Santa, I want that in my stocking

One of the toys flying off the shelves this Christmas is a hand-held toy that combines games, books, an art studio and videos. Amy McLellan looks at the must-have gifts for young learners
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The Independent Online

It seems parents expect a little more of Santa these days. It's not enough to simply supply a sackful of presents: the gifts must also be appropriately uplifting and educational. Manufacturers and retailers have taken note of this trend and are keen to promote the learning values of their latest toys. "Parents are a little bit more demanding these days," says Ash Narsey, managing partner of justchildsplay.co.uk. "They do look for something with an educational aspect to it."

It seems parents expect a little more of Santa these days. It's not enough to simply supply a sackful of presents: the gifts must also be appropriately uplifting and educational. Manufacturers and retailers have taken note of this trend and are keen to promote the learning values of their latest toys. "Parents are a little bit more demanding these days," says Ash Narsey, managing partner of justchildsplay.co.uk. "They do look for something with an educational aspect to it."

Johl Garling, managing director of Eurocosm.com, which sells a range of toys endorsed by Cambridge University, says educational toys have been big-sellers this year. "Perhaps it's because school life is more competitive than ever and parents want to give their children an earlier start on the road to success," says Garling.

Education is, of course, the last thing on little Johnny's mind when composing the annual letter to Santa. Shahzeena Khalid, a former primary school teacher and founder of The Resource Cupboard, which donates 1 per cent of its sales to Save the Children, says the bestselling educational toys are those that lean more towards play than education. "Some toys can be so entertaining that even when children realise there is an 'educational' angle to them, they still enjoy playing with them because they are so much fun," says Khalid. The Resource Cupboard's bestseller, for example, is the Dizzy Fun Land Motorised Building Set (£42.24), which allows children to build their own amusement park using a range of design and technology skills.

Great Gizmos is another company that dresses up the education in plenty of fun. "A lot of these toys really bridge the gap between what the children want to play with and the sort of toys parents are comfortable buying," says a spokeswoman. The company's bestsellers include a volcano-making kit (£7.95), which uses moulds, paints, baking soda and vinegar to create your very own erupting volcano, and glow-in-the-dark solar system mobiles (price depends on size).

Electronic toys are proving increasingly popular. Many can be played independently of adult input and with the use of headphones can keep children quietly entertained for an hour or so: ideal for the post-Christmas lunch snooze. The most popular electronic toys are those made by Leapfrog, which has seen its sales explode in the UK, from both online retailers and high street stores such as the Early Learning Centre. Its latest product, the Leapster, billed as a "Gameboy with Brains", is flying off the shelves. This handheld toy, aimed at four to eight-year-olds, incorporates learning games, electronic books, a digital art studio and interactive videos. And when the fun wears off, parents can insert new cartridges (around £15-£20 each) to keep it fresh. "The technology has really moved on," says Teresa Ceballos of Leapfrog UK. "These are good quality products that even parents can enjoy."

However, more traditional wooden toys, such as dolls houses and puzzles, which with their bright colours, robust build and moving parts remain popular with younger children, are holding their own. "Wooden toys are making a bit of a comeback," says Ash Narsey. "It's to do with the quality and it's also a bit of nostalgia. A lot of parents grew up with these more traditional toys and want to share what they experienced."

The same can be said of Eurocosm.com's science toys, with the chemistry sets, metal detectors and Build Your Own Radio kits reminding parents of their own childhood experimentation. But, in a sign of the times, the latest science toys include digital recording studios (£34.50), using the same technology as an MP3 player, while the old-fashioned microscope has been replaced by a digital microscope (£89.95) that hooks up to your child's PC. "You can blow up a bluebottle to the size of your computer screen and that's something that really appeals to children," says Garling.

And educational toys needn't break the bank: Brightminds.co.uk does a range of stocking fillers for around a fiver, from a two-in-one pocket micro-telescope to a desert island survival kit.

www.eurocosm.com

www.brightminds.co.uk

www.leapfroguk.com

www.theresourcecupboard.com

www.greatgizmos.co.uk

www.justchildsplay.co.uk

www.elc.co.uk

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