Not even the North Pole has been spared in the worldwide outbreak of the coronavirus. Santa's elves are working extra hard to make and deliver enough toys for the coming holidays. But creativity in imagining this new bag of toys seems to have stalled in 2021 as the pandemic drags on.
"There are many wonderful products but no real game-changers no design or technology innovations that will mark this year as particularly notable in toy land," says Stephanie Oppenheim, an expert on what's hot and what's not in the $32 billion U.S. toy industry.
Her company, Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, reviews thousands of toys each year, giving advice on what is worth your time and your parents' or grandparents' money when toy-shopping.
For 2021, Oppenheim says, toy companies decided to stick with what worked well for them in 2020. "You'll find more games, puzzles and activity kits this year," she says. "Families are looking to have fun together" and cut down on screen time. "This year, we saw many more outstanding puzzles," she notes.
There are also more toys and games that focus on emotional well-being, diversity and inclusion. The Barbie doll family, for example, comes in different skin tones, hair colors and body types, and a new Ken uses a wheelchair and has 22 movable "joints" to exercise.
The key for toymakers, Oppenheim says, is "to find products that are fun and engaging."
Below are some of her top picks for 2021. Prices are manufacturers' suggestions. For more information on these and other toys, visit the website toyportfolio.com.
Ages 10 and older
Roll the dice to see how many items you must list in a given category. For example, how many Disney princesses can you name? But be careful. Don't take too long, because there's a ticking time bomb that could end your turn faster than you can say "Cinderella."
Color by Number Puzzle Jungle Animals
Ages 6 and older
The jungle comes alive in this 100-piece puzzle that starts out as a coloring project. Use the 12 washable markers to re-create the fun picture on the box or draw your own. Break the pieces apart, and now you have a challenging puzzle. Can you find the five hidden frogs? (Hint: They glow in the dark.)
Olivia's Electric Car (and other Lego Friends toys)
Lego Friends, prices vary
Ages 6 and older
Here are three new players in the 2021 Friends lineup:
Olivia's Electric Car kit comes with a buildable car, a wind-turbine charging station, two mini dolls and a puppy (183 pieces, $14.99).
Heartlake City Vet Clinic includes eight animals and three mini dolls, one of whom is blind and has a guide dog (258 pieces, $39.95).
Heartlake City Movie Theater has a hinged play set that opens to reveal a screening room and popcorn kiosk for three movie-mad mini dolls (451 pieces, $49.99).
All About Me Empower Flower
Ages 8 and older
Think about what makes you special, then select from among the more than 250-word choices that best describe you. These shiny strips become the petals surrounding a confetti-filled dome on your one-of-a-kind flower. Display it with pride. No one else has one just like it.
Mega Mouth: The Game of Reading Lips
Big G Creative, $13.99
Ages 8 and older
Players try to guess what their teammate is silently mouthing from behind a large magnification window. The words are printed on cards, and each correct answer earns a token. First team to collect 21 tokens wins. (This game is also a good reminder to floss regularly.)
Ages 8 and older
A family game night challenge for up to five players. Shift the nine "stone" tiles to match the cards in your hand. It sounds simple, but there's a lot of strategy involved. Experienced players suggest watching a practice round on YouTube before you try it. So, go ahead, try it!
Paint Your Own Porcelain Christmas Ornaments
Ages 8 and older
Paint, bake and then enjoy these porcelain ornaments for years to come. The kit has six designs, 12 paints, a brush, ribbon and a guide for mixing colors and creating special effects. Adult help may be needed when baking. For younger artists, MindWare offers a 12-piece coloring (not baking) version ($26.99).
Star Wars Imperial Shuttle
Ages 9 and older
Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are ready to board once you finish building their shuttle. Then, in the words of Han Solo, "Let's see what this piece of junk can do." The 660-piece shuttle kit is pricey, just like actual space travel. But if Grandma can afford it, maybe you can talk her into adding an Imperial Light Cruiser to your fleet (1,336 pieces, $159.99).
Ages 10 and older
Like Monopoly, only better, toy testers said. Build your own city, attract residents, earn money, balance the budget and get elected mayor. Sounds like a real success story. The catch is: You win only if yours is the happiest city around. Gamewright calls this a "delightful" building game. We'll let you be the judge.
Astrology 1,000-Piece Square Puzzle
eeBoo Piece and Love, $21.99
Ages 13 and older
You don't have to be an astrologer to foresee that hours of fun await those who tackle this puzzle that promotes patience and problem-solving. Each of the 12 zodiac signs is shown with a bird, flower, gem, motto and its place in the sky. Everyone in the family can take a turn at being a star puzzle-solver.
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