Each year, toy manufacturers present a new wave of products that make us think, laugh and explore. This year we saw a number of notable trends. One of the most pervasive and challenging for manufacturers is "kids getting older younger," in which children age out of toys much earlier than in the past. Another major shift is the emergence of products that encourage higher-level thinking.
In addition, the prevalence of childhood obesity has motivated manufacturers to develop toys that encourage active fun. "Smart toys" are thriving, with players increasingly interacting with high-tech toys that almost seem alive. Finally, collectibles and classic toys are opening the door for intergenerational sharing of memories and continuation of the toys’ legacy.
Of course, safety has been a renewed concern after the massive toy recalls of recent months. While NAPPA judges thoroughly test toys for play quality and sustainability, we have to rely on government agencies and manufacturers themselves to take each toy through rigorous safety tests and to abide by mandated safety standards. Be sure to check the Consumer Product Safety Commission recall lists at www.cpsc.gov before making purchases.
Note: All NAPPA-winning products have, to the best of our ability, been judged to be safe and well-constructed. They have been checked against the most recent government safety recall lists.
Ellen Metrick has more than 20 years of experience in the toy industry. She is the toy specialist and manager of business development for the National Lekotek Center in Chicago.
Infants and toddlers
Brightlings Exploration Station
This fun hands-on set offers three modes of play to challenge babies and toddlers to explore and learn. There are ribbons to pull, characters to toggle, levers to move, doors to open and balls to drop into the unit. Once manipulated, music plays or simple numbers and words are spoken, encouraging cognitive development. Use of five different languages also helps young children develop an ear for verbal communication. LeapFrog, $39.99; ages 6 months and up; www.leapfrog.com.
Spin & Sing Alphabet Zoo
Children spin an electronic ball connected to the toy’s base to hear music, letters and sounds. Three modes of play help them understand cause and effect while learning the names of letters, recognizing animals that start with each letter and hearing the alphabet song. The song plays while the ball is in motion and stops when the ball stops, thereby encouraging children to spin again to continue play. LeapFrog, $19.99; ages 6 months and up; www.leapfrog.com.
Ultimate Family Wagon
This versatile wagon provides five positions for seating and hauling. Made of plastic, with rubber tires for a quiet ride, it accommodates all your child’s moving needs. Flip up the seat backs to provide seating for two children. Fold one down for covered storage, fold one over to provide an activity table or fold both down to accommodate a sleeping baby or for hauling. A removable canopy shields children from UV rays and seat belts provide a secure ride and lessen the risk of children climbing out of a moving wagon. Four cup holders, a long handle and front axles for easy turns make this the quintessential, all-purpose wagon.
Radio Flyer, $179.99; ages 18 months and up; www.radioflyer.com
Candy Land Castle
Take turns pulling the candy-cane lever on the large plastic castle to release one plastic shape. Match the shape to the same one on your gingerbread board. Be the first to match all four shapes on your board to win. Up to four players learn color and shape recognition and matching. Hasbro, $19.99; ages 3 and up; www.hasbro.com.
Crocodile Stage Puppet
This exquisitely designed plush crocodile puppet comes alive with a child’s (or an adult’s) hand. Its mouth opens wide to show off realistic-looking teeth. Its "skin" resembles the scaly look of a reptile, but has the pleasingly soft touch of crushed velvet. Folkmanis Puppets, $18; ages 3 and up; www.folkmanis.com.
Mighty World Construction Site
This wonderfully detailed construction site includes three workers, adjustable scaffolding, a cement mixer and countless tools. All figures and parts are realistically designed and full of imaginative possibilities. International Playthings, $19.99; ages 4 and up; www.intplay.com.
Moon Sand Adventure Island
Children can mold and form this substance—a cross between sand and play-dough—which never dries out. Molds are included for easy creation of detailed animals, people and plants. Kids can also roll it and mold it into their own creations. The carrying case serves double duty as the sandbox play space and storage container. Spin Master, $24.99; ages 3 and up; www.spinmaster.com.
This stationary bicycle plugs into a TV and becomes an integral part of playing learning games. The games use either pedaling or a joystick so children exercise their bodies and stimulate their minds. The faster a child pedals, the faster the car on the screen drives. Numbers and counting, letters and spelling, shapes and matching are all incorporated into various games. Additional game cartridges are available and sold separately. Fisher-Price, $99.99; ages 3 and up; www.fisher-price.com.
Squawkers McCaw the FurReal Friends Parrot
Through sophisticated animatronics, you’ll forget this parrot runs on batteries. Realistic in movement, Squawkers repeats your words, answers questions with his own preprogrammed words and phrases and can be programmed easily with your own words for future recall. Hasbro, $69.99; ages 4 and up; www.hasbro.com.
Ages 5 and up
Each of the five 21-inch dolls in this collection has a different ethnicity that shines through beautifully mastered facial features, hair and clothing. A fictional story accompanies each doll and highlights the culture, people and landscape of her country. On the Karito Kids Web site, doll owners can select a children’s charity to which a portion of the purchase price can be donated. Gia, Lulu, Zoe, Wan Ling and Pita Dolls with Books, KidsGive, $99.99 each; ages 6 and up; www.KidsGive.com.
This looks like the traditional classic cube game, but technology has ratcheted up the challenge in this fast-paced game. Turn on, turn off or follow lights by pressing the lit center squares of the cube. As each of the six games is mastered, the difficulty level is raised to increase the challenge—and strengthen the addiction. Techno Source, $19.99; ages 5 and up; www.rubiksrevolution.com.
Safety Brainiac Junior Edition
Playing this board game with your children enhances and reinforces their knowledge of important safety issues. Children answer questions using written vignettes or pictures on cards showing examples of possible threats in the home, community or with people. Brainiac Games, $29.99; ages 5 and up; www.safetybrainiac.com.
Create intriguing structures using 90 curved shapes. Each of the flat, colorful, plastic pieces can be combined with one another to create three-dimensional designs. Once connected, they stay together until disassembled. Remarkable Toys, $33; ages 6 and up; www.shapescapes.com.
Ages 8 and up
ArtLab Clay Studio
This well-conceived kit will inspire future sculptors. The set contains four animal skeletons to pose, clay, templates, tools and easy-to-use instructions to create realistic sculptures. The instructions feature famous works of art, real photos and demonstrations of how to create texture and visual effects. SmartLab Toys, $19.99; ages 7 and up; www.smartlabtoys.com.
Lonpos 303 Pyramid and Rectangle Game
This 2006 NAPPA Gold Award winner returns with a gazillion more puzzles to solve using the same pocket-sized puzzle game. The game contains 12 "pentomino" pieces that can be placed in different configurations on the board to complete a rectangle. Advanced play uses the same pieces to solve 3-D pyramid puzzles. Thousands of puzzles are possible using these 12 pieces. Mic-O-Mic Americas, $24.99; ages 8 and up; www.micamericas.com.
In Latino culture, a girl’s passage from childhood to womanhood is commemorated by the Quinceañera, or celebration of her 15th birthday. This collectible porcelain doll captures the celebratory beauty of this special day, which older kids especially will appreciate. The authentic clothing and detailed accents provide an engaging symbol of this milestone. Brass Key, $24.99; ages 7 and up; www.brass-key.com.
RC Snap Rover
Learn about electronic circuits through remote-control fun. Connect plastic blocks (using their metal snaps) to build remote-control rovers that can detect and do different things, depending on how you configure the circuit board. Snap wires connect the unit to the battery source. Each of the 23 projects has an easy-to-follow, color-coded picture. Elenco Electronics, $74.95; ages 8 and up; www.elenco.com.
Young Naturalist’s Backpack Kit
This set is stocked with everything an outdoorsy kid needs to watch and identify birds, insects and plants. A guidebook provides helpful tips and fosters kids’ natural curiosity. Binoculars, magnifying glass, plant press, butterfly net, insect habitat, ruler and four books all fit easily in the durable backpack. Home Science Tools, $89.95; ages 8 and up; www.hometrainingtools.com.
Infants and toddlers
Baby Einstein: My First Signs, 27 min., $19.99, disneyvideos.disney.go.com.
Classical Baby 3-Pack: Music, Art & Dance, 90 min., $26.95, store.hbo.com.
Phonics 4 Babies: Baby’s First Words, 60 min., $14.98, www.anchorbayentertainment.com.
Way to Go, Juno, 40 min., $20, www.junobaby.com.
Preschoolers and up
Angelina Ballerina: Angelina Follows Her Dreams, 63 min., $14.98, www.hitshopusa.com.
Caillou’s Playschool Adventures, 90 min., $14.99, www.paramount.com.
Disney’s Little Einsteins: Legend of the Golden Pyramid, 72 min., $19.99, disneyvideos.disney.go.com.
Maggie and the Ferocious Beast: Somewhere in Nowhere Land, 45 min., $14.99, www.shoutfactory.com.
Ages 5 and up
Arthur and the Invisibles, 94 min., $28.95, www.geniusproducts.com.
Eloise Goes to School, 45 min., $14.98, www.anchorbayentertainment.com.
Gustafer Yellowgold’s Wide Wild World, 30 min., $15, www.gustaferyellowgold.com.
Suzi Shelton Live at Southpaw, 45 min., $20, www.suzishelton.com.
Ages 8 and up
Flight 29 Down: Vol. 1, 80 min., $14.95, www.geniusproducts.com.
Going to School in India, 76 min., $29.95, www.master-comm.com.
Hannah Montana: Pop Star Profile, 92 min., $19.99, disneyvideos.disney.go.com.
Baby Loves Jazz: Greatest Hits Volumes 1 & 2,
various artists, $16.99, www.baby lovesmusic.com.
Dream, Mae Robertson, $15, www.maerobertson.com.
Siente: Night Songs from Around the World, Hilary Field & Patrice O’Neill, $15.99,
Toddlers and up
Exercise Party: Stretchin’ and Jumpin’ Songs
for Young Children, various artists, $7.99,
Go Team Baby!, Joe McDermott, $12.98,
Putumayo Kids Presents Animal Playground: Playful Tracks From Around The World,
various artists, $14.98, www.putumayo.com.
Preschoolers and up
I Like Being Me!,
Lanny Sherwin, $12.98,
I Wanna Play: Songs by Bill Harley, Bill Harley, $15, www.billharley.com.
My Green Kite, Peter Himmelman, $14.98,
Never Mind the Rain, Tracey Eldridge, $15,
Play!, Milkshake, $14.99, www.milkshakemusic.com.
Ages 9 and up
Mommy Says No!, Asylum Street Spankers,
The Movement, The Figureheads, $16,
The Power of One, Patricia Shih, $15,
Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed, Twin Sisters Productions, $10.95, www.twinsisters.com.
Wickety Whack: Brer Rabbit Is Back, Diane Ferlatte, $15,
The Invention of Hugo Cabret,
written by Brian Selznick, read by Jeff Woodman, $29.95, ages 9 to 12, www.scholastic.com.
Peter and the Wolf, Magic Maestro Music, $16.98, ages 7 and up,
The Uglified Ducky, Willy Claflin, $14.95, www.willyclaflin.com.
Too Much Hair!, Donald Davis, $14.95, www.augusthouse.com.
Infants and toddlers
Amazing Baby: Clap and Sing!, by Emma Dodd and Mike Jolley, $12.95.
Farm Fun!, from Little, Brown/ALEX, $7.99.
Global Babies, by the Global Fund for Children, $6.95.
Little Scholastic: Peek-A-Zoo, from Scholastic, $10.99.
Wow Babies: First Words, by Wow Worldwide, $6.99.
Preschoolers and kindergartners
Am I a Color Too?, by Heidi Cole and Nancy Vogl, illustrated by Gerald Purnell, $15.95.
Brewster the Rooster, by Devin Scillian, illustrated by Lee White, $16.95.
Bye-Bye, Big Bad Bullybug!, by Ed Emberley, $10.99.
How to Be a Baby … by Me, the Big Sister, by Sally Lloyd-Jones, illustrated by Sue Heap, $15.99.
Today I Will Fly! – An Elephant and Piggie Book, by Mo Willems, $8.99.
Wolf! Wolf!, by John Rocco, $15.99.
Ages 6 and up
Ain’t Nobody a Stranger to Me, by Ann Grifalconi, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, $16.99.
The Great Smelly, Slobbery, Small-Tooth Dog: A Folktale from Great Britain, by Margaret Read MacDonald, illustrated by Julie Paschkis, $16.95.
Library Mouse, by Daniel Kirk, $15.95.
One Thousand Tracings: Healing the Wounds of World War II, by Lita Judge, $15.99.
365 Penguins, by Jean-Luc Fromental and Joëlle Jolivet, $17.95.
Ages 9 and up
Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney, $12.95.
Fred & Anthony Escape from the Netherworld, by Elise Primavera, illustrated by Esile Arevamirp, $14.99/$4.99 (paperback).
Middle School Is Worse than Meatloaf: A Year Told Through Stuff, by Jennifer L. Holm, illustrated by Elicia Castaldi, $12.99.
The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart, illustrated by Carson Ellis, $16.99.
The Name of This Book Is Secret, by Pseudonymous Bosch, $16.99.
Night of the Howling Dogs, by Graham Salisbury, $16.99.
This Is My Planet: The Kids’ Guide to Global Warming, by Jan Thornhill, $21.95/$10.95 (paperback).
What to Do When Your Braid Gets Stuck: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming OCD, by Dawn Huebner, illustrated by Bonnie Matthews, $14.95.
Ages 12 and up
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Ellen Forney, $16.99.
America Dreaming: How Youth Changed America in the ’60s, by Laban Carrick Hill, $19.99.
The Big Book of Pop Culture: A How-to Guide for Young Artists, by Hal Niedzviecki, illustrated by Marc Ngui, $24.95/$14.95 (paperback).
Blue Lipstick: Concrete Poems, by John Grandits, $15.
The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt, $16.
What in the World!: Wild, Weird and Wonderful Adventures of a Wanderer, by Michael Smith, $19.95.
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! – The Beatles, Beatlemania and the Music That Changed the World, by Bob Spitz, $18.99.
For the whole family
Chihuly Art Kit, Portland Press, $28.
The Encyclopedia of Immaturity, by the editors of Klutz, $19.95.
The Golden Rule, by Ilene Cooper, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska, $16.95.
600 Black Spots, by David A. Carter, $19.99.
Unplugged Play: No Batteries. No Plugs. Pure Fun, by Bobbi Conner, $29.95/$16.95 (paperback).