This holiday shopping season is shaping up to be a bit different than others of recent years. When it comes to deciding what toys and games are going to fit the bill this year, several factors are at work on the typical American family.
First, the financial turmoil of this fall has brought on a period of belt-tightening and spending prudence for most of us. Second, some particular trends are on the move in the marketplace. Chief among them are health-consciousness, environmental consciousness, and wariness about tainted or unsafe imported products.
Finally, some people are a bit jaded about electronic, blinking toys. While it’s not unusual today to look up from your computer screen and find everyone in the family absorbed in their own screen (computers, smartphones, big-screen TVs, video games), for some, the whiz-bang effect is beginning to wear off. We are starting to become aware of the isolating effects of multiple private worlds under the same roof.
There is a way to recover a lot of wholesome fun and active imagination in toys this holiday shopping season. Toy expert and historian Tim Walsh, inventor of such popular games as TriBond and Blurt and author of several books on toys, says you can use toys to simplify, downsize, and get back to family gatherings this year.
"The word ‘interactive’ has been hijacked by the video game industry," says Walsh. "It now means you interact with a game, not with other people. It’s true that there are online versions of some of these things that allow you to interact with strangers -- but for real social interaction with people you care about, there’s nothing better than a game around the dinner table, which used to be the family gathering place. Unfortunately, with dual-income families there’s less time around the table, but games do help maintain that tradition of getting together and actually speaking to the people we care most about."
Family time spent playing a friendly board or card game also helps get kids accustomed to handling victory and defeat, and the rules -- both written and unwritten -- of fair play.
Here are some worthy toys and games to consider this year. None is expensive. All can benefit both kids and adults.
Back to basics
1. Uno. There have been something like 150 million copies of this game sold at last count, says Walsh, "and the reason is that 8-year-olds can play with older adults and win, and the adult isn’t trying to throw the game. That’s unusual." The object is to get rid of the cards in your hand before your opponents do. Simple strategies are involved, teamwork is possible, and fun variations on the theme are available. It’s an easy game to learn, and great for travel. Available for under $6.
2. Wiffle Ball. That’s right, Wiffle Ball. "With all the recent toy recalls, a lot of people are looking for American-made products," says Walsh. "The Wiffle Ball is still made in Shelton, Connecticut, by the grandkids of the founders of the company. Even the packaging looks the same. People just love the product. When you’re a dad for the first time and your son turns 5, you have to get him a Wiffle Ball set. There’s no option -- you have to."
The perforated plastic Wiffle Ball "curves like crazy," depending on how it’s held when thrown, or how it’s hit. It’s fun, safe, domestic, and won’t even come close to breaking the bank (or your windows). You can get the standard 32-inch Wiffle Bat and Ball set for $3.95. That’s no typo.
3. Kapla Wooden Blocks. At $58 for the 200-piece set, these blocks are made, according to the manufacturer, "of marine pine from renewable forests in France." They are "certified safe and green for creative, smart play." What Walsh likes about them is their well-made simplicity. They rely entirely on imagination and the forces of nature for structure-making. "These don’t connect like Lego blocks or even Lincoln Logs," says Walsh, "but the things kids can create with them are amazing. It really is an open-ended toy. A complaint I hear from parents is that so many toys substitute all the creativity for the kids -- the toys already come with their own story lines; they’re licensed from Star Wars, and the basic story is already supplied. The kids kind of have to fit into that pattern, whereas open-ended toys like Kapla blocks allow kids to bring their own creativity."
4. The OBall from Rhino Toys is another simple, well-designed toy that can appeal to kids of all ages for hardly any loot. "It’s basically just a hollow, round frame that’s flexible," says Walsh. "The thing I like about it is that young kids can catch it more easily. Little kids are sometimes not coordinated enough to catch a regular ball, but this thing has so many holes they can get their fingers into it and really grab hold, even sometimes by accident -- and their eyes light up." But since the OBall can bounce and be thrown and kicked, it’s versatile enough for more serious activities and outdoor games and comes in several sizes. The standard 6-inch model costs $9.95.
5. Outdoor Antics Aqua Light Mask from Wild Planet. Here’s another simple item that packs a lot of fun into the price. For $14.99 per mask, your kids can be underwater heroes in the backyard pool or in protected shallows in the dark (under adult supervision, of course). "The idea of being able to put on a mask and see underwater at night is cool," says Walsh. "It’s active, and it’s a real adventure."
Parents report high enthusiasm from kids, but say that two Aqua Light Masks are almost required, because it’s more fun to explore or play night tag as a team. Still, it’s not a huge investment for $30.
Full family fun
1. Apples to Apples (The Game of Hilarious Comparisons) from Mattel, for ages 12 and up; four or more players; $26.69. Players try to match nouns from their hands of cards to an adjective card played by the judge. The judge rules on the best fit, and the results can be anything from witty to weird. Apples to Apples was named "Party Game of the Year" by Games magazine.
"It’s ingenious in its simplicity," says Walsh.
2. Frisbee. No plaything on the planet may be more familiar or fun than the Frisbee, which evolved from a simple pie plate. Walsh recently completed The Wham-O Superbook, in which he was amazed by his own research into the Frisbee. "There have probably been 300 million sold by now, and there have been so many offshoots -- Ultimate Frisbee, the game called Guts, and almost a whole subspecies of dog called Disc Dogs. It’s pretty amazing when you think of a single piece of plastic spawning such entertainment." The classic Frisbee sells for about $6, and you can find the 175-gram Ultimate Frisbee for under $10.
3. Dolls. All sorts of toys have ways of coming back around again, and dolls are often prime bonding agents between mothers and daughters. Walsh points out, for example, that this year is the 25th anniversary of the Cabbage Patch Kids (which can run about $30). "Women who were girls in 1983, when the Cabbage Patch Kids were on the cover of Time magazine, will be buying these dolls for their own children now." Barbie dolls and their many friends and costumes are lovingly preserved, and always a popular gift for as little as $10.
4. Wii, from Nintendo. The popularity of the Wii phenomenon is still ballooning. It is the impossible-to-ignore toy this year (just like last year). It’s also Walsh’s one concession to electronics and high cost, although, as video game consoles go, the basic Wii kit can be considered reasonable at $285. For the uninitiated, the essence of Wii is the tracking of a user’s actual movements through sensors in handheld remotes and foot platforms, and coordination with games or other activities broadcast on the TV screen -- everything from tennis and bowling to exercise routines in the new Wii Fit format. Your whole family can enjoy the Wii, so it doesn’t tend to isolate family members from each other the way some video consoles do.
5. TriBond. Walsh never mentioned his own game while running down this list of gifts. We’re making this recommendation ourselves. With over 3 million copies sold already, TriBond may need no endorsement anyway. The game, for ages 12 and up, is simple and easy to learn. It’s a board game, but you don’t even need the board to have fun with it. The premise? Say what three things have in common, and you advance. What do a car, a tree, and an elephant have in common? A trunk, of course. What about a penny, Nebraska, and Ford? (They all have Lincolns.) Clever, educational, imaginative, and tons of fun for the family -- for under $10.
With money tight for most of us, you should carefully consider what will really work for your kids. Match the gift to the child’s real imagination, attention span, and physical energy levels. Here are five classic toy issues to avoid.
1. The "big splash" expensive gizmo. "Every parent has a similar story," says Walsh. "You buy a $200 robotic dog for your kid, and then he plays with the box that it came in. The box can be a cave or a fort, a castle or a rocket ship, but the dog can only be a robotic dog. That’s all it will ever be. Sometimes simple is better for the imagination."
2. The undemanding couch potato addiction (the video game console, excluding Wii). Why saddle your kid with a diversion that keeps him or her sedentary and isolated, a machine that offers little or nothing to the intellect or imagination, a maze or a battle scene that takes lots of time to conquer? We’ve all been there and done that. Let’s help these kids move on.
3. The toy for you that’s really for me. If you love the idea of sitting down with your son and a 300-piece science experiment kit, but your son is a bundle of physical energy who loves nothing more than tossing a football with you in the back yard, go with the football. It works the other way, too.
4. The 10-Minute Wonder. We’ve all been here, too: A toy seems like a great idea in the store, but after you spend a lot of money on it, you discover that all the benefit and pleasure can be wrung out of it in a short time. Its mystery and glamour fade almost immediately. Everything about it is prepackaged. It leaves little to the imagination. (See the robotic dog above.)
5. Not-Thinking-Clearly Toys. A BB gun for a six-year-old. A full-sized football for a toddler with tiny hands. A portable CD player for a pre-teen who already has an iPod. A dollhouse for a 12-year-old girl who may be interested in sports. The list goes on. These things get bought on a sudden impulse, or in a last-minute panic, or without actual knowledge of a kid’s age, personality, or capabilities. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles pay attention here. Don’t waste your money. Do a little research first.
(Editor's note: prices are quoted from Amazon.com. Prices in other outlets may vary.)
For other hot toy trends, see: