Kid-tested toys!

Hot Wheels Criss Cross Crash Track Set

$44.99 | ages 4 and up

Few kids in our toy test could resist this mesmerizing set — a new-and-improved version of an older model from Hot Wheels. Even the veteran parents in the group agreed this toy would definitely be worth the space commitment — and the price. A single central booster (which uses 4D batteries) operates four loops of track that run simultaneously and converge to create awesome crashes and constant motion. Kids can add cars in a special loading area to work on their spatial-reasoning skills as they try to avoid (or cause!) crashes.

Downside: It comes with just one car, it's a floor eater and it’s noisy (though that's part of the fun for the kids).

Where to buy: Target, Toys R Us, Amazon


Saraya, 2 1/2, Woodbury / Photo by Tracy Walsh

Start-Up Circuits

$19.95 | 18 months and up

Invented by a local mom — Yvonne Ng, founder of Engineer’s Playground, a STEM resource guide — these toys are to babies what Snap Circuits are to grade schoolers. A fan, a light and a noisemaker can all be powered with interchangeable bases with different on-off switches. 

Downside: The high-pitched noise-maker keeps whining until you manually turn it back off.

Where to buy: mindware.com


Carter, 6, Bloomington / Photo by Tracy Walsh

Neon Cruzer

$59.99 | ages 5 and up

You know a toy is cool when kids fight over it, which is what happened during our test. One kid wanted to ride it, the other wanted to carry it around like Linus with his blankie with intermittent spurts of riding. It’s super-sturdy, features a grippy cool-blue transparent deck and wheels that light up blue when they spin quickly. And its lights are completely motion powered, so no batteries are needed. 

Downside: Only lightweight grown-ups are advised to try this one out as its max weight is 134 pounds.

Where to buy: Toys 'R' Us or neonlyghts.com


People Blocks

$59.99 | ages 1 and up

The makers of Magna-Tiles have introduced a new product to engage a younger audience. Our infant and toddler toy testers enjoyed pulling them apart and watching them snap back together.

Bonus: Local toy store chain Creative Kidstuff and Minnetonka-based St. David’s Center for Child & Family Development put this on their 2016 joint list of top toys for kids on the autism spectrum.

Downside: Price

Where to buy: Creative Kidstuff

 


Tree Top Activity Table

$99.99 | ages 1 to 4

Oodles of moving parts — including lots of bead runs and animal-themed gliders — made this nature-themed toy engaging for ages 9 months and older during our toy test. And its sturdy base kept it from tipping over on the 1-year-olds. Parents, meanwhile, liked its contemporary wooden design (attractive enough to stay sitting out on a living room floor). 

Downside: Price 

Where to buy: Pacifier


Pull and Go Car 

$9.99 | 6 months and up

This little gem from Skip Hop won big points for cuteness and functionality, too. Youngsters at our toy test were attracted to its soft, silicone feel and smooth rubber wheels. They seemed to find it easy to pull back, and they loved chasing it as it zoomed across carpeted and wood floors.

Downside: None

Where to buy: Bed, Bath & Beyond

 


Cubes Puzzle 

$23.99 | ages 2 and up

This compact, award-winning, six-in-one puzzle set offered just the right amount of challenge for our toddler-age testers. Three double-sided puzzle boards feature cutouts for four cubes. By luck — or process of elimination — kids have to find which face of each cube will fit with the playful, vibrant, garden animal pictures.

Downside: None

Where to buy: HABAusa.com


Latches Barn

$39.99 | ages 3 and up

Melissa and Doug (real parents with six kids!) have taken their popular latches board to the next level by building a barn with functional doors.
Our infant and older testers kept busy with this new-yet-classic-looking toy. 

Downside: The flimsy, weirdly fuzzy animals that come with this toy aren’t toddler safe and should be set aside if you have younger kids playing with this toy, which we recommend. The only other danger to little ones we can see would be chewing on the barn or (maybe) getting fingers pinched a bit in the latches or doors.  

Where to buy: ABC Toy Zone


Myland Horse

$19.99 | ages 2 and up

“Super-cute toy!” said one parent, which pretty much sums up this delightful, interactive set. All the kids liked this little toy, which makes a lovely neighing sound when you put the rider in the saddle, plus galloping and chirping-bird sounds triggered by different play patterns. Car, houseboat and seal versions are available, too.

Downside: It’s more novelty/heirloom than go-to toy, but it would be a crowd-pleaser of a baby-shower gift — or a whimsical stocking stuffer for Christmas morning.

Where to buy: Pacifier


Krue, 2, St. Paul / Photo by Tracy Walsh

Cupcake Set 

$25 | ages 2 to 6

We had no idea how amazingly popular this eco-friendly Green Toys set would be with our little testers, who loved the cupcakes’ three types of interchangable components — liner, cake and frosting — all displayed on a handy stand. Babies and toddlers kept coming back to this toy for sorting, staking and “tasting.” 

Downside: None

Where to buy: Moss Envy


Piki Piki Bike

$69.95 | 18 months and up | 70 pounds max 

Honestly we were skeptical of this trike’s cheap-looking plastic construction. But reviewers online loved it — and so did our test kids. It’s ready to ride the second you get it out of the box (after you put on a few stickers) and it handles and corners surprisingly well, far better than other models we’ve tested. And it looks like a motorcycle, which our test kids loved, too. 

Downside: Appearance

Where to buy: amazon.com or gallospencetoys.com


Forest Friends Playset

$19.99 | 18 months and up

Ages 1 to adult couldn’t resist the sheer cuteness of this sturdy toy, which is designed to help kids learn about animals, counting and colors while practicing fine motor skills. Each squeezable character fits perfectly into the tree, which is quaint and stable enough to sit out as a kid-room decoration when not in use. 

Downside: None

Where to buy: Lakeshore Learning


Stack and Roll Wooden Race Cars

$19.99 | 18 months and up

If your kids are too young to play with Hot Wheels, Matchbox or other big-kid cars, this well-made set of five racers would make a good substitute. Our test kids enjoyed how easily these zoomed across the floor. We parents liked their vintage toy appearance.

Downside: They’re stackable in only one order (largest to smallest) and the stack is wobbly.

Where to buy: Lakeshore Learning


Q-Bitz Jr.

$19.95 | ages 3 to 8

This compact game takes the fun of blocks and turns it into a pattern-matching game that requires spatial reasoning and problem solving. Each player receives a set of cubes and a small wooden tray. When someone turns over a pattern card, players must quickly recreate the pattern with their cubes.

Downside: None

Where to buy: mindware.com


SAGO mini Jinja’s House

$25 | ages 3 and up

This playhouse isn’t just cute, it’s portable, thanks to a cool fold-up design. Our testers couldn’t resist little attachable slide and staircase and the little pieces used to act out dining, sleeping and even getting the mail. 

Downside: It’s made of cardboard, so it won’t last forever, unless you leave it at Grandma’s house.

Where to buy: Kiddywampus


Magnutto Junior 

$24.99 | ages 3 and up

We home tested all three of these award-winning magnetic sets, including Make a Dino, Make a Mood and Make a Pet. Designed to help children identify, express, understand and respond to feelings and emotions, these sets are just plain fun and encourage creativity and silliness, too. We like that the sturdy box opens to a magnetic easel and closes with a rubber band to tightly store all the magnets.

Downside: Its many pieces (more than 100) would be easy to lose. 

Where to buy: ABC Toy Zone

 


Switch Pitch

$8.99 | ages 3 and up

This clicky-clacky ball switches color in midair, providing a fascinating, mysterious diversion for all ages. 

Downside: After studying it for hours, we still don’t know quite how it works!

Where to buy: ABC Toy Zone

 


Crocodile Head Hand Puppet

$6.50 | ages 3 and up

If encouraging silliness and playing make-believe are your goals, then this surprisingly responsive hand pxuppet is for you. Our little testers couldn’t get enough of chomping everything in sight with this goofy, flexible reptile. 

Downside: Pet hair might stick to this type of plastic. 

Where to buy: Kiddywampus

 


Cardboard Creator Tool Kit

$24.99 | ages 4 to 11 

Add it to the list of things you never thought you’d need as a parent — a kid-safe saw for cardboard. Well, this kit includes two. And we were surprised how well they cut for being relatively dull (which is to say safe). Strong hinges and bolts, plus a pry bar, dibble-like tools and a colorful booklet featuring step-by-step instructions for five projects should occupy your kids for hours. (Our home tester nearly wore himself out using the saw!)

Downside: You provide the cardboard. Also, the saw creates a lot of fuzzy paper debris, so keep your vacuum ready for when you’re done.

Where to buy: Lakeshore Learning


4-in-1 Game Rug

$29.99 | ages 3 and up

Not only do you get four games in one with this Melissa & Doug toy — Tic-Tac-Toe, Checkers, Nine Men’s Morris and Solitaire — you also get a high-quality, non-slip, stain-resistant, machine-washable, 78-inch-long rug/playmat. It comes with 36 double-sided wooden play pieces (and a mesh bag). 

Downside: None

Where to buy: ABC Toy Zone


Magnatabs

$19.99 and up | ages 3 and up

Parents — and kids — couldn’t put this magnetic toy down! A stylus magically pulls metal balls up from inside a bead board, emitting a pleasant clicking sound with every sphere. Boards that teach writing techniques for the ABCs, numbers, cursive and Hebrew are also available. 

Downside: None

Where to buy: Pacifier


Code-a-pillar

$49.99 | ages 3 to 6 

This Fisher-Price robot teaches computer coding at the preschool level. A variety of segments — forward, left, right, pause — easily connect together to send the chirpy, blinky little caterpillar on a customizable path. All ages of testers enjoyed watching and interacting with this toy. Segment expansion packs are available to make the creature even longer. 

Downside: It doesn’t work very well on carpet. Also, the song that the purple “pause” segment plays is quite annoying. “But,” one mom said, “I suppose you could just ‘lose’ that piece and play without it.”

Where to buy: Target, Toys 'R' Us, Amazon


My Fairy Garden Magical Cottage

$29.99 | ages 4 and up

We weren’t able to test the soil and seeds included with this kit, but our testers loved the look, feel and interactive nature of this indoor fairy garden, even without plants. It comes with a fairy named Freya and a little chipmunk, Hazel, to encourage imaginative play. You can open the doors to the cottage where there’s a table and chairs for sharing tea with other fairies. You can pour water into the toadstool and around the roof of the flowerpot and watch the drips trickle evenly throughout the garden.

Downside: None

Where to buy: ABC Toy Zone


PlayMobil NHL Hockey Arena

$59.99 | ages 5 and up 

Part game, part imaginative playset, this toy encouraged our test kids — older testers especially — to use their hand-eye coordination. You can move the goalie with a joystick and a pull-back feature on the skaters lets you shoot pucks into the nets with lightning speed with a flick if your finger. This toy is well-built and customizable to your favorite NHL teams and players of choice. Add-on sets include a Zamboni machine, a Stanley Cup presentation set and a score clock.

Downside: It’s big, almost 3 feet long (though it can be stored in two pieces).

Where to buy: Creative Kidstuff


Balance Beans 

$17.99 | ages 5 and up

The cuteness of this “seesaw logic game” drew all ages during our test, despite its “pre-algebra” leanings. It also provided an undivided hour of entertainment for our 8-year-old home tester, who loved the trial-and-error concept: You start with one bean on the left side (as determined by your chosen challenge card). Then you have to figure out how to add the other assigned beans to balance out the teeter-totter. 

Downside: None

Where to buy: ABC Toy Zone


Lux Blox

$69.99 | ages 6 and up

LEGOs are the gold standard of building toys. But they aren’t exactly flexible once built. Enter a new kind of clutch power — Lux Blox. Once connected, they can bend, twist, and turn while retaining strength and stability. They come with embellishments such as wooden dowels and even popsicle sticks, but they don’t come with instructions. That was a stumbling block at first for our 8-year-old home tester, but once he got building (using Lux Blox videos and photos), he loved these toys.

Downside: Price

Where to buy: luxblox.com


Noochie Golf

$139.99 | ages 6 and up

After a mini golf outing, two young boys and their parents invented this sturdy course so they could play at home. This four-piece set was hugely popular with all ages during our test. We liked the option to create different course paths and the plastic-but-solid kid-sized putter. 

Downside: Adults could easily practice with this set. However, the hole is smaller than regulation size, and it comes with a foam — rather than real — golf ball.

Where to buy: Hub Hobby


Harley, 3, Woodbury / Photo by Tracy Walsh

Reactorz Light Up Soccer Ball

$17.99 | ages 5 and up

Living at our latitude, we know the joy of long summers, but we’re also blessed with dark days in spring and fall, making this light-up LED ball a hit for playing in the dark. Indeed, in our recent home testing, this ball proved to be yet another novel way to get the kids outside. It’s not a regulation soccer ball, but it’s multi-textured construction includes a grippy plastic shell that made it easy to control. It’s also soft to catch — ideal for all ages (not just the listed 5 and up).  

Downside: It lights up only when it’s bounced or kicked (and only for a few seconds). 

Where to buy: Toys 'R' Us


Lil Lockitz

$39.99 | ages 5 and up

This “Best Friend Party Pack” includes beads, sparkles and charms to create wearable collages, including necklaces, bracelets and keychains. We like the photo puncher, easy instructions and the idea of making things for friends.

Downside: Once you use up the charms and other elements, you’re left with an empty storage case unless you keep buying more sets. Also, this series seems overly gendered toward girls. 

Where to buy: Toys 'R' Us


Little Red Accordion

$32.99 | ages 7 and up

“It’s pretty cool that this is a functioning accordion!” said one test parent, who was one of many who adored this vintage-looking, but real working instrument from a classic toymaker — Schylling. It was fun for little kids, but — for the target age range — it comes with instructions and sheet music with a couple songs you can learn to play by pressing the right keys. And the sound is gorgeous. 

Downside: Its buttons are labeled with the musical notes, but the instructions list numbers for the keys. Also: Like any musical instrument, it’s noisy.

Where to buy: Electric Fetus


Q-BA-MAZE 2.0 

$39.95 | ages 6 and up

Kids love marble tracks. They’re fun to build and even more fun to watch. Unlike most sets, this 72-piece cube maze features unpredictable runs because of its two-way-exit cubes, which allow for multiple paths for your intermediate engineer. Our 8-year-old home tester loved building with this super-sturdy set, which comes with 20 steel marbles and three types of colorful cubes. 

Downside: None

Where to buy: mindware.com


K’NEX Infinite Journey Roller Coaster

$39.95 | ages 7 and up

This amusement park kit (part of a kinetic series) earned top honors from our 8-year-old home tester, who spent two full hours building it and said: “This is the awesomest K’NEX set ever. It’s just so cool. I want this so bad.” With its 347 pieces, it was challenging for our advanced builder, but not boring. And the rubber-band pull-back car offered lessons in gravity and momentum with the rise and fall of its many twists and turns. 

Downside: Illustrations in the directions would be easier to decipher if they were bigger. Also, the journey isn’t infinite: You have to pull back the car each time it runs the course. Other, more expensive, motorized sets from K’NEX address this issue.

Where to buy: whatonearthcatalog.com and amazon.com


Dr. Eureka

$19.95 | 8 and up

The only thing better than magnets? Shiny, tiny balls! And this game comes with eight red, eight green, eight purple, plus 12 test tubes for shuffling them around. This game not only teaches logic and sequencing, but also dexterity. If you can create the test-tube combinations on the challenge card first — without touching the balls by hand — you win the game. Also, it’s super-fun for parents, too. 

Downside: It would be easy to lose the balls, and you need them all if you have four players. 

Where to buy: Hub Hobby


Playmobil Space Rocket with Launch Site 

$49.99 | ages 6 and up 

Kids were drawn to this toy repeatedly during the test, due to its outer-space theme — and lights and sounds to simulate takeoff. Its maintenance platform slides up and down for a full inspection prior to launch, and there’s even a repair robot to assist with repairs.

Downside: It comes with a lot of little pieces that could easily get lost.

Where to buy: Hub Hobby


Little Red Riding Hood Game

$24.99 | ages 4 and up

Kids get to help Little Red find the right path to Grandma’s house with this game, using a series of 48 challenge cards, accompanied by a gorgeous miniature picture book. 

Downside: None 

Where to buy: amazon.com


Bonus: See our 2015 toy test results for even more ideas! 

Editor’s note: Though we list specific local retailers — who helped make this toy test possible with donations and loaner toys — many other local retailers and online outlets also carry the toys featured in this issue. Check out the local toy stores below, and be sure to call individual stores to confirm availability and pricing.


Shop around!

ABC Toy Zone, Burnsville, Chanhassen and Rochester

Air Traffic Kites and Games, six Twin Cities locations, including MOA

Autism Shop (This store is now online only.)

BuyBuy Baby, Woodbury

Choo Choo Bob’s Train Store, St. Paul

Creative Kidstuff, seven Twin Cities locations, including MOA

Doodletown Toys, Big Lake, online and craft shows only

Electric Fetus, Minneapolis

Games by James, six locations, including MOA

Hub Hobby, Richfield and Little Canada

Kiddywampus, Hopkins

Lakeshore Learning Store, St. Louis Park and Maplewood

Lark Toys, Kellogg

Mall of America, Bloomington: Specialty toy stores include The LEGO Store, American Girl, Build-A-Bear Workshop, Nickelodeon Store, Disney Store, Marbles: The Brain Store, and JM Cremp’s Adventure Store

MindWare, Roseville

Moss Envy, Minneapolis

Pacifier, four Twin Cities locations 

Mischief Toys & Gifts, St. Paul

Something Safari, Excelsior 

Teeny Bee Boutique, St. Paul


Don’t see your favorite local store here? Tell us about it: Write us at editor@mnparent.com.