What makes a great Christmas toy?

christmas toy


The papers are full of this year’s favourite Xmas toys, but even if your kids want these, are they likely to be playing with them much past Boxing Day? How do you know what is going to become a favourite and what will end up on the scrap heap with the wrapping paper? Workingmums looks at the issues and gives some tips.

If you read the papers, this year’s top Christmas toys are likely to be a mix of Barbie [it’s her 50th birthday], Hannah Montana, the Star Wars Force Trainer, Spa Factory [how to make your own beauty products], Transformers Bumblebee Helmet and Furreal Animals.

But even if your kids want these, are they likely to be playing with them much past Boxing Day? How do you know what is going to become a favourite and what will end up on the scrap heap with the wrapping paper?

Well, according to child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer it is important to distinguish between the ‘wow’ factor – which can be due more to packaging and promotion than the intrinsic quality of a toy – and repeat play value.

She says novelty is a great attraction for children, but adds: “A really good toy goes beyond the novelty appeal and quickly establishes itself as a favourite, being played with over and over again – in different settings and with different people.”

Parents usually put an emphasis on educational value in toys, she says, as well as something that will keep their child occupied alone or encourage them to play with their siblings, which can in turn help with their development. She adds that a toy’s versatility can be a boon. The more different ways it can be played with and at different ages, the longer it lasts and the better value for money it seems to parents.

Gender stereotyping

Some parents are concerned about the way certain toys seem to be very gender stereotyped. Walk into any toy shop and the divide between pink and action heroes is a gulf. Is this merely cashing in on children’s natural tendencies or exaggerating them? Dr Gummer, an active member of the National Toy Council, says confronting it can be a big gamble for toy makers and may be one they are unwilling to take. However, she says that some, for instance, role playing toys, such as military role play products and farm toys, which encourage young boys to develop the social skills that they traditionally lack compared to their female counterparts, or science kits about make-up for girls could, if well-designed and marketed properly, “be incredibly valuable and become part of every well-balanced toy box”.

Sally Whittle, the force behind parents’ toy review blogging site The Great Toy Guide , says quite a few of the toys which are topping children’s wish list this year are not as good as they are cracked up to be. Parents who blog on her site, which has been going for around four months, test the toys on their own children and write up a review. “Something can look really amazing in the adverts, but parents can see it is the way it is lit or shot,” she says. She cites the Transformers Bumblebee Helmet, which didn’t win a very favourable review on the site. “It looks amazing in the tv ad,” she says, “but we thought it was the biggest disappointment ever. It sounds like you are talking through a really bad microphone.”

She does recommend some of the top sellers, though, including the Furreal Lulu kitten and chimp which are under £40. “They are reasonably well made, they do a lot of things and children keep on playing with them,” says Sally.

Ages and stages

Dr Gummer says toys need to be judged according to the ages and stages at which children are. She says: “Due to developmental constraints, children value different types of toy at different ages (for instance, familiarity is very important to 2-5 year olds as their world is changing quickly and they often seek reassurance, so, given a choice, they tend to favour things with which they are familiar. For a product to be successful it has to have consistency between the physical and cognitive skills required and be designed, packaged and marketed to the appropriate age group.”

She recommends bright-coloured, multi-textured toys that enable children to engage with the world and exert some control for children under 1. For 1-3 year olds she recommends toys which allow a child to play with them in their own way, such as lego, as well as those which can be played with as well as played on, such as bikes with trailers.

For 3-6 year olds games and toys which enchance their feelings of control are good in a world where they are starting school and peer pressure is coming into play. Toys like Zoob and Sylvanian Families promote confidence, decision-making skills and help children feel empowered by providing them with a safe environment in which they can make the rules, she says. “This helps them resolve difficulties they are having in real life and provides a safe environment for them to explore different outcomes.”

For 6-10 year olds hi-tech toys like Rubik’s cube are more appealing as they know there will be a reward at the end if they persist. Toys which promote creativity and self expression can enhance their emerging sense of self, as do toys which encourage role play.

Children aged 10 to 14 are, she says, “often figuring out their prescribed identity and looking for ways in which to express themselves”. She suggests things like Paper FX which enables children to make their own objects and express themselves through customisation.

Top tips

Sally Whittle says her own top tips for this year, based on age group, are as follows:

Babies – Sally recommends the Bamba Baby Signing Kit, from around £29.99. “It’s gorgeous,” she says. “Beautifully made and cute. The very young will appreciate it as a toy and they can role play taking care of the monkey that comes with it. Then there is a pamphlet that parents can use to teach baby signing so from seven to eight months they can learn to sign things like when they are hungry.”

Children aged four upwards: Playmobil pyramid, around £55 upwards. “It fits Key Stage One objectives,” says Sally. “There’s lots to it and it is good quality. Some of the other play sets around don’t have a lot to them, but this has lots of figures, secret rooms, booby traps and the like and you can add to it by buying a robber set or a set of camels.”

Also highly recommended is Lego’s range of board games like Lego Minotaurus, price around £15. The games have a Lego base and you build them yourself. “You play in the maze and the minotaur chases you,” says Sally. “It’s a good game and has a competitive element, but it’s also good for fine motor skills as you get to build it. Kids adore it and it’s more fun than just getting Lego blocks.”

For children aged over five Sally highly recommends the maxi micro scooter, price around £90, a development on the mini micro scooter for younger children. “It’s so beautifully made and so light and easy to use and it means you are encouraging kids to get out and about, plus you can customise it with add-ons.”

For younger cyclists, she says LIKEaBIKE [around £130, but there are cheaper alternatives] is brilliant for teaching children from 18 months up to balance on a bike so they don’t need to go through the stabiliser phase. It’s basically a wooden push bike that you scoot along the ground on then you can start taking your feet off the floor when you get your balance right. “Younger kids can keep up with you when you’re out and about. My daughter used it and we did not need a pushchair after she was two,” says Sally.

Finally, if you have a girl who likes dolls, there is a new 2009 version of Baby Annabel, price £39.99, which drinks real water from a bottle and has a sheep which sings a lullaby which she responds to.

Happy shopping!

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