By: Marianne Szymanski, Founder and President at

Be your child’s own toy expert! There are plenty of hot toy lists, sale ads, doorbusters and commercials to entice you to buy toys for children this holiday season. There are trendy toys, fad toys, classic board games and nostalgic toys that most parents remember playing with themselves. But, the smartest toy choices are the ones you make to be sure your child has a play experience filled with creativity, imagination and the expression of their own learning skills.

For 25 years, I have been testing and researching the play value of toys. I started the Toy Tips Toy Research Institute on the premise that parents, grandparents and caregivers needed true unbiased information based on university research to decipher which toys had actual learning value and enhanced child developmental skills.
The media and retailers  sometimes can influence the success of a toy.  Once “groupthink” sets in, a trendy and fad toy is born. Of course,”it” becomes the “it” toy because everyone else is talking about “it”. Many of these toys end up not being played with more than after its open.  Take the time to really look through toys you see in a toy store, in a catalog and online. Walk the aisles of the big box retailers and ponder the experiences you had with toys in your own childhood. Then, make choices that match the appropriate age, skills and interest of your own child.

Coding, STEM and Technology

These are the buzzwords with educational-based toys right now. To decode what that really means, take the time to research all the types of toys you find and match it with the age of your child, current skills and interests and what he/she is currently studying in school.  Then peruse the toys you think your child will like and learn from and decide if these are investments to learning or just clutter.  Too many times, children receive learning toys that are tossed aside because there is not too much interest in the toy and no learning is happening. These are a few of our favorites that kept our testers engaged.


This robot teaches basic programming through emojis. After you download an app using your own smart device, Coji will work with and react to app or non-app gameplay.  This little guy can be titled and moved around and reacts.  Testers referred to Coji as a “robot friend” to interact with. This type of hands-on play is ideal to encourage basic coding skills while at the same time promoting independence, working on a task and using intellectual thinking skills.

Osmo Creative Kitosmo

Your iPad becomes the canvas for creative expression and confidence building play. Using Reflective AI technology, the iPad “sees” objects and reacts on screen as users play in real time.  There are 3 apps in this kit that need to be downloaded first.  The Monster app is an activity to learn and see animation through physical drawing. Problem-solving skills are enhanced using the Masterpiece app that allows users to choose an image and then be guided with easy-to-follow lines that help you draw the image into a personal creation, which can be shared with a time-lapse video.  The Newton app combines physics with creative problem solving. As you draw, you must guide falling on-screen balls into a target zone to solve puzzles. All levels of play combine technology with thinking and fine motor skills.

Little Bits Gizmos and Gadgets Kit

Imagine meshing circuitry with inventive play via app-enabled games to create a play experience that allows creations to be controlled wirelessly. This set features “bits” which snap together with magnets. As you snap and create, users learn about electronics and eventually will use sensors and a touch screen to control the bits. There are many ideas online with instructions for 16 inventions but coming up with your own ideas is part of the fun.

Subscription services are not a fad. It’s a new way to retail.

There are 2 companies that we found that send STEM-based learning kits directly in the mail to a child. The expectation of the surprise creates an anticipation that can encourage STEM play.bits-box

Bitsbox allow users to code real apps that work on smartphones and tablets. All work is done on the bitsbox website requiring keyboarding and spelling skills. Once complete, users share their app on a mobile device and begin play.  The variety of projects keeps kids engaged in the process of repetitive skills.

mover-kitMaking and creating with technology occupies time and space.  These kits come in a variety of choices for multiple age groups. We tested the DIY Gamer Kit, Synth Kit, and Electro Dough. All have the feel of tiny science fair experiments. Meant for individual play, users create, power and code, strengthening STEM based learning while stimulating problem-solving and reasoning skills. 

Love to cook?

Here’s a fun mother-daughter gift. We all know how popular American Girl dolls are. Milwaukee moms and daughters flock to Chicago to visit the American Girl store on Michigan Avenue for a special day out for a birthday, holiday or just for a treat. But what happens when you come back to Milwaukee? Well, you can continue the fun by just being creative. Make sure your Melody, Caroline, Mia or Grace doll is in the kitchen as mom and child stir, bake, cook and frost their own “American Girl” dinner at home.

american-girl-cookingspice-barThe American Girl Cookbook ( features recipes for snacks, main dishes, soups, salads and side dishes that make a perfect meal for a holiday celebration at home.  Pair this with a RAWSpiceBar subscription and they will receive spices in the mail each month from a different
country so mom and daughter can continue creating special meals together all year long.

Do you have a crossword puzzler in your family?

The New York Times Keep Merry and Cross-Word On book features 200 easy to hard Times crossword puzzles for multiple levels.   Puzzle master Will Shortz, the founder and director of the American Crosswords Puzzle Tournament, edits puzzles.

Perhaps the puzzler in your family prefers puzzles online?   Elissa Grossman is a Marshall School of Business Professor at thecrossword-1 University of Southern California Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies with a puzzling hobby. She launched the Crosswords LA crossword tournament and donates the proceeds to a non-profit that brings volunteer readers into public elementary schools.  This year, she created this digital puzzle pack with 11 puzzles from best selling crossword constructors who are regularly published in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Southwest Airlines in-flight magazine.

Crafting with Kids is the new Pinterest

Kids love to craft. Cans of Play Doh, tubes of glitter, rolls of fabric and dispensers of tape can keep kids busy for some time. But craft kits come complete with a theme and all ingredients or materials needed in one package. These make great birthday my-clay-critterspresents, but during the holidays, when cousins and friends come over, think about setting up a “crafting” table with a few of these sets to keep them occupied.

My Clay Critters Book and Craft Kit was one of our favorites because it comes with 6 colors of air-dry clay, pre-cut shapes, a  custom tool and other accessories to make 10 ideas. This one kit can keep 10 kids busy at once! Now, that’s value-added! Adults can always join in because, well, it’s just fun to make stuff!

A flying enthusiast?

Who does not like paper airplanes? Impossible, right?  Yes, you can make a paper airplane with one piece of paper but there are two ideas for true “pilots in-training” that fall into the age group of age 5+.alpha

Alpha is an Alphabet book that features both the written word and an illustration of each letter that is used in the NATO phonetic alphabet. This is used by various emergency services (FAA, firefighters, police, the military and the Red Cross) as a way to communicate precisely in urgent situations. Children can quickly practice the alphabet while learning this language. 

fold-and-fly-paper-airplanesFold &Fly Paper Airplanes

This set features original patterned paper that is guided with fold lines to create 12 different kinds of airplanes. You can make more than 180 airplanes in total and there is an instruction book included.



The traditional candy cane is the all-time traditional favorite, but have you ever tried Japanese candy?

hi-chew pockyPocky and Hi-Chew have become all too familiar for children these days. You can find them online, in specialty Asian markets and some mass retailers.  Both come in a variety of flavors and you can’t try just one.                                                                                        



the VISUAL Learner

A child who learns most readily using visual cues will take to a toy that builds on this trait. Toys that involve memory games and picture books, puzzles and building sets and craft kits all tap into visual skills.

the AUDITORY Learner

For the child who thrives on the spoken work, look for toys that emphasize listening skills. Technology toys that talk and encourage response are a smart choice. Not every toy that is auditory needs a battery. Consider music toys and games that encourage the players to tell stories and share information. Toys that strengthen listening skills also promote concentration.

the SENSORY Learner

For the hands-on learner, look for toys that need constant contact. Stuffed animals, sports balls, board games and modeling clay all keep the sensory learner engaged.