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How to Find the Right Toy


MARY MOY is a mother with a mission: She will buy each of her four children, all under the age of 10, at least one thing from their Christmas list. But ``no Nintendo, and no war toys or guns.'' Mrs. Moy admits she's not a typical parent in that respect, but says her children understand that ``Santa won't bring things Mommy and Daddy don't want them to have.''

Here at Toys ``R'' Us, Moy is among a busy scattering of adults - some with children, some without - studying boxes, consulting lists, and wheeling up and down 14 long aisles. The 150,000 toys on the market are well-represented here: The shelves bulge with toys up to a height three times that of an average six-year-old.

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About 60 percent of all toy sales occur during the holiday season, or roughly the last quarter of the year, says Diane Cardinale, spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers of America. Parents spend $150 to $200 a year per child on toys, including birthdays, she says.

Toy trends this year are ``still a continuation of what we've seen over the last few years,'' says Ms. Cardinale. ``Back to basics, with the exception of video games.'' Families have fewer children now, she observes, and parents are ``more concerned with what their children are doing in play time,'' especially if both parents work. ``They're also thinking: `Let's get a few good things versus a lot of things,''' Cardinale adds.

But the definition of a ``good'' toy is often a subject of controversy between parents and children - as well as among manufacturers, child-development experts, and consumer advocates.

A good toy ``is something that keeps you busy and is fun,'' says nine-year-old Alissa Leonard, who is perched on the front of a shopping cart. Her brother David, 11, has just wheeled her to the bicycle aisle. ``If it's boring...'' she makes a face, wrinkling her nose. Alissa wants a new bike, roller skates, and snow boots for Christmas. David echoes the popular response of his peers: ``Nintendo - that's all I want.''

Kids are ``all looking for the same things,'' says Doreen Djavaheri, sales-floor manager here. ``A lot depends on what movies are out, what cartoons are popular. This year, anything with Batman runs like water,'' she says, stepping away from two boys tussling over a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles package. ``They're all pumped up and wild'' around the holidays, she observes. ``Parents can be just as crazy.''

Many stores can't keep this year's most popular toy in stock: Nintendo's Game Boy, a hand-held $90 video game with changeable cartridges that cost $20 each. Ms. Djavaheri says the toy ``could last or could just be like the Cabbage Patch Doll craze.''

In this $12-billion industry, advertising hype plays a major role in the ``crazes.'' Children see an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 commercials a year, reports Consumer Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. Advertisers spend an estimated $500 million annually to promote products to children.

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Most parents are aware of this. ``All they have to do is walk into a room where kids are watching TV,'' says Jeanne Kiefer, managing editor of Penny Power, a young people's magazine published by Consumer Reports. ``The airwaves are chock-full of advertisements all aimed at kids,'' she says, especially during the holiday season. Some advertisers show the toys doing things that they cannot do, she cautions. ``The thing about being a child is that you don't have adult judgment. Kids want things and they're not going to be skeptical about them,'' she says.

Parents need to be discretionary about the toys they're buying, and the toys should be matched with the abilities and interests of children, toy experts agree.

After 10 years of watching kids play with toys and talking with them about it, Ms. Kiefer and her staff offer these pointers:

``Analyze what your child is still playing with from last year,'' says Kiefer. What are his or her major interests? (Mrs. Moy agrees: A good toy ``is one that I've had in the house nine years.'')

Consider assembly time. ``I put together this GI Joe tank that took me 45 minutes,'' says Kiefer in amazement. Christmas morning could be a disaster if you paid $60 for 200 pieces. You might be better off giving a child the box and putting together the toy later, she says.

Look for toys with a creative element. Walkie talkies, for example, have always scored high on toy tests, says Kiefer. Parents rarely think of cookbooks, but children love to cook, she adds.

Don't be misled by the suggested age range of toys. ``When a toy says `good for ages 3 and up' - it's a safety precaution and usually not the interest level,''' says Kiefer.

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Debbie Wager, a consumer expert on toys, suggests asking yourself: ``Will it be imaginative, challenging, and creative?'' Buy the toy, not the box, she says. Consider how messy they can be. Remember to save sales receipts and, most important, toy directions.

And what if you don't want your child to have something? ``Say `No.' It's that simple,'' Ms. Wager says.

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