We at Cheapism are hardly immune to the siren-call of electronic games, but for this guide to the best cheap toys for the younger elementary school set we're sticking with the more traditional kind of cheap toys. That is, toys the child actually holds and manipulates in some way, items with tactile qualities that are present in the here and now. While we can't guarantee that our picks for best cheap toys will vanquish the uber-modern screen-based games in a head-to-head contest, we're fairly confident they won't end up in the bottom of the toy bin, either.
Our Top Pick
Decorate-Your-Own Wooden Train Kit Review
Connecticut-based toy company Melissa & Doug sells a plethora of unique craft kits at drop-in-the-bucket prices. The prices are right, but do these button-cute art projects keep the attention of active youngsters? To find out, we took the Decorate-Your-Own Wooden Train Kit for a spin with our five-year-old toy tester, Douglas.
The DYO Wooden Train Kit, one of a trio of DYO Vehicle crafts that Melissa & Doug offers, comes with a wooden engine body, 6 wooden wheels, paints, a paintbrush, glue, and stickers. So far so good. The wooden train itself seemed well-made, and our tester was able to assemble it fairly easily with a little help from his mom. When it came time for Douglas to decorate, things didn't go as smoothly. The paintbrush included with the kit was hard for him to work with, and the paints didn't want to transfer from the brush to the wooden engine. He ended up breaking out some paints he already owned to finish coloring in his train. Once the paint was dry, Douglas had a great time embellishing his engine with stickers and making it chug along. He seemed proud of his creation, and his mom said he spent quite a while playing with it once it was completed.
Our child tester's experience with the DYO Wooden Train Kit wasn't perfect, but it was favorable. It kept him occupied, gave free rein to his creativity, and inspired pretend play.
We found only a smattering of online toy reviews for this product, and most seemed similarly pleased, like this Amazon parent to a three-year-old recommended these for junior party guests.
Our verdict: The Melissa & Doug Decorate-Your-Own Wooden Train Kit may not impress older grade-schoolers, but parents of children 3 to 7 might find it a welcome boredom-buster or rainy-day diversion.
If you know a child with Bakugan fever, Zoobles toys (starting at $7, Amazon) looks awfully familiar. For those oblivious to the Bakugan craze, more explanation is needed. Bakugan toys are small balls or cylinders that pop open to become fearsome sci-fi warrior creatures. Zoobles toys, on the other hand, are cute plastic pets that fold into a ball shape and pop open when placed on their magnetized "happitats." Released this fall by SpinMaster, the company that makes Bakugan, Bendaroos, and Magic Beanz, Zoobles toys have made it big with girls in the 5 to 7 age group and are expected to be hot for the holidays. Based on our own Zoobles review, Zoobles proved adorable enough to win "awwwww"s from our child testers, and the moms couldn't resist playing with them once the kids set them down.
Because Zoobles toys are fairly new, Zoobles reviews by users are still somewhat scarce. But overall, the reviews that we found trend positive. One parent posting a review on Viewpoints gives Zoobles a thumbs-up for entertainment value and variety. The toys review goes on to caution, however, that the little ball shape presents a choking hazard to babies and toddlers. A grandparent posting a review on Amazon is not so impressed, noting these small creatures often got stuck in the act of springing open -- something our child testers also encountered during their review.
Still, like Littlest Pet Shop figurines and My Little Ponies before them, these highly collectible cuties have a way of multiplying. The mother of one of our child testers experienced an onslaught of begging and pleading for Zoobles during a recent toy store outing. She also reports that the 4-year-old brother and 9-year-old sister of our tester clamor for turns with Zoobles.
Zoobles may end up just another flash in the pan, but with 2-packs starting at just under $10 and single-packs going for less than $6, this is one cheap toy trend you that won't dent the holiday gift budget too badly.
Spot It Review
Based on our own Spot It review with child testers, it's possible that this cheap little card game by Blue Orange Games will run circles around the competition this holiday season. First of all, the Spot It game is travel-friendly. The stack of coaster-sized, round cards packaged in a cute metal tin is perfect for packing along to Grandma's house or pulling out of a carry-on when your plane is delayed. Second, our review found the Spot It game easy to play. There are directions for four different games included, but our young Spot It reviewers ignored the instructions and started up a game right away playing by their own rules. Lastly, Spot It appeals to a wide age group. Not only did our 7-to-9-year-old child testers have a good time playing, but their parents had a hard time not joining in.
Whichever variation of Spot It (starting at $10, Amazon) you play, the goal is to be the first one to "spot" the match. Between any two cards in the deck, there will be one and only one symbol that is the same. The winner is the person who finds the most matches. Although the objective is simple, it's often easier said than done. As one child tester pointed out in her Spot It review, one match might be difficult to find, then the next so easy it "tricks" you.
Spot It reviews are scarce, particularly because the game is sold primarily through boutique toy stores and not through larger sites that allow customer feedback. Of the reviews we did find, not one gave Spot It a rating of less than five out of five stars for its addictive playability and mass appeal.Though the Spot It game is intended for players ages 6 and up, Spot It reviews on Amazon by parents of the under-6 crowd report these younger children are both eager and able to play.
For proponents of family game night, this clever and cheap card game hits the spot, coming in right around $10. As fun as fans find it to be, however, Spot It requires two or more players and isn't a good option for solo entertainment.
Nerf Vortex Vigilon Review
The Nerf Vortex Vigilon (starting at $16) is one of the newest additions to Nerf's arsenal of foam weaponry. This blaster launches green foam discs using long-range technology that sends them flying up to 50 feet, according to one user who posted a Nerf Vortex review at Toys R Us. The Vortex Vigilon features a drop-down clip that accommodates five discs at a time and a disc eject for clearing jams.
Our tester, an 8-year-old girl, initially seemed intimidated by the Vortex Vigilon, wondering aloud if it would be "weird" for a girl to play with it. At 14 inches long, the blaster was a bit unwieldy, and she needed both hands to cock the gun before firing. She quickly got over her trepidation once she started a round of target practice, aiming at outdoor cushions on patio chairs. Soon she was hunting down discs all over the yard and pleading for "one more try" until, with a cheer of jubilation, she hit her target dead-center.
Both the size and the nature of the Vortex Vigilon make it inappropriate for smaller kids. Despite the vibrant color scheme, which screams toy, this is a sophisticated piece of faux artillery. Nearly every Nerf Vortex review we found on the Amazon and Toys R Us websites was written by an adult male -- either a man who regularly engaged in organized Nerf warfare or a father who had appropriated his child's toy. One such user posting on Amazon likes the range of the gun but notes that it fires on the slow side and the trajectory of the discharged ammo is erratic. Our child tester couldn't have cared less about the firing speed but did comment that the discs flew everywhere and could be hard to track down.
The Nerf Vortex Vigilon is an impressive toy designed as much for grown-ups as it is for children 8 and up. It can be plenty of fun, especially when used in groups and in conjunction with other Nerf weapons. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of letting children play with toy guns, this will not be your cup of tea. That said, it is a good choice for active tweens who enjoy marksmanship and the strategy of war games.
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