Parents these days aren't just interested in toys that pacify tiny tots; they want baubles that improve the quality of kids' lives. We spent a day with a pack of kids testing toys and have chosen the clear winners of this year's "Must Be Under the Christmas Tree" list. And don't fret, there's nothing so exotic on this list that you can't find it on Amazon.com, Toys "R" Us, or your friendly neighborhood toy store.
Leapstart Learning Gym
Without a doubt, Leapfrog has hopped over the backs of toy giants like Fisher-Price and Playskool with monumental jumps in educational toys. We applaud their efforts to reach even the youngest tot with toys like the Leapstart Learning Gym. This cute little gadget grows as your child does, introducing them to animal names, colors, numbers, and opposites -- and in five different languages, even.
Little Touch Leap Pad
Finally, replete with food for the imagination, Little Touch Leap Pad is the runaway hit of the season. A cousin of Leapfrog's original Leap Pad (for older kids) this little gadget was created to make books interactive and to send your child on a quest in the world of literature. Using a pen-like device, your child can point to illustrations and words to bring books to life, sounding out words and naming illustrations.
My Playhouse Theater
While Muppets may be out, puppets are back and ready to perform. And My Playhouse Theater (by ALEX Toys) is the place to be. Although a bit pricey, this puppetry set features a Punch and Judy-style stage that allows your special ones to entertain the masses (or you). In remembering that the key phrase for this generation of parents is "back to basics," it doesn't hurt that they'll save in batteries.
Mixing the old with the new, Gen X parents will go gaga over the DVD box set of Schoolhouse Rock tunes. Featuring all 46 classic songs in a DVD box set as well as a few new songs and learning games, the schoolhouse is ready to rock another generation. Still not sure? Ask any adult between the ages of 29-38, "Conjunction Junction, what's your function?" and your quandary will be settled.
As art imitates life so do toys. As proof we offer the YOUniverse ATM, a mock ATM (with card) that acts as a private bank that both collects and dispenses money with the swipe of a card. With a small screen this capitalist toy also keeps the cardholder aware of the amount stored and withdrawn. This is a great idea to teach your child how to manage their money - although the one foreseeable drawback is that if the one and only one card that comes with the set is lost, a replacement may be a bit hard to find. But that said we'd recommend it for those secretive pre-tweens.
So what is the average teenage boy lusting for under that Christmas tree? Trust me you don't want to know his first pick, but since he's not likely to get it anyway we can turn to Nintendo as a great second choice. With the release of Donkey Konga, the latest game in a long line of Donkey Kong versions, Nintendo is hoping to strike gold. And eureka, they just might have done just that. Donkey Konga comes equipped with a set of bongos that you can pound on to score points in the form of coins to the beat of songs like "Oye Como Va." The more you score, the more coins you collect. Once you collect enough money, you can buy other versions of the game and new tunes -- which are harder and harder to keep up with. The game appears to be geared toward the older set -- but is easy enough to be fun for all ages.
Password Journal 3
Alas, your young lady in training has put down the dolls and started pricing cell phones to begin what will be years of gossip and glam tips. It's time for a diary, but one that's updated for the digital age. Radica Games' Password Journal 3 is nothing like the journals of old that sported puny locks that little brothers and noisy moms had little trouble breaking into. Rather, the PJ3 is voice-coded so that only one person can access it. And beyond that little neat feature, the book totally rules with compartments to store rings in and a photo jacket cover that allows it to be decorated with your little girl's latest heartthrob. Yep, out with the old in with the new -- isn't that the name of a Britney Spears song?