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Toy stories: Are modern toys Lightyears ahead?

Buzz Lightyear and boy with train set
Image caption Some modern toys like a Lego Buzz Lightyear compete with old-fashioned train sets

Picture the excited faces of the young boys as they rip off the wrapping paper to reveal a hand-held electronic space invaders game.

Then picture the faces of the parents who watch their children master the game so quickly that the youngsters are operating the controls with their feet by the end of Christmas Day.

That was the scenario at one family Christmas enjoyed by this reporter, but the game is still recalled fondly when it comes to reminiscing about toys.

The electronic revolution has changed the kind of presents that children are demanding - but are they really so different to the toys played with by previous generations?

"Children today are used to the digital age, they have grown up with everything electronic," says Catherine Howell, collections officer at the V&A Museum of Childhood.

"So now what you get are electronic versions of the old-fashioned toys and games. The fact that people are still using them even though they are developing it into something new is good because we are not going to lose the old favourites.

"They might change into something different but they are still going to be with us."

Imagination

She says that a successful toy is tactile and sparks the imagination, like the Teddy bear - Ms Howell's favourite - as well as dolls and toy soldiers.

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Media captionChildren test the toys expected to be the top sellers this Christmas

Dolls certainly feature prominently in the showcase of the 12 predicted best-sellers for this Christmas - although most have batteries in them or need a charger.

The exhibition, by the Toy Retailers Association, to unveil the "Dream Toys" list feels like the scene of an out-of-control toy shop.

Remote-control helicopters fly overhead, there is always a chance of tripping over a battery-operated dog, and friendly fire from a gun-toting child firing foam bullets is a constant threat.

Lego's City Airport is also there. This might be welcomed by the nostalgic toy lover unaware of the merits of the Nerf N Strike Stampede ECS (it is a toy gun priced at £54.99).

But after an impressive description of Lego's advantages, one nine-year-old enthusiast admits he actually wants a Playstation games console and an iPod for Christmas.

In the background, a Buzz Lightyear figure explains that he is "approaching the escape hatch" and is "ready for lift-off".

The Sylvanian Families Motorcycle and Sidecar look a bit more like a traditional set of dolls.

"They are different animals and they have costumes on them," says the little girl playing with them.

"And they all have names - like George."

But even these toys have some electronic element to them.

"In the house there are spinning things," says the youngster.

A washing machine, perhaps?

"No, more like a windmill."

Gary Grant, who was on the selection panel for the popular 12 list, describes the technological advancements in this year's toys as "simply amazing".

Hand-me-downs

Back at the Museum of Childhood - where things are a little calmer - collections officer Ms Howell explains that the electronics revolution is not the only major development in the industry.

Image caption Dinosaurs continue to fascinate youngsters

In the 19th Century, there was a shift from handmade to mass-produced toys, making them cheaper to buy.

Then, after World War II, toys again came down in price as plastic was used to make them rather than wood.

To prove her point, the display cases around her feature an ornate doll representing Prince Arthur from 1851. Move on a few paces and there is the mass-produced plastic weighted Weeble - the stout figures that "wobble but don't fall down".

But perhaps the biggest draw for the children are the train sets and, maybe surprisingly, many of the wooden toys.

Next to the wooden railway, dad Simon Harvey explains that hand-me-downs through the generations helps the old-fashioned toys to remain popular with his son Ollie and daughter Summer-Rose.

"I inherited the models that my dad made when he was in his teens and then arbitrarily smashed them to pieces, and then he [Ollie] inherited my Star Wars models which he has also now completely taken apart," he jokes.

"I think parents love it as much as the children."

So, for as long as parents remain as keen as their children to play, even the toys with no need for batteries or a charger will still feature on the list to Santa.

But for some youngsters, these old fashioned toys just do not press all the correct buttons.

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