Christmas starts early for toy manufacturers. Roger Frost reports from the British International Toy and Hobby Fair on next year's playthings. Believe it or not, January is the time of year when the toy trade gets ready for Christmas and all the latest fluffy, whirring and activity toys are on show for buyers. It is a strange new world, with hundreds of shopping days before C-Day, and Barbies by the kilo.
One major distraction this year was StickManiacs - a swap-able, gamble-able, dog-bone shaped "stick" to fill the place of POG discs and the cigarette cards of yesteryear. Kids collect the set and flick them around and go "wow". The toy trade calls them collectables - our trade should call them obsessionals, or even confiscatables (Pounds 1 each from Leisure Time).
There were brand-name toys too - Thomas the Tank Engine on the Internet and, of all things, a Sooty play-suit. For fans of Goosebumps, the best selling, scary books, there was the Goosebumps Monster Bag. Cut it open and out comes a dismembered monster in a mess of green ooze (Pounds 8, age 8+, Waddingtons).
Encouraging children to try crafts or take up a hobby is a much better way of making a mess. So Waddington's produces Colour Candles (Pounds 17, age 10+), a kit for candle-making, complete with dye, wax, and wicks. The instructions contain clever ideas such as putting ice in the mould to make holes in the wax. Or there's the Chocolate Factory (Pounds 21, age 6+) complete with water-bath for melting the chocolate, as well as foil and moulds. The Scented Soap Maker (Pounds 15, age 10+) is the same all-in starter idea - and no less worthwhile.
Home fun aside, these are tasters that an after-school club could try before investing in something substantial. In fact the Galt range is full of low-price starter kits. New this year are a Marbling Set and Victorian Decoupage - a kit which makes gift boxes from printed scrap (Pounds 3-6, both age 7+).
If parties mean party bags, the bead craft packs from Hama at less than Pounds 2 are respectable. Beading isn't just a girlie necklace thing - there are legions of sets with animal-shaped bead boards and patterns to experiment with - useful for developing hand-eye co-ordination. For quiet work in nurseries, get the see-through boards (under Pounds 5) where children can trace a picture using large beads.
For flip-chart artists, Chunkie (Pounds 5 for three, Perrin Nissen) is a new kind of felt-tip marker. It is thick, drawing a half-inch line, so you can use it for scribbling a temporary sign or colouring in on a grand scale. But the pens' best feature is that they don't dry up when the cap is left off. The colours are also washable, and, a useful feature for schools, they can be refilled and are available in bulk.
The most impressive new toy is Logiblocs (from Pounds 20, age 9+). It allows children to build control systems such as burglar alarms or lighthouses. The blocks include logic gates, timers and latches but the technical side is almost hidden. As always, the bigger sets offer much more scope and make a better buy.
There is more ingenious technology around. How about Lego models that don't just move but can be programmed to go forward and back, "beep" and so on. So someone's dream comes true with Lego's Barcode Truck (about Pounds 89, for 9 years up). It has a control unit that you swipe over bar codes to make it do the business. It is clever for sure, but for another dream see the K'nex Big Ball Factory Set (Pounds 100, age 11) which builds into a five-foot high roller coaster model with loops, windmills and lots of rackety noises. Schools will like the idea of modelling with this - you can build 3D structures with unusual ease, and get good value for money. For a taster, a range of pocket money starter sets are available (Pounds 4, age 5+).
Some firms pick up awards every year - Orchard Toys has done well on its Shopping List Game (Pounds 6, age 3-7) and now has Hey Diddle Dominoes - where the idea is to match domino ends according to pictures from nursery rhymes (Pounds 5, age 3-6). On the same theme it has Find the Rhyme, a jig-saw puzzle that when finished, reveals 26 rhymes (Pounds 6.50, age 4-8). And there's even a jig-saw puzzle for babies - Farm Animal Puzzles (Pounds 3, age 18 months).
Another regular award winner, Living and Learning, produces kits which encourage children to experiment at home. For example, Science in the Bathtub (Pounds 8, age 4-8) has 15 experiments to do with boats, ducks and a water wheel. And Jam Jar Science Amazing Eyes (Pounds 6, age 6-10) includes lenses and optical illusions, and shows how to make a pin-hole camera. It has a limited range of experiments, but it is wholesome and helps to involve parents.
So there's a taster of the year ahead in toys. If buying them isn't an exact science for us, it surely is for the toy trade which knows that four customers out of five are female, and that we spend more on sons (28 per cent), than on daughters (23 per cent). For our 11 million kids however the science is even clearer - you pay, they play. And they know their rights.
The British International Toy and Hobby Fair is organised by the British Toy and Hobby Association, 80 Camberwell Road, London SE5 0EG. Tel: 0171 351 2400.
Galt: 01614 289111 Hama: 01604 670404 K'nex: 0800 834938 Lego: 01978 290900 Leisure Time: 0181 898 6005 Living and Learning: 01223 357744 Logiblocs: 01727 763700 Orchard Toys: 0115 937 3547 Perrin Nissen: 01296 682130 Waddingtons: 0113 2826195
Thomas on the Internet: www.thomasthetankengine.com