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Advice From the Pros On Buying Toys for Children

The question is not `What can it do?' but `What can the child do with it?'

'TIS the season for a little dispassionate advice from toy-buying veterans who have seen countless fads come and go.

The best toys produced in 1994 are ``absolutely a triumph,'' says Diana Huss Green, who edits a consumer guide for the Parents' Choice Foundation in Newton, Mass. But that doesn't mean there isn't a ``lot of junk'' around as well, she quickly adds.

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Items that impress Ms. Green this year include an infant toy called ``Activity Spiral,'' by Primetime Playthings/International Playthings and ``Wacky Water Works,'' for 5-to-10-year-olds, from Janeval Toys. They are among dozens of toys, books, computer-software products, and videos highlighted in the latest edition of the Parents' Choice quarterly. What makes a toy stand out, Green says, is its capacity to foster creativity, learning, and surprise.

The key question for parents is `` `What can my child do with this toy?' not `What can the toy do?' '' says Joanne Oppenheim, who puts out a yearly survey entitled ``The Best Toys, Books, and Videos for Kids.'' Products that have children ``push a button and watch'' are short-lived, she says. With the best toys, children can ``add their own creativity and play ideas.''

The classic examples of such toys are construction sets, and this year there's a veritable building boom of these toys, says Ruth Roufberg, a toy authority who organizes an annual best-toy list for the Duracell battery company. She gives high marks to new plastic Erector sets for younger children and a a new Lego product called Toolo.

Modern variations on that oldest of toys, blocks, are plentiful too. A number of toy experts applaud Noch Blox, made out of recycled plastic jugs by The Green Toy Store. Another favorite is Kapla, a set of 200 attractively painted pine planks that kids can build as high as they want, Ms. Roufberg says.

Common sense dictates that building sets for very young children have large pieces, Ms. Oppenheim says. She recommends, too, that parents keep in mind the tendency of younger kids to knock things down rather than build them up. Those higher skills will come later, she assures.

Nothing is as important in a toy, however, as parents' interacting with children and ``tuning them in,'' reminds Stevanne Auerbach, a toy- and play-consultant based in San Francisco. ``The parent is a child's first big toy,'' she says. Parents should talk over holiday wish lists, including items they may be less than thrilled with. Find out what the child thinks is special about them, Ms. Auerbach suggests. ``It's an opportunity to be a sounding board for a child.''

Auerbach also recommends toys that challenge children to learn. At least one gift should be something they make, she says. One of her favorites: ``Young Games Inventor's Kit,'' by University Games, a board game that encourages children to develop their own games.

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Some outstanding toys may not be found at the big warehouse stores but in smaller specialty outlets or by mail. Parents may have to read various guides and call toll-free telephone numbers for toy companies.

Oppenheim warns that manufacturers typically try to make their toys gender-specific, and ``parents sometimes get caught up with such stereotypes.'' Girls need to learn how to build things just as much as boys do, she says. The lack of experience with construction toys, and the spatial relationships they teach, may even contribute to a later gap in math and science aptitude, she says.

The same goes for electronics. Early computer games tended to be clones of shoot-'em-up arcade favorites and thus appealed primarily to boys. Today, however, software writers have greatly expanded the scope of their products and ``there are more good choices this year than ever before,'' Oppenheim says. She mentions CD-ROM storybooks and ``interactive books'' that can actually ``lead kids back to the [printed] page.''

Whether it's the latest electronic marvel or a tried-and-true standby, parents can work to keep toys fresh, Auerbach says. She suggests putting some toys away for a few months, then bringing them out again. ``Recycling toys is important,'' she says. She also suggests swapping toys with other families when the novelty wears off.

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