Toy Test: The Best Toys of 2018
Find reviews of the year’s top toys, written by MK readers for our annual Toy Test.
We asked families to review some of the season's most sought-after toys and share their candid thoughts. Scroll through to see their reviews, plus pics of the toys in action, or click on the below links to get right to the plaything that most interests you.
Aura Stealth Drone (KD Interactive; 6+; $79.99)
Creative Cafe Barista Bar (RoseArt; 6+; $29.99)
Discovery Extreme Chemistry Lab (Horizon Group USA; 10+; $20)
Disney The Incredibles Hydroliner Playset (Disney; 3+; $30)
Doc McStuffins Pet Rescue Mobile Clinic (Just Play; 3+; $49.99)
Go! Go! Smart Wheels Launch and Chase Police Tower (VTech; 1+; $32)
Go-with-Me ABC Backpack (Leapfrog; 3+; $29.99)
Kidi Secrets Selfie Journal (VTech; 6+; $49.99)
Mini Tarts Pastry Set (Real Cooking; 6+; $16)
Starshine the Bright Lights Unicorn (VTech; 1+; $24.99)
Save the Day Board Game (Wonder Forge; 6+; $19.99)
Sweet N Chic Headbands Set (Make It Real; 8+; $12.99
KD Interactive; 6+; $79.99
The gist: This toy drone ditches the joystick in favor of gesture-controlled movement. The drone moves in all directions and even performs tricks, all dictated by the motion of your hand.
Testers: Garrett B. (10), friend Gavin L. (11) & mom Natalie; Garnet Valley, PA
Toy appeal: 9. My child and his friend were intrigued to open the box. It was appealing to them because it was a small box and it appeared to be manageable (not much parent interaction needed). The front of the box featured a photograph of a boy similar in age to them with a glowing “watch” on his wrist and a large drone above him. When they open the box, they soon learned that the “watch” was a band you put on your wrist. Moving your hand is how the drone is controlled. They were also pleased to find out the drone itself was already preassembled and ready for use right out of the box, so there was no waiting time.
Educational value: 8. The recommendation age on the box is ages 6 and up. This seems appropriate. Age 6 to 8 may need some assistance with using the hand device, but it is easy to learn and maneuver. The box also advertises “fly with a wave of your hand eliminates the frustrations of traditional joysticks and multi-axis controls.” I found this to be true, but also thought that controlling the drone with your wrist rather than a joystick was a nice break from other devices that kids commonly use these days. Some of the other features like “auto hover, 6-axis gyro stabilization, and 360-degree for flip tricks” challenge young learners to figure out how these features work and how to physically wave and control their hand to make the drone do what they want it to do.
Functionality: 8. The drone was complete ready for use right from the box. The wrist band was fully assembled. Initially, it was difficult to disconnect the battery from the connector, so parental help was needed the first time. After that, my son was able to do it himself. He liked the connector feature because you have to connect the drone each time to get it work, rather than find it is not charged and then wait, like other drones he has used.
Durability: 10. The drone has a built-in safety cage that protects it from breaking, as well as a sensory that prevents it from bumping into things. Although the top of the wrist band is a bit bulky, it attaches to your wrist with Velcro and seems durable and stays put.
Natalie’s verdict: We have had many different drones and this drone had the quickest box-to-use- time. It was the easiest for children to understand and manipulate. The flight was smooth and it moves away before it bumps into things. Best of all, nothing has broken on the drone yet! This drone is a toy truly for children, not a toy that I have to put together and figure out complicated directions! Also can see my child using this toy down the road because it will not be broke and falling apart.
Garrett says: The remote control. I like how you control it with your wrist and motion.
RoseArt; 6+; $29.99
The gist: Budding baristas make frothy, milk-based chocolate or strawberry drinks using this heat-free steamer, complete with stencils for “latte” art.
Testers: Lottie L. (7) and mom Lorin; Phoenixville, PA
Toy appeal: 10. My daughter loved seeing the box enter the house. She wanted to rush and open it as quick as lightening. She couldn’t wait to use the stencil designs and was eager to try them on the drinks. The product matched the photo very well; we weren’t disappointed with the toy when we opened the box.
Educational value: 4. I don’t know if this product has a lot of educational value. It does teach measurements when you measure the powders to go into the cups.
Functionality: 8. This type of toy is one that is better if you assemble it before your children comes to play with you. My daughter had a lot of impatience with me pulling out the items and reading the on how the toy worked. It took some time to wrap my head around the recipes and how they work, with a bouncing child sitting next to me. The toy itself once set up is fun. It’s an entertaining toy to play with your child, to mix and make drinks. The drinks after done were very yummy and power smells really good. We had some trouble making the art stencils work, but I think that just takes practice. My daughter loved to play with the shaker bottles and shake in the powder into the cups. She added sprinkles into the mix, and had fun creating with the drinks.
Durability: 8. This toy has a side hanger which holds all the items, the spoons-the stencils, and the shakers which is really nice. It keeps everything organized and together. Easy to clean up and put away.
Lorin’s verdict: This toy is very nice, but I do not see the replay. It’d probably only used once in a while considering its food-based and the drinks aren’t something I would want my kids to have every day.
Lottie says: The best thing about this toy is the shaker bottles and the chocolate. I don’t like holding down the handle for a while.
Horizon Group USA; 10+; $20
The gist: Combine simple chemicals with household ingredients to explore more than 20 experiments, from galactic spheres to fizzing eruptions.
Testers: Noah F. (14) and mom Jennie; Royersford, PA
Toy appeal: 9. Noah’s first impression of the toy was very positive. It was entertaining and what was shown on the box was what he made.
Educational value: 8. The product taught him a lot about how chemicals react with one another and what the reactions would be.
Functionality: 9. The lab had very minimal assembly, but there were a lot of items we needed to buy in order to start the experiments.
Durability: 10. The toy held up very well with no breaks or cracks, and the experiments went as expected.
Noah says: The kit kept me busy and entertained me for a couple hours, but I would not recommend trying to complete all the experiments in one day because it will eventually become boring and monotonous
Just Play; 3+; $49.99
Testers: Landon M. (1) and parents Tiffany and Steve; Logan Twp., NJ
Toy appeal: 8. Landon loved the playset; he was so excited and laughing as we opened it. The toy matched the description.
Educational value: 1. This toy is not educational.
Functionality: 10. It didn’t need any assembly. My son was a little too young to fully understand how to play with the toy.
Durability: 9. Nothing broke while playing with the toy. Its material is sturdy.
Tiffany and Steve’s verdict: I wouldn’t purchase this toy for my child since there are too many small pieces.
Landon says: I like that it can be used in the bathtub.
Just Play; 3+; $49.99
The gist: This portable playset themed to the popular Disney Junior show comes equipped with music, phrases, lights, Doc’s pal Oliver and pretend medical tools and accessories.
Testers: Gracie H. (3) and mom Jennifer; Lincoln University, PA
Toy appeal: 10. Gracie was very excited to play with her new toy. As soon as we got it out of the box she began playing. She loved all of the different things included: the doggie, the pet treats and the bathtub area.
Educational value: 9. The mobile vet station lets Gracie use her imagination. She loves taking care of her “pets’” boo boos, and giving them treats. This toy is great for teaching compassion and love for animals
Functionality: 9. Setup was great; It was ready right out of the box, and Gracie was able to starting playing right away. My only complaint is they did not include batteries, and I didn’t realize we even needed batteries until the next day. Once we installed the batteries it was even more interactive and fun to play with.
Durability: 10. Nothing broke while Gracie played with her mobile pet station — it’s very durable and portable.
Jennifer’s verdict: The toy is very interactive and even has a theme song. I love that you don’t have to put anything together. The biggest drawback for me, however, was that it didn’t come with batteries, and the battery compartment was a little hard to access.
Gracie says: I like it, it even has a heart right here.
VTech; 1+; $32
The gist: Chase the getaway car around the three track levels, launch down one of two ramps to try and gain speed or slide the switch to raise the road blocks and catch the car, all while learning motor skills.
Testers: Lorenzo R. (3) and mom Stephanie; Philadelphia
Toy appeal: 8. My son was extremely excited when I showed him the Launch and Chase Police Tower. He has a similar toy already, but this one has more features, such as the police car that makes sounds and sings. There was a ton of assembly required that took over an hour, but the finished product looked as expected according to what is on the box.
Educational value: 7. I wouldn’t say this toy is very educational. The only educational aspect I really see in it is that a young child can learn basic cause and effect by putting the cars down the ramps.
Functionality: 3. This toy took way too long to assemble. The directions are in black-and-white, so the pictures are not at all helpful when trying to figure out what part goes where. You also have to adhere all of the stickers yourself, which is difficult since there is no color in the directions. It was actually more helpful to just look at the box the toy came in and put the toy together by looking at the picture on the front. Once we got it together, it was a pretty fun toy. The colors are bright and appealing. The police car got a little annoying after a while with repeating the same phrases over and over again. Also, the parts of the “track” that the car goes on clip together very simply, so they fall apart extremely easily just when our son is playing with the toy. You can’t really pick up and move the toy once it is assembled or the “track” falls apart.
Durability: 7. The plastic seems somewhat durable, but the pieces of the “track” click together very simply. So, the “track” falls apart easily. This makes is difficult to play with the toy for a long time without it coming apart.
Lorenzo says: I like the colors. I do not like how the cars get stuck on the track a lot
LeapFrog; 3+; $29.99
The gist: Using the write-and-erase board, tots can try letter writing and drawing during seven on-screen activities led by Mr. Pencil.
Testers: Kira S. (6) and dad Joshua; Fairless Hills, PA
Toy appeal: 9. My daughter was extremely excited when she saw the new toy. She loved that it was shaped like a backpack. She is in first grade and enjoys school, so she immediately began playing school with the backpack-shaped toy. The product matched the description perfectly.
Educational value: 9. The product is very educational. Kira enjoyed teaching her younger sisters the alphabet and using the backpack to pretend to be a teacher. Even Kira, who is 6 and knows her alphabet, could learn from the backpack. She enjoyed pressing the letters and then drawing the object/animals named. She practiced writing, sounding out words, and spelling words. It’s a great educational toy. The words and pictures it uses for each letter were entertaining and exciting.
Functionality: 8. The backpack was extremely easy to put together. The only part of the toy that needed to be assembled was batteries and the backpack straps. It took less than 5 minutes to assemble. Kira and her sisters immediately knew how the toy worked. The only small negative would be that the alphabet pieces are easy to lose.
Durability: 9. The product is well made and did not break while my kids were playing with it. The only thing that happened is one of the alphabet pieces went missing fairly quickly. The toy is made from a strong plastic that adds to the enjoyment of the toy.
Joshua’s verdict: The toy is educational, enjoyable, easy to figure out and holds kids’ attention for a decent amount of time.
Kira says: My favorite thing about it is that I can take the letters out and play with them.
VTech; 6+; $49.99
The gist: Facial-recognition software unlocks this journal that lets users take photos and videos, record messages, play learning games and listen to music.
Testers: Madison B. (6) and mom Michelle; Havertown, PA
Toy appeal: 9. Madison liked the colors of it and was eager to open the package and play with the toy. It matched the description on the package.
Educational value: 7. The toy teaches Madison how to type on a keyboard and she is learning the words by typing them.
Functionality: 8. It didn’t take long to assemble, but once the package is opened a SIM card is recommended. This is frustrating as some features of the toy aren’t useful without that. The toy is just the right size for her hands and she has no issues enjoying it.
Durability: 9. The product is made of a hard plastic, which is durable. Madison has dropped it a few times without any damage to the toy.
Michelle’s verdict: I would buy this product for my child as she loves that it uses facial recognition to open the journal. She feels special playing with it and has asked on several occasions to play with it. We limit screen time and so we limit her time on this as well. She likes to play all of the games as well. It’s only for one child to play with at a time, so as an only child, my daughter loves that feature. It’s nice for us because she can play with it if she doesn’t have friends over or if we don’t have time to play with her. Madison really enjoyed this toy and told me she hopes she remembers it when she has kids so she can tell them about it. My only complaint is not knowing about the SIM card before opening the toy.
Madison’s thoughts: The best thing about this journal is the pet friend game because she like being able to think of names for them. She doesn’t like the diary because she’s just learning to journal and currently likes drawing pictures about her day instead of writing about it.
Real Cooking; 6+; $16
The gist: All ingredients are included to make your own sweet and savory mini tarts.
Testers: Willow F. (10) and mom Jennie; Royersford, PA
Toy appeal: 9. The toy was very appealing; the photo on the box made her hungry! It was exactly as described on the package.
Educational value: 10. This teaches basic cooking concepts and measurements.
Functionality: 10. It was easy to use and all the parts store easily in the case when you’re finished.
Durability: 9. Although it’s made from plastic, it’s a very sturdy material that will hold up well.
Jennie’s thoughts: It’s a tasty treat that allows for creativity in letting you choose what you’d like to use for filling. It would be nice if the pastries were slightly larger in size; there’s a lot of work involved for such a small snack.
VTech; 1+; $24.99
The gist: Place the charms provided on the unicorn’s “magic” hearts to watch it light up and teach colors, objects and phrases in English and Spanish
Testers: Kateryna K. (1) and mom Melissa; Philadelphia
Toy appeal: 8. Unicorns are all the rage right now, so what child wouldn’t want one in toy form? My daughter was immediately drawn to Starshine’s illuminated horn and the bright colors of all the charms. VTech promises a magical playtime and Starshine doesn’t disappoint.
Educational value: 8. With music, foreign language, and colors and words modes, Starshine packs a big educational punch. I especially appreciated the Spanish mode and being able to introduce my 1-year-old to a foreign language in a playful, yet educational, manner at an early age. One drawback is each mode only has one level. I’d prefer if, like some other toy brands, if age-appropriate levels were built into the toy to switch as the child grows.
Functionality: 7. The best types of toys are those with no assembly required. Starshine came right out of her package ready to play. After showing my daughter how to fit the charms into Starshine, she was eager to do it herself. The only drawback was the toy was a little too busy. Each charm elicits different music (seven charms) and there are several spots to place them.
Durability 8. Starshine has withstood nearly three weeks of the rough and tumble of both my 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. It’s easy to clean and easier to clean up with its compact structure. The charms could be just a bit bigger to give parents peace of mind related to choking hazards.
Melissa’s verdict: Although I wouldn’t consider this a must-have, Starshine is a welcome addition to the constant rotation of toys taking up space in our living room. I try to give my children toys that promote learning while still providing fun and, Starshine hits the spot. Although I would recommend a few minor manufacturing adjustments, it’s an overall solid toy. Starshine is a great way to introduce your child to the world of colors and shapes and, immerse them in another language, all while having fun. The songs are catchy and, you’ll soon be singing along with your little one. With only a couple a drawbacks, such as the size of the charms and lack of age levels, this toy is an easy add to this year’s wish list.
Kateryna’s thoughts: Having just turned 1, Kat’s vocabulary is limited, but she was quick to use one of her favorite words when the music ended or the lights went out: “More!”
Wonder Forge; 6+; $19.99
The gist: Team up to defeat villains and save a city; each player has a unique power, so strategizing who will take on which challenge is key.
Testers: Ryan T. (12), Aiden (9) and mom Stephanie; Newark, DE
Toy appeal: 8. The red-and-black packaging makes it very clear that it is an Incredibles-themed game, which got my kids interested. The game inside matched the description on the package, and was very visually appealing with high quality graphics. The Incredibles is a well-loved movie in our house and a game that allows you to play as the characters and defeat the villains sounded like fun to everyone.
Educational value: 8. The game teaches turn-taking, planning, and cooperative problem-solving. My kids quickly realized that each person could play a different role or tackle different tasks in order to help our team succeed, but that this only worked if we talked about our plan together.
Functionality: 7. Assembly was easy, and my children understood the rules and goals faster than I did. Everything functioned as described. There are six dice involved in the game; some stay in front of you and some get passed around. Keeping track of which ones to roll was a little confusing and could be challenging for younger children. The “problem” spaces could have been more visible on the board- we kept losing track of where we needed to go. They look very similar to the plain spaces.
Durability: 7. Nothing broke. Everything looked like it was well made, for the most part. The game board is heavy-duty cardboard with bright graphics; however, the panels that need to be “flipped” as part of the game fit into the game board like puzzle pieces. They fit pretty tightly and we were using our fingernails to pry them out and flip them; I can see these pieces getting torn or beat up with repeated use.
Stephanie’s verdict: Because our family loves The Incredibles and knows the characters, this game held appeal for my 9-year-old. The simplicity of the game play would not hold the interest of my older child for long. I’d recommend it for families with children ages 5-10. Playing as The Incredibles is fun, and it’s nice that the game is playable/winnable even if you don’t have 4 players.
To win the game, you must solve problems and also rescue Jack-Jack. Players roll the dice to move a team member toward either a problem or Jack-Jack. On some rolls of the dice, players must also turn over a new Alarm card, which could reveal a new problem, could bring some help from Edna or Frozone, or could cause Jack-Jack to teleport away to a new location (just like in the movie- this was a favorite element of the game and adds some random fun).
Each member of the The Incredibles has a special power that makes them more likely to successfully solve certain problems, which adds an element of strategy in deciding which player should try to move to that problem space. If too many problems pile up unsolved, you lose the game. If you solve all existing problems AND have Jack-Jack, you win.
We played three times. The first time, we won the game in nine turns- very quickly, and a little disappointing. The second time, we lost. The third time, the game went on longer and we ended up winning after a close call. The longest play time was about 20 minutes. It’s nice that the outcome was different each time- this really increases the replay value.
The cooperative play is great, especially for families with young children. On each turn there is the opportunity to discuss the best choice to make to help your team. The best choice changes with each turn and player, so things stay fresh. from turn to turn.
I think my kids would have had a little more fun with this if the villains had featured more prominently in the problems. Having minimal text on the game board and cards makes the game more accessible to younger children, but having a silly description of the problem and the villain who caused it, rather than just an image, would engage older kids more- it’s a trade off.
Make It Real; 8+; $12.99
The gist: Add personality to any hairstyle with beads, yarn, pom poms and ribbons you can use to decorate headbands.
Testers: Layla B. (9) and mom Robin; Philadelphia
Toy appeal: 10. Layla was so excited to receive the kit. The moment we got home she had to open the box to peer inside to see the materials and instructions. She was most excited to make the yarn puff headband and the pink oversize bow.
Educational value: 9. The picture directions for some of the activities were very easy to follow and Layla was able to gather the needed materials, to measure using the ruler provided in the instructions, and create the headbands of her dreams!
Functionality: 7. Some of the directions required adult assistance in order to make the headbands according to the kits specifications. For example the yarn puff headband was a Mommy-Daughter activity. Layla invited a friend over to make headbands using the kit. They were able to make very unique and stylish headbands using the materials by themselves.
Durability: 9. Very good materials and high quality.
Robin’s verdict: Layla had a lot of fun using this craft kit. It was a nice bonding experience for us both to work on some of the headbands together. It was also nice to see the pride on her face to show off the headbands that she made. This kit is great for individual play, a play date or as an activity with an adult.
Layla says: I love how stylish the headbands look and I love crafting with my mom!