Parents seeking direction through the maze of new holiday toys might be surprised to discover they need a guide to the guides.
An army of magazines, consumer groups, children's education associations and even a battery manufacturer have offered their version of a "top toys" list. Among them:
-- The annual Duracell Kids' Choice National Survey.
-- The Parents' Choice Awards.
-- The Oppenheim Platinum Toy Awards.
-- Parenting magazine's Toys of the Year.
-- Parents magazine's The Best Toys of 1995.
-- Child magazine's The 50 Best Toys of 1995.
-- Family Life magazine's 23 Toys Kids Will Crave.
-- FamilyFun magazine's The Best New Toys of '95.
Nobody knows how many top-toy lists are out there, especially when those compiled by individuals on the Internet and those with specific agendas (top "ecotoys" or playthings for the visually impaired) are factored in.
Jodi Levin of the Toy Manufacturers of America Inc. believes that even though ratings lists abound, they provide a valuable service to parents who do research before they shop.
Most of the lists involve input from adults such as lifestyle writers, child development/safety experts, parents and teachers.
The items selected generally represent a mix of nongender and gender-specific toys that are divided into groups geared to infants, preschoolers and children up to age 12. "Age-appropriate" is the buzzword often used to describe them.
All of the toys are tested by kids, sometimes over a few days or weeks in a group environment (classes, day- care centers) or are sent directly to a child to keep for long-range monitoring of the toy's lasting play value.
While kids' opinions weigh heavily, they don't always have the final say.
"We think it would be irresponsible if we just based our selections on what the kids wanted," says Diana Huss Green, editor of Parents' Choice, a nonprofit consumer guide to children's media and toys. "If you let children decide what they will eat every day, most likely it will be ice cream and cake."
Stephanie Oppenheim, who co-wrote "The Best Toys, Books & Videos for Kids" (HarperPerennial; $13) with her mother, child-development expert Joanne Oppenheim, agrees.
The initial hunt for toys to test begins each year in February at the annual American International Toy Fair in New York.
Parents' Choice and FamilyFun magazine invite toy manufacturers to submit toys for review. Toys are submitted to FamilyFun free of charge, while Parents' Choice charges an entry fee of $80 per toy. (They use the money to fund their national literacy projects.)
The Oppenheims, who also publish The Oppenheim Portfolio, a quarterly consumer newsletter that reviews children's media and toys, do not rely on manufacturers' submissions or require entry fees.
"We choose what we review," says Oppenheim. "We didn't want to be limited to what the manufacturers were trying to push. We also thought we might be missing out on some wonderful toys that are produced by smaller companies who couldn't afford to pay entry fees."
Landing on any lists can sometimes garner national exposure for a toy on such shows as "Good Morning America" or "Today." But the Oppenheim and Parents' Choice lists are thought to be two of the more coveted spots. Many describe the Parents' Choice Award as the industry's equivalent of an Oscar. Green also notes that they are one of the most selective. Of the 4,000 toys, videos and books submitted annually for consideration, they may give the nod to 6 percent.
No doubt, toys showcasing the gold or silver Oppenheim and Parents' Choice seals stand out from others on the shelves. Much like the way movie critics' comments are used in ads, getting a spot on a respected best-toys list provides marketing advantage for the manufacturers.
Because of this edge, the ethics and credibility behind some of the publications that carry toy advertising are sometimes questioned.
All of the magazines insist they do not feel pressured to include toys from major advertisers on their lists.
Green has the following advice for parents:
-- Check the judging criteria and purpose of each top-toy list. Is it simply predicting what will be hot this season according to industry analysts? Is it based on promoting educational toys or those that encourage creativity and imagination?
-- A good list also will have "unexpected" choices, toys that are not often advertised.
-- Do the toys on the list promote values you believes in?