If you’re reading this gift guide and you have kids on the lower end of the age scale (as in under 3), you can start this joyous holiday shopping season by thanking God.
The reason you are blessed is simple: So far, your bundle of joy hasn’t turned into a miniature person susceptible to brainwashing by advertisers about what toy they absolutely cannot live without because "Michael and Jenny and Emily and the other kids have one and I want one, too. Please, please, please, Mommy and Daddy, I need one! I love you!"
But children of all ages love gifts under the tree. So we've compiled this handy gift guide for kids from tots to tweens.
If you're buying for infants and babies, you probably already know how magical Elmo can be when you're trying to get them to stop crying or start smiling — or both.
Though Fisher-Price still offers its entire line of Elmo dolls and products, the 2005 model is the "Shout!" version (cost: about $20), which sings the popular '60s song.
"It's the latest in the Elmo-ization of the toy industry," said Chris Byrne, an independent toy consultant whose nickname is "The Toy Guy." "There's a time in every child's life when they're a real Elmo kid."
You also might look into one of the many interactive stuffed animals that are on the market for little tykes. Hasbro started the craze a few years ago with FurReal Friends, when the fluffy robotic cat was the surprise hit of the season, and now has a whole menagerie of bundles of fur that move their heads, make noise and do other things that real pets do.
New this year are the FurReal Friends' Perky Kitty ($19.99), which gets on its hind legs and plays with its cat toy, and $12.99 newborn animals — kittens and puppies and bears. Oh my.
At the February Toy Fair in New York City, Mattel unveiled some new interactive Pound Puppies called Here Puppy Puppy Dogs ($29.99-$34.99) that amble out of their doghouses when called and bob their heads to passersby. Radica's $20 Street Muttz are another brand of electronic stuffed pooch.
"I think they'll do well," said independent toy consultant Stevanne Auerbach, who calls herself "Dr. Toy" and issues her own gift guide. "They continue to be a novelty item."
Baby dolls have gone high-tech, too. There's Zapf Creation's $39.99 Baby Annabell, who cries "real" tears after she drinks her bottle (of water) and wakes up with a start when there's a loud sound.
Giving Baby Annabell a run for her money is the slightly creepy, rather impressive and very expensive $99 Amazing Amanda (sister to Amazing Amy and others) who talks, shows facial expressions and utters some phrases that demand action — including "Go to the potty." (The word "demand" isn't an overstatement here. She will have an accident and tell you about it, then apologize sweetly, if you shun her request.)
"I joke about it, saying it's a CPU in a dress," said Byrne. "It's an amazing computer. The technology doesn't overwhelm the play — it still allows the little girl to take over the role of Mom. But it has a little bit more of a 'wow' factor."
For parents nostalgic for the days of plain, soft, non-robotic dolls, there's a new $20 Raggedy Ann Christmas 2005 Doll in honor of the old favorite's 90th birthday. Zapf also makes some that don't have an on/off switch.
Ugly Dolls has a whole line of plush creatures for about $20 a pop. And the Goldberger Doll ($19.99) comes with its own baby toy cell phone for tots to play with.
There's another doll by eToys Direct that's custom-made to resemble her owner, called My Twinn ($139). Parents fill out an order form specifying features including skin, hair and eye color and send in a photograph of their child.
Among the wanna-haves this holiday are toys from toddlers' favorite TV shows, including "The Backyardigans," "Dora the Explorer," "Boohbahs," "Bob the Builder," "The Wiggles" and "Blue's Clues."
"There are so many toy commercials on — he sees something once and remembers the toy and the name," said Vienna, Va., mom Liz Haas, 36, of her 3-year-old son Brett. "It's amazing how tuned in he is to the toys that come out."
Brett, for his part, gets very excited about Santa Claus coming and bringing him gifts related to the shows he watches. He likes the Boohbahs, for instance, because "they have fat tummies. They're different colors."
Sneakers with flashing lights and plastic food that can be "cooked" in kitchen playsets are among the gifts 4-year-old Sydney Stuckmann of Atlanta wants to see under the tree, according to her mom, Julie Avila Stuckmann, 34.
Mega Bloks makes a new product for 1- to 2-year-olds called Lil' Copter ($9.99), a helicopter filled with building blocks. And "Baby Einstein" DVDs and tapes are still a hit — including a new one for 1 to 3 called Baby Wordsworth — First Words Around the House ($19.99) that teaches simple words and even some baby sign language. The Baby Society DVD ($19.99) or tape also helps with word formation for even younger children, as little as 3 months old.
Other toys for small ones that come recommended this year: b. dazzle's Scramble Squares puzzles for $9.95, Folkmanis' Sequoia Tree Wildlife Playset with animal finger puppets for $40, Playmobil's Take Along Doll House for $30 and Fisher-Price Shake 'n Go! racing cars for $8 apiece and Shake 'n Go! Speedway for $40.
Parents of older kids ages 5 and up might find some of the aforementioned appropriate for their angels. If not, here are some other suggestions.
Real cell phones for kids — or something awfully close — remain popular, with Mattel and Hasbro's Tiger Electronics offering special just-for-tweens models. For Mattel, it's a Barbie-brand mobile ($49.95) with prepaid wireless service; for Hasbro, it's a two-way radio called CHATNOW ($74.99) that can "phone" or text-message people within two miles without calling-plan charges.
Speaking of Barbie, one of the 2005 models is "American Idol" Barbie ($19.99), who "sings" and comes with a little karaoke machine. But without the benefit of a current "Idol" series running, it's a toy that's already passé.
"'American Idol' Barbie really had her season already. She's come and gone," said Byrne. Instead, he added, the holiday must-have is Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus ($15.99 to $19.99) to go along with the forthcoming movie of the same name.
"It's part of the whole Barbie entertainment trend, which is new because Barbie never took on characters in the past," Byrne said.
Often overlooked Barbies with careers like teacher, veterinarian and doctor could also make good gifts for girls — and Byrne thinks they're nice alternatives to the pop-culture versions.
"There is this assumption in the toy industry that every girl wants to be a diva. I don't necessarily think that's true," he said. "It's one play pattern among many. It's almost a little bit sexist. It's not just Mattel — everyone is doing it."
Other gifts for older kids: VTech's V.Smile educational electronic game ($89.99), LeapFrog's Leapster ($99.99), Hasbro's Talking Homer Operation ($17.99) and University Games' Toy Creator ($12.98), among others. For children of varying ages, LEGO sets are always a good bet. So are books.
And what would a kids' toy guide be without mention of some of the latest top video games?
Among those being snapped up this year: a driving game called "Burnout Revenge" (about $40) for Playstation 2 and Xbox and Nintendo's "Super Mario Strikers," "Mario Superstar Baseball" and "Dance Dance Revolution Mario Mix," each about $50.
Dazed and confused by this long list? Parents can always just buy an old favorite for their pride and joy.
"I suggest jump ropes and hoola hoops. Kites are great. And it's important to remember the red wagon," advised Auerbach. "Anything classic is terrific."