Barbie ( Mattel )
Whether you love her or hate her today, chances are, if you’re female, you owned several Barbies as a child, and spent long hours imagining yourself as an adult, through her. Although the basic way girls play with Barbie remains unchanged, she’s evolved over the past 40 years to keep up with current trends, activities, and interests. If you object to her “femme fatale” demeanor, look for Barbies with more modest, “teen-style” bodies or Barbies that make good role models (such as Women’s World Cup Soccer Barbie). Ages 3+.
Blocks ( Various Manufacturers )
Sure, a good set of wooden blocks is expensive, but educators agree that blocks are the one toy no child should be without. Think back to the complex structures you built as a kid, with secret rooms, soaring towers, and daring bridges… what would childhood have been without those feats of architectural bravado? Also, blocks stand the test of time, accommodating your child’s interests and abilities from the toddler years through adulthood. (Wasn’t that you who was late to dinner because you were immersed in building?) Features of a great block set include smooth, solid wood blocks and enough pieces and interesting shapes to make nearly any structure imaginable. Ages 3+.
Chutes and Ladders ( Milton Bradley )
In this game (as in life, sort of) kids who break the rules slide down long chutes and kids who behave climb the ladder of success. What’s the appeal? It’s a classic story of good and evil, with an element of unpredictability thrown in (will you be sent down a chute at the last minute?) as well as a touch of recognition (kids identify with the characters, who represent many aspects of children’s personalities). The game hasn’t changed much since it first came out in 1943, although the look of the kids on the board has been updated. Ages 4+.
Colorforms ( Colorforms )
Ah, the promise of a brand-new box of Colorforms — perfectly clean and shiny and so wonderfully sticky on the scenic backgrounds, just waiting for you to create two-dimensional adventures. (What they looked like two months later was not quite as pretty, but that’s another story….) Colorforms have been around seemingly forever, and come in more varieties than ever before — including cartoon characters, science/nature themes, and basic shapes, so that kids can create their own scenes from scratch. You can even Make Your Own Colorforms with a product of the same name by University Games. Ages 3+.
Don’t Break the Ice ( Milton Bradley )
Remember playing this game again and again, imagining yourself as the Iceman falling into frigid waters? Although tension is the force that keeps the 25 ice cubes in place in this game, “Don’t Break the Ice” is actually a tension buster — especially for three-year-olds who will greatly enjoy smashing out the cubes in an excited frenzy (as you may have done once or twice.) Six-year-olds will more likely take a thoughtful approach, delicately tapping out only those cubes that will not let the Iceman fall. Ages 3+.
Flexible Flyer Sled ( Flexible Flyer )
When we were young, and a snowy hill beckoned, there were no such things as snow-tubes or other high-tech gizmos with brakes, fancy runners, and cutting-edge materials. Instead, it was just you, the hill, and a piece of wood and steel called the Flexible Flyer. (Remember running with it, and then jumping on it, to get a good start? Or seeing how many kids you could pile up on top of one? Ouch!) Flexible Flyers are still beautifully made of wood, with rust-resistant steel runners and a patented steering bar. It’s not as fast as a snow tube, nor as comfortable on your body, but there’s a lot to be said for its sense of nostalgia, and its ability to steer around trees. Ages 3+.
GI Joe ( Hasbro )
Do you know what makes a GI Joe the real McCoy? If you’re a real fan, you know that he always has a scar on his right cheek and a reversed nail on his left thumb (due to an early production mistake). More than 375 million GI Joe figures and vehicles have been sold since 1964. Highlights of the great hero’s life include the addition of life-like hair (1970) and a kung-fu grip (1974). (Remember the commercials boasting of these critical added features?) GI Joe is still a great, all-purpose action figure, able to handle just about any rescue mission a boy can dish out. Ages 5+.
Lincoln Logs ( Hasbro )
As a kid, when you wanted to build a serious structure that could withstand the test of time, you probably turned to Lincoln Logs because of the way the solid wood pieces fit together so perfectly. Lincoln Logs are still around and still made of wood, but now, when you play with your kids, you can build even more authentic structures — such as Forts and Lookouts — with specially designed pieces and related figures. Ages 3+.
Along the same lines, Legos (by Lego) are still as great as ever, but are now available in themed sets (transportation, Star Wars, etc.) for more realistic fun. Ages 5+.
Lite – Brite ( Hasbro )
With 400 pegs in eight great colors, Lite-Brite was both a young mosaic-artist’s dream and a parent’s nightmare (all those pieces, all over the floor…). But still, your parents couldn’t deny that Lite-Brite kept you busy for hours at a time, as you created intricate and beautiful glow-in-the-dark pictures. Today, like then, you can follow the instructions to make an image or create your own masterpiece freehand-style. A 25-watt night-light bulb makes it all shine. Ages 4+.
Play – Doh ( Hasbro )
What smells like childhood? Play-Doh, according to a study of people born between 1930 and 1980. As a child, you probably played with Play-Doh straight out of the can, and also in conjunction with the Play-Doh factory – that irresistible device that churned out miles of Play-Doh snakes. (Who can make the longest one without breaking it?) Now ponder this: If all the Play-Doh made since 1956 was pushed through the Fun Factory, it would make a snake that would wrap around the world nearly 300 times. Buy a few cans for the kids, tell them to keep it off the rug (with which it seems to form an unbreakable bond), and get busy sculpting. Ages 3+.
View – Master ( Fisher-Price )
Way before television, videos, and computer games transported kids to far-off worlds, View-Masters (binocular-shaped toys that held circular reels of photographic slides) let kids explore many different aspects of life. Remember the vivid colors as you held the View-Master up to the sun? View-Master reels encompass all sorts of scenes today, including sports, nature, history, cartoons and much more. Some of the most popular reels? The Apollo 11 voyage to the moon, and images of Mecca. Today, you can get a View-Master that doubles as binoculars, and also one that projects the slide images onto a wall. Ages 3+.
Ages 6 and Up
Clue ( Parker Brothers )
Clue was a great game for a lot of reasons: It let you show off your smarts (without showing off). It was never the same game twice, and it gave you a way to get revenge on your bossy older sister without getting in trouble with your parents. Later, Clue became a sort of cultural icon, as people randomly referred to Colonel Mustard in the Conservatory and knew you would understand what they were talking about. For these reasons, your kids will likely enjoy the game as much as you did. Got a younger detective who wants to start sharpening some deductive reasoning skills? You can now get Clue Junior for kids ages 5 – 8. Ages 9+.
Easy – Bake Oven ( Hasbro )
Like going to the grocery store alone for the first time, being able to cook something on your own as a child felt so grown-up. The Easy-Bake oven was enormously popular when we were young, selling more than two million units by the mid-1960s. True to its name and the ads that promoted it, it was, in fact, easy to turn out delicious (to our young palates, anyway) cakes, cookies, and brownies, all cooked with a light bulb. Although the oven now looks more like a microwave, it’s still a great toy for any young baker. (And don’t worry if you run out of “official” cake mixes — regular cake mix works just fine if you mix it up in small batches.) Ages 8+.
Erector Sets ( Erector )
When a man named A.C. Gilbert saw railroad workers erecting an electrical system out of steel girders and rivets in 1914, he was inspired to create the first Erector set. Since then, kids have been building all sorts of wonderful machines — some real, some not. Today, Erector Sets have been improved so that they’re easier to use than before. Plus, many sets now come with motors so your young inventor can make his or her creations move. Ages 8+.
Monopoly ( Parker Brothers )
This classic real-estate game appeals to a kid’s most base instincts: to be aggressive, to gouge poor unfortunates who land on his or her property, and to retire wealthy. Of course, it also teaches some useful money-management strategies. Either way, it was a lot of fun to play back when you were a kid, and it still is (though it seems to take longer to play than it used to). If you haven’t played in a while, you’ll find the board hasn’t changed much, except for the addition of a new game piece (a bag of money — very appropriate). Ages 8+.
Operation ( Milton Bradley )
Prepare the operating room! The world-famous surgeon is about to begin the painstaking work of removing a poor patient’s funny bone, Adam’s apple, and wrenched ankle. But hold on, Doctor, it’s time to pass the scalpel along to your progeny — and don’t forget to give the novice surgeon a few tips on keeping the patient healthy and that dreaded buzzer quiet. Ages 6+.
Ouija ( Parker Brothers )
Back in 1970, a Ouija Board was a hot commodity — especially if you were a nine-year-old girl having a sleepover. At the party, sometime after levitating a friend with two fingers, but before telling scary stories, you consulted the Ouija Board about your romantic prospects, career aspirations, and any other topic whose uncertain future addled your brain. (Squealing at the results was required.) In case you forgot, the Ouija works simply enough: Two people gently rest their fingers on the message indicator, ask it a question, and then watch as it magically spells out the answer. Think the power of suggestion could have anything to do with it? Naaah! Ages 8+.
Scrabble ( Milton Bradley )
Remember the feeling of sitting down with your Mom or Dad for a leisurely game of Scrabble on a rainy Sunday afternoon? The wooden tiles felt good in your hand, and made a satisfying clink as you rearranged them on the wooden holder. Best of all, you got Mom or Dad all to yourself for at least an hour — during which time some important conversations often emerged along with the crossword puzzle. Today, the game hasn’t changed at all — and neither has the quality time it offers your kids. So, brush up on those Q-with-No-U words, and get playing. Ages 8+.
Slinky ( James Industries )
Remember the Slinky jingle’. (It’s Slinky! It’s Slinky! For fun it’s a wonderful toy!) For 56 years, Slinky has been amazing kids with its ability to walk down stairs, shoot out of your hand, and make that distinctive Slinky sound. (Unfortunately, it’s still also capable of twisting itself up into impossible knots.) Of course, today’s Slinky comes in plastic versions, mini-versions, rainbow versions and more, but its classic appeal still endures. Ages 6+.
Sting-Ray Bicycle ( Schwinn )
In the 1960s, the Sting-Ray was the ultimate in cool when it came to bikes. Remember the banana seats (that could easily handle two riders) and U-shaped handle bars (that practically begged for plastic streamers)? You attached a few playing cards to the spokes with clothespins for cool clicking noises, and away you went, bursting with independence. Well, the Sting-Ray — and all it represents — is back. Even if you don’t buy one for your kid, sit on one yourself and take a little ride down memory lane. Ages 8+.
Twister ( Milton Bradley )
Back in 1966, you may have been too young to care that Johnny Carson tangled on a Twister mat with Eva Gabor on The Tonight Show, but you were probably old enough to enjoy this test of flexibility, balance, and pure silliness. (Perhaps it also served as your first introduction to getting close to a member of the opposite sex once you emerged out of the “cootie” phase.) Twister also has a more serious side: More than 4,000 colleges and high schools have used it either as a fund-raiser or as an activity at drug-and-alcohol-free parties. Ages 6+.