This article originally appeared on Pixelkin.org, a website dedicated to covering the latest news, reviews, and developments in games—with a special focus on families.
We at LearningWorks for Kids are delighted to partner with Pixelkin to crosspost articles and share our common passion for healthy, informed family tech-time. In this post, Linda Breneman counts down the top smart toys for families this holiday season.
What’s a smart toy? It’s a toy that’s made intelligent by electronics—like on-board computer chips, robotics, sensors, or speech recoginition. Sometimes smart toys are complete unto themselves, and sometimes they work with a computer, pad, or phone. All smart toys are real objects kids can touch and play with.
I learned about some smart toys at the Digital Kids Summit 2014. It seems to me that these toys are partly a response to technological innovations and partly a response to parents’ concerns about screentime. Smart toys seem to shine when it comes to combining learning time with playtime and they often try to encourage interaction with parents and other kids.
Here’s a list of some pretty cool smart toys that I think will be (or should be!) hot gift items this holiday season.
Toys-to-Life Video Games (Kids 10+ and adults)
Some of the most popular video games this year incorporate smart toys into the gameplay. Each toy has a computer chip in its base. You put the toys on the base, and the characters appear on the screen. Game data is stored in the toys as you play. Very cool. Kids get to collect their favorite toys, and they can carry toys from house to house to play on their friends’ consoles and pick up where they left off. Right now Skylanders and Disney Infinity have the most popular games (we compared in the two in a video), but Nintendo with its Amiibo figures is expected to give these games a run for their money. And money is the operative word; with dozens of figurines to choose from, you could end up spending a fortune on toys-to-life games. On the other hand, the amount of playtime your kids will experience with these durable smart toys might be worth it.
Robots (Kids 10+ and adults)
Give kids robots and you can be pretty sure you’ll be making them happy. But give them robot toys likeSphero, and you may also be making them smarter. Sphero’s smart toys, such as Ollie (the cylinder) and Sphero (the sphere), are remote-controlled through apps on your smartphone. But the real wonder of Sphero toys lies in their programmability. On their website, Sphero provides educational materials and apps to teach kids how to program the toys to do loops and other maneuvers. Their videos show some of the ways kids can learn by programming their toys and watching their code play out in real time. Talk about motivation for learning to code! Kids get to see the results of writing a line of code immediately in the behavor of their toys.
Wearables (Kids 4+ and adults)
Just as smart wearables are getting popular for adults, they’re also hitting the toy market. Here are a couple of the standouts.
One of my favorite things at the Digital Kids Summit was the presentation by Akinori Takahagi, the creator of Moff. Moff ($54.99) is a wrist band that makes sounds. The specific sounds are determined by apps on your smartphone. So, for instance, your kid might want to pretend he’s cooking. He loads up the cooking sounds, and then hand gestures such as chopping result in a sound effect you’d be hard-pressed to differentiate from a Top Chef expertly mincing a real vegetable. It may not hit you right away how cool this is, but watch the video and you’ll see. Sounds are available for sword fighting, drumming, guitar, magic wands, and so on.
Vtech Kidizoom Smartwatch
The VTech Kidizoom Smartwatch ($49.99) isn’t a fitness tracker or a watch. Instead, it gives kids a simple tool for making their own photos and videos, recording (and distorting) their voices, and playing games. The video shows kids on a playground incorporating this wearable toy into active play:
Toys That Interact with Pads and Phones (Toddlers+)
There are already several toys out that integrate or communicate with smartphones and tablets. I think there will be more and more of them as marketers figure out how to sell an endless stream of apps that work with the toys.
Ubooly Plush Toys
Ubooly seems kind of goofy at first. It’s a plush toy into which you insert a pad or smartphone. The screen of the device becomes the face of the toy. What makes it smart, then, is the free app, which includes sophisticated speech recognition. The toy can learn kids’ names and interact with them. The games encourage kids to carry their Ubooly toy along on imaginative adventures such as exploring a cave (complete with dripping stalagtite sound effects). Apps for learning things like languages are available. The plush toys are $29.99 for the smartphone (small) version and $59.99 for the pad (large) version. The basic app is free, but you should watch out for in-app purchases.
Tiggly toys are for kids 18 months and over. They are plastic toys used with apps on an iPad that teach very little ones shapes and counting. According to Tiggly, which has big learning-toy aspirations, the toys help with spatial reasoning, motor skills, language, and creativity. As the company says on its website: “70 years of academic research has demonstrated that manipulating physical objects is essential to early childhood development.” The apps have kids matching the toys to shapes on the screen and listening to instructions to complete activities. The newest entry into their app lineup encourages older kids to cook along with a character named Tiggly Chef. For $29.99, you get four plastic shapes, three apps, and a carrying pouch.
The tagline for Osmo is “Osmo promotes social intelligence and creative thinking.” Like the other toys in this category, the toy includes an app and physical toys. Unlike some of the other toys, Osmo is beautifully designed. The Osmo system is one of the more expensive offerings on this list at $79.99 for the iPad two-piece base and toys for three different apps: Tangram, Word, and Newton. Tangram is the classic puzzle game and you use Osmo-supplied geometric shapes to play it. Word is a word game you can play competitively against or cooperatively with someone; you use Osmo’s alphabet toys to play. And Newton is a game that lets you control the motion of objects on the screen by drawing with your own paper and pencil.
Leapfrog Smart Toys (Toddlers+)
Leapfrog has been around a long time with its line of educational toys that parents seem to trust and keep buying, even though the proprietary apps and toys cost a lot and exist in their own little universe. A recent entry in Leapfrog’s line is LeapTV, which is essentially a video game console with motion detection—like the Kinect but just for kids. The equipment seems durable, and the driving, dancing, and sports games seem harmless, but I’m not sure I’d buy a Leapfrog game system when I could have an Xbox One or PlayStation system that will play hundreds of games. Parents who are concerned about online interactions don’t have to worry about that with LeapTV, and that may be part of the appeal of this toy, which starts out at just under $150 for a basic system with two games.
Read With Me Scout is a plush toy that can learn your kid’s name. You can buy packages that combine the toy with interative storybooks that teach things like phonics and numbers. A package that includes the toy and five storybooks goes for under $30.
Smart toys, wearables, toys-to-life video games—watch out, parents, they’re all coming! These toys can be expensive, but they encourage tactile learning and interaction with other humans. And a new generation of toys that spur kids to move, interact, and learn can’t be anything but good news for parents and for kids.