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SmartMax My First Tractor Set ($24.99) • The 22-piece set features magnetic, oversized pieces easy to move around and put together with other SmartMax sets. Parents and kids seemed drawn to this, especially Brooks. His mom, Kelli McKee, liked that the magnets were easy to use "so he can be creative and build things." Grace also loved playing with this toy. "She likes farm animals," said mom Kristi Lenz.
VTech Go! Go! Smart Wheels Launch and Chase Police Tower ($39.99) • While every kid in the group seemed to like zooming the cars down the ramps, putting them in "jail" and even racing them, Mila couldn't get enough of this toy. "She loves cars," said her dad, Mark. "And this really holds her attention."
Playskool Friends Sesame Street Feed Me Cookie Monster ($29.99) • The kids got a kick out of Cookie Monster jiggling (with joy?) as they fed him a cookie, and they liked hearing his voice and catch phrases.
KD Kids Infinifun My First Yoga Mat ($49.99) • Though one mom from an older group said she would buy this toy for her yoga-loving toddler, the kids in this test group weren't interested in it. Even when parents showed them how to use it (you hit a pose button on the soft mat and it tells you how to do it), they seemed to walk away.
Melissa & Doug Food Truck Indoor Corrugated Playhouse ($49.99) • If the kids were voting this may have been the winner, but when the parents saw that the play ice cream and food the kids were playing with were from another toy, and when they saw their kids ripping the steering wheel off because it, like the rest of the playhouse, is cardboard, they were leery.
VTech Go! Go! Smart Wheels Minnie Ice Cream Parlor ($29.99) • While this had some of the same features as the VTech winner in this group, it was smaller and the ramps weren't quite as cool, which is why kids gravitated to the other one. Mila did however, like the Minnie in the car this came with and used it on the other toy.
Crayola Kids@Work Action Blocks 115-piece Crayon Tube by Amloid ($21.97) • Little hands take to bigger blocks easier, and this big crayon caught the eye of several of our testers who, along with their parents, liked that there were gears and whirly-gigs in addition to big blocks. Available at Walmart stores.
Tonka Mighty Builders Deluxe Construction Tire Case Set ($29.99) • Packaged in a handy tire case that doubles as a foundation, this set from Amloid uses bricks and figures to engage kids in imaginative play. Many of the kids liked the toy; the parents weren't so sure about the curved track, which didn't lock in place and kept coming apart.
Little Tikes Totsports Easy Hit golf set ($26.99) • One of Amazon's hot toys of the year, this toddler-size golf set was fun for many of the kids, especially Christopher who jumped up and down when his dad played with him. A few of them did however wield the golf club as more of a bat, hockey stick or club.
American Plastic Toys Recycling Truck ($24.99) • Teach your kids how to protect the environment with this role-playing truck. It's big, more than 2 feet long, so the kids played with this by pushing it on their knees. They loved to load other toys in it and dump them out.
Flipslide by Moose Toys ($19.99) • This color-matching, light-up electronic game has several variations, with sides that you flip and slide until you match the colors in the middle. It’s kind of a combination of Rubik’s cube and Simon, and was one of Jack’s favorites. He said it helped him use his critical thinking skills. It can be a little loud, but the volume is adjustable. Parents liked this toy as well, and liked that it was small and portable.
Nerf Laser Ops Pro AlphaPoint 2-Pack by Hasbro ($44.99) • Buy more sets of these laser tag game toys for the ultimate team laser tag experience. This set also comes with rubber armbands to hold a phone, where players can use an app to check out real-time battle intel and locate opponents. Amaré took to these guns right away, and his mom, Brittinni Vaughn, liked that there were no projectiles to clean up. Parents liked the play value for the price, and that kids and adults could play together.
Creative Cafe Barista Bar by Rose Art ($29.99) • This playset actually froths milk to concoct coffee house treats and comes with a small packet of chocolate and strawberry flavoring. Margot and Lenore flocked to this right away and played with it together. They said it was fun and actually frothed the milk, though it tasted “disgusting,” Lenore said. “I don’t think I’m ever going to be a barista,” quipped Margot. We couldn’t get the frother to work again after a few kids played with it.
Story Blox: The Island - E-Blox LED Light-Up Building Blocks Stories ($54.99) • This building block set includes tin-plated blocks that conduct electricity; a battery pack powers other blocks to light up. Build different sets as you follow a story in the book, and scan QR codes for an even more interactive experience. The kids didn’t pay attention to these, though. Jack’s mom said he would probably enjoy following the directions to make the different models.
Spygear I-nite clip-on night vision camera ($49.99) • This night-vision camera requires an app on your phone to use and did work in a dark hallway. Nobody seemed too excited by it or the other Spygear we had out: a Secret Voice Changer ($9.99) and a Secret Motion Radar Detector ($29.99). In a crowded, loud room it was hard to get the voice changer and radar detector to work effectively.
12V Nighthawk by Rollplay ($149.99) • This sit-upon motorized toy zooms up to 6 mph and handles riders up to 110 pounds. Margot gave this a whirl out in the hallway. “It works really fast, and it’s hard to control,” she said. “It’s really fun, though.” The battery is rechargeable, and it weighs nearly 28 pounds, so something to consider when finding a spot to charge and stash it.
Adventure Force Tactical Strike Quantum Motorized Team Competition Ball Blaster ($49.98) • We had to warn our older testers to aim away from the toddlers: this motorized gun, a Walmart exclusive, fires small foam balls that sting a little. Jack had a hard time getting it to work, but once he did, he thought the balls shot fast and far — and he said they didn’t hurt. The gun also jammed, and parents worried about small children or animals ingesting the balls.
Max Flex RC 300 Combo Edition ($99.99) • This car racing set comes with flexible, jointed tracks that are easy to adjust and connect. The cars light up on the undercarriage and leave light trails on the tracks, which we didn’t get to see in the lighted room. Kids flocked to the track right away, and a couple said it was their favorite, even when the cars flew off the track and the bridge supports fell over. Even for the price, Amaré's mom thought it was worth it because you could add to it.
Zoom Tubes Car Trax ($29.99) • This tube-shaped car-racing set looked intimidating out of the box but was fairly easy to put together and adjust. Charging the light-up car was trickier, and once we got it to work, it looked cool speeding through the tube — when it didn’t get stuck. Testers said it needed more track for a true “wow” factor. A cat might like it.
Skeeball by Buffalo Games ($34.99) • This Target-exclusive toy was a snap to take out of the box and set up. We placed it on the floor against the wall so the wooden balls wouldn’t go everywhere. Jack said he liked it more than he thought he would and it was one of his favorites, but other kids didn’t pay much attention to it.
My Pix Perfect ($59.99) • Rev up your vacuums and toughen your fingertips, kids: this set comes with more than 8,000 sequins and more than 500 tiny plastic pegs to place in a pegboard before you start making your shimmery design. But, if you work at it, the end result could look cool — and you can undo your unicorn design and make a poop emoji. Kids didn’t pay attention to this toy during our test, but a meticulous, crafty one might enjoy it. Lenore’s mom thought it would be great for tuning fine motor skills. Said Margot: “If it’s 60 bucks, it’s not worth it.”
Don’t Lose Your Cool by Hasbro Games ($19.99) • Place the plastic “Cool-o-Meter” on your head and players roll the dice to come up with crazy challenges to see how you’ll react. If you “lose your cool,” an alarm sounds. Kids had trouble calibrating the meter and getting it to stay on their heads. Lenore liked trying to get her mom to lose her cool and made some impressive chimpanzee sounds in the process, but for the most part, this was a dud.
Athena Necklace Kit by Linkt Craft Kits ($19.99) • Mom or grandma might actually wear the necklaces you can make with the hundreds of metal loops that come with this set. This is geared for an older, meticulous kid, but directions were simple. Margot said she wouldn’t wear the necklaces herself but might give them as a gift.
Pai Technology Augie Code Your Own Adventure with Augie, The Augmented Reality Coding Robot ($199.99) • This robot works with an iPad (or Android: Galaxy Tab S2 or newer) and was a bit tricky to set up, and has more capabilities if you have a wireless connection. You can make it bark or honk, pave a path for it to travel or get it to shoot virtual monsters in its path. Kids who tested this liked it, and Lenore’s mom, Karin Upwood, found it intuitive. Margot liked that she could record her voice on it and send it into another room. “I can make it talk to my brother,” she said.
Playmobil Aquarium ($60.00) • This award-winning aquarium play set can add another notch to its belt. It was a clear winner with this age group. Playmobil combined its attention to detail and sturdy construction with an engaging water toy. It's no surprise that each tester spent considerable time playing with it. The set comes with three figures, seals, fish and lots of sea creatures. The figures can be positioned to stand on the visitors bridge while a sea lion jumps through the hoop or balances a ball on his nose. There's even an underwater viewing area that looks hyper-realistic. Parents who are averse to potential messes might be concerned by the amount of water it takes to fill the aquarium halfway, but we didn't experience any leaks during two hours of playing.
Disney Princess Pop-up Palace ($49.95) • Children gravitate toward popular characters they recognize, and the Disney princesses always draw a crowd. This detailed castle triples as playset, storage and carrying case. It opens up and extends into a royal castle with various room settings, including four different themed areas with movie-inspired accessories like a shell-shaped bathtub, a rose-detailed table and chair, a royal lounge seat and kitchen stove. Parents appreciated the compact portability and the price point, while children enjoyed pretend play. Be forewarned: No dolls are included in the set.
V-Tech DigiArt Spirals and Sounds ($19.99) • This is an electronic art board that includes four animal stencils, five spiral gears and one marker. You add a piece of letter-sized paper under the frame and insert the marker into one of the gears and create the design. The talk button shares fun facts and rhymes about animals, and music mode plays melodies. This could be a fun toy for a budding artist.
Leapfrog Go with Me ABC Backpack ($29.99) • This is a portable, pack-up-and-go learning toy that helps reinforce letters and sounds for young children. There are seven different activity modes in this compact learning game. It is colorful and visual and easy to follow along with the instructions. However, many of the preschool-aged children in this age group were already very familiar with their alphabet and lost interest after a few minutes. It may be better suited for those who are just beginning pre-literacy skills.
Chewbacca Interactive by Hasbro ($129.99) • Star Wars fans might be intrigued by this interactive figure that responds, reacts and raises its arms and roars. There are more than 100 motion and sound combinations. There weren't any die-hard fans in our group of testers, and one little girl said she found Chewie "scary." Parents said it seemed pretty expensive for what looked like a "one-trick pony."
Fisher-Price Think and Learn Rocktopus ($59.99) • There are some toys that parents want to love because they seem to have so much creative potential. The Rocktopus is one of those toys. It plays the sounds of 15 different musical instruments in five different styles, and children can create their own songs on it. There are also three different play modes. However, it wasn't engaging enough by itself to hold the attention of our testers for long. It may be better suited for an adult to guide a young child or play along, but not ideal for independent play.
Baby Alive Real As Can Be ($89.99) • Preschoolers, and even those a little younger and older, love baby dolls. This Baby Alive is a high-end, interactive version that makes more than 80 lifelike expressions, movements and real baby sounds. She turns her head, closes her eyes when rocked and will wiggle around in a child's arms. She was a hit with several girls and comes with a removable outfit, hat, bib, blanket, pacifier, bottle. Parents might balk at the price, but the Baby Alive brand has been a perennial favorite in this category.
Thomas the Tank Engine Big Loader Playset ($39.99) • Thomas brand train sets are usually a big hit with this age group, but this one was a bust. It comes with a transforming vehicle chassis and three different bodies, but none of them stayed on securely. There are eight feet of track included, but again, this fell apart quickly. This set wasn't up to the level of quality we are used to seeing from this brand, and the children didn't spend long with the toy, either.
Pop Oh Ver Kitchen Stove Set ($39.95) • This seems like a brilliant idea. You can slip a cover over an ordinary chair and transform it into a cooking play space. The chair turns into a pretend stove and microwave. We added play food, pots, pans and chef attire. (The accessories made by the is brand are among the highest quality we have seen anywhere.) For children used to a big, fancy play kitchen at home, this may seem like small potatoes. But for those looking to fit a portable and lightweight kitchen play area into a tight space, this fits the bill.
Space Odyssey Playhouse ($100.00) • Kids can explore the galaxy with this foldable play set by designer dad Luis Albarrán. It is made from plastic and recycled cardboard and require assembly. Also included are some accessories like space goggles, jet packs and teleporter arm bands. The toy testers in our preschool group were a little nervous about entering the shuttle, which looks a little dark inside. One child said it was "scary" and stayed away from it altogether.
Calico Critters Grand Department Store ($129.99) • This department store play set is so realistic it has a working lift and revolving door. The attention to details is obvious with all the miniature accessories that come with it, including: boutique fashion set, cosmetic beauty set, fashion showcase set and a chocolate lounge. The pieces and décor are beautiful, and both girls in this group loved playing with it. However, their parents felt the price tag was just too steep for a play set.
Furreal Munchin' Rex ($38.99) • FurReal is known for its interactive pet toys, and they ventured into the dino game with this one. The baby dino has many sound and motion combinations. He hops and chomps on various treats. He loves his bottle but may not like his broccoli or caveman cookie. The kids were mildly curious but abandoned Rex pretty quickly.
American Plastic Toys My Very Own Nursery ($19.99) • This standard, colorful plastic nursery set includes a crib, sink and high chair combo with cabinet doors for storage and a spinning mobile for baby dolls. The baby doll is not included, so we provided one, the Cry Babies Lea doll. However, our testers were distracted by the other, more detailed play sets and largely ignored this one.
Playmobil Hidden Temple with T-Rex ($59.99) • This was the clear winner with our testers. Each of the children played with this set for extended periods, both alone and together, and also incorporating the other toys into their play. Eemmaus really loves dinosaurs and wished the set came with more than one. Annie, his mom, said the set also fell apart easily, which was frustrating. Whitney liked it because "you can do a lot with the characters, like go on adventures and look for treasure."The set comes with a temple with a functioning pulley and portcullis, a T-Rex, three people figures and a dog. There are also accessories for the characters, including binoculars, backpacks, pivoting LED laser gun, and a map that reacts to heat when touched. An UV flashlight included in the set activates UV-reactive features on the temple.
Barbie Ultimate Kitchen Playset ($49.99) • Complete with various cooking "appliances" and utensils, and several colors of "Barbie Dough," this set was an instant hit with our testers. The kitchen includes a stovetop with light and sound, an oven and several food molds necessary to make a Barbie-sized feast. Sydney and Whitney spent significant time playing together with the set, and returned to it after testing other toys
Little Live Pets My Dancing Unicorn ($17.79) • Sparkles lived up to her name — walking and "dancing" with her light-up horn when activated. Sparkles also makes sounds and has hair that can be combed with the included brush. Our testers quickly incorporated it into their play with the Playmobil and Barbie sets. Sydney said it was her favorite toy because of how it moved and used the horn.
Botley the Coding Robot ($79.99) • This little robot from Learning Resources is a fun introduction to if/then coding language. Botley comes with a remote, programming cards and several items that can be used to set up obstacles or games. Botley has cute sounds, though they were hard to hear with the noise in the testing room. The recommended age is listed as 5+, but the instructions were too complicated for the young readers to navigate alone. Once explained, our youngest testers had no trouble using basic functions on the remote. Parents gave it mixed reviews, saying it seemed fun, educational and a toy likely to grow with their child, but noted a steep learning curve.
Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Tank ($29.99) • The testers on our age group didn't show a lot of love for the turtle tank. While the shooting function was a hit and the kids were able to open and close the truck cab with ease, raising and lowering the tank portion with the ladder proved trickier. Samuel Martin, Sydney's dad, said the quality felt cheap, and several parents were surprised to hear that none of the turtle figures were included, but each sold separately. During the free play portion, a couple of Ninja Turtles fans from the 3-5 age group were more excited to play with it.
Circuit Conductor ($69.99) • Through a free app downloaded to a phone or tablet, Circuit Conductor uses increasingly difficult puzzles and colorful diagrams to teach kids how electrical currents and circuits work. Using the pieces provided, kids can build circuits that make a fan spin or turn on a light. Our testers and parents found the app difficult to use, and the magnetic connections that held pieces together became easily disconnected when adding new items to the circuit.
Trix Trux ($19.99) • The truck and track were an instant draw for several of our testers. Trix Trux comes with a rope track and several obstacles for the truck to tackle. The truck conquered several of the obstacles, though it often got stuck or jumped the track and took off across the room. The aerial zipline was not as easy to use as it appeared and the truck fell off more often then not. Despite these hiccups, testers were undeterred and seemed eager to make the car try again.
LEGO The Powerpuff Girls Bubbles’ Playground Showdown ($19.99) • Sydney's dad, Samuel, said it was one of her favorites. The set features a spinning merry-go-round, slide with ladder, a flexible mesh suit with two stud shooters, lockers with opening doors and a lunch bench with a catapult. Bubbles and Princess Morbucks minifigures, and an Octi figure, are included.
MagicPad ($19.99) • Drawing on the clear screen of the MagicPad was fun even without the lights on, but it's the eight different lighting features that set it apart. It comes with three two-sided markers, a cloth for erasing and 30 cards that can be slid into the frame behind the screen for tracing or playing games. Sydney used one of the cards to make part of a picture before moving onto another toy. Compact and portable, several parents said they could see using it for long car rides or at a restaurant.
Mobo Triton bike ($299.99) • This three-wheeled cruiser uses handles to steer with the back wheels. Each of our testers took it for a spin down a wide (but not wide enough) hallway. Without a wide open space, it was difficult to get a feel for the steering and braking, though each of our testers enjoyed it. Their parents like it, too. Amanda, Lucas's mom, said she could see him being more willing to ride the cruiser style than his regular bike.
Sticky the Plunger with Sticky the Poo + Target ($21.99) • Throw two sticky plungers and a sticky poo emoji at a toilet target to see who gets closest to the center. Or, place a photo of an unfortunate friend into the pocket on the target and take aim. The appeal of the game was short-lived, though it did elicit giggles from the kids and a few groans from the parents.
Plus-Plus Open Play tube ($6.99) • Create buildings, animals — any structure you an imagine using small, colorful shapes that look like two plus signs stuck together. Plus-plus are sold in tubes with various color combinations, or in sets aimed at building something specific. Our testers were encouraged to build freely and experiment with how the pieces fit together, but none was interested in building for long.