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Great toys that won't break your budget

For's holiday season toy test, we gave 2,000 kids a chance to play with 100 new toys for two weeks. Here are the winners in the bargain toy category. By ConsumerMan Herb Weisbaum.

As any parent knows, toys can cost a small fortune. But you don't have to spend an arm and a leg to get fun toys your kids will like. In fact, some of the bargain toys in this year's Toy Test rated the highest.

Before we get to the winners, let me explain how I conduct the test.

I asked toy makers from around the world to submit their new toys for 2006. Products had to be either educational or bargains ($25 or less). Based on my 25 years of experience rating toys, I chose which 100 to test.

We had a little bit of everything — dolls, puzzles, craft sets, remote-control vehicles, electronic books, and building sets — all donated by the manufacturers. The toys went to 15 child care centers in the greater Seattle area. About 2,000 kids played with these toys for two weeks. Then their teachers rated each one for us.

We asked the teachers if the toy was fun, easy to use and durable. We also wanted to know if they would recommend this toy to a parent or grandparent.

The toys with the highest overall scores made it into the winner's circle. Here are the top-rated toys in the bargain category. Prices listed are approximate retail.

“I think that was a big help,” one teacher told me. “It helped them see that they had all these options and choices of things to do with baby.”

That not only inspires the child’s imagination, it also helps develop small motor skills.

This play set, which includes a carrier and soft backpack car seat, comes with Goldberger’s unconditional lifetime guarantee. Everything is washable.

Preschool bargains
Moon Sand Castle Set (Spin Master, $20, 3 & up)

I don't know what real moon sand feels like, but this stuff is weird — and I mean that in a good way! Moon Sand feels like gritty dough. It sticks together very easily, so kids can squish it and shape it any way they like. Even the teachers enjoyed playing with it.

Because it never dries out, kids can use their Moon Sand over and over again. It’s also water-resistant, so they can build a pond and fill it with water.

I asked one teacher if she would recommend this toy. “Yes, definitely,” she said. “I am a parent, and I'm thinking of getting it. My daughter is always telling me about it.

We tested the Moon Sand Castle Starter Set. It comes with molds, a shovel and one package of white Moon Sand, all in an inflatable storage case that serves as portable sandbox. It really helps contain the mess. You can buy extra Moon Sand in six colors.

There are various vehicles in the My First RC GoGo Auto line. Each is made from soft-cast molded PVC vinyl. We tested the school bus and police car. Turn on the police car and it starts to make siren sounds. It’s not too loud, and does add to the fun.

The Paintastic Paint Brush Pens have the paint in the handle. Just unscrew the top and squeeze them to get started. The paint is non-toxic, washable and dries quickly. Parents, this is about as good as it gets.

The kids told me these brush pens are better than marker pens because the colors are brighter and they are able to do more things with paint. The really liked the fact that they did not have to dip the brushes into containers of paint.

There are various Paintastic sets; each with variety of vibrant colors.

How can it do that? Each player (there can be six) wears a different color hand band. The ball recognizes those hand bands, so it knows your throws and if the right person catches it. Make a mistake or take too long and you loose. You’ll know, because the ball makes the sound of an explosion.

Kids can choose between four different games — fast pass, add one, you’re out, and code challenge. It takes them a few minutes to figure out what to do, but once they get the hang of it the laughter starts and they don’t want to stop.