After all of the upset of last toy season, this has been a relatively calm year. The good news is that everyone stepped up to the plate to assure consumers that toys are safer. The government, the toy industry and retailers have all tightened standards and testing.
While we are not able to independently test toys in a lab, we asked companies to verify that toys meet certain safety standards that go beyond the current federal requirements. We were delighted that so many companies joined in and signed verification forms — giving consumers another level of confidence about the products we review. With the safety issues no longer all-consuming, we were able to go back to our main focus — which toys will best engage your kids.
Our “platinum list” this year is a mix of classic toys and cutting-edge innovation. Whether high-tech or low, the products that did best with our testers were those that put the child at the center of the play experience. Infants
Lamaze Fun Mirror (Learning Curve), $29.99: We've seen rolling mirrors before, but this one is the best one we've seen yet. Two fat wheels — one red and the other blue — hold a prism-shaped toy that spins as it rolls. The three-sided fun-house mirror has a see-through window and two mirrors. No electronic sounds — just the rattle of beads as they drop. It's a good rolling toy for crawling babies.
Follow Me Fred (Tiny Love), $19.95: A fun toy for active floor play with a sitting-up or crawling baby. Turn on the fabric-headed dog (Fred) or happy-faced lion (Leo) and they will slowly roll a few feet and stop. Touch the accordion center of the pooch's or lion's body and it rolls some more. Their bodies are of bright-colored plastic with fabric tail and the “magical” motion toy invites little crawlers to follow or use them like a roly-poly ball for back-and-forth fun with sitting-up tots. Loaded with sounds, we prefer playing with the mute button on most of the time. They say 6 months; we'd say more like 8 months and up.
Playskool Clipo Creativity Table (Hasbro), $29.99: Twenty-five pieces of bristlelike plastic blocks can be stacked on the clever storage table or used for stand-alone construction play. The neat little table has nonspecific shape-sorter slots for dropping blocks into the hollow leg buckets on either side of the table. Best of all, a small turntable can be switched on with a push of a big orange button to set some of the blocks in motion.
There are also smaller sets of Clipo that make nice additions: There are two buckets — Figure Set ($19.99) and Vehicle Bucket ($19.99) — and still smaller basic sets ($5.99 to $14.99). 18 months and up.
Happy Moments Busybuds Frog and Monkey (Gund), $23 each: Toddlers will have no trouble bonding with this long-legged frog. He's 19 inches long with slender, easy-to-grab arms, legs and tail. In the same Happy Moments line consider two other good choices: Busybuds Monkey, a long-legged red, tan and blue monkey, as well as a cute Busybuds Chick, in yellow with striped legs and floppy wings. These whimsical dolls have full bottoms so they can sit, but they are each a perfect armful for toddlers who love dolls that are extra-big without being too heavy to tote about.
Lamaze Trotter the Pony (Learning Curve), $18: Here's a horse to bet on as a winner! It combines so many features that are sure to please the toddler in your life. It's a bright red horse with yellow muzzle and colorfully patterned legs. Small, brightly colored satin ribbons are used to create a mane and trim for his legs.
Trotter not only has big cloppy hooves trimmed with ribbons, he also comes with built-in sound effects. He whinnies and his hooves clop, clop as he is moved. Forget all your preconceived notions about fabric toys — this toy is fun for playing with baby and for growing independent play patterns for older tots. 0-24 months.
Step2 50’s Diner (Step2), $149.99: Kudos to Step2 for coming up with a really fun, gender-free play setting. Our preschool and toddler siblings enjoyed playing diner (the older sister was running the place, of course!). On one side you have all the equipment of a traditional toy kitchen (sink, fridge and oven) with the bonus of a grill top! The other side has a place for two customers to sit at the “booth,” complete with tabletop jukebox that plays a few tunes from the era, and a bell when you need service (our testers thought the bell could be louder). Diner also comes with coffeepot, dishes, silverware and play food (our testers were big fans of the ice-cream cones).
FurReal Biscuit (Hasbro), $199: We love Biscuit. He's a 24-inch tall pup with golden fur and while we know he's not real, his facial expressions are amazingly cute and doglike (in that perfect, animatronic kind of way).
Biscuit does several tricks (via voice recognition) — he can sit, lie down, shake your hand, wag his tag, bark — of course, he doesn't always do it right, which is also very puppylike. We suppose a stricter toy reviewer would give low marks for functionality — but it just made us all love him more. We do wish that Biscuit wasn't so pricey and that he did not run on six “D” batteries (you do have to turn him off or you'll be spending a small fortune on batteries), but he's really very special in the novelty dog category. He doesn't walk, but he is very huggable and may do the trick if a real dog is not a possibility.
The smaller FurReal Tumbles (he rolls over) is just not as good. The internal mechanism that makes it possible for him to roll over takes away from his huggability, and his fur is not as nice as Biscuit's. For a smaller dog at a lower price, look at last year's Lucky, the Incredible Wonder Dog from Zizzle.
Playmobil Circus (Playmobil), $118: When we first saw this amazing set at Toy Fair, we scribbled “looks great!” in our notebooks. When the toy went out to our testers, the responses were as we suspected: “Easy-to-follow instructions and attention to detail that is astounding” and “Loved the flickering lights in the tent. Love the high wire!”
If you're already a Playmobil fan, you know that these make great parent-child projects. There are lots of pieces, so adult assistance is a must, but then your child will enjoy hours of pretend play. The backdrop to this collection is, of course, the Big Top, which comes with a red-and-white tent, seating, and, of course, the ringmaster. You can then add additional sets, including the band (which has sound effects in its platform), the animal trailer, the horse circus act, animal trainer, tightrope artists and dog circus act. Really very special! The additional sets make perfect presents for aunts and uncles to give.
Toys that celebrate our diversity
Corolle Calin Dolls, $29.99: We're always on the lookout for dolls that reflect our diversity. Among the most adorable African-American dolls this season is a huggable, soft-bodied 12-inch baby doll named Naima from the Calin collection. Her beanbag body makes her easy to pose. Dressed in a red-and-white cotton-knit outfit with red headband, she is a bald baby with big brown eyes that open and close. She does not come with the usual extras, such as a pacifier or bottle that would be risky with toddlers who tend to mouth their toys. This one is an adorable armful for beginning pretend play.
American Girl Bitty Twins, $99 per set: This is one of best collections of multicultural dolls we have seen in a very long time. We are also thrilled that there are boy dolls (often very hard to find) included in this updated collection of twin dolls that includes Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic and Asian sets of twins. The attention to detail for these contemporary twins is nothing less than you would expect from American Girl.
Eeboo Thoughtful Girl Paper Dolls, $14.99: An old-fashioned favorite minus the frustration of having to cut around those tiny tabs or tricky edges! This is not to say old paper cutouts are out, but these paper dolls are for younger players.
The precut clothes and dolls allow girls of 4 and 5 to develop the dexterity of placing the stick-on clothes onto a pair of multicultural paper dolls. Made of sturdy cardboard, they are almost 8 inches tall and come with two sheets of clothes that stick on like your old Colorforms. To add to their dramatic play value, each set includes a two-sided setting that stands up like a stage set. There's Sasha, a redhead, and “botanist”; Jasmine, an African-American “explorer”; Elodie, a musician; Naomi, an artist; and Iris, an astronomer. An ideal choice for quiet time, travel or waiting-room wiggles. Ages 4-7.
Karito Kids Travel Charmers (KidsGive), $19.99 each: A welcome new collection of funky multicultural dolls with international stories and attitude! Each doll in the new collection is 16 inches tall, soft and huggable, with an outfit that will appeal to the 5-and-up crowd, and a travel story of her own.
There's Zoe from North America; Wan Ling travels from China to Japan; Pita goes to Brazil; Gia travels from Italy to France and Lulu travels from Kenya to Madagascar. A portion of the profits fund children's humanitarian projects. Each doll comes with a code that unlocks karitokids.com (a site that includes games and talks to the concept of giving). Our testers really liked that they could take these dolls along easily. They're slightly more grown-up than Groovy Girls.
On the way to Grandma’s house ...
Crayola Glow Station (Crayola), $29.99: We have to admit that we have a thing for glow-in-the-dark toys. We pile into the small office bathroom and try things out. Most of them don't work, so when we find one that does, we do a little dance (we play with toys for a living after all). The new Glow Station from Crayola is really cool. The oversize (25" x 15") canvas works with a special light wand that comes with a crystal attachment for really neat effects! The set comes with stencils that are fun to work with, but we really enjoyed the open-endedness of just drawing on the canvas. A great toy for the car at night or right before bed. An entertaining way to encourage kids to use the small muscles needed for writing. It's a lot like your old magic slate with sizzle! The glow fades and you start again.
Also, it has a dry-erase marker for coloring and tracing on acetate transfer sheets that will put the images onto your glow pad. A novelty that is “light-years” away from your old Magna Doodle. Designed for older kids 6 and up. Smaller travel version is also available and great for backseat fun.
Price is obviously going to be a huge factor this year while you are shopping. Here are some of our general guidelines for the holidays:
Open-ended toys tend to have lasting play valueProps for pretend (a basket of dress-up clothes, blocks, a toy kitchen, art supplies, etc.) that will be engaging far beyond the holidays.
Many of our award winners are under $20
So many of our top games, puzzles and crafts are under $20, proving that you don't have to spend a bundle to get a great product. Games are a particularly strong gift since kids love to play games repeatedly.
Go shopping in your family playrooms
Your 2-year-old is not going to know or care that the toy kitchen you put a bow on came from his cousins. Be resourceful. The same is true of video games that kids grow tired of and are often just collecting dust.
Pool your resourcesRather than buying lots of little things, have aunts/uncles/grandparents contribute to buy one special toy.
Don't fill the cartWe have been programmed to fill the toy cart — which wasn't necessarily a great thing when times were booming — but now it really is silly. Believe me, your kids would rather have calm parents and fewer toys than a basketful of toys and stressed-out parents.
Get down on the floor and play with your kids. While I spend most of my year reviewing products, my recommendation remains the same — the most important gift you can give your child is connecting, like working on a craft project. It's the time that makes the difference. These are intense times; playing with your kids is not only great for them but also reminds us all of what's really important.
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 .