At the KinderCare Learning Center in Reston, Joumani Bryant-Brooks tries to connect a few plastic pieces. His brows knit in concentration. He squirms. A soft sigh. And then two small hands toss the toy parts onto the table in a fit of pique.

"We can't do this thing," proclaims the 7-year-old boy from Chantilly. "It's too hard."

While not exactly the kiss of death for the new Power Rings building game, such criticism is likely to be of interest to the toy's maker, Fun Source.

What looks like play is really an important job. Yesterday, about a dozen kids spent the afternoon at the center helping predict what might be the next Tickle Me Elmo or Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in time for the Christmas shopping season, when parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and others will spend $27.2 billion on toys.

This year, toymakers including Mattel Inc. and Hasbro Inc. submitted more than 450 stuffed animals, games and techno-toys for kids to test. The first round of testers quickly whittled that number down to 66. And now, the final cuts are being made by children at eight KinderCare centers, including the one in Reston. The rankings will be featured in the November issue of Family Fun magazine, owned by Walt Disney Co.

"The manufacturers pay a lot of attention," said Heather Keegan of Digital Research Inc., a market research firm in Kennebunk, Maine, that is a consultant for Family Fun.

Family Fun's ratings have been a fairly good indicator of what will be hot and what won't. In previous years, it has spotted Elmo, Bounce Around Tigger and Barney the TV dinosaur. However, it missed last year's rage--Furby, the furry creature that talks and belches--because the toy came out later in the season.

"No one really knows until the holiday season is underway," cautioned Diane Cardinale, a spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers of America.

Among this year's Family Fun finalists are expected names such as Elmo's Radio Control Roadway, from Mattel's Fisher-Price division, and the Play-Doh Seaside Playworld by titan Hasbro.

Smaller companies also are well-represented. So far, kids seem interested in Music Blocks by Neurosmith and the Oogly Googly Motorized Building Set by Learning Resources Inc., among others.

At the Reston KinderCare, 8-year-old Tyler Webb was initially reluctant to play with the Oogly Googly game, his attention diverted by the Turbo Z Rough Rider truck racing across the center's floor. "The car is BETTER," he said loudly.

A few minutes later, however, he had discovered that the Oogly Googly set included bulging eyeballs and other gruesome parts that could be connected to create big bugs. "Look," he said with an eyeball in hand, "my eye popped out."

Another possible winner could be Rumpus Corp.'s plush Hairy Hairball cat, which the toymaker is hoping will turn out to be a bonanza. The company scored a small hit two years ago with an educational gross-out toy called Gus Gutz, who gives new meaning to the phrase stuffed animal.

Kids adore Gus because they can reach into his mouth and pull out his intestines, liver and other organs. Parents begrudgingly approve because there is an anatomy chart on Gus's back.

This year, Rumpus's Hairy Hairball has made the first cut by both delighting and disgusting the young testers. The cat is similar to Gus, except he yaks up yarn balls, hair balls and fish bones.

"It's really wonderful for us," said Rumpus spokeswoman Amy Kunen. "We're small. We don't have an advertising budget, so all the recognition we get is through the press."

One shocker was the failure of the new Kermit the Frog that sings the Caribbean Amphibian song. Keegan recalls falling in love with the toy and its cute "Kermie voice."

"I said, 'The kids would go crazy for this,' " she said. "And the kids couldn't have cared less. And it's because they didn't grow up with Kermit the Frog. This generation didn't have the Muppets. . . . They were like, 'Who is this guy?' "


Candidates for the most popular toys for the 1999 holiday season (and their manufacturers):

Elmo's Radio Control Roadway (Fisher-Price)

Harry Hairball (Rumpus)

Hydro Battle (Pressman)

Magnet Mania Discovery Jar (LearningSmith)

Music Blocks (Neurosmith)

Oogly Googly Motorized Building Set (Learning Resources)

Play-Doh Seaside Playworld (Hasbro)

Stacks of Hats (Roylco)

Yummy Chocolate Bugs (Curiosity Kits)

SOURCE: Family Fun magazine

CAPTION: John Kenning, left, and Joumani Bryant-Brooks test a motorized set of blocks at the Reston KinderCare.

CAPTION: Kelly Becker, with friend Lana Goddu, right, takes a hammer and chisel to a stone-like substance to find the plastic dinosaur bones inside at the KinderCare in Reston, a "test site" in Family Fun magazine's contest to spot the upcoming holiday season's best toy bets.