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Top toys for kids

Latest edition of “The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio,” by Joanne, Stephanie and James Oppenheim, offers their 2004 review of toys, books, videos, music and software for kids.

As the school year gets underway, parents may want to reinforce skills kids are learning at school with ways to have fun outside of the classroom. On NBC’s “Today” show, Joanne Oppenheim shares a look at the award winners named in the 2004 edition of “The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio: The Best Toys, Books, Videos, Music and Software for Kids.” Read an excerpt and learn more about this year’s winners below.

WHAT ARE THE TRENDS FOR 2004?

There has been a proliferation of so-called ‘educational’ toys with some notable and innovative products, but parents should rest assured that many traditional types of play are at the core for learning” notes “Today” contributor and child development expert Joanne Oppenheim.

“Our task remains to find outstanding products and do what parents wished they could do if they had unlimited time and money. We review all year long to find the most engaging, educational and entertaining products” notes co-author Stephanie Oppenheim.

ON THE UP SIDE

Fewer Stupid “Smart” Toys. Toys that claim to teach babies school skills before they can talk are thankfully on the decline.

Dramatic Play Power. A bevy of beautiful multicultural dolls, a medieval castle, a fire station headquarters, a Chinese pagoda, a sleek urban train station, community worker costumes, and a jogging stroller for dolls are just some of the great props for pretend that made our top list.

Colonel Mustard in the Billiard Room with the Candlestick. Classic games, as well as a new crop of innovative games, are among the best choices in toyland. Most kids will jump at a chance to play any truly “interactive” game with their folks. Games are also a no-tears way of developing math, language, geography, and reading skills, and gamesmanship, too. They give families an opportunity to share some important values (being a good sport, for example) and also time to talk while the game’s being played.

Volume Controls Are In! Perhaps to bolster parental sanity, toy makers have added volume controls to their electronic wonders (and even the revolutionary option of playing with the sound off). We usually find that less noise means more play value in the long run.

Who’s the Boss? Thank goodness there seem to be fewer intrusive toys that dictate how kids are to play. Indeed, play is one of the areas where kids can and should be empowered to use their own creative powers.

Fewer Gross Toys. Thankfully, grossness is no longer a major marketing theme in Toyland. That said, we still found a few notable examples: Rude ‘tude Taz (who burps when you crank his arm).

NOTABLE TRENDS Pink Poodles. The hot pooch of the year is the pink poodle. Add to that Polar Bears, Teddy Bears, and an Elmo that does the Hokey Pokey, and there’s bound to be a plush toy just right for you!

Less Innovation. This has been a relatively quiet year in Toyland in terms of cutting-edge technology. Perhaps because of the economy, companies are sticking with more tried-and-true products.

Generation Markers. Silly Putty, Strawberry Shortcake, and the Power Rangers are trying to capture the imagination of another generation with mixed results. The new Easy Bake Real Food Oven sounded cool to moms, but our testers asked, “Why wait 30 minutes to make mac and cheese? Why not use the microwave?”

Orange Alert Toys. Perhaps one of the most telling trends is the new batch of security toys, which include Hazmat action figures and even pretend airport security body scanners.

ON THE DOWN SIDE Who Did That? Hit a button on most baby and toddler toys, and five things happen. Sounds impressive, but really the better choices are toys that have direct lessons of cause of effect.

Hurry Up, Baby! The marketing message to new parents is clear. Their “smart toys” will help your baby learn faster and achieve more. They don’t mention that developmentally, babies learn best through real-life experiences and that too many lights and sounds can stimulate babies to distraction. Babies and toddlers are not ready for symbolic learning. The fact that a toddler can recite the alphabet is nothing more than a great parlor trick — ask the same toddler what “l-m-n-o-p” means and see what happens. There is no one magic toy that will guarantee an Ivy League acceptance (or even a spot in your city’s competitive preschools)!

Early Exposure is Beneficial . . . to the Toy Companies. According to some toy makers, who hire academic experts to give their toys legitimacy, children benefit from exposure to concepts beyond their understanding. That seems to be the logic behind a quiz game for third to fourth graders that introduces the periodic table of elements. According to the toy maker, this is something they are going to learn in middle school, so they might as well get ready. Maybe they should start using acne medicine now, too!

The Ultimate Downside. All of this rushing gives kids the unfortunate message that learning is hard and that maybe they’re not very good learners. The most important thing parents can do is provide an environment that helps develop their children’s confidence and a positive sense of self as learners. Many of the academic skills will be learned with much less difficulty later on, when children are more developmentally ready.

Trust your instincts and relax; the misguided “sooner is better” mentality is not a view shared by the majority of child development experts. Your toddler does not need to know how to spell cat or five words that rhyme with star. For children at every stage of development, toys that match their emerging abilities can best foster learning.

Talk, read, play with, and enjoy your child. Children learn language when people talk and listen to them. Literacy grows from the pleasures discovered in sharing books with meaningful stories and memorable illustrations. It is not served by rushing babies and toddlers with letter and sound drills. During early childhood the everyday discoveries of life have more educational value than any quiz machine you can bring home. Interactive people are far more important to learning than interactive machines!

Well, Excuse You! Flatulence is so commonplace in movies this year, you would think there were a public relations campaign underway by the Flatulent Society of America. We found ourselves wincing through much of this year’s fare for the almost predictable over-the-top scary scenes and inescapable toilet humor in movies and videotapes.

JUST TOYS — WHAT DIFFERENCE DO THEY MAKE? So what’s the harm? After all, this is the 21st century. This is the age of technology, and even the Consumer Product Safety Commission is considering adjusting its age guidelines.

But pushing kids to do things that are developmentally inappropriate delivers a powerfully negative message that colors how kids think about themselves as competent, able doers. Parents, bombarded with the “smart toy, smart child” message, may also wonder if there’s something wrong with their toddler who’s incapable of rhyming in three languages or spelling unicorn by age three!

We used to “invest” in our toys. A favorite doll would be your companion in good times and bad (real and pretend), and our toys grew with us. Preprogrammed toys do not have the same lasting play value, however. For the most part, they are the Toyland equivalent of a one-trick pony.

Pretend No More. Pretend play is not merely something cute that children do while they are waiting to grow up. It’s through pretending that children begin to think symbolically, letting one thing stand for another. The ability to make their own symbols, by turning a mud pie with sticks into a birthday cake with candles, provides the underpinnings for more abstract symbolic systems.

Changing Expectations. Play is also one of those wonderful states where kids can step into roles of control — even if it is pretend. So playhouses with sound effects that tell kids it’s raining — “shut the window” — or small trucks with drivers who run the show with voice commands, steal words from the mouths of babes. As more and more tech toys invade Toyland, the expectations of what a toy does seem to be changing in the minds of children as well as adults. As toys become more literal, children also become more passive observers; the true value of play is turned upside down, with children reduced to pushing buttons and reacting to what the toy does instead of being active players. Kids end up moving around the play schemes dreamed up by adults — and being robbed of the power of play.

We’re all for technology, but not when it is used to strip the value and fun of play from children.

Expanded Coverage

We have included reviews of the best products we tested this year as well as highlighting some notable losers. Unfortunately, there isn’t space for all the products we review — so be sure to visit our web site where our database of reviews is available. We’d like to thank all the families that contributed to this book. As always, we welcome you, our readers, to give us your feedback on the selections. You can write, or visit our web site: www.toyportfolio.com.

Excerpted from “The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio 2004: The Best Toys, Books, Videos, Music and Software for Kids.” Copyright 2003. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, Inc. For the Oppenheims top recommendations for kids 0-10, you can also visit their web site, www.toyportfolio.com.