Shoppers at Toys R Us Times Square in New York City Thanksgiving night. Photo by Todd Plitt, Photo Credit: USA Today
Every fall, several retail giants release their “hot toys” list, perhaps serving as a way to let parents know what their children expect to find under the Christmas tree. There’s not much on these lists that interests Beverly Wiginton, director of the Child Study Center at East Tennessee State University.
“I think that toys have certainly gotten much more sophisticated ... and technology has driven them tremendously. The thing that concerns me is being sure that children are getting what they need from toys, and I’m not sure that’s happening,” she said.
Kmart, Walmart, Toys “R” Us, online retailer Amazon and even the National Retail Federation (NRF) have listed the must-have toys for 2013, with Walmart’s predictions partly determined through the input of children. More than 44 percent of people polled by the NRF say they will buy toys for Christmas.
Wiginton encourages parents to look for toys that promote hands-on, active participation play.
“They need responses from whatever they’re interacting with to continue. They need interactions with other people. Many of the [current] toys, you push a button and a bell goes off and that’s all the interaction. Children’s brains develop through interactions with people and things in their world. That’s what creates those connections in the world,” she said. “You can look at any birthday party or Christmas opening of presents and the children pull the toy out of the box, then they lay that aside and play with the box and wrapping paper and bow. That is so open-ended. There are so many things you can do with those materials, as opposed to that one object.”
Wiginton said she doesn’t buy gifts according to what the box recommends.
“The box will say this toy is good for children ages zero to 3 or ages 4 to 12. That’s a marketing ploy. I want to be sure the toy can be used in different ways and addresses various levels of development — physical, social, language, cognition,” she said. “Parents are good at knowing what kids can mentally handle. I would get small versions of real things, like pots and pans, baby dolls and strollers, and even cell phones. Play versions of real things. They mimic so much of what adults do in their lives.”
The last thing a parent should do, she said, is hand a child a toy and say, “Go play by yourself.” Instead, parents should interact with their kids, building on what they already know.
“Books are always a great choice,” she said. “Also, think about safety, making sure that parts don’t come off, they’re too small and create a choking hazard. Children play hard with toys so make sure they’re durable and hold up to the repetitious use.”
Several toys make appearances on multiple “hot toys” lists for this Christmas. Wiginton evaluated five toys:
• Big Hugs Elmo. “Elmo loves giving you hugs,” the beloved Sesame Street character will tell your child. Squeeze his foot and he’ll ask your child to pretend they’re horses or astronauts.
Wiginton wonders how long it will take for children to tire of the repeated suggestions, and says she’d probably buy a stuffed Elmo or a puppet Elmo, and purchase an Elmo book to go along with it.
• Sofia the First Royal Talking Vanity. Sofia the First is a computer-animated television series based on the Disney Princess franchise. The vanity is the perfect way to get ready for the royal ball. The set plays six lessons to teach you how to act like a princess.
“There again, we know that young adults have such issues with self-image. I would think that maybe its giving really positive messages, but it’s a vanity and vanities don’t talk. I would say thumbs-down,” Wiginton said.
• Doc McStuffins Deluxe Get Better Check-Up Center. Another product of the Disney Co., this play center allows your child to use his or her imagine as they heal their toys, their dolls and even mom and dad. The play set includes the checkup center, otoscope, reflex hammer, syringe, roll of stickers, two X-rays, scale, Lambie figurine, cell phone, and three peg board holders.
“Role playing is great for children and certainly that socio-dramatic play helps them take on different roles, so with a doctor’s kit, they could interact with other children or family members, or dolls or stuffed animals as their patients,” Wiginton said. “Maybe a thumbs-up.”
• Flutterbye Flying Fairy. This small toy, by Spin Master, has been described as “essentially an indoor toy helicopter with a plastic fairy body.” The fluttering panels of the fairy’s dress act as the helicopter wings. Flutterbye comes with the fairy and a recharging station and requires six AA batteries. A PC? Mag.com ? reviewer noted that the toy flies higher than expected, can fly in unpredictable directions, and can get tangled in a little girl’s hair.
“Fairies and princess are certainly attractive to young girls,” Wiginton said. “I might suggest buying wings for dramatic play, and let the child be a flutter f a i r y. ”
• Nerf Rebelle Heartbreaker Bow Blaster. The Bow Blaster fires colorful foam darts up to 75 feet and is decorated with pink and purple phoenix feathers.
“That’s so stereotypical. I don’t even know if I have an opinion on that,” Wiginton said.
Wiginton encourages parents to find other ways to help their children develop their gross motor skills.
“There are so many other things out there like a ball, a ball and a laundry basket. I know families like to buy the latest and greatest toys, and our stores do a wonderful job of marketing those latest and greatest toys. Most of the time, simple is best. It’s that big cardboard box, that basket of scarves and balls and things that children can create their own games,” she said. “Children learn best though playing with opened-ended materials, and letting them decide the direction they’re going to take their play, as opposed to pushing a button and the fairy flies and you have to duck when it comes toward you.”
The Sofia the First Royal Talking Vanity and the Doc Mc-Stuffins Deluxe Get Better Check-Up Center made Walmart’s, Kmart’s and Toys “R” Us’ top toys list. Toys that made two of the three lists include Big Hugs Elmo, Nerf Rebelle Heartbreaker Bow Blaster, FurReal Friends Cuddles My Giggly Monkey Pet, Disney Planes Pilot Pals Dusty Crophopper Remote Control Plane and the Flutterbye Flying Fairy Doll.