kids on a number of different levels,” one teacher told me. “There’s lots of light, lots of sounds, lots of interaction, and best of all, lots of open-ended play.”

Alphabet Town has a built-in handle on top, to make it easier to carry around. (Requires 3 AA batteries; manufacturer's age: 3 and up)

School Age
V.Smile Pocket (VTech, $90)VTech took its V.Smile Learning System (a winner in last year’s Toy Test) and made it portable. The V.Smile Pocket looks like a handheld video game machine, but it only plays VTech’s “smartridge” games that are non-violent and educational. The titles feature familiar characters, such as: Simba, Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse, Scooby-Doo, Ariel, Dora the Explorer, Cinderella, SpongeBob Squarepants, and the Care Bears. These games are not only fun, they’re designed to teach math, reading, spelling, colors, shapes, and problem solving.

The unit has a high-resolution (320x240) color LCD screen and built-in speaker (yes, there’s a volume control) and over-sized buttons that are adaptable for right and left-handed players. The V.Smile Pocket can be connected to a TV for big-screen play. Teachers told us the kids waited in line to play with it.

The unit comes with Zayzoo: My Alien Classmate smartridge. It will play all of the 25 smartridge titles currently available. (Requires 5 AA batteries: manufacturer’s age: 5 and up)

MagneBlocks Giganta (Geometix International, $110)
This is not the typical magnetic building set that uses balls and sticks to make shapes. With MagneBlocks you build things with pre-made plastic geometric shapes — cubes, pyramids, prisms, and tetrahedrons - in red, green, blue and yellow. Each piece has strong magnets in the sides, so when you build a design, it stays in place, until you decide to make something else.

The Giganta set comes with 112 shapes and 40 metal marbles that will “stick” where you put them. Use these pieces to make all sorts of shapes, structures and forms.  Everything comes in a portable plastic carrying case.

Teachers called MagneBlocks an “awesome” toy that’s “really fun” and “really stimulates the imagination.” As one teacher pointed out, “there’s no parental assembly required!” (Manufacturer’s age: 4 and up)

Consumer expert and “Today” contributor Herb Weisbaum has been helping people across the country for more than 25 years. His award-winning reports have exposed everything from quack medications to bogus investments. Since 1990, his Toy Test has helped millions of parents and grandparents select the best toys for their kids. To learn more about Herb Weisbaum and his latest consumer reports, you can visit his Web site,

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