Toys we love!

What do you get when you put 20 kids — age 1 to 10 — in a room full of brand-new toys? Our curious and cute testers, all Minnesota kids, found 30 great toy picks for holiday gift giving.

Read on to find the full results to our annual Toy Test, including options for all ages, starting with toys for infants and on up to top picks for teens.

 



Micro Kickboard Mini2Go Scooter

Why we love it: This three-wheeled scooter converts from a ride-on scooter to a stand-up adjustable-height scooter, providing years of use for a single kid.

It was a hit with the many kids who tested it in both the ride-on mode (pictured above) — complete with a drawer for stowing toys — as well as the stand-up mode, which worked well for all ages.  

Our home tester said assembly (with the included Allen wrenches) wasn’t bad. Her 2-year-old daughter loved the drawer.

We love this scooter for the littlest of toddlers (18 to 24 months) who can sit safely, but still move around and have fun on their short little legs.

Downside: Though the bike is more stable than a two-wheeled scooter such as a Razor, multiple parents said the scooter’s lean-to-turn steering function was counterintuitive.

Cost: $129.99

Ages: 18 months to 5 years

Where to find it: Microkickboard.com 

 


Jumbo Jamboree

Why we love it: This elephant on wheels seems unremarkable at first glance. But upon closer inspection, he’s pretty awesome. His ears jingle and when you roll him along, and his tail beats a drum. He also makes a fun clicking noise when you drive him in reverse. 

But what we really like is how you can take him apart to turn him into five different instruments. His ears pop off to become tambourines. His yellow trunk detaches to become a fun little trumpet. If you remove the blue drumstick at the top, you gain access to a hidden harmonica, a three-note xylophone and a little drum. Putting him back together is a bit like assembling a puzzle. 

Downside: He’s noisy!

Cost: $32.99

Ages: 1 and up

Where to find it: Amazon.com 

 


Rolligo

Why we love it: This toy — 10 balls that easily stack into a white, carlike roller device — was a homerun with the toddlers in our test. Pushing the device along the floor makes the balls spin in all directions, which creates a stunning visual effect — not unlike a rack of pool balls being rolled around a billiards table. When taken out of the white device, the balls were the perfect size for little hands. Bonus: The roller even works when some of the balls are missing.

Downside: None

Cost: $24.99

Ages: 1 and up

Where to find it: Hub Hobby, hubhobby.com

 


Spin & Learn Ball Tower 

Why we love it: It’s like an interactive marble run for babies! Our 1-year-old tester found this toy engaging to play with, thanks to a variety of levers, buttons and a ball slide. When you pop one of the four colored balls into the top chamber, it magically announces the color of the ball. When you press the lever, the balls spin and eventually falls through a hole to roll down the slide, which includes gates kids can open and close. This musical toy — which plays 12 tunes such as Down by the Riverside — sings and also encourages counting and animal identification. We like that the balls are collected in the base of the toy, rather than rolling onto the floor.

Downside: One online reviewer said her kids put other things in the ball chamber and they were hard to get out.

Cost: $29.99

Ages: 9 months and up

Where to find it: BuyBuy Baby in Woodbury and buybuybaby.com

 


Thunder Tumbler Remote Control Car

Why we love it: This radio-controlled rally car — which sets itself apart with a fifth trick wheel on its back — was, by far, the most popular toy we tested. We had three different colors of the car (black, red and blue) and all of them were in use for most of our two-hour test. Even if you’re terrible at operating remote-controlled cars (like some of our test kids and parents), you’ll enjoy this car. It moves around quickly and easily and can spin in circles at dizzying speeds, lights ablaze. 

We love the easy battery-pack access on both the controller and the car. And the flexible, knobby, clear plastic wheels didn’t scratch our furniture or floorboards when we tested these at home. 

Downside: Online reviews for this car are almost universally negative with the chief complaint being a lack of durability. This wasn’t our experience. All three Black Series models we received stood up to repeat, high-speed crashes — and nearly non-stop operation by 2- to 10-year-olds in an office environment full of metal chairs and hard corners. Maybe the manufacturer has made some improvements? 

Cost: $11.99

Ages: 6 and up; all ages of testers loved this toy, however.

Where to find it: Most Bed Bath & Beyond stores and buybuybaby.com

 


Talking Plush Chewbacca

Why we love it: Squeeze Chewie’s hand and he emits Wookiee sounds from the original Star Wars films. OK, we admit, this one’s mostly for the grownups — or perhaps little emerging Star Wars fans. But even the little kids seemed to think he was cute, cuddly and hilarious. Yoda, Darth and R2-D2 are also available. 

Downside: When it comes time to replace the three button-style batteries, you might not have the batteries on hand, and button batteries can be expensive.

Cost: $39.99

Ages: All ages

Where to find it: Bed, Bath & Beyond and bedbathandbeyond.com

 


Tegu Wooden Blocks

Why we love it: A beautiful, 42-piece set of these blocks engaged one of our 6-year-old testers for more than 30 minutes, despite numerous distractions and myriad other toy-test choices. He worked hard to balance the magnetic blocks while creating elaborate symmetrical towers. We love this set for its powerful magnets, including four magnetic wheels, which can turn anything into a car — ideal for builders as young as 1.

Downside: The price of this set is quite an investment. The company — which prides itself on encouraging child-directed storytelling and unscripted exploratory play — offers free returns and a money-back guarantee: Tegu says its toys are built to last for multiple generations. 

Cost: $110

Ages: 1 and up

Where to find it: Creative Kidstuff and amazon.com

 


Design & Drill Flower Power Studio 

Why we love it: This sturdy, well-made toy inspired boys and girls alike to unknowingly work on their fine-motor and pattern-making skills. 

“My daughter was drawn to this toy like a moth to a flame. Loves it!” one mom said of her 4-year-old.

We parents loved it for its moderately powerful dual-action drill with both forward- and reverse-drilling options. Its bolts are sturdy and stay firmly in place once screwed into the flower case. 

Downside: One of the best features of the toy is the six “designer plates” that come in various shapes. We just wish there were more. Also, the latch that holds its many pieces in the case was a bit weak on the sample we tried.

Cost: $34.99

Ages: 3 and up

Where to find it: ABC & Toy Zone and amazon.com

 


My Little Pony Cutie Mark Canterlot Castle 

Why we love it: Our test kids, boys and girls, were immediately draw to this toy, and they spent a lot of time playing make believe with the accessories, leading us to believe this would be a hit nearly anywhere if it were found under the Christmas tree. 

What kid wouldn’t want a three-story pink, purple and yellow-gold castle with more than 40 accessories, a working elevator, a Princess Celestia pony, a Spike the Dragon action figure and a wearable crown?

Downsides: Moms said: “All the little pieces would get all over my floor,” “The staircase comes off really easily,” and “The elevator didn’t move smoothly.” 

The dad who assembled the castle said, “This is hell.” He later said it was “all worth it.”

Cost: $79.99

Ages: 3 and up; our 2-year-old testers loved it, too.

Where to find it: Toys R’ Us, Target, Kohl’s and Amazon and other Hasbro retailers

 


Joinks

Why we love it: This 76-piece set — the result of a Kickstarter campaign under the name of Flexure — stood out because of its bendable silicone joints, a fresh departure from the rigid joints of most Tinkertoy-type sets. It was also surprisingly satisfying to put the wooden sticks into place. Suction cups made it even more fun to try to create balanced structures. 

Downside: To get really elaborate in your creations, you might want a couple sets and the price might prevent that.

Cost: $45.99

Ages: 3 and up

Where to find it: ABC & Toy Zone and Target.com



Sort & Swipe Wooden Cash Register

Why we love it: This toy was intriguing for kids up to 7 years old. Two testers — age 1 and 3 — kept coming back to play with it. You press the number buttons to see different counting pictures, then you can pay cash for each purchase with numbered coins to match the quantities. Coins vary in diameter and thickness, so the 1 coin will fit only in the 1 slot, 2 in 2 and so on. There’s also a credit-card swiping slot that makes a satisfying clicking noise.

Downside: Other objects could accidentally end up in the slots. 

Cost: $24.99

Ages: 3 and up

Where to find it: Kiddywampus and Target.com

 


Pretty Purse Fill & Spill

Why we love it: If you’ve got a young toddler who’s constantly wanting to play with your keys, phone and other purse items, this soft, safe-for-infants purse full of goodies might be just the thing. The cell phone chimes, the keys jangle (as much as phthalate-free plastic can) and there’s even a compact with a child-safe mirror. 

“Simple, lots of fun pieces to play with,” said one mom, who said she would buy it.

Downside: It’s hard to fit everything back into the purse.

Cost: $24.95

Ages: Birth and up

Where to find it: Kiddywampus and toysrus.com

 


Little Hands Big Artist Marker Kit  

Why we love it: This would be an awesome gift. Not only are the markers washable, big and easy to hold and open, but they’re also fun to put away, thanks to storage slots for every marker in the carrying case. One mom said of her 4-year-old’s delight: “My daughter’s been at it for, like, 20 minutes.” This set also includes 12 super-cute coloring sheets and cool coloring-technique guides. 

Downside: “There’s the potential to leave caps off — can’t be helped! Same with all markers,” one mom said.

Cost: $13.99

Ages: 3 and up

Where to find it: Creative Kidstuff and creativekidstuff.com

 


Sort & Stamp Mailbox 

Why we love it: This Melissa & Doug play set isn’t just cute, it’s also fun and educational. Our test kids loved putting the five letters — too quaint! — into the slots. Each slot is sized so that only certain letters fit in certain slots, and only if the removable, Velcroed-on stamps are oriented in a certain way. Test kids up to age 3 found it challenging, but not frustrating. Kids also loved using the set’s yellow wooden key to unlock the mailbox access door. 

Downside: We would’ve liked to have seen real city and state names on the letters instead of “Secret, Location, 73269” and “Plainsville, State, 01234.” It’s never too early to start real geography, right?

Cost: $29.99

Ages: 3 and up; younger and older kids liked this toy at our test, too, including at least one 7-year-old.

Where to find it: Creative Kidstuff and creativekidstuff.com

 


Playmobil 123 Santa Set

Why we love it: Our younger testers couldn’t put the pieces of this surprisingly popular holiday set down. Parents at the test said it was easy for their kids to engage in make-believe play because of the instantly built-in storyline of Santa and his reindeer delivering presents on Christmas Eve. 

One parent added: “I like that you can put the sleight harness on all three reindeer, even the baby.” 

Downside: One mom said the novelty might wear off quickly: “I’m not sure it would hold her attention long-term.”

Cost: $16.99

Ages: 1½ and up

Where to find it: Kiddywampus and amazon.com

 


Playmobil Ferris Wheel 

Why we love it: Our home tester, age 7, loved building this toy on his own. We like that the lights on one side put on a beautiful display of all the colors of the rainbow — and that the wheel spins when you turn a manual crank. 

Downside: Parents with younger kids will have to help assemble this toy — and it takes a chunk of time. Also: Assembled, it takes up a lot of space. 

Cost: $79.99

Ages: 4 and up

Where to find it: Playmobil.com and toysrus.com

 


Alphabet Learning Locks

Why we love it: Kids love keys and locks! This set — perfect for small hands — challenges kids to match uppercase letters on the locks with the lowercase letters on the keys. Each lock pops open with a satisfying click.

Downside: Our test kids enjoyed these locks, but the younger ones were overwhelmed when encouraged to play with 26 keys and 26 locks. We recommend staring the youngest kids with a small selection. Also, even if you buy these on sale at $29.99, this come out to more than $1 per lock.

Cost: $39.99

Ages: 3 and up

Where to find it: Lakeshore Learning and lakeshorelearning.com

 


Hot Wheels Ultimate Auto Garage 

Why we love it: “Hours of entertainment for our car-obsessed son,” said one parent. “Loves everything about it,” said another. “This caught her attention right away. I like the interactivity,” said one mom. There are 36 spots for cars, two elevators, two ramps, a gas station, a tune-up shop and one chomping shark “action zone.” 

Downside: As Hot Wheels biggest garage ever, it’s a serious space commitment. Also, the box says, “adult assembly required” because there are many different pieces. 

Cost: $109.99

Ages: 4 and up

Where to find it: Toys R’ Us, Target, Kohl’s and Amazon

 


Tumble Trax Magnetic Marble Run

Why we love it: You usually can’t go wrong with marble runs for any age kid. This one — which can be played only on vertical magnetic surfaces — was a hit with a variety of ages, especially the 7- and 8-year-olds, who spent 30 minutes using it on the Minnesota Parent headquarters’ fridge. 

“This is AWESOME!” they exclaimed as they created all sorts of custom pathways for the yellow and green marbles to follow down the track (completely ignoring the patterns suggested on challenge cards that came with the set). “The ultimate puzzle — super fun, excellent problem solver,” said one mom, who tested the run with her 4-year-old daughter.

Downside: If you don’t have a large magnetic vertical surface for this — and many metal-finished fridges aren’t magnetic — you won’t really have much use for this one.

Cost: $24.99

Ages: 5 and up

Where to find it: ABC & Toy Zone and abctoyzone.com

 


American Girl: Maryellen Larkin 

Why we love it: American Girl dolls are known for being awesome — and expensive. This new 18-inch strawberry-blond doll known as Maryellen Larkin, introduced in August, comes with a paperback book about her days growing up in Daytona Beach, Fla., in the 1950s. During the toy test, kids, who were well under the suggested age of 8, were definitely drawn to her hair, clothes and all-around good looks. 

Downside: If you’re child becomes obsessed with American Girl accessories, it can become costly.

Cost: $115

Ages: 8 and up

Where to find it: American Girl at the Mall of America and at americangirl.com

 



Unbored Disguises

Why we love it: A monocle! Stick-on sideburns, an eye patch, tattoos, “wacky” glasses and two pairs of fake teeth are just a few of the 30 awesome items in this dress-up kit, courtesy of the critically acclaimed franchise of Unbored books and games. 

Downside: “Beard’s itchy,” one kid said.

Cost: $29.95

Ages: 6 and up

Where to find it: Creative Kidstuff and creativekidstuff.com

 


Modarri Toy Car

Why we love it: Our vehicle-obsessed testers loved this car-construction kit, which includes 12 modules to assemble and repeatedly disassemble with a special hexagon tool that’s similar to an Allen wrench. The assembled car drives really well, thanks to a cool steering component and spring-loaded suspension pieces. 

Downside: It’s a bummer if you lose the assembly tool (which we did during our test).

Cost: $18.99

Ages: 8 and up

Where to find it: Hub Hobby and hubhobby.com

 


Kinetic Sand 

Why we love it: One mom said: “Sensory play is great for kids. My boys, age 4 and 2, LOVE this. They love using different molds or creating things on their own. It’s a different texture than Play-Doh, so it’s a nice change. Parenting win — much easier to clean up inside than real sand!”

Downside: New colors — pink, green and blue — can be a bit harder to clean up because the grains show up more easily. We recommend using a tray when playing with any kind of indoor sand because it can still get messy.

Cost: $4.99 / 8-ounce package

Ages: 3 and up

Where to find it: Bed Bath & Beyond stores and walmart.com

 


Littlest Pet Shop Pet Jet 

Why we love it: It’s a private jet for pets, including one large and three small action figures, plus a cockpit that opens wide for a pilot pet and a cabin that’s easily accessible and full of activities — including swings, a slide and even areas to snack and nap. 

“My 4-year-old liked it quite a bit,” said the mom who assembled and tested this toy as part of our home-testing program. “Several other kids around her age were drawn to it at our house this weekend.”

Downside: With so many little pieces, it’s not toddler-sibling safe, said one mom.

Cost: $39.99

Ages: 4 and up

Where to find it: Toys R’ Us, Target, Kohl’s and Amazon and other Hasbro retailers

 


Geometric Building Set

Why we love it: Our 7-year-old home tester spent hours building every geometric shape on the 12 activity cards, including 2D and 3D concepts. And he even came back to this 200-piece toy many times during the months he borrowed it to recreate the shapes and even make new creations. We liked that the balls and sticks weren’t just sturdy, but smooth and easy on the hands. If you have a builder-kid in your house, this is a keeper.

Downside: Cleanup is a bit of a pain because the pieces are small and the balls can easily roll under furniture. 

Cost: $39.99

Ages: 7 and up

Where to find it: Lakeshore Learning and lakeshorelearning.com

 


K’NEX Beasts Alive Bronto Building Set 

Why we love it: “This is awesome!” said our 7-year-old test kid. (Dad agreed, too.)

We tested three K’NEX sets (some during the test and some at home) and all of them were well-received by the kids — including this 350-piece set, which results in a robotic brontosaurus, thanks to the included motor. Two additional building plans come with the set. 

Downside: The pieces can be a bit hard on the fingers if you’re at it for an hour. Our 7-year-old test kid said it hurt, but that it was worth it. Also: We’re not sure anyone else uses the term bronto anymore, but apatosaurus doesn’t really have the same ring to it, does it? 

Cost: $27.99 at knex.com and $19.99 at toysrus.com

Ages: 7 and up

Where to find it: Knex.com, Amazon.com, Toys R’ Us and toysrus.com

 


Snap Circuits Arcade

Why we love it: All the elements of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are rolled into one in this cool, battery-powered toy that allows older kids to use more than 30 modules to create 20 different circuits. Successfully built circuits — made with help from a clearly illustrated manual — will turn on a fan, light up a tricolor orb and more. 

Downside: “It’s a bit challenging, but that’s a good thing,” said one mom. “Very easy to use — and fun,” said another.

Cost: $64.99

Ages: 8 and up

Where to find it: Hub Hobby and hubhobby.com

 


Proto Z Beginner Drone

Why we love it: This toy was positively dazzling. Everyone of a certain age (roughly 5 and older, adults included) desperately wanted to try it. It was fairly easy for a novice to operate (though equally easy to crash). It charges via USB cord and includes four spare rotor blades (you’ll definitely need them).

Downside: High-pitched buzzing and unavoidable crashing into objects high and low (think ceiling fans) might make this an outside-only toy at your place, depending on your kid’s skills and your tolerance for chaos. Also, the drone we tested intermittently didn’t work and we weren’t sure why.

Cost: $29.99

Ages: 8 and up

Where to find it: Hub Hobby 

 


YOXO Fyre 

Why we love it: YOXO construction kits — which come from the St. Paul-based toy company, Play from Scratch — are made of durable and interchangeable sturdy chipboard connectors in Y, O, and X shapes. YOXO’s latest introduction is this engaging, 3-foot-long green dragon that breathes fire and features giant green paper wings. Other build options include a Scorch race car, an Orbit rocket and a Ribbit frog. 

Downside: We’re not sure kids will want to rebuild the YOXO-inspired creations and/or free build after the novelty wears off.

Cost: $24.99

Ages: 8 and up

Where to find it: Creative Kidstuff and creativekidstuff.com


Sarah Dorison is the editor of Minnesota Parent. She lives in Minnetonka with her 7-year-old, toy-loving son, who tested many of the toys at home and during the toy test. Write her at editor@mnparent.com.