Play value

Shopping for toys this holiday season doesn’t have to be a budget buster. With toymakers adjusting to Americans’ more frugal shopping habits, this season the price of fun isn’t as high as in the past, says Chris Byrne, content director of

“A lot of toys are less expensive this year, so a lot of what we’re considering the hot toys of the year are really under $20,” says Byrne.

And kids don’t understand what the toy costs. Ever wonder why kids often take the toy out of the box, then leave the toy and play with the box? It comes down to a factor toy experts call “play value.” This value can come from a toy’s ability to be played with in a number of different ways, interact with other toys a child might have or foster play among a group of kids, says Byrne.

“Kids, at the end of the day, don’t know how much money has been spent on them if the toy has a lot of play value,” says Byrne.

“It doesn’t matter how well-made a toy is if a kid only plays with it once,” says Cliff Annicelli, editor in chief of toy trade magazine Playthings. “What’s most valued is a toy that they’re going to want to play with over and over again.”

How to choose toys

So, while buying the most expensive, most elaborate toy available may make the gift giver feel good, price doesn’t have a lot to do with whether a toy will become a perennial favorite for the child in your life, or will join the pile of unloved playthings that graces many kids’ bedrooms.

Finding a toy that fits your budget and has good play value for your target kid, especially in the absence of a specific recommendation, can be tough at a big toy retailer, says Annicelli. He says that while “mom and pop” toy stores may not be able to sell toys quite as cheaply as big-box stores can, those in doubt about what to get may benefit from the knowledgeable staff and smaller, more focused selection.

Here are 10 of Byrne and Annicelli’s picks for hot toys under $20 that should provide good play value for your holiday dollar.


Cost: $13.99, starter pack
Ages: 5 to 9
Manufacturer: Spin Master

Small plastic game pieces that, when they come into contact with special magnetic cards, open up into action figures, Bakugans have the twin attractions of being collectible and encouraging trading and interaction with other Bakugan collectors.


Cost: $14.95
Ages: 7 and up
Manufacturer: Bananagrams LLC

A portable word game that’s attractively packaged, Annicelli says Bananagrams are great for travel and for encouraging real-world play in kids addicted to electronics.

Barbie Fashion Fever Fashionista Doll

Cost: $11.99
Ages: 6 to 8
Manufacturer: Mattel

The latest incarnation of the classic Barbie Doll, Fashionistas provide dress-up fun at a reasonable price, says Byrne.

Hot Wheels

Cost: $4.99 for 5-car set
Ages: 3 to 8
Manufacturer: Mattel

Byrne says that these perennial favorites are a great, low-cost option that provide good play value.

Lego building sets

Cost: $6 to $19.99
Ages: 5 to 12
Manufacturer: Lego

Always a kids’ favorite with enormous play value, Lego sets, especially their Bionicle series, will be as popular as ever this year.

Littlest Pet Shop Pets

Cost: $6.99 to $19.99
Ages: 4 to 7
Manufacturer: Hasbro

The tiny cutesy animals that populate the world of the Littlest Pet Shop will be a favorite with kids at big-box retailers, says Annicelli.

Liv Fashion Doll

Cost: $19.99
Ages: 3 to 8
Manufacturer: Spin Master

Midway in look and attitude between Barbies and Bratz dolls, Liv dolls have a couple of innovative features that set them apart: Web interactivity and interchangeable wigs.


Cost: $19.99 per set
Ages: 6 to 12
Manufacturer: Techno Source

Leveraging the family computer and printer, Printies allow kids to design, print and fill their own stuffed animals at home.

Transformers Action Figures

Cost: $11.99 to $19.99
Ages: 5 to 9
Manufacturer: Hasbro

Transformers have been around since 1984, but the hit movie franchise has kept them popular. Many Transformer action figures also offer a play value advantage in that they can be played with as a vehicle or a robot.

Zhu Zhu Pets

Cost: $9.99 hamsters, $11.99 to $16.99, enclosure accessories
Ages: 4 to 8
Manufacturer: Cepia LLC

These animatronic hamsters that run around a series of interlocking tubes and accessories are already in short supply at many retailers.

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