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.
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.
Meet our testers
Grace Lenz, 2, Manchester
Mila Peralta, 2, South St. Louis County
Christopher Caldwell III, 3, Florissant
Brooks Wolf , 3, St. Louis
Graham Shapiro, 4, Chesterfield
Veda Rentschler, 4, St. Louis
Aliyah Cruts, 4, St. Louis
Cooper Dixon , 5, Breese
Whitney Murray, 7, St. Ann
Lucas Ferling, 7, Defiance
Emmaus Tzeng, 8, Ladue
Sydney Martin, 8, Maryland Heights
Amaré Barnes, 9, Florissant
Lenore Upwood, 9, St. Louis
Jack Grigaitis, 10, Frontenac
Margot Schusky, 10, Collinsville