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Some of the season’s hottest toys, like the new American Girl doll and the monstersized Lego Mindstorms, cost close to $200. But you don’t have to empty your bank account to make the kids happy this holiday season. ShopSmart magazine recently teamed up with toy expert Marianne Szymanski to find great gifts under $40 that the little ones will love to play with—and they might even learn a few things while they’re at it. (Shhhh, don’t tell them!) Szymanski is the creator of the independent Toy Tips Research Institute, which works with child-development experts, educators and other pros to identify toys that are good for kids’ educational and developmental growth.
The gifts listed below (and that will be mentioned in upcoming posts) can help stimulate children’s senses, help them to play nice with others, learn to read and recognize letters, be creative and even get up and move around. With the right toys in the toy box, playtime can be more than just fun, says Marvin W. Berkowitz, Ph.D., a child development psychologist and professor of character education at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “It also provides a safe zone to experiment with new skills and to work out emotional issues,” he says.
In addition to reviewing the toys for their developmental and play value, we had our safety experts look them over for things such as choking hazards and lead content. (Get the latest news about toy safety, and more toy safety tips for the playroom.)
You can find these toys in stores and at online retailers like Fat Brain Toys and Amazon.com. Wherever you shop, always read packages carefully so that you match the toy to the child’s age, skills and interests.
If you’re looking to buy one toy for the whole family, go with a game. Childhood favorites like Sorry and Monopoly are still going strong, and there are new educational and fun games worth checking out. These got high marks from the Toy Tips Research Institute: Apples to Apples, Bananagrams, Blokus and Cranium. Be sure to choose games that are age appropriate for the youngest member of the family and skill-appropriate for everybody else. A too-hard game will frustrate a kid who’s not at that skill level yet, and too much family Pictionary can frustrate anyone who struggles to draw stick figures. Two other good choices:
Pick-Up Words, $15.95 (ages 5+). It’s like an updated version of Pick-Up Sticks, but the sticks are made of eco-friendly bamboo and have words printed on them with vegetable ink. It’s a great test of hand-eye coordination for all ages, and for kids who are beginning to read, it’s an easy way to learn.
Ticket to Ride, $39 (ages 8+), takes children back in history as they ride the rails and race across North America to capture a make-believe million-dollar prize.
For more great toy advice, see our baby and child toy-shopping ideas.