Knowing what to place under the Christmas tree can be a daunting task for parents. As the holidays draw near, it seems a child’s idea for the perfect gift changes as frequently as the commercials for the toys. For parents embarking on their holiday quest for the ideal present, here’s a hint: This year’s hot toys encourage imaginative play and learning.

According to Wendy Mitchell of Auburn, educational consultant for Discovery Toys, her company’s primary focus for the fall season has been imaginary play, and the additions made to their line of educational toys reflect their commitment to creative, non-violent fun for children of all ages.

“This season’s additions to the Discovery Toy line require children to become actively involved in their play instead of simply sitting in front of a television or computer screen,” explains Mitchell. “We now offer princess and king/queen costumes complete with royal, colorful and glittery capes and hats, all sturdily constructed and easy to get on and off for frequent changes and hours of fun.”

Also new is Discovery Toys/ Main Street Pop-Up Playhouse. With its bright red, blue and yellow exterior, the playhouse offers three different settings for imaginary play and is large enough for multiple children and even an adult inside. One side of the house features a puppet theater, perfect for use with the Castle Quartet hand puppets, while two other sides feature post office and grocery store scenes. For playhouse accessories, Mitchell also suggests the “Cash Carrier,” a play wallet with paper money, plastic coins and even a bank card, as well as “Stop n’Shop” with its assortment of grocery items and clerk apron.

“And what post office would be complete without ‘Write, Mail & Deliver,’ a postal delivery bag packed with stationary, postcards and play stamps?” laughs Mitchell “It’s a ‘must have’ for the youngest mail delivery person making the neighborhood rounds.”

Matville Puzzle Town and Megaset Play Village, two additional newcomers to Discovery Toys, allow pre- and primary school aged children to create their own communities of roads, railways and neighborhoods for imaginary play. Several sets of vehicles are available for use with both sets including the Matville Vehicles and Mix & Match Motors, a set of interchangeable, magnetic pieces that can be combined to create a fleet of different vehicles from buses to bulldozers. (Discovery Toys are not available at retail outlets; therefore, Mitchell can be reached at 782-8006, 1-800-427-8005, or [email protected] The web site is:

As with every Christmas season, there are those toys whose popularity, even with the onslaught of toys new to the market, keep them among the Christmas list favorites.

“Of course, Super Marbleworks Raceway construction set continues to be a favorite every year,” says Mitchell, who admits that the toy is one of her all-time favorites in the Discovery Toy line. The brightly colored, tower construction, which can be different each time it is built, challenges young minds both creatively and logically. The end result is a tower that demonstrates cause and effect with the racing of a marble through the maze of colored tubes, drop-outs, and turning wheels.

Mattel also keeps pace with the imaginary play market with their ever-popular Barbie. According to a Mattel representative, each year the company chooses a holiday theme for the Barbie line, developing a cast of characters and supporting accessories to enhance play. Last year’s theme was the fairy tale of, “Rapunzel.” In the spotlight for Christmas 2003 is Barbie of Swan Lake, based on the classic story and ballet of the same name. The ornately costumed line includes Barbie as Odette, Ken as Prince Daniel, and Barbie’s friend, Teresa, as the Fairy Queen.” Accessories include a stuffed, purple unicorn, named “Lila,” the Enchanted Forest backdrop and a carriage for Odette and her prince, which Mattel’s representative admits is flying off the shelves.

Aside from Barbie’s ongoing popularity in general, what makes Swan Lake particularly appealing is its attention towards the arts. Parents can use the doll to generate interest in the classic stories and perhaps even introduce the music of Swan Lake as well as the ballet.

In another Mattel doll story, Polly Pocket makes a big return for Christmas 2003. The newest Polly and her friends are smaller and flexible, with magnets in hands and feet to help them stand up on their house, pool or tree house stages. Additionally, a magnetic mat with roadways and yards serves as a base for building a village with more Polly accessories and stages later.

Spanning the generations and one of Mattel’s number one top-sellers for boys and girls who love cars, Hot Wheels continues to be a Christmas favorite. Gone are the bright orange racetracks of yesteryear, however! Look for Mattel’s newest tracks, “Serpent Cyclone” and “T-Wrecks,” a speedway in the form of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, standing almost three feet tall when constructed and complete with roaring sound effects.

For a roadway toy designed for younger children, parents may will want to check out Fisher Price’s Geo Trax Rail and Road System. According to representatives from both department stores and Mattel, Geo Trax is the big seller for this Christmas 2003. Begin with a basic railway set then add on to build a full transportation community from a farm with its wagons and tractors to construction vehicles, emergency helicopters and commuter trains.

The highlight of Geo Trax, however, is its remote control feature. In addition to push-play, vehicles along the primary track can be controlled by remote to move and stop as determined by the child. The larger the track, the greater the remote control options. Additionally, with use of the remote control, sound effects also become a part of the imaginary play fun too.

From imaginary play to learning through play, Fisher Price jumps into the interactive learning systems arena with their PowerTouch Learning System designed for children in pre-school through second grade. Brand new to the Fisher Price family, PowerTouch responds to the touch of finger, eliminating wands or pointers that can become detached from the system. The simple, easy-to-use,interactive program covers a range of topics including music, phonics, reading, basic math, spelling, letter/word recognition and storytelling.

Following the trend of learning through play, Leap Frog’s Leap Pad with Writing is new to the toy shelves this year and offers a wide variety of interactive books features reading, writing, math and phonics activities for children through grade school.

For a wider selection of interactive learning systems, parents need only look to Leap Frog. According to one department store representative, Leap Frog continues as one of their biggest selling items. Covering subjects including reading, writing, phonics and math, the line is versatile with a full library of interactive books and activities that follow children from pre-school through the elementary grades. Look for Leap Frog’s newest system, Leap Pad with Writing.

Finally, Christmas 2003 would not be complete without mentioning the “Bratz” – not the naughty children on Santa’s naughty and nice list but MGA’s “Bratz” dolls. The company has made an impressive splash in the doll category for Christmas 2003 with their contemporary cast of culturally diverse dolls including Dana, Jade, Yasmin, Sasha and Meygan. Larger than some of their other counterparts, these dolls’ exotic looks, prominent features and “passion for fashion” make them an appealing choice for older girls who love dolls. The line also features male characters – Cade, Koby, Cameron and Dylan – and provides a selection of accessories, everything from clothes to motorcycles, furniture and disco, spa and prom-night backdrops.

With so many old favorites and new, sleek choices in toys, determining the true “must have” status of a toy for Christmas is still as easy as asking a child. My daughter Lauren, already a Barbie fan at age 4, received Rapunzel from Santa last year, but Cheerleader Barbie, Legos and wooden blocks are topping the list for 2003. Her pre-school friend, Bryce, also age 4, is expecting Santa to deliver pirate and construction toys this year.

In the midst of the toy department at a local store, ten-year-old Rebecka Toothaker contemplated the question. “If you could only receive two or three gifts for Christmas, what would they be?” With the towering shelves and displays of toys winking at her from behind their cellophane packaging she answered, “A real keyboard, Polly Pocket and anything Mary Kate and Ashley.”

There you have it. Christmas 2003 may there be just enough snow, plenty of play, and, above all, peace for the coming year.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.