I don't think I know anyone who isn't on a budget this holiday (and those of you who aren't, feel free to keep that happy news to yourself). For the rest of us playing Santa on a shoestring, I bring tidings of great joy.
Yes, Virginia you can find great toys priced under $20 -- and I'm talking award-winning, hours of fun, thank-you note kind of toys for all ages.
After combing through 2009's lists of award winning toys from toy-testing aficionados including Family Fun Magazine, Parenting Magazine, Dr. Toy, The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Toy of the Year Awards, iParenting Media Awards, as well as the list of top ten "Toy of the Year Awards" from the American Toy Industry Association, I found far more than 20 toys priced under $20.
So, in the interest of time (which is another thing parents don't have enough of), I used my status as a veteran mother of two to highlight a cool list of toys representing a variety of age ranges, interests and prices (not the old, $19.99 trick every time).
Feast your eyes:
Bananagrams -- $14.99
Alphabet tiles come in a little banana-shaped zippered pouch and they won "Game of the Year" from the American Toy Industry. A fast-paced word game that requires no pencils, paper or board -- just a table. One 'hand' can be played in as little as five minutes, but you probably won't want to stop there. Great for travel.
Citiblocs -- $16.95
This 54-piece red and blue set of pine blocks is CPSIA certified green and was named one of Dr. Toys Best Products of 2009. Ideal for budding engineers and architects who love to spend time figuring out how things work, the possibilities for creativity are as endless as a child's imagination. Timeless, old-fashioned fun.
Connect 4x4 -- $20
Family Fun called this updated classic one of their favorite toys of 2009. New and improved with more color and multidimensional play, the new version also allows for up to four people to play at a time. Mom note: easy clean-up and storage, the pieces lock inside when the game is over. Score!
Crayola Color Wonder Magic Light Brush -- $15
Billed as "masterpieces without the mess" this art set won "Activity Toy of the Year" from the American Toy Industry.
The "magic" paints are clear and only reveal their color when used on the special paper -- not walls, couches, carpet or clothes! The special light brush is the artist's wand. For your little Picasso! Beret sold separately.
Crayola 3D Sidewalk Chalk -- $4.99 to $11.99 (for the large set)
Winner of the "Outdoor Toy of the Year" from the American Toy Industry, the large, dual-colored sidewalk chalk pieces are specially paired so when used together the colored drawing will "pop" out at different levels. 3D glasses included. Visions of sugarplums?
Elefun -- $19.99
The elephant base hides a fan that blows air through the game's 4-foot elephant trunk and propels 30 colorful butterflies into the air. Kids ages 3-6 are kept busy trying to catch the butterflies in individual nets. Whoever catches the most wins! Kids never have to wait their turn because everyone can play at once. A previous winner of the Parent Choice Award. Kids just think it's wacky good fun.
Gnip Gnop -- $14.99
The name of this game is actually "ping pong" spelled backwards and the updated version has been named a Dr.Toy Winner for 2009. Introduced 30 years ago, players send balls flying through holes and into their opponents courts by furiously pushing buttons. First one to get all six balls into the opponent's court wins. (ages 6-8) Don't you wish you still had that original ... ?
Hexbugs -- $7.99 - $19.99
iParenting Media gave Hexbugs one of their 2009 Best Products awards and the skittering little mechanical creatures haven't stopped yet. Reported to outrace real bugs, these battery operated ants, crabs and nanos are mini robots that respond to light and sound. Clap loudly and they will change direction, while bright light will send them scuttling toward the shadows. Original designs have an on/off switch. Creepy, crawly cool.
(Not for children under 3)
Klutz Invasion of the Bristlebots - $20
The BristleBot is a simple, tiny robot (called a vibrobot) made out of the head of a toothbrush, a battery, and a pager motor. The Bristlebots were developed by Evil Mad Scientists Laboratories in Silicon Valley, and publisher, Klutz, created a book component as a compendium of 12 fun activities. The result is a 2009 Family Fun Award Winner. Now, if it would just inspire kids to brush their teeth...
My Pal Scout -- $19.99
A plush, green puppy from Leapfrog that parents can personalize with the child's name and favorite things via a USB download. Scout then incorporates Junior's name and interests into activities, songs and dialogs. Five songs come pre-loaded, parents can also create a customized playlist for Scout to sing from an online database of 30 songs and lullabyes. (ages 6 mo. to 4 years) Additionally, Leapfrog offers free online resources for parents who would like to learn more about what skills their child explores during play. Dr. Toy named Scout one of the best products of 2009. Good dog!
MythBusters Weird World of Water -- $20
Using the premise of the popular TV show, Myth Busters, the set includes instructions and materials to see if three myths are busted, confirmed or plausible. Just how high can a vinegar-powered rocket go? It's definitely got bang for your bucks.
Ages 9 and up. (Elmers.com)
Richard Scarry's Busy Town Eye Found It Game -- $16.99
An impressive, 6-foot long play board is assembled to show a Busytown scene. Players then draw cards and scramble to be the first to find the characters listed. A sort of scavenger hunt/memory game for the pre-school/early grades set and recommended by Dr.Toy.
S'match (ages 3-5), Hoppers Jr. (ages 5-7), Clever Castle (ages 5-7), and Chocolate Fix (ages 8-12) -- $19.99 each
Three games from the people at Thinkfun and each one a Dr.Toy Award Winner so I am grouping them under one entry. Each game is thoughtfully designed for creative thinking and (of course) fun. I'm biased when it comes to Thinkfun -- I love puzzles and brain teasers and if your family does too then I would highly recommend.
Sassy Illumination Station -- $7.99
2009 winner of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum award for innovation as well as the Oppenheim SNAP award for a product that can be used by or easily adapted for children with special needs. This brightly-colored textured toy with a spinning "Ferris wheel" design mounts to a high chair tray or other flat surface with a suction cup base, but can also be removed for hand play. The polka-dot ball lights up when baby spins or shakes the toy.
Sassy Grasp & Glow -- $5.99
Winner of three awards in 2009 including the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award for innovation, the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio SNAP award for its use and easy adaptability for a special needs child, and recipient of the Green Parents Check List Top Ten Christmas Products, this is one heck of a special rattle. Colorful, textural and looks great in brand new baby hands. According to testers, it must taste good too.
Smushy Monkey (14 in.) from the North American Bear Co. -- $17
A super soft and plush shaggy monkey with embroidered face. 2009 winner of the Oppenheim Platinum Toy Portfolio Award for innovation. Who can say no to a face like that? Baby safe, for ages 0 - 110.
Sprig Eco Trucks --$15
Winner of a 2009 Oppenheim Platinum Toy Portfolio Award, kids simply dig these trucks. Front loaders, dump trucks and excavators are equipped with flip-open cabs, easy grab handles and truck-specific features. Kid-powered and perfect for pre-schoolers. These trucks may look yellow, but they are completely green. The Eco-Trucks have no paint and are made with earth-friendly Sprigwood™, a child-safe bio-composite of recycled wood and reclaimed plastic that has visible wood "flecks" and a fresh, pine scent.
Tri-Spy -- $14.95
Winner of a 2009 Parent's Choice Silver Award, this fast-paced game is described as using only one simple rule. According to the product description, "It's one of those games that takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master." (ages 8 and up) Challenges visual, spatial skills, pattern recognition and problem solving -- or, just fun for short.
UberStix Pirate Ship -- $15
The newest addition to the UberStix Scavenger Series, this toy encourage green thinking by getting kids to use recyclables to build real, working models. Sort of a MacGuyver training tool if you will. Plastic bottles double as floatation devices, spoons can be used as catapults, and paperclips are shaped into connection points. Dr.Toy says, "Ubersitx teaches children a way to give new life and meaning to items that otherwise would be described as "worthless." The pieces of the playset are also compatible with other building systems (i.e. Knex, etc.). Lock up the office supplies. (ages 7-12)
ZomeTool Crazy Bubbles -- $10.99
Assemble 3D shapes using 72 knex-looking pieces to design fantastic, geometric bubbles. Full color instructions come with the building pieces, just add a soap solution (dish soap & water) and you'll be bubblicious in no time.
This toy won five educational awards in previous years.
This year's version of Tickle Me Elmo, the Zhu Zhu pet , was also on Dr.Toy's award list and was priced reasonably under $10. However, they have become all but extinct on toy store shelves, and these days hunting such a rare creature may not be worth it.
Most of the toys listed can be found online through their company homepages, via online retailers such as Amazon.com, Target.com, WalMart.com, ToysrUs.com, Backtobasicstoys.com, Fatbraintoys.com, Sears.com, Kmart.com, Pricegrabber.com as well as the brick-and-mortar stores (but you might want to call first).
20 award-winning toys for $20 or less