I had hoped to crank out a buyer's guide, but there are plenty of other sites out there rounding up the data that lil' ol' me couldn't compete. Instead, I want to suggest a few toys that I have found to be ideal for kids. That's a tough claim: "ideal." Really, is there an ideal? Everyone is different, right? Well, let's look at the opposite of ideal. Toys NOT to get:
* Videogames above the recommended age level of your kids. I know it is easy to think "well, it's a game, they'll pick it up," but all too often this merely teaches a kid how to get frustrated. And unless you're willing to coach them through this (one of the big advantages of real, live sports for kids) you're going to wind up doing psychic damage to their brains. I recommend parents start renting and playtesting games for months beforehand. Seriously. You'll find even some games that are age-appropriate are still crummy games that a kid won't play. I thought "Cosmic Family" was safe for my 6 year-old, but the voices on the game are recorded so poorly that some of the instructions get garbled -- making play time VERY painful!
* Messy crafts designed for repeat play. Messy crafts are one thing. Messy crafts that pretend to have a lot of replay value are usually a scam. I grew up in love with slime-based toys. But the slime dried out, and the toys that got covered in it just got boring afterward. The worst culprit: Moon Sand. AVOID MOON SAND! It gets into everything, just like sand, but doesn't hold together as well as Play-doh. Worse, the TV ads make it look like you should combine the colors, but that winds up eventually looking like pinkish puke. Again, it is a mess and not a formable as traditional doughs... so keep clear
* Extravagant gifts! Maybe this goes without saying, but I wouldn't go spoiling your kids in the face of an uncertain economic future. Sure, those robot dinosaurs and ponies and puppies look great and kids crave 'em, but unless you really have money to burn I say avoid them. Even if they take rechargeable batteries (which some don't!), the replay value is much lower than you think. Why? Because the pre-programmed behaviors pale in comparison to a child's imagination. Like a game that's too easy, once they have discovered all the "modes" (games, or behaviors or actions, etc.) the kid gets bored with it quick. Well, until another kid comes over and gets jealous. That doesn't end well, usually.
So what are safe bets? What are toys that almost every kid out there WILL enjoy? Here's my 2-cents:
* Games for the family. I know, you have to actually PLAY with your kids once in a while. But a good tabletop game will do more for your family than an hour or two of therapy. Get a classic, learn the rules, and explain them carefully to the kids. Be patient, explain that it's all about having fun, win or lose, and enjoy yourself. I think if every family in America spent an hour or two each week sitting and playing a game with their kids we'd all be better off. While I'm tempted to include "party" videogames in this, I won't. The lights and sounds tend to make kids twitchy, and miss the fun if they lose.
* If your kids are between 5 and 10, get GeoTrax. From about 7 or 8 and up, get more LEGO's, or anything they can use to BUILD stuff. We bought GeoTrax a couple of years ago, when my son was really a little too young for them. Now he's 5, and he's making some amazing tracks. He'll spend hours playing with our 3 containers of tracks! Usually it helps to get a starter pack and see if they like it. Some kids like more free-form (like Magnetix or LEGO) and some prefer more structured, like tracks or construction sets.
* Educational toys or books. Again, this won't make you a hero to your kid, but if you sit down and play with them, it will mean more than Santa pooping on your doorstep. Build a volcano, read a book or teach them crosswords. This is not only cheaper than private school, it brings you together and creates trust in learning. Win-win!
I will note there are some creative-play Wii games out there. One we've found that is great: Boom Blox. My kids love making things. The puzzles, while challenging, are still fun and not too hard. I think Boom Blox is a great pick if you're "supposed" to get a videogame!
Close runner-up was the Alien Maker (Martian Matter) kit, but after the kids ran through the materials in a couple of weeks, it has fallen off the radar. Unlike a Play-doh set, there's not much to do after making the things. Plus, those supplies add up if your kids want to barrel through the aliens.