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What's in Santa's sack? From hot toys to cool gadgets, here's a roundup of the season's best playthings

Stephen C. George

Every year, it seems kids' holiday wish lists get longer as more new toys and retooled old favorites hit the shelves. That's why Better Homes and Gardens[R] and its crack team of testers spent weeks choosing the most creative, engaging, and stimulating playsets, games, books, and more. Here's your guide to the season's best toys.

GET MOVING

Even in the winter, kids can get a workout with the right toys. Instead of video games that keep them in front of the TV, look for active toys that get their minds racing and their hearts pumping.

1. SCHWINN 2004 STINGRAY (AGES 10-12) This bike may take its name from the 1960s classic, but its radical new look comes from a chopper motorcycle. A fat back tire allows great handling on any trail. Stylized accessories such as gloves and a helmet ensure that your easy rider will look cool and be safe. $180 from Schwinn, www.schwinn.com.

2. ESPN GAMESTATION (AGES 5 AND UP) Who says the kicks can't throw a ball in the house? This activity center lets kids play basketball, baseball, and football, as well as golf, soccer, and hockey. Netting on either side keeps the soft-foam balls from flying into the china cabinet. Good for eye-hand coordination and great indoor fun for bad-weather/ days. Price: $180 from FisherPrice, www.fisherprice.com.

BUILD YOUR OWN FUN

You don't have to be a young engineer to have building and construction playtime on your holiday wish list. Today's transforming toys, race tracks, and block sets stretch the imagination and can be built easily in a variety of ways.

3. PLAYMOBIL NOAH'S ARK (AGES 4 AND UP) Seems like toy Noah's Arks have been around since the beginning of time. Now Playmobil offers the massive boat (it really floats) plus several pairs of animals. Compatible with all other Playmobil toys, including an optional motor to move the Ark across any pool or tub. $69.99 from Playmobil, www.playmobil.com.

4. HOT WHEELS TECH TRAX (AGES 8 AND UP) Kids can build these track sets several ways. Although most Hot Wheels cars will run on the sets, Trax cars can be customized from the wheels up. By adding small weights or other parts, kids can fine-tune each racer for a perfect run. $9.99 to $59.99 from Mattel, www.hotwheels.com.

5. C3 BATMAN & JUSTICE LEAGUE BUILDING SETS (AGES 4 AND UP) Build Darkseid's throne room and let him duke it out with a flying Superman. Re-create stately Wayne manor and the Batcave, complete with a working elevator and cool Bat-computer station. Sets in this block-building system feature collectible MiniMate figures in the style of your favorite DC Comics super-heroes. Compatible with such block sets as LEGO. $9.99 to $49 from Art Asylum, www.artasylum.com.

6. TEEN TITANS BATTLING MACHINES (AGES 6 AND UP) Each toy in this set of five comes with one vehicle and one action figure from the popular Cartoon Network show. The five vehicles combine to make a super-transport that the whole team rides. Great for fans of transforming toys (our testers found several ways to put these together). $5.99 per toy, from Bandai, www.bandai.com.

TAP THE POWER OF WORDS

Parents will know many names from these books, sure to sharpen kids' minds and imaginations.

7. COMPLETE PEANUTS VOL. 1 AND 2 (AGES 6 AND UP) Charles Schulz's classic comic strip is available now in hardbound editions, starting with the earliest strips from 1950. $28.95 from Fantagraphics Books, www.fantagraphics.com.

8. BOOK/ANIMAL SET (AGES 3 AND UP) Rediscover old friends with this series of stuffed animals based on favorite children's book characters. Read Corduroy while they cuddle the bear--complete with missing button--from the book. Other titles: Harry the Dog and The Velveteen Rabbit. $13.95-19.99 per item (animal or book can be purchased separately) from Yottoy, www.yottoy.com.

TRY A CREATIVE CHALLENGE

These crafty kits help kids have fun and be creative at the same time.

9. ALEX DELUXE POTTERY WHEEL (AGES 8 AND UP) A pottery wheel just for kids, complete with special clay that doesn't require water to stay moist (less messy!) Comes with paints and colored stones for extra decorating options. $49.99 from Alex, www.alextoys.com.

10. NANNY'S BEAR KITS (AGES 8 AND UP) Make your own teddy bear! This kit comes with everything needed to stuff cute little bear and safely, easily sew it up with the help of a parent or grandparent. $9.99 (small kit), $19.99 (large kit) from Northern Gifts, www.northerngifts.com.

11. LITE BRITE ILLUMIN-ART EASEL (AGES 4 AND UP) All the fun of the classic Lite-Brite toy plus an easel stand, and multiple flashing light options. Also doubles as an art stand, holding poster paper securely while kids draw. $34.99 from Hasbro, www.hasbro.com/litebrite.

12. SCIENCE QUEST STORMY WEATHER LAB (AGES 8 AND UP) Predict storms, learn to read weather patterns and more with this fun and educational kit. $15.99 from The Wild Goose Company, www.wildgoosescience.com.

WATCH THIS

While Mom and Dad have their camera-phones and PDAs, kids can enjoy these handheld wonders.

13. COLOR PIXTER (AGES 4 AND UP) This portable art tool's color screen and built-in stylus pen (just like Mom's PDA) lets kids practice their art and language skills with a variety of drawing and word programs. Although the Pixter plays games, the focus is on making learning fun. $80 per unit; cartridges start at $20 from Pixter www.fisher-price.com.

14. GAMEBOY VIDEOS (AGES 8 AND UP) The handheld gaming system now plays video titles such as Dora the Explorer, Blues Clues, and more. Great alternative to violent games and a good distraction for long trips. $14.99-19.99 from Nintendo, www.gameboy.com.

15. VIEWMASTER ANNIVERSARY PACK (AGES 8 AND UP) The first "handheld video unit" and its 3-D reels have been around since the 1930s. Kids young and old will love the anniversary edition, with reels from the past 65 years. $20 from Viewmaster, www.fisher-price.com.

16. VIDEO NOW COLOR (AGES 6 AND UP) The popular video player for kids is now in color, with a host of new titles, such as Transformers, Dinosaur Planet and more. $49 per unit, $9.99-19.99 per video, from Hasbro, www.videonow.com.

PLAY A GREAT GAME

Add a new challenge or an old favorite to your family game-night fun with these options.

17. MAD GAB (AGES 10 AND UP) This wacky game incorporates clever word play with fast thinking. Great fun and sneakily educational too. $25 from Patch Products, www.patchproducts.com.

18. SUPER SCRABBLE (AGES 8 AND UP) Purists can still play "classic" Scrabble on this big new board, but kids will love the addition of quadruple word and letter scoring possibilities. $29.99 from Mattel, www.mattel.com.

FOR MOM AND DAD

Kids, don't forget something for the folks. We recommend:

19. A SEASON OF MOM'S FAVORITE TV SHOW Studios are releasing dozens of classic TV shows, such as Lassie, Happy Days, Star Trek and much more. $39 to $109 from various studios. take on trips, or snuggle with Mom while she watches her favorite show. $200 from Mintek, www.mintek.com.

Photographs By William Hopkins

COPYRIGHT 2004 Meredith Corporation
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group





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