"This is what I want for Christmas," comes a piping little voice from the other side of the shelving.
"You have two of those already," replies the parent voice.
The aisle in question proves to be stocked with the soft cuddly monsters called Uglydolls, which seem to be a collect-'em-all proposition. It might not be all bad to have a child wanting more - better than a request for the Barbie-based "Bella and Edward" Twilight dolls. (The Uglydolls do sport a few fangs, but they seem to be more in the way of snaggle teeth, and not meant to draw blood.)
This year's mainstream toy juggernauts sport a lot of hot pink plastic and are rife with movie and TV tie-ins. And, sometimes, lead and other toxic chemicals. Independent toy stores have kept their market by moving to wood and recycled materials and vetting the safety of the toys they do sell, many of which call for imagination instead of AA batteries. And most would please the child in almost anyone.
If you grew up with the modest limits of the Fisher Price Schoolbus, Playmobil scenes and figures will blow your mind. This year, Egypt reigns supreme, with sets of the pyramids, chariots, camels, Pharoah's temple and tombs. All this can run up quite a bill, but start with the model of the Sphinx, with a secret trap door and chamber, mummy, glow-in-the-dark skeleton, mysterious amulet and a couple of guards (Playthings, $30). Some sets come with an interactive Egypt-themed CD.
Lovers of wood, and the woods, may prefer Fairy Forest Lodge, a natural treehouse environment for fey little sprites that includes super-cute living room, kitchen, bedroom and bath sets complete with a toadstool toilet (Playthings, various prices).
Play environments for travel should feature fewer pieces. The Fold and Go Wooden Dollhouse from toymakers Melissa and Doug features 11 pieces of furniture and two people, and everything is stored inside the house itself ($49, Whoops and Co.).
For babies, the brightly colored Crocodile learning toy from Sigikid with zippers, buttons and Velcro for coordination practice comes with its own carrying case for easy travel, handy in the event that his legs aren't buttoned back on ($37, Oompa Toys).
Fundex makes a number of inventive card games for younger children that even parents enjoy. The Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich Game comes in its own lunchbox. Players race to make three PB&Js without having a fly land on the ingredients - reinforcing food safety practices as well as morning kitchen time management ($10, Whoops and Co.).
Stay-at-home play environments don't get much nicer than Plan Toy's wooden kitchen sets, with replicas of refrigerators, stoves, washing machines and other emblems of adulthood. (They're scaled appropriately as if kids were adults.) As in a real household, the major appliances are the most expensive ($200 for a washing machine or kitchen stove). Kids who like to play pretend-studio-apartment can get by with a toaster ($28) or microwave ($70, all at Oompa Toys). Add an eco-friendly chef set made from recycled plastic (from Green Toys, $25, also at Oompa), tea set ($25, Learning Express) and play food from Haba made of beechwood, with plenty of veggies ($25, Happy Bambino).
If you're unable to find the interactive hamster toys called Zhu Zhu Pets this season, consider the more scientific-looking Hexbugs and their cousins, the Hexbug Nanos. These little robots will appeal to more than just the budding entomologist. Hexbugs respond to noise and touch; kids can direct their movements that way. File Hexbugs under "collect 'em all," too, as they come in many different bug styles and colors ($16.75/$10, Playthings).
The Man Bites Dog headline game by University Games may appeal first of all to budding journalists (if these exist any more), yet this wordplay/card game can still easily be understood by budding bloggers and young Netizens. Players are dealt cards containing funny phrases and a point value; whoever builds the best headline wins the hand and thus the points ($10, Playthings). We're still waiting for Man Bites Dog's inevitable sequel: The Search Engine Optimization Game.
Gift your budding scientist with one of the many Lab in a Bag units (portable and collectible) that introduce kids 8 and up to scientific principles like magnetism, gravity, optics and, of course, slime. This one should please even President Obama ($18, Playthings).
Animal lovers and budding veterinarians will like the soft Perfect Petzzz, sweet sleeping puppies and kitties that come with adoption papers and their own travel cases. The Playmobil Animal Clinic and Vet Operating Room will extend the young ones' understanding of the realities of pet ownership ($30-$33, all at Learning Express).
Quick and responsive thinking is rewarded with the card game Fluxx from Looneylabs (ages 8-adult), a card-based game where the rules keep changing. It also comes in different hot-topic versions like Eco and Zombie and with add-on card sets in flavors like Jewish and Christian.
We also support fostering kids' artistic sides. Pretty chalk mats from Alfonsi Venitis are like portable, roll-up chalkboards, good for scribbling in the car and during waits at restaurants; plus, they reverse to become an oilcloth placemat ($20, Capitol Kids). Art Cards for Baby feature intricate black-and-white scenes that enhance visual literacy ($13, Oompa Toys); graduate to Shapescapes, which are interlocking shapes that look like what Legos would be if they'd been invented by Picasso ($37, Playthings). Or go rustic with Tree Blocks, wooden building blocks that actually look like the trees they come from, with branch pieces, disks and bridges ($25-$42, Capitol Kids).
And each set comes with its own carrying case.
Note: Many of these toys can be found at multiple toy stores; the stores listed are where I encountered them.