Palo Alto Weekly

- December 20, 2013

Toys that teach

Creative and educational toys and games top holiday gift choices

by Ranjini Raghunath

Forget the Xboxes and the Wiis. Building toys — from Lego sets to tiny robots that light up — have always been the most popular holiday gifts for children, according to local toy store owners.

"Around the holidays, you get people looking for something that their child can create or build," said Eric Hager, manager of the downtown store Palo Alto Sport Shop and Toy World.

A growing trend in holiday gifts now is games and toys that aim at getting girls interested in building and engineering, Hager said.

Gifts in that category include Roominate, a wired-with-lights dollhouse-building kit, and GoldieBlox, a game of building Rube Goldberg-type contraptions, designed by a Stanford University civil engineer.

At Ambassador Toys, the Town and Country Village store, Magna-Tiles and Lego sets for girls have trumped last year's favorites: kitchen sets and dolls, according to sales associate Alacia Hafner.

"Some parents are looking for just toys; some look for something that's both entertaining and educational," she said.

Recent years have also seen a resurgence in popularity of "classic" toys and toys that have "long-term play value," said Dexter Chow, owner of Cheeky Monkey Toys in Menlo Park.

Some toy manufacturers have experimented with tech-driven toys and games that connect with apps and smartphones, but those haven't quite caught on, Chow said.

"There isn't a lot of play value. Initially, people are, like, 'Ooh, that's neat,' and 10 minutes later, the novelty wears off," he said.

"The more the toy does, the less the child does. Ideally, you'd want to both engage and educate the child, you want to stimulate their imagination."

Which is why science toys and games such as microscopes and make-your-own-bubblegum machines are increasingly popular around the holidays, he added. They not only have an educational component but also keep the kids engaged when it is too cold to be outside.

"Board games are also popular this season, to get the kids away from the computers and have more 'family' time," said Leslie Chiavenini, owner of Los Altos store Adventure Toys.

Other holiday best-sellers include the Rainbow Loom, which is a multi-color bracelet-making kit, and classics such as Spot It and the board game Goblet.

Gifts that used to be in demand such as Silly Bandz or Beanie Babies are "just gone now," Chiavenini said.

"When we had Beanie Babies, we'd have lines waiting outside the door for new stock. There hasn't been a trend like that ever. That was very unique."

Chiavenini's downtown store has a wide selection of gifts ranging from dollar-and-a-half stocking stuffers to a 250-pound, $600 life-sized stuffed pony for the more indulgent parent or grandparent.

Most parents spend $20-$30 per gift on average, she said, but many also go for gifts $300 and up.

"Even in the peak of the recession, I'd find that the parents would still buy for the children and cut back elsewhere," Chiavenini said.

With the economy steadily improving now, store owners are optimistic about toy sales this year.

"When the recession hit, people were a lot more cautious. This past year, however, we've seen an increase in high-priced items being sold," Chow said.

Hanukkah's early arrival has also helped boost sales, even with a late Thanksgiving pushing back the shopping season, he added.

"We have a lot of inter-faith families who celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, so it does help us a little when they are a bit farther apart like this year."

Hager predicts a better year this year as well.

"Before the recession, we had the largest month of sales in the 83-year history of the store," he said. "It's been a slow climb back ... but it seems like this year is going to be one where people spend more."

Tom Beischer, a shopper at the Toy World, said he was happy to find more toys and games in stock than last year, even late into the shopping season. He wanted to find "something hands-on and creative, something fun to build," for his 5- and 10-year-old children, he said.

Lisa Wheatley, a parent and Adventure Toys shopper, said she tries to give gifts that highlight something that her children accomplished that year.

This year, she got one of her daughters who starred in a Little Mermaid play an Ursula ornament with "2013" on it.

"So when she grows older she'll remember that's what she did in 2013," Wheatley said.

Two of her five children are adults now, but even after children grow up, parents always look for gifts that make their children's holidays memorable, she said.

"You always want it to be magical."

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