the new to the nostalgic—fun toys that cultivate learning
niece, while still in preschool, created an impromptu game
one night to amuse herself amid a gaggle of grown-ups. When
I knelt down beside her and asked how to play, she threw her
arms over her head and said in a magical voice, “You use your
maaaagination!” Imagination is childhood’s greatest gift—a
tool for play, for learning, for compassion. But just like
any other skill, the imagination needs to be nurtured. In
a year fraught with toy terror, here are some suggestions
for toys that are not only safe but will promote learning,
creativity, and laughter.
One of this year’s multi-award-winning mega-hits, having enthralled
toy testers and kids alike, is the EyeClops ($49.99,
ages 6 and up) by Jakks Pacific. This handheld “bionic eye”
is actually a microscope that plugs directly into your television.
Point it at the family dog, the couch, your ham sandwich,
the carpet, or your scabby knee and EyeClops magnifies the
object 200 times, using your television as a view screen.
The eye also comes with a stand for hands-free operation and
a viewing tray for examining small objects and liquids. According
to parents, kids will scrounge around, indoors and out, looking
for new things to examine. According to kids, “It’s totally
Joan Miró meets Dr. Seuss meets Tim Burton for endless “playsculpture”
possibilities with Zolo A-Go-Go ($32.00, ages
5 and up), one of the all-time zaniest building sets on the
market. With 48 wonderfully whimsical pieces and no instruction
book, kids can build just about anything their little minds
dream up. Zolo also makes the 67-piece Zolotopia ($42,
ages 5 and up), which includes a ZoWeeeeLo spinner for four
imaginative building games, and the all-wood Pre Zolo ($48,
ages 3 and up), with nice big pieces for tiny hands.
the littlest tykes, and their nostalgic parents, Sababa has
rereleased a number of Fisher Price Classic pull toys. The
Buzzy Bee ($14.99) looks just like the 1950 original.
The Snoop n’ Sniff ($31.99) brings the same giggles
it did in 1938. The Chatter Telephone ($14.99) is available
again in its endearing blocky wooden form from ’61. Dr.
Duck ($23.99), the Tiny Teddy Xylophone ($14.99),
the Pull A Tune Xylophone ($24.99), and the Two
Tune Music Box TV ($26.89), are also back on the shelves
again, just as you remember them. These classics (recommended
for ages 12 months and up) have endured for generations because
of their timeless ability to engage the littlest learners
as they explore how their actions affect their world.
Another longtime favorite celebrates a classic return this
year. Mr. Potato Head turns 55, and Hasbro has released the
55th Birthday Collectors Edition Mr. Potato Head ($14.99,
ages 2 and up). With the 17 original parts and accessories,
this guy is as familiar as he is fun. Also, Melissa and Doug
have brought that famous feature-switching concept to their
Make-Your-Own Monster Puppet ($19.99, ages 3 and up).
This simple hand puppet comes with 30 Velcro pieces—arms,
teeth, eyes, horns, noses, fur—that kids can rearrange to
create plenty of crazy characters. The bold colors and shaggy
brows give the puppets a Muppet quality, and the whole bundle
comes packed in a handy storage bag so that you won’t find
a googly antenna stuck to your sweater during an early morning
It ($19.95 ages 5 and up) is an amazingly simple and versatile
treasure. This self-contained “I Spy” game consists of a large,
capped tube full of recycled plastic pellets. Forty-seven
trinkets are hidden in the haystack—a rubber band, a penny,
a pearl—and players shake, twist, and twirl the tube in a
race to find them. Called “the child silencer” by some toy
testers, the ever- changing puzzle can be played alone or
in groups, and it can even be thrown in your bag to play on-the-go.
Mesmerizing, even for adults, Find It comes in a variety of
styles and difficulty levels.
When I was a kid, my home was a regular publishing house.
We turned out an impressive collection of staple-bound, construction-paper-and-crayon
classics. The award winning Illustory ($19.99, ages
5 and up) from Creations by You, lets child authors/illustrators
create a professional-looking volume. The kit includes 10
markers, 20 layout pages, an order form, and a prepaid mailer.
Kids write and illustrate their own story on the special pages,
you mail out the completed “manuscript,” and Illustory sends
back a professionally typeset hardcover book, complete with
a title page, a dedication, and an author’s bio. Additional
copies can be ordered for friends and family ($18.95). Make
Illustory an annual tradition, and you’ll have a set of volumes
that tracks your child’s creative development. What better
heirloom than a catalog of imagination?
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