With a Frog Hatchery kit, the science-minded can raise frogs from the egg stage. Caterpillars can be nurtured into mature butterflies in a Butterfly House.
"It's just a wonderful educational experience," said Stacey Pence, floor supervisor for Imaginarium in Owings Mills Mall. "You can save the kit until spring so you can release [the animals]."
A growing interest in wildlife preservation is reflected in the number of realistic portrayals of animals popular in the stores right now. F. A. O. Schwarz has super-realistic stuffed giraffes, walruses, moose, kangaroos and orangutans. The toy store giant also has a section devoted to the not-so-realistic but much loved floppy-eared Patrick the Pup, which is the store's top-selling animal.
Babies can cuddle up to and play with the new Tonka Soft Walkin' Wheels -- soft and bright motorized trains, trucks, fire engines and planes. Preschoolers will enjoy the new Great Adventures Pirate Ship from Fisher-Price, with working cannon, crow's-nest and brig.
There are also old favorites -- and some not-so-old favorites -- that are popular among parents and children.
Skates are a traditional holiday gift and today that means in-line, not roller, skates. Playskool and Fisher-Price offer blades for the youngest beginners.
Children have always loved to build with construction sets. Today's youngsters are no exception.
"Construction is a very big field now," said Carol Fuller, corporate spokeswoman for Toys R Us. "Lego, for example, is very, very popular because ... it's very interactive and it's nonsexist. It also helps with hand-eye coordination."
Lego has new underwater building scenes with aquanauts, aqua sharks and a research station. With K'NEX, a plastic snap construction set similar to Tinker Toys, children can build a roller coaster, rubber-band racers, airplanes and boats.
Toobers & Zots are long foam tubes and assorted geometrical shapes in super-bright colors that can be bent and shaped into creatures and jewelry.
"That is the hottest thing ever," said Sherrie McMullen, district sales manager for the Mid-Atlantic region of Learningsmith stores. "They are so much fun."
Puzzles are another holiday classic updated. Ravensburger floor puzzles offer big, colorful scenes. There are trick puzzles with 1,001 possibilities and only one solution. Puzzles are also available in 3-D with as many as 3,000 pieces. Puzz3D dimensional puzzles create foam core images of the Empire State Building, Big Ben and the U.S. Capitol.
"They're very difficult but once you build them you can keep them up forever," Ms. McMullen said.
A new twist on kaleidoscopes is the Candy Kaleidoscope. It provides children with assorted sweets to put inside the toy or to eat. Instead of a gum-ball machine, how about a Make Your Own Chewing Gum kit with all the supplies and instructions needed for spearmint- or bubble gum-flavored gum balls or sticks?
Board games, such as Simon, Monopoly Junior, Scrabble, Pictionary and Mousetrap, continue to be popular. In celebration of its 60th anniversary, Monopoly has released a collector's edition in a gold-colored box.
A newer game to try is the Amazing Labyrinth, which teaches children strategy as they make their way through mazes. Another, Mancala: An African Stone Game, is said to be at least 3,000 years old. Brain Quest is a question-and-answer game that is fun for all ages.
"I think people want a balance in the games their kids play," said Vicki Wiland, manager of Child's Play in the Village of Cross Keys. "[They want] a game that teaches them to sit and concentrate on something. It's not just fun-fun."
Arts and crafts kits, particularly sand-art kits, are especially well-liked. Youngsters are also fascinated by origami, the Japanese art of paper folding to form flowers and animal figures. For origami lovers, pick up "The Buck Book," by Klutz Press, which comes with a $1 bill and 100 suggested ways to fold it.
If finding little gifts for stockings is a challenge, don't despair. Many toy stores have displays overflowing with "stuffers." Choose from stickers, key chains, rubber stamps, magic capsules, animal finger puppets, squeeze balls modeled after the Earth, pocket paint boxes, extra-bouncy Ka-Boing balls, Koosh critters, Pik-up Stiks, Glow in the Dark stars and Hot Wheels toy vehicles.
Toys for Tots, Teens and In-Betweens
Page 17 -- Dressable Madeline doll from Child's Play, $28.80. "Mad about Madeline, the Complete Tales" book from F. A. O. Schwarz, $29.95.
Soft Walkin' Wheels, motorized trucks from Tonka, from F. A. O. Schwarz, $19.99 each.
Toobers & Zots construction toy from Imaginarium, $29.95.
Page 18 -- Thomas the Train wooden toys from Imaginarium, $9.95 to $15.95.
Mancala stone game from Imaginarium, $14.95.
Sky Dancers from F. A. O. Schwarz, $14.99 for two dolls with launcher.
Museum of Natural History and F. A. O. Schwarz giraffe, $35.
Patrick the Pup from F. A. O. Schwarz, small $10, medium, $25.
Star Wars movable figures from F. A. O. Schwarz, $15 for four figures.