Toy story

Tara Bradbury
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A team of toddlers — and a couple of teens — take on this year's top toys

Santa’s got just 10 days before the big day and if he’s not finished making his list by this time, he’d better get a move on.

To make it a little easier for him, I put together a panel of mini-testers — and some adult-sized testers, too — to try out some of the season’s top toys available locally. Ranging in age from 11 months to 15 years, the kids and their parents put some of the holiday’s best-selling items from toy giants Mattel and Hasbro through their paces.

Out of the dozen or so toys tested, the most popular, beyond a doubt — and the only one the youngest kids fought over — was Follow Me Thomas ($49.99). Made by Mattel under the Fisher-Price brand, it’s a larger, chunkier version of Thomas the Train that comes with a lantern/flashlight; when the children point and move the light on the floor, Thomas follows it. At the press of a button, Thomas can also do circles, zig-zags and figure eights.

According to Mattel toy expert Riza Javellana, Follow Me Thomas is selling far beyond the company’s expectations, due in part, she reckons, to the gadgets involved.

“Aside from Thomas being Thomas, it’s just the technology behind this one: it’s remote control in a sense, but you can really see kids react to the fact that Thomas is following them,” she said. “Kids generally like flashlights to begin with, so to have that opportunity to have Thomas follow you as you shine a light is just really cool.”

At just about 16 months, my son, Malachy, is younger than the recommended age for Follow Me Thomas (two and up), but the toy has no small parts, and since he was visibly shaking with excitement upon seeing a Thomas that big, I couldn’t say no. He had no trouble catching on to how to use it (and doubled his fun by later getting our cat to chase the light), and enjoyed playing with a switched-off Thomas, pushing him along the floor. Thomas was a hit among all the testers, both boys and girls, especially those aged three and under.

Another winner among the tiniest of the testers was Mattel’s Little Zoomers Spinnin’ Sounds Speedway ($49.99). Advertised for babies aged six months to 36 months, the toy includes race cars with roller balls that make rattle sounds when shaken. When the cars are rolled down the race ramp and into the light-up speedway, they race around until the spinning action spills them onto the exit ramp. The speedway has music, car noises, flashing lights: everything to grab a baby’s attention, and it kept the youngest testers occupied — and playing co-operatively — for a good while. The speedway worked with other non-Mattel toy cars, and the music and lights shut off after a short while without parents having to turn them off manually.

Mattel’s Little Mommy Play All Day doll ($49.99) is a sweet, blond-haired dolly, also with built-in technology: she recognizes different positions and movements, and responds with phrases and sounds. If you rock her, she might start to snore; bounce her up and down and she’ll say, “I like to hop like a bunny!” My niece Kylie, almost two, loved the doll, although her mom,

Nichole Harding Bradbury, wasn’t quite as enthusiastic.

I had an idea what was coming when the courier who delivered the doll to me dropped it off, saying, “For the love of God, whatever’s in this box, take it!” The doll’s switch, on her back, underneath her clothes, had accidentally been switched on during transit, and she spent all morning in a courier van, saying, “Whoooa!” every time the driver went over a bump in the road.

“This doll does talk, and talk, and talk, and talk,” Nichole said. “But it is really unique how she knows when she’s doing a tumble or is upside down. Kylie seems to think that’s really fun.”

I was never quite sure what Hasbro’s Beyblades were; until now, all I knew was that at one point, every Letter to Santa from a pre-teen boy published in The Telegram asked for them. My oldest tester, Johnathon — who once was one of those pre-teen boys — explained them to me: spin tops that players use to battle each other.

“You put two in there, they hit off each other, and it’s whichever one stops first,” he said.

“When they were first launched in 2002, Beyblades were on fire, and they’re on fire again,” said Hasbro’s Marisa Pedatella, adding the newest version has been updated and stylized.

They’re smaller, Johnathon Simmons told me, which means they’re easier to use.

“I would say they’re better,” he said.

Many of Hasbro’s most popular toys are ones that have been reinvented. Some have been best-sellers for 40 years or more, like PlayDoh, and games like Scrabble, Twister, Monopoly and Battleship.

The company re-launched 1980s favourite Strawberry Shortcake and her friends last year, returning them to their original five-inch size. Still fruit-scented, the dolls come with removable clothes and brushable hair, alone or in different playsets ($6.99 and up).

“What’s really popular about Strawberry Shortcake is the nostalgia aspect,” Pedatella said. “I played with Strawberry Shortcake as a little girl — it’s that natural thing for me to want my little girl to play with that type of toy. That’s where we’re seeing the popularity with Strawberry Shortcake, really; with the moms wanting that same kind of memory for their little girls.”

Tester Leigha, 8, had Strawberry Shortcake’s pal, Lemon Meringue.

“Lemon Meringue and the Strawberry Shortcake dolls are pretty and they smell nice, but they don’t come with a lot of stuff, only like a brush and a few things. You need to have a bunch of the dolls together to have fun with,” Leigha said. “But the dolls are nice. I like them, and they would make a good Christmas gift.”

While Mattel and Hasbro toys are available locally at places like Toys R Us, Wal-Mart and Zellers, parents wanting locally made options for children’s Christmas gifts can poke through the shops in downtown St. John’s to find them. Hempware owners Nycki Temple and Stephane Delisle opened FlowerChild at 100 Duckworth St. last May, and have a policy of selling non-battery-operated toys only.

Locally made items for sale there include retro-looking sock monkeys by Sarah MacAulay and handmade finger puppets and dolls by crafter Rosalind Ford.

Some of the store’s best-selling toys for this holiday season include old-fashioned tin spin tops and jack-in-the-boxes, marshmallow guns, and toxin-free Piggy Paint nail polish, Temple said.

The Discovery Rig ($40) is a jeep made from BPA and phthalate-free recycled plastic and sawdust, and it produces its own lights and sounds (and smells good!).

“It creates its own energy when its pushed,” Temple explained. “Pushing it forward for five seconds triggers the generator that charges the LED lights.”

Temple, Pedatella and Javellana each stressed the importance of choosing children’s toys carefully, looking for trusted materials and brands and age-appropriate items, as well as play value: open-ended toys, or toys that encourage imagination and creativity, are always better than those with a single use.

Organizations: Mattel, Hasbro, Fisher-Price Toys R Us Wal-Mart Zellers BPA

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