Nowadays, the options for kids' toys and gifts seems almost endless and a little bewildering. Thankfully, many time tested brands are still available. They're guaranteed to deliver the all important wow factor, educate or develop creativity and hold up to the rigors of kids' play. I've broken them down by gender and age; you should be able to find the right gift pretty quick. If there is any uncertainty, it's better to select a gift from a higher age bracket. At least the child will grow into it, rather than be insulted by an excessively juvenile gift.
You have a relatively narrow window (3-8 yrs) to create that special moment of receiving an amazing toy. Even at 8 yrs interest in toys is beginning to wain in preference to adolescent interests of sport, books, video games, pop music and movies. Some kids may periodically play with toys up to the age of 12. Don't pressure them into giving up their toys until they are ready.
There is nothing worse than gifting a defective toy. The child's disappointment will overshadow the whole day. Advance assembly and testing, protects against losing the child's respect. An assembled toy has a much bigger wow factor than a box of components. If at all possible, avoid toys that incorporate electronics. Their failure rate is much higher. Contemporary video game machines are reliable but highly addictive, retarding a child's imagination and physical activity. Prohibit them for as long as possible. Notify extended family that these devices are not acceptable as gifts.
G.I. Joe with Kung Fu grip: Boys 4-8 Yrs
Most boys want to be police officers, fire fighters, pilots or soldiers when they grow up. Action figures enable them to create vicarious adventures in these roles, which is much healthier than playing video games. Most of you will be familiar with the superlative 12" fully poseable 'G.I. Joe' but may not be acquainted with the compatible Vintage Action Man products. I was lucky to receive some used Joe and Action Man stuff on my 4th birthday. I had never encountered a Scorpion tank, Land Rover or Joe figures and was amazed at the scale, detail and capability. My buddy and I regularly played intense war games with them for the next six years, after which, I was able to sell them on for good money. The durability was amazing. I consider it the best toy line ever made.
Action Man was born when Palitoy executive Hal Belton witnessed his grandson's reaction to the G.I. Joe figure he brought back from the States. He immediately decided to snap up the UK license. Unlike North America, Seventies Britain had no aversion to militaria. Using employees' children for research, Palitoy developed the toy joe line to unprecedented capability, durability, depth of character, range of clothing and breadth of equipment. Palitoy was a modeling company that understood the "boys' own" culture of their young customers. The unofficial 'Vintage' prefix was later adopted by enthusiasts to differentiate from less capable subsequent variants.
Unlike poor Joe, restricted to exploring nature, Vintage Action Man (VAM) battled international spies and WWII Nazis with a vast array of period and contemporary equipment. Five 64 page, illustrated, paperback, books were published in 1967. A further eight 128 page novels were released in 1977 and a final six 22 page mini-books came out in '78. The first five books delivered a gritty portrayal of VAM as an age appropriate Bond-esque character, conducting missions in space, under water and the Arctic. The second batch featured him and his buddy G.I. Joe in various WWII allied combat missions.
Palitoy's Bill Pugh was credited with developing Action Man's gripping rubber hands, which considerably enhanced play value. Hasbro ruggedized the design and marketed it as the 'Kung-Fu grip'. Now the guys could retain their pistols and knives during the furious hand to hand combat conducted in the back yard. They could help each other over walls by gripping the other's hand. They could grip onto vehicles, including steering wheels, helicopter skids and motorcycle handlebars.
Gripping hands could 'climb' a chain link fence or knotted utility cord. We used some cord and the sticks from their rope ladder to improvise a quick detach zip line. A team of guys rapidly descending into the front yard from the bedroom window was spectacular to kids. Similarly sized hex wrenches should work too, contingent on a firm grip. Additionally, two figures could hold a pole on their shoulders with cord attached in the middle. This enabled fast roping through the atrium of a three story cardboard building. (Note: Any play involving cord needs to be supervised because of the risk of strangulation.)
Joe and VAM's thumbs were vulnerable to snagging and over extending when their rubber hands were being inserted through jacket sleeves. Pinching the sleeve usually kept the thumb clear. Hasbro's 'Gung-Ho grip' tried to resolve this issue with a rigid plastic thumb and hinged plastic fingers. However, they lost significant play value, as the new hands have relatively little grip. Thankfully, drop in 'Kung-Fu' hands are available for the current 'Super-Poseable' G.I. Joes. They are slightly different than the original design, eliminating the independent trigger finger.
Vehicles expanded play factor by supporting the transport of multiple figures. A boy would otherwise be limited to carrying one figure in each hand. Multiple vehicles were linked with tow ropes to form a convoy. Towing eliminates youngsters' frustration as many lack the dexterity to operate remote controls. Hasbro was famous for is play and torture testing and factored this into their vehicle design. The four man assault craft's outboard electric motor was a simple on/off proposition. The one man mini-sub dived and surfaced via a simple handheld mechanical pump and umbilical hose.
The G.I. Joe 7000 jeep was equipped with a removable, firing, recoilless rifle, trailer and working search light. Palitoy also developed a proprietary set of military ground vehicles for Action Man and marketed them under the 'Transport Command' banner. A classic racing car, police motorcycle and fire engine were available for non-martial play. The 1/6th scale, Scorpion reconnaissance tank proved very popular. Its gun didn't fire projectiles, which was congruent with the brand's protocol. Only mortars, artillery, rockets or missiles would launch. Duct taping a firing bazooka onto the Scorpion's barrel sorted that out.
The tracked Scorpion and Spartan had the most visual impact but wheeled vehicles had greater play value. They could free wheel down hills and do stunts. Forward and downward pressure on the Scorpion's body was required to engage its tracks with the terrain. The Scorpion had more moving parts than most other vehicles. However, the plastic hatches, wheels, spacers, tracks, steel axles and hubs were all replaceable. The blow molded hull was very durable. Palitoy's military vehicles included a land rover, trailer, WWII assault jeep, combination motorcycle, amphibious DUKW and armored car. The breech loading 105 mm light gun launched its shells via a trapped spring-loaded cartridge. Pictured above, Cherilea was a British toy company that manufactured unlicensed vehicles, including several Deutsches Afrikakorps models, which helped to develop a realistic opposing force.
All aircraft were self-assembled from thin plastic components, making them quite delicate. Helicopters were somewhat unwieldy for 4 year olds' arms. The rotors were manually driven via a crank and thumb button. Hasbro's unusual design was inspired by the experimental Hiller H-32 tip jet helicopter, which didn't require a tail rotor. Palitoy's assault variant sported 4 skid mounted missiles that actually fired. In the late nineties, '21st Century Toys' released some highly detailed vehicles that were compatible with G.I. Joe, including a huge 'little bird' helicopter, which had capacity for 4 figures.
The first item to be acquired for a Joe play set is a good storage box The small accessories are easily lost, painful to kneel on and a hazard to toddlers. Explain to your son that if he doesn't secure his gear, it won't be available for future play. The G.I. Joe paratrooper offers great wow factor and play value as you receive an action figure plus a vehicle of sorts. The parachute actually works but needs to be authoritatively launched at 45 degrees.
Drawing diagonal stripes with black and green grease pencils generates face camo effect. Small bricks of gray modeling clay simulate plastic explosives. Utility cord, tent stakes, camouflage nets, rocks, bricks and painted cardboard boxes, are useful for play set construction. As illustrated by the Scorpion's turret in the first picture, a little matte black paint gives a great camouflage effect. Strips of white electrical tape makes for good temporary vehicle snow camouflage too. Action Man books provide the fuel for a child's imagination. Search for 'Action Man Book' + Book Title. The titles are listed below.
The best option for an economical Joe vehicle is to pick up a New Ray Toys 1:6 scale dirt bike JC Penny carry the Powerteam 'Peacekeeper' line, which produces a good 1:6 Humvee. It's axles are plastic but strong. Parachutes, supply parachutes, snow suits and storm trooper uniforms support re-enacting 'Where Eagles Dare'. The Commando and French resistance uniforms compliment secret missions similar to 'The Guns Of Navarone'. The tank commander and blue polar explorer jackets are good for playing 'Ice Station Zebra'. There are a host of cheaper, less capable 12" figures that can serve as 'bad guys'.
Hasbro invested millions in G.I. Joe's development but the Vietnam war derailed the project, ultimately
canceling production in 1976. Palitoy remained true to the original 'movable fighting man' concept, employing
detailed photo composition, illustrated novels, DC Comic styled mission leaflets and deadly serious T.V. adverts.
Action Man became a cultural phenomenon in Britain and Europe. Production would run out to 1984, until market
saturation extinguished demand. Vintage Joe would periodically reappear for the lucrative adult collector market
and disappear again. Modern action figures didn't match the quality of the original, until Hasbro released the
current 'Super-Poseable' G.I. Joe in 2001, which has subsequently earned a reputation for excellent durability and
Action Man Chronological Book List:
Star Wars AT-AT: Unisex 4-8 Yrs
Boys and girls that are fanatical about the Star Wars movies will appreciate the host of features in the AT-AT. The 24"x24" displacement make it the largest toy of the series. It's considered more of a static play set than a vehicle. Features include, electronic voices and sound effects activated by buttons located inside and outside. The twin chin blasters, flash, ping and reciprocate when actuated. The twin spring loaded missiles launch with the press of a button. Platforms on either side deploy troops via cradles. A spring loaded winch raises figures through a belly hatch. An included speeder bike is stored and deployed from the rear.
This the third iteration of AT-AT. It's larger and more durable than it's predecessors. Components are
designed to detach rather than snap off. The cockpit is finally accessible, which is a major factor in kids'
vicarious play. It will keep it's target audience happy for months if not years. However, G.I. Joe is a far
superior general purpose combat toy. Star Wars figures can't grip anything. They require foot pegs and special clips
to interact with the AT-AT. Ultimately, if your child is a Star Wars fanatic they won't care. However, many boys
are indifferent to these movies. Giving them a G.I. Joe should release that magic word....Wow!
Barbie: Girls 4-8 Yrs
Most doll houses are designed for small figures with limited capability and most large dolls are modeled on babies, which limits play to feeding, changing nappies, bath time and walks. The Barbie range lets girls vicariously experience fashion, hairstyles, siblings, friends, boyfriends, houses, jeeps and horses through an adult doll. This greatly expands play value. Mattel's Ruth Handler developed the concept in the late 1950s, naming the doll after her daughter Barbara. Mattel have dominated the niche ever since, which is an indicator of excellent durability and play value. Over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide.
Naturally, kids want a figure that they can identify as themselves. Christie caters for girls of African heritage and Teresa is intended for girls of Italian, Hispanic or Latino descent. There are some expensive Barbie accessories but most represent good value. Barbie's beach house is a prefect balance between scale and economy. Orienting the interior toward a bedroom wall gives the impression of a fully enclosed house. The collectible dolls are intended for display only, their hair and clothing are rigid.
Kids love book and movie series featuring the same character because they can skip familiarisation and jump straight into the story. Barbie movies are an animated series of classic tales and fairytales suitable for 3-8 yrs. Barbie is usually playing another character but some movies feature Barbie as herself. There are lots of songs and every story has a happy ending. Peculiarly, one Barbie movie is completely out of character with the series. 'The Barbie Diaries' depicts a teenage lifestyle, which is alien and inappropriate for the target audience. However, the rest of the Barbie movies may be considered a safe pair of hands, casting the female characters in key roles.
Random House publish a 'step into reading' series of Barbie books. Step 1 is suitable for ages of 3+ yrs. Progress to the next step once the child has mastered the current grade. The books feature large print, simple words and colorful illustrations. They help the child to read and establish career goals. The publisher also produces Barbie coloring and activity books for younger girls.
Barbie Movie list:
Hot Wheels Blutrack: Unisex 3-8 Yrs
Individual Hot Wheels cars are suitable for kids of 2 yrs +. They are a great take along toy when they start to show interest in cars. BluTrack is a little more advanced, being suitable for 3 yrs +. Dual lanes are the key feature, enabling two Hot Wheels car to be raced. The performance varies between vehicles, adding to the fun. Most girls may not be interested in collecting model cars but are equally excited by the racing element. You may consider it pricey for a strip of blue plastic. However, it's durable but and has a high play factor.
Younger children may need some assistance setting up the track. Start with simple configurations at first, using
the suction cup to attach the track to windows or sliding doors. Chairs and books are used to create jumps. It
works best with multiple players, making it a hit at parties. In fact, racing themed parties are quite popular
nowadays. One piece construction makes for easy transportation, set up and clean up. Include a set of cars and
car case for a complete gift. You should expect several years of play, up to the age of 8. Many dads have
difficulty keeping their hands off it!
Wooden Castle: Unisex 3 Yrs +
Deep detail, working features and play figures are what kids find fascinating about play sets. Castles have kings, queens, princesses, princes, knights, swords, horses, trapdoors, dungeons, dragons and drawbridges. The only element that is absent form the U.S. Toys castle is a dragon. Pick one up or incorporate the Dinosaur play set. Children of this age group don't make a fuss over scale continuity. However, all kids prefer substantial toys. The basic rule of thumb is the bigger the better, just like adult world of vehicles and property.
U.S. Toys' castle may cost a little more than the others but it balances out when you factor in the included 8
knights, 2 horses, king, queen, princess, prince and furniture. It measures an impressive 24"x24"x22", making the
competition look a bit pathetic. Playmobile's pirate ship perfectly compliments this castle set. Throw in a copy
of the charming movie 'The Princess Bride' as a stocking filler. It's a good idea to take a few snaps of the kids
playing with these sets, helping to sustain those cherished memories.
Dinosaur Playset: Unisex 2 Yrs +
Kids find dinosaurs deeply fascinating, due to the success of Barney and possibly because they consider them as real life monsters. Girls have interest too, which makes for a safe bet when gifting. Animal Planet's play set has the perfect balance of portability and wow factor. If it were any larger, play would be confined to the bedroom. It's safe for children of 2 yrs + if the rocks are removed. The kit comes with dinosaurs, palm trees, volcanoes, play mat and hard case. Kids view it as a portable world. The play mat is workable but can be upgraded to the Neat-Oh zip bin pictured above.
It's quite easy to turn a child off books, creating learning obstacles down the road. They often view books as
something dry and boring form the adult world. National Geographic's little kids book on Dinosaurs may be slipped into
the bottom of the play set and the child won't feel like the book is being rammed down their throat. Wait for them
to ask for it to be read. The phonetic pronunciation guide helps adults out and the colorful illustrations will
keep a younger child's attention as you read to them. Never give a book, jigsaw or board game as a child's
primary gift. This is a mistake sometimes made by aunts, uncles or grandparents.
Tonka Dump Truck: Unisex 2 Yrs +
Every kid needs a sandbox and dump truck. Made in the U.S.A., Tonka's 'mighty' model (90667) is the biggest and the best. It comes with a lifetime warranty and withstands kids riding in it and on it. It doesn't have any small parts but kids younger than 2 yrs will have difficulty pushing it around. This particular model is faithful to Tonka's original brand ethos. The only way to brake it is to drive over it with a real truck. It works outdoors and indoors, just give a blast with a water hose to clean it up. The size of this toy is skewing the on-line price. It's significantly cheaper at local toy stores.
Cosy Truck: Unisex 1 Yr +
Little tikes cosy truck is a sure fire hit with one year old girls and boys. The black pick up was developed for boys but the yellow roof helps to balance out the gender specifics. The truck's ride hight, cabin space and trunk distinguish it form thee classic coupe. The extra hight extends service life for longer legs and integral toy storage space eliminates the need for a trailer. Small children will need the floor installed to prevent their legs getting trapped. They will need to be pushed around until their feet can reach the ground. Many youngsters push the truck around like a giant hot wheel, developing balance as a transition to walking.
Durability and play factor of the American made cosy truck is excellent. Your child should get several years of play out of it,
although it may come in peaks and troughs. Don't be surprised if you have a difficult time coaxing them out of their
new transportation. The only downside is that assembly is time consuming. The parts don't simply snap together as advertised.
The roof often needs to be beaten into position. Don't let this put you off, just give yourself plenty of time for
the build by ordering well in advance. It's vital that the truck be presented as a finished article for maximum
wow factor and cherished childhood memories.
Indestructibles: Unisex 4 Months +
Indestructibles' book series are constructed from a material similar to the polymer bank notes first used by Australia. It's
far more durable than paper, even withstanding a dishwasher cycle. Unlike fabric books, it won't leak dye or other
toxic chemicals when a baby chews on it. These are true picture books without any text. The lack of story
compliments a young baby's attention span and enables the child to control the pace. They turn the page to
experience the next vivid image; mom points and describes the picture in an animated voice, mirroring the little
Barney: Unisex 0 Months +
Humans are creatures of habit and babies are no different. Repeatedly viewing a DVD is perfectly normal and very beneficial. Many adults hate Barney until they witness how it helps their child develop. It stimulates memory, speech, coordination and socialization. It also functions as a relaxation tool. The color, music and movement infallibly captures their attention and soothes grumpiness.
It's never too early to introduce music, the bonus music CD will entertain babies younger than 6 months,
especially if mom sings along. The sing and dance DVD may be introduced as early as six months. The 6 DVD Barney
learning pack may be introduced at 18 months but don't expect the child to fully engage and ask questions until
2 years old. The DVDs shouldn't be used approaching nap or bed time. The stimulation will keep them alert. If a CD or
DVD won't spool up, try wiping the inner bar-code section with a q-tip. Small particles of dust will prevent the
table of contents being read.
Questions & Feedback.
Well, that's about it guys. I hope you found this guide useful. If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to contact me through the welcome page.
Ian ST John.
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