Spring begins a season of outdoor play

Spring is here, meaning it’s a great time to get the kids outside for fresh air and outdoor playing.  Not only is it fun — outdoor play is important for building strength and coordination, plus it gives kids a great opportunity to shout and burn energy. Stephanie Oppenheim of Toyportfolio.com was invited on “Today” to share her outdoor toy recommendations for spring and summer.

For older toddlers and preschoolersA sand and water table is a great choice for toddlers and preschoolers who want to play outside. These tables are designed to be the right height for these little ones, and the sand and water invites active play — digging, sifting, pouring and mixing up mud! This type of equipment encourages kids to use their imagination and lends itself to dramatic play scenes and adventures.  There’s no right or wrong way to play with these materials.  The naturally playful Sand and Water Activity Center from Step 2, $70, comes with an umbrella for shade, a cover to keep animals out and props for play, like boats, bridges, pots and a shovel.   In tight spaces, such as a deck or terrace where a traditional sandbox won’t fit — this is a good choice and it can be moved into the garage or playroom during the winter.

Toddlers and preschoolers love having special spaces that are designed for them.  For older toddlers, going in and out of the space and playing peek-a-boo will be the name of the game.  As they grow older, the pretend play will become more elaborate and detailed.  The Endless Adventures Tikes Town Playhouse from Little Tikes, $280, is full of pretend possibilities because each side of the house has a different theme — there’s a firehouse/schoolhouse, gas station with a gas pump, grocery store/bank and a sports wall with a small hoop.

The Little Tikes Jump ’n’ Slide, $200, got high marks from our neighborhood of testers in Westchester, NY. It’s ideal for the 3- to 6-year-old range. Testers that were 9 years of age and up were disappointed that it didn’t have more bounce.  We liked the protective walls on the sides and our kids loved the wide slide.  It’s great fun for a birthday party and the backyard, but does require parental supervision and a place on a soft surface. Parents liked the fact that it inflated quickly in a couple of minutes.

Toys for school-aged kidsFlying machines no doubt are fun for big kids too. There are lots of motorized flying machines that are really neat, but that can make us extremely nervous around children.  There are two better choices designed with kids in mind. The Backyard Flyer, made by Kid Galaxy, $14.99, comes with a battery-operated launch, and it really takes off.  "One of the best toys of the year," was the consensus among our ’tween testers. They were thrilled with this small blue and yellow plane. Everyone found the battery-powered handheld launcher easy to use and had a great time running after the plane. The company says that when the trigger is pulled the plane will fly for 30 seconds or more. It kept our testers (parents included) well occupied for part of an afternoon — especially when it went flying into the neighbor's backyard! A great toy for the price. (While our testers gave rave reviews to this plane, they found another Kid Galaxy product, the remote control plane, very difficult to work.)

The long-distance hand-powered Glider, made by Discovery Kids, $24.95, has an impressive 50-inch wing span and is ideal to use on a field or at the beach where you have lots of room.  It has a graphite frame and a big rubber tip, which makes it sturdier.  You don’t need to worry about fingers getting caught on propellers, but you do need arm strength to send it flying. And be prepared to go after it!  Suitable for ages 10 and up.

Remote control toys are always a hit with our kid testers. Finding remotes for preschoolers has been tough, but there’s a new line of buggies from Kid Galaxy that are just right for this age group. The Bumble Bee, $19.99, is designed for preschoolers, and it has a one-button control. Our testers loved the way its spinning stinger moves around as it goes.

Older kids also like remotes that can be taken outside. The Morphibian car made by Kid Galaxy, $24.99, can go in dirt, gravel and even water. It’s a James Bond toy for the backyard set.

Ride-on toysWe recommend you skip the battery operated ride-on toys.  They cost a lot and they miss the point.  The whole idea of ride-ons is to provide kids with an opportunity to use those muscles — not another chance just to sit still and push a button.  A really innovative riding machine called the PlasmaCar, $69.95, was popular with testers from ages 4 to 12. According to the manufacturer, it runs on “inertia, centrifugal force, and friction.” Sounds like a lot of serious scientific principles — but this is sheer fun rolled up in one zippy vehicle! There are no pedals, or batteries needed. Rotate the steering wheel and you’re off on any smooth surface. This was tested indoors in a room with the furniture moved out of the way for clear sailing. Your feet are your brakes and this will support riders up to 220 pounds on a smooth, even surface, and 120 pounds on an uneven, rough surface. One mom suggested the manufacturer should add bumpers to the front and back to protect the walls. That said, it’s the new favorite toy in their neighborhood.