The wonders of kinetic sand!

Early childhood experts are always talking about how kids don’t need special toys: Just give a kid a cup, bowl or stick and let his imagination do the rest. 

This, they say, is how children learn — organic, creative, unplugged, self-directed play.

And, for the most part, I believe this is true, especially for babies. (Check out the Baby on Board column in this issue for Shannon Keough’s thoughts on “educational” infant toys.)

But let’s not forget: Learning isn’t all parents want from toys: When my son was a toddler, I was desperate for anything that would distract him long enough for me to take five minutes to myself. I wanted a break from “Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom! MOM!!!”

Though my son is now 7 (and a bit less demanding), I still measure a toy’s worth by how long it can hold his attention during independent play. Also: Will he come back to it again and again? Finally, how messy is it?

As I write this, my son is playing with Kinetic Sand. Yes, it’s a bit messy, even for indoor sand.

But, miraculously, he’s now on Day 4 of playing with this stuff for hours. 

He’s made small-scale sandcastles, faces, imaginary cakes and cookies, mini pizza and countless shapes using molds from our Play-Doh stash and measuring spoons and cups from the kitchen.

It’s a hit! 

It’s the best of both worlds — it’s relatively new and gimmicky (novelty is always good), but also it encourages creativity and free expression. 

Will your kid love Kinetic Sand — and the rest of the toys and games we’re featuring in this issue as part of our annual Toy Test results?

That depends, of course, on your kid. But we’ve worked hard to field test a wide variety of toys so you can see which ones real Minnesota kids — 20 of them, age 1 to 10 — like the most. We also included parents’ comments for extra insight.

Short on cash this year or looking to consume less? Check out one Minnesota mom’s tricks in this issue for toy rotating, sharing and more to get off what she calls the “toy-go-round.”

Either way, we hope you get five minutes to, you know, breathe (or perhaps just use the bathroom without interruption).