Jason has had a couple great posts in the last couple of weeks about some of the toys we buy our kids. Then this morning I saw an article on new media toys and their questionable educational value. It got me thinking about what makes a toy good, as opposed to what makes a toy “hot” or “a must-have”. With the notable exception of a massive Star Wars action figure collection (my mom probably still gets droid-factory components caught in her vacuum), my favorite toys growing up were the classics–simple, engrossing, and generally not-tied to some of-the-moment marketing campaign. I still think the Magnetic Space Wheel (pictured) is about the coolest thing on earth. I decided to investigate by looking at the most popular toys of all time to see what their appeal was.

Crayola Crayons: First, obviously, they’re colorful. You can use them almost anywhere (although I was never able to get the colors to stick to my brothers skin…a major design flaw) and they encourage creativity, imagination, and artistic skills. And some boxes come with a sharpener, unless you’re a loser and your parents don’t love you enough to get you the big box (painful childhood memory resurfacing…sorry). The average American child uses 730 crayons by their tenth birthday, and between ages 2-8 spend an average of 28 minutes a day coloring. That’s less time than when they used to make illuminated manuscripts, but impressive nonetheless.

Lincoln Logs: You can build a cabin! You can build a bungalow! If you’ve got lots of time and mad-skills, you can probably build a bridge to Mackinac Island! It’s basically a bucket of chiseled wood that can be easily connected together (pre-Legos, if you will) yet again it’s a building block for more creativity, with the added benefit of teaching children the impact of gravity on structural engineering, as my brother learned when I pulled the bottom log out of his ski lodge.

Yo-Yo: It’s a disk on a string. You throw it down, and it bounces back. Hours of endless entertainment. If you’re brother is in range, it also makes an awesome projectile that you don’t have to chase after.

ViewMaster 3-D Viewer: Travel to exotic places, or see animals in their natural habitats, without sitting in the rear seat of a station wagon for 12 hours to get there. As long as there’s light, and your brother isn’t holding his hand in front of the lens, you can explore all kinds of great places with one of these. They were easy to pack, and endlessly renewable with all the different slides you could buy. I don’t think 3-D technology has come much further than these yet, so they’re still pretty cool.

Scrabble: I’m 35, and I still end up using most of my letters on simple words like “blow” and “job.” This game is the great generational equalizer…an eight-year old could beat their grandparents on any given day. Plus, it helps with spacial planning and spelling, and with looking up words in the dictionary (I didn’t know “quag” was a word until a few weeks ago) Someday, I will spell “jukebox” on a triple-word score on the last play of the game, thus coming from behind to embarrass my brother in front of our friends and family and driving him to an emotional breakdown. Dreams do come true…

Silly Putty: You could mold it into a voodoo doll of your brother, or bounce it off his skull. You could pick up Charlie Brown’s head and stretch it so it looked like Stewie Griffin. It came in an egg! Hell, it was fun to just squish it in your hand. Again, there are endless opportunities for invention and reinvention, at least until you dropped it in the sandbox. I think I’m sensing a theme here…

Lite-Brite: It’s a light bulb in a plastic box. You could either follow the designs that came with the box, or go nuts and punch colorful pictures of your brother falling from an airplane into the holes. Don’t you wish you were playing with one right now? Here you go.

The above doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the classics, like army men, Etch-a-Sketch, Nerf balls, and Koosh balls. From what I can tell, the toys that last…the ones that we’re still buying decades after they were invented…are the ones that provide a way to express a child’s (or adult’s) imagination, and offer opportunities for new exploration and possibilities even after multiple uses. So before you go rushing out to buy Nintendogs, Dora’s Talking Kitchen, or the Hot Wheel Gorilla Attack Track Set, ask yourself if this will be the gift that keeps on giving this holiday season. Then, when you’re done with your shopping, pull that Mr. Potato Head out of the toy box and start playing with it yourself…you’ll be surprised at how long it keeps you entertained.