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While a video game might be the easiest gift to buy a young one, it’s toys that challenge the imagination that stand the test of time

As the surplus of holiday toy catalogs arrives in the mail, parents, grandparents and others often find themselves overwhelmed by the endless variety of gifts and gizmos available for children. For most adults, finding the perfect toy remains a challenge: Which ones will hold my child’s interest long after all the presents are unwrapped? Which playthings are safe and appropriate?

How do I find a well-made toy that my kids will actually play with instead of paying money for something that breaks and clutters the house?

The answers depend on whom you ask. While Sesame Street Elmo Live – a $60 doll that moves, tells jokes and responds to sounds – may rank high on the list at Mattel, several small toy shops in the area say the best playthings don’t simply entertain a kid; they also promote creativity while supporting a child’s physical, cognitive, emotional and social development.

“You have to think like a kid again,” said Brett Sommer, owner of Figpickels Toy Emporium in downtown Coeur d’Alene. “(A toy) needs to either spark the imagination or stimulate their senses.”

Children also stay interested in toys that they can build in different ways, he said – toys that are hands-on, interactive and require both exploration and problem solving.

One of the most popular toys right now at Figpickels is a hydrodynamics building set – the same kind that Sommer’s brother played with when he was a kid. The set includes tanks, tubes, valves, girders and other items that can be put together in various ways to help kids learn about water flow, pressure and other concepts.

“You can even add color as you build,” said Sommer, who opened Figpickels four years ago after moving from New York to Coeur d’Alene. “And once it’s done, it’s not really done because you can keep building in an infinite amount of ways.”

The toy sparked his brother’s interest in science.

“My brother became an engineer,” he added. “Some toys are as much fun as they are cerebral.”

Toys like the hydrodynamics set also encourage parents and other adults to take the time and “play” with their kids as they figure out the instructions and solve problems together. This promotes quality time together for the whole family, experts say.

Other toys that continue to draw older kids include remote-controlled vehicles, pump rockets and gadgets such as the Portable Light Doodler, which uses LED technology to enable kids to “doodle.”

At Whiz Kids in downtown Spokane, microscopes and other science-related items remain popular with young people, said manager Jan St. George. In addition to building things and performing experiments, older children also discover “unlimited fun” with arts and crafts, puzzles and games, she said.

Sommer said that some of the old-fashioned games such as backgammon and “Operation” are popular again. Besides being interactive, “Operation” helps with hand-eye coordination, Sommer pointed out.

Backgammon, on the other hand, “has been called the ‘game of kings,’ ” he said. “It’s like being out on a football field if you really get into it.”

Many of these games also teach kids about strategy as well as sportsmanship and other values, some say.

For younger kids, Sommer suggests toys with various textures that they can touch and feel. Wooden toys painted with vegetable dye are also safe and long-lasting, he said.

Little kids love to play pretend, said St. George. She suggested Thomas the Tank, Calico Critters and other “kid-powered” toys that aren’t battery-operated and encourage imaginative play instead of providing mere entertainment.

Another popular toy this year at Whiz Kids is “My Little Sandbox,” an 8-inch-square box with sand and small toys in various themes – beach party, mermaid, farm and others.

“It’s like a Zen thing – it’s peaceful and fun with no batteries,” said St. George. “It really holds the kids’ interest.”

Little ones also love dress-up items and creative costumes, Sommer said. At his store, 10- to 12-year-old girls (’tweens) are drawn to a kit that enables them to become fashion designers using templates and fabrics.

Earlier this fall, Toys “R” Us released its 2008 “Hot Toy List” for the holidays.

“After a thorough evaluation of all new toy introductions throughout the year, and consultations with our global merchandising team in 34 countries, Toys ‘R’ Us has the unique ability to provide our guests with the ultimate list of items certain to bring big smiles to kids’ faces,” Karen Dodge, senior vice president and chief merchandising officer, said in a press release.

The retailer’s list includes the Laugh & Learn Fun With Friends Musical Table, a bilingual activity table with light-up faces; the ‘50s Diner, a retro-themed diner that includes a kitchen, tabletop and a working jukebox; designer acoustic guitars; the Hannah Montana Malibu Beach House; the iCarly Webcam; and the Star Wars Legacy Collection Millennium Falcon.

Whiz Kids, which is independent and locally owned, doesn’t carry Barbie, superheroes and many of the toys that are sold at Toys “R” Us, Wal-Mart and other traditional stores. Like Figpickels and other small toy stores, Whiz Kids specializes in toys that aren’t just fun to play with, but also have educational and developmental value.

“Many toy shoppers are surprised to learn that there is a whole world of engaging, unique, well-made toys that they never see in huge, impersonal, one-size-fits-all stores,” Kathleen McHugh, president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, said in a press release.

“The people at your locally owned toy store are from your community,” she said. “They hand-select a wide range of safe, highly creative toys you don’t see advertised. These toys may not be the ones your kids bug you to buy them, but they will be the ones they play with over and over.”

Not all quality toys have to be expensive, experts say; almost anything can be a toy. In fact, a few local parents on the newspaper’s Parents Council blog wrote that their children also enjoyed playing with things that aren’t necessarily “toys,” but still capture their imagination.

Those items include cardboard boxes, paper and tape, an empty gallon jug, plastic food containers, and old clothes that can be used for dress-up.

Despite the bleak economic outlook, toy companies remain cautiously hopeful about the holiday season. Adults may scrimp on things for themselves, but many still want to buy toys for their children at Christmastime.

This season, Whiz Kids in downtown Spokane plans to carry even more options in the $40-or-less price range. At Figpickels, customers continue to spend time at the family-owned shop to explore hands-on displays and retro toys as well as become mesmerized by the copper-covered ceilings, the German carousel and other features.

“We let them try it out to see whether it’s really right for their family,” said Sommer. “You can’t do that with toys in a catalog.”

Figpickels also invests money in testing different toys so that they can learn the ins and outs of each toy and figure out which ones are built to last.

“You have to look for something that isn’t going to bore kids after a week,” Sommer said. “Almost every toy (in the store) is hand-picked and tested to make sure it meets our high standards for safety, quality, education, value and most of all, fun.”

Virginia de Leon is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Reach her at You can also comment on this story and other topics related to parenting and families by checking out The Spokesman-Review’s Parents’ Council blog: blogs/parents.