As Nancy Gibbs writes for Time, the worst toys are "overdesigned, overengineered, the product of so much imagination on the part of the toymaker that they require none from the child." That's why Play-Doh is one of my childhood faves.
And Lego, of course. And for my sister: Stuffed animals. Simple toys, with nothing to plug in, no batteries required — these are the ones I remember really playing with.
The best toys transcend, their survival a testament to their purpose and power. The Babylonians played board games; the ancient Greeks had yo-yos. The Chinese were flying kites 3,000 years ago. Crayola crayons were first produced in 1903. In 1916, Frank Lloyd Wright's son John, inspired by the way his father had built an earthquake-resistant hotel in Tokyo, invented Lincoln Logs. And many great toys are accidents or improvisations, a serenade by kids whose first drum set is a wooden spoon and a tin pot. Play-Doh was invented as a wallpaper cleaner. In 1943 a Navy engineer trying to smooth the sailing of battleships found that a torsion spring would "walk" when knocked over. If you stretched all the Slinkys sold since then end to end, I'm told, they would circle the earth more than 125 times.
I can't lie and say my brother, sister and I didn't play the hell out of video games growing up (Intellivision, because my Dad loved a bargain) but we spent a large amount of time playing with Lego, Matchbox cars, Play-Doh and, yes, Barbie dolls. And I don't know about this year's "hottest" toy, Zhu Zhu hamsters, but Play-Doh had the added benefit of being delicious! (What? Isn't that what they want you to do with it?)
The Power of Play-Doh [Time]
[Image via National Toy Hall Of Fame]