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Which toys are the year's best? It depends on who's judging

NEW YORK -- There may be less hoopla around it, but for the Toy Industry Association, the announcement each year of its coveted Top 10 Toys of the Year awards at the American International Toy Fair isn't a whole lot different from the Oscars. Like the film awards, TOTYs are nominated and judged by peers -- in this case, other toymakers -- and the merits of the product are not always the only force that drives a winner. What's more, like their counterparts in the film world, there is profit to be had for toymakers who can lay claim to an award.

At least moviegoers can read critical reviews, though. Parents would be misled to think that a Toy of the Year award is reason enough to spend their hard-earned toy dollars.

Earlier this month, winners were announced. Toys are judged on a range of criteria, including innovative characteristics that distinguish it from other toys. But at the highly competitive Toy Fair, where 1,500 exhibitors with 5,000 new products vie for attention from retailers and the press, what tends to get a toy the most attention is its ability to carve a niche in the market. Put a bit more crassly: How well does it sell? That a toy might glamorize violent behavior, precocious sexuality, or unhealthy eating seems secondary. (Among this year's winners were the Bratz Formal Funk Runway Disco by MGA Entertainment, dolls that are highly sexualized and marketed to girls as young as 4 and 5; and Electronic Hulk Hands by Toy Biz Worldwide, which, according to the toymaker, emit "crashing sounds and throaty screams" when you punch the hands together.) Indeed, the Toy Fair's press-show marketing literature was subtitled, "The Business of Play."

We went to the Toy Fair with other criteria in mind: to find 10 toys parents can feel good about buying because the toy sparks a child's imagination. From the perspective of what makes a toy good for a child to play with, that's the single most important factor.

In the best of both worlds, top-selling toys would also be toys that encourage creative play. To be fair, toymakers do give some consideration to what the industry calls "play value." But here's how Reyne Rice of the Toy Industry Association defines it: "How much fun a toy is for a child, how much value there is for the money, and whether it will be interesting to a child over time." Meanwhile, play value is last on the list of four measurements applied to nominations for Toy of the Year awards.

Child psychiatrist Michael Brody of the University of Maryland sees the value of play somewhat differently.

"A good toy is an enabler," he says. "It helps a child express himself. It's open-ended, not scripted, so that the action comes from the child, not from the toy." Of the 10 TIA winners, not one would have received Brody's vote, and certainly not Hokey Pokey Elmo by Fisher-Price, which won the overall Toy of the Year award. He calls it a "ridiculous choice."

"I object to toys that come with scripts," he says, because they tend to limit play. In this case, the message a preschooler gets is, "Here's a fun song and dance, but you have to do it the way Elmo does." Brody's advice to parents is to spend their toy dollars on toy musical instruments instead, so that a preschooler makes up his own songs and dances. Even if it's the Hokey Pokey, he'll do it in his own individual way, not Elmo's.

This was the sixth Toy Fair that Brody has attended, and what struck him most this year was how many more toys have a connection to a TV show, a movie, or a character or product already known to children. TIA spokeswoman Pamela Johnston agrees there were more of those toys this year. She calls it "smart branding."

"Where's the future of the toy industry?" she asks. "It's in toy companies recognizing they have value to other brands by introducing youth and children to other brand names. You're seeing products and companies do that in very strategic ways, like Barbie teaming up with Sephora," which markets cosmetics.

Branding is not in children's best interests, says early childhood educator Diane Levin of Wheelock College. On the day Toy Fair opened, she and members of Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children, a national coalition that works to counter the effects of marketing on children, held a protest and turned in four objectionable toys to the offices of TIA president Tom Conley. One of them was the Play-Doh McDonald's Restaurant by Hasbro. In the letter, signed by the SCEC steering panel, which includes child psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint of Harvard Medical School, they wrote, "Toys linked to fast-food restaurants focus children's play on foods high in fat, sugar, salt, and calories. . . . While they may help create brand loyalty from an early age, they can contribute to obesity and eating disorders."

Levin and Brody accompanied this reporter on a tour of Toy Fair to look for toys we could feel good about recommending. Despite all the toys we didn't like, there were plenty we did. Our choices were based primarily on whether a toy allows the child, not the toy, to be the creating force. Maybe TIA judges will consider that criterion more highly in the future. (Note: Hasbro toys were not among those we previewed. Hasbro declined to allow Levin access to its showroom because she had signed the SCEC letter, said Hasbro executive Wayne Charness.)

Barbara Meltz can be reached at meltz@globe.com

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Kid stuff
There may be less hoopla around it, but for the Toy Industry Association, the announcement each year of its coveted Top 10 Toys of the Year awards at the American International Toy Fair isn't a whole lot different from the Oscars.
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