What kids like: Children test toys under $30

With help from 3 to 7-year-olds, News4Jax tests 12 top-rated toys

ORANGE PARK, Fla. – It happens every holiday season: the mad rush to buy toys that your kids say "all the other kids have."

But you don't want to spend money only to see those new toys abandoned at the bottom of a closet a few days later.

Before you brave those holiday shopping lines for the best deals in town, you might be surprised by what two groups of young toy testers showed News4Jax.

WATCH: Ages 3-5 toy test | Ages 5-7 toy test

Since it's easiest for parent to shop online, we took an unscientific look at more than a dozen of Amazon.com's age-appropriate toys that were rated highest by parents and caregivers.

All of the toys we selected were rated at least 4.5 stars out of a maximum of 5 stars and all cost $30 or less.

Our first group of nearly a dozen local kids from St. Johns Country Day School in Orange Park, were ages 3 to 5.

Ages 3-5: Building blocks

The young tester played with two types of building blocks.

The  $24 Lego DUPLO All-in-One-Box-of-Fun was a huge hit, containing little Lego people and cars. That didn't surprise kindergarten teacher Melissa Rothe.

"They all wanted the Legos. I think they're familiar (with them)," Rothe said.

The other building blocks -- the $20 144-piece set by CTK Toys -- relies on a child's abstract thinking.

These didn't go over so well, and when a couple of kids finally warmed up to it, they only stacked the blocks, despite the different designs they saw in pictures included with the set.

Ages 3-5: Old-school vs. high-tech drawing dynamics

One option was the $20 electronic VTech Doc McStuffins Talk and Trace Clipboard, which came with two AAA batteries. This teaching toy guides kids through several stencils using a magnetic drawing board, reviewing letters and numbers.

Kindergarten teacher McCall Morgan said it's a good concept, but, "The screen is a little small for them."

The kids preferred the old school, $26 Drawing Stencils Set for Kids, which came with more than 260 stencil shapes, paper, 12 colored pencils and a pencil sharpener. It was all packaged in an easy-to-take-along carrying case, which also serves as a drawing surface.

Ages 3-5: Physical fun

Finally, these 3- to 5-year-olds tested toys that encourage active play.

They tried out the $18.50 mini electronic VTech KidiBeats Drum Set, which came with three AAAA demo batteries. This toy reviews letters, numbers and follow-along songs and features nine melodies in different styles, like rock and pop.

But that electronic toy was blown away by the youngster's love of the $24 Kids Bowling Play Set, made out of foam.

That was no surprise to Rothe.

"They're running around everywhere. They like that!" said said. "They don't like to be put in one spot."

Ages 3-5: Bottom line

Our younger test group had more fun with the toys we selected that were not electronic. They loved the toy allowing them to expend energy. We also watched them get lost in the particular toy with which they were playing, even if they were playing alone.

Ages 5-7: Tech vs. classic

Our older group of students also from St. Johns Country Day School. They had noticeably more controlled energy. We quickly learned when it came to toys for these 5- to 7-year-olds: keep it simple.

Once again, all of the toys we selected were from Amazon.com, rated at least 4.5 or the hightest 5 stars, and all of the toys cost $30 or less.


First up was the $30 VTech Kidizoom Camera Pix, which needs four AA batteries. It's a real digital camera with a zoom feature, animated effects and selfie-mode, as well as a voice and video recorder.

Some of the kids had seen this toy before, but for all of them -- their interest was fleeting.

"They had electronics in the olden days," 6-year-old Colin said while trying to peer through the camera's viewfinder.

He wasn't impressed, and quickly laid it back on the table. The camera seemed a little too involved for the kids to figure out while there were so many other toys -- and friends -- around.

It turns out a toy we adults played with as kids was just as fun for these youngsters. They loved the $16.50 Classic Operation Game, where you try not to touch the metal edges as you pluck out different, quirky game body parts with tweezers. It comes with two AA batteries.

"I'm surprised that they gravitated to the Operation Game, which is like the oldest game on the table," Colin's dad, Rodney Ashford, said.

Ages 5-7: Art vs. craft

The only toy that did not work during our test was the "craft" part of our arts and craft selection.

On Amazon.com, more than 300 customers gave 4.5 out of 5 stars to the $23 Melissa & Doug Wooden Multi-Craft Weaving Loom with an Extra-Large Frame, on which kids can either weave in slats of a photo, or use rainbow yarn.

It took us adults about 15 minutes to set up the loom and about 15 seconds for the kids to show us this was not a toy for them to tackle solo.

WATCH: Children struggle with loom toy

Rodney Ashford didn't think even a parent's help with the toy would help.

"That's time consuming (and), you know, short attention span. (It) doesn't work," Ashford said, shaking his head.

When asked if he thought the outcome would be different if he helped his son with the loom, Ashford added, "I would be the one doing it. He would lose interested and leave me with it."

Our toy testers flocked to a cheaper alternative, the cheaper $18 Alex Toys Artist Studio Colossal Art Set, with more than 300 pieces, including crayons, pastels, paints.

Ages 5-7: Dolls and action figures

Finally, our 5 to 7-year-olds looked at several different dolls and action figures:

The $6.50 Star Wars The Last Jedi C-3PO mini-collectible
The $15 Star Wars Forces of Destiny Rey of Jakku Adventure Figure
The $22 DreamWorks Trolls Queen Poppy Talkin' Troll Plush Doll
The $30 Pokemon XI (11) Multi Figure Pack

The obvious gender difference in the dolls. When it came to either Star Wars character, both boys and girls played with them. Also, just about all the kids recognized and were excited by Pokemon's main character, Pikachu. 

Characters from the movie Trolls are popular, so there was no surprise that both boys and girls played with the Poppy doll.

Ages 5-7: Bottom line

For this older age group, the big winners were the Operation Game, and the art set. The students slo seemed to enjoy most toys they could play with another child.

The 14 toys we used in our test will all be donated to charity.

If there's a toy that costs $30 or less that you'd like to see News4Jax to put to the test, submit it to us by Dec. 4.

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