Makin' a list, checkin' it twice...
Your kids have been really good this year, haven't they? Of course they have!
Thankfully, so have the fine people who make brainy toys for them, toys that provide hands-on experience with concepts like engineering and physics, or your kids' first tastes of grown-up technology you only would have dreamed about at their age. We looked for toys with lots of possibility, stuff that will keep them engaged and excited long after the tree comes down and the last of the candy canes is eaten. Wrap up one of these these, and you're sure to have a happy holiday.
LEGO Mindstorms EV3
My brother and I built plenty of cool but frustratingly immobile stuff with our LEGO bricks, mostly elaborate vehicles and wannabe hovercraft that didn’t actually do anything on their own. Today’s young LEGO enthusiasts don’t have to mimic engine noises and pretend their creation is moving—the ridiculously awesome Mindstorms EV3 kit lets them build real, working robots and bring them to life with an included remote control, or icon-based programming software for PC and Mac, or iOS and Android.
The $350 kit comes with an intelligent EV3 brick that contains an ARM9 processor, Wi-Fi, and a micro-SD card reader, as well as motors, a touch sensor, a color sensor, and an infrared sensor for control. You can build one robot (TRACK3R) with the included instructions, and grab plans on the website to build 16 more, including the snake-like R3PTAR and the heavy-duty ROBODOZ3R. This is definitely the gift I’d be begging for if I were a kid age 10 and up.
Getting your kid a dog for Christmas is just not going to happen, is it? If it is, good for you. If not, a little dog-shaped robot named Zoomer can give them a little practice in patience without creating any extra work for you.
Zoomer has friendly LED eyes, infrared sensors that can help him track your kid’s movements, and a microphone to pick up voice commands. His movable limbs and wheels let him prance around like a real puppy reacting to the sound of your voice—he’s really cute for a robot. Kids ages 5 and up can teach him preset commands one at a time, like “Zoomer, let’s go for a walk,” and the always-hilarious “Zoomer, go pee.”
There isn’t a ton of variety for keeping the kids engaged after ticking off all 16 tricks on Zoomer’s dance card (Spin Master promises to release “secret” tricks to Facebook followers), plus he only lasts 40 minutes on a charge. There’s an app for Android and iOS, but it doesn’t interact with the dog. Still, it’s fun to have him follow you around, barking and wiggling like a happy robot pup. The list price is a whopping $130, but Walmart, Target and Toys R Us have it for $80.
Think of this like a smart dollhouse, only instead of a prefabbed Dream Condo, your little engineer in training gets to design and build the whole thing herself. Everything in a Roominate kit is modular: bare panels for walls and floor, plus snap-together building pieces you can use to design furniture. There’s even a motor for rigging up a working elevator or windmill. We love how it lets you get creative—just check out the website to see what other kids have built—or submit your own photos and videos too.
Designed for girls ages 6 and up (although we could picture boys enjoying this too), the basic kit is $30, while the top-of-the-line Roominate Dream House Architect package (shown here) is $199. But it’s fine to start small, since the expansion packs let you build out your collection over time. And it’s the kind of open, imagination-freeing, LEGO-like toy that will get plenty of reuse.
The other engineering toy aimed at girls, GoldieBlox caused some controversy earlier this holiday season over their TV commercial—which only does a fair job of showing off the toy in question. GoldieBlox are story-based kits designed to teach engineering concepts to girls ages 4 to 9. You read a book about Goldie, girl inventor, who designs a machine to solve a problem, and then you use the kit to build a similar machine using materials like a pegboard, ribbon, and crank.
The idea is that girls play differently than boys, and are more drawn in by the story than they would be to open-ended building sets like LEGOs and Tinker Toys. Besides the machine from the story, each kit comes with additional design ideas. And it’s possible to dream up your own inventions—like these user-submitted creations, for example—although at press time the expansion pack of extra pieces is sold out. But the cost to entry is low: GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine is $30, and GoldieBlox and the Parade Float is $20.
Another building kit designed for budding engineers, this one isn’t aimed at boys or girls specifically. Snap Circuits kits teach kids ages 8 and up about electrical circuits, but the plastic parts simply snap together—no tools or dangerous soldering irons required. All you need are a couple of AA batteries.
The smallest base kit, Snap Circuits Jr. 100 Experiments ($35) suggests no fewer than 101 projects, from “musical doorbell” to “sound-controlled time delay LED,” and the $42 Snaptricity set introduces the concepts of magnetic fields and how magnets relate to electricity. Bigger kits are available too, and plenty of upgrade kits to let you do more projects with the pieces you already have. (And Amazon has everything for a little cheaper than Elenco’s online store.) Trust us, this will keep them busy for days.
Similar to Snap Circuits, littleBits gives kids ages 8 and up an introduction to electronic circuits via friendly little modules that snap together with magnets. The modules are color-coded based on what they do: power bits are blue, input bits like light and motion sensors are pink, wire bits are orange, and green bits are output, where something actually happens, like a fan spinning or an LED lighting up.
You can buy kits, starting at $99, and then expand with themed bundles (the “sense it” bundle has light, motion, and sound triggers, for example) or just buy individual bits to make whatever you want. What’s really cool is checking out all the projects people have made by adding a littleBits circuit to other toys and objects—motorizing a LEGO car, or making a bowtie spin. There’s even a Synth Kit, a collaboration between littleBits and Korg, that lets you build your own analog synthesizer.
This spunky little color-changing robot ball is a blast for kids and adults alike (not to mention a great way to entertain cats, dogs, and toddlers), but Sphero 2.0 ($130) does require an iOS or Android device to actually drive the thing. You start with the main driving app, also called Sphero, and level up gradually, gaining speed and extra abilities as you drive more often.
But Sphero is more than just an RC car with no front or back. Software developers have written nearly 3 dozen apps that use the ball, ranging from augmented reality fare like Nyan Cat: Space Party and Sharkey the Beaver, to active pursuits like Sphero Golf and SpheroH2O. Some are games where the Sphero becomes a three-dimensional handheld controller. Others let you command the Sphero by drawing a path or writing a little BASIC-like program. But just simply driving it around (even in the bathtub!) and launching it off the included ramps never gets old.
Smart Car Robotics
When I was a kid, everyone assumed that flying cars were around the corner. Now it’s 2013 and my car is still stubbornly earthbound, but I have passed a real-life self-driving car being tested on the Bay Area’s highways courtesy of Google.
You can help prepare your own child for the inevitability of self-driven cars with the super-cool Smart Car Robotics kit, which teaches them about the same technologies: onboard computers, proximity sensors, GPS navigation, and so on. The 219-piece kit lets them build eight vehicles that use up to four electric motors. You control each vehicle with an iOS app that connects over Bluetooth 4.0 (so you need a fifth-gen or newer iPod touch, iPhone 4S or newer, iPad 3 or newer, or an iPad mini).
The app even uses augmented reality: You get several cards with AR codes on them, which you lay on the floor. As your device’s camera sees the cards, they appear as virtual buildings in the app, and you have to manually steer your car around them, or program a route with the app’s “draw and drive” mode. The $130 kit is recommended for kids age 10 and up.
The MindWare store has tons of educational toys that are as fun as they are smart, and one of our favorites is KEVA Contraptions, which looks like a bunch of dumb hunks of wood. But kids ages 7 and up can use those precision-cut wooden planks to construct elaborate towers, bridges, ramps, and chutes, making a wild and crazy roller coaster for the two included lightweight balls.
It’s not exactly high tech, until you consider that with no fasteners or connectors, this toy encourages experimentation (and patience!) while teaching concepts like balance, proportion, engineering, and physics. The idea book will get them started with suggested builds, but they’ll quickly be dreaming up inventions of their own. And it’s nice to have at least one thing under the holiday tree that doesn’t need batteries or chargers, isn’t it? A 50-plank set is $20, and the 200-plank set is $50, with $10 discount if you buy both.
Of course, no matter how many toys you get your kids, they want to play with yours—namely, your expensive, fragile, beloved smartphone and tablet. One idea is to get your kids their own tablet, and the Nabi 2, by Fuhu, is a 7-inch, Android 4.0-powered slate designed with kids in mind, from its thick rubber bumper to its preloaded kid-friendly apps and e-books.
The kid-safe browser is preloaded with sites like Crayola Kids and Play-Doh, and parents can add more approved sites by entering a password. It’s also got educational apps and suggestions for real-world crafts, even a Chore List app. Subscription music and video services are available from Spinlets+, with a 30-day trial included to test them out. Even the app store is curated for kids, although parents can get plenty out of the Nabi 2 come nap time. Just switch to Mommy/Daddy mode to add whatever other Android apps your adult tastes require, and they’ll be inaccessible by the kids once you go back to Nabi mode. A Nabi 2 with 8GB of storage and Wi-Fi starts at $180.
Kindle Fire HDX 7-inch tablet
But if you aren’t up for the idea of getting your kid his or her own tablet, I don’t blame you one bit. Starting at $229, the 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX is an excellent choice for the entire family, with some special nods to parents.
First of all, the parental controls are fantastic. Kindle FreeTime lets you make a profile for each kid and choose exactly what they have access to, including books and videos as well as apps and games. You can even set time limits on some categories while letting others (like, ahem, reading) stay unlimited. If you have Amazon Prime, the amount of kids content in the included Prime Instant Video service is pretty impressive.
But wait, as they say, there’s more. The Kindle FreeTime Unlimited subscription covers kid-friendly books, games, apps, and TV shows, sorted by age and gender so it’s easy to find what will work best for each kid. With a ton of content from PBS, Sesame Street, Nickelodeon, Disney, et al, your kids will always have stuff to do, play, watch, and read, without needing to bug you to buy more—no in-app purchases or ads, either. A single-child plan is $5/month, or $3/month if you also have Amazon Prime. Family plans cover up to four children, at $10/month, or $7/month with Prime.
But if you’re going to hand over the family tablet to its youngest members, a very rugged, kid-friendly case is a very smart idea. We like the ArmorBox Kido series (shown here for the Kindle Fire HDX 7-inch, but also available for the Nexus 7, iPad Air, iPad mini, and older iPads) for its rugged construction and low price of $25.
The case protects against bumps and drops, and the convenient carry handle also doubles as a two-position stand for watching videos or typing. The only thing it lacks is a protective layer over the screen, but manufacturer i-Blason offers separate screen protectors for under $10—which is nice, since you can swap in a fresh screen protector without having to buy a new case.
SafeGrip Rugged Case and Stand
For even more rugged protection for an iPad mini, Kensington’s SafeGrip case covers the entire tablet, including the screen. Like the ArmorBox Kido case, its huge handle makes it harder for kids to drop. And the handle folds to let the iPad stand straight up for watching videos and chatting, or at a flatter angle for typing and drawing. There’s even a slot that will hold a stylus.
Once your tablet is protected from damage caused by your kids, how about protecting your kids—from hearing damage, that is? Prolonged exposure to sound levels above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss over time, but trying to tear the kids away from a tablet can be a hazard to your own health. (Just kidding, but you know what we mean.)
KaZoo MyPhones are kid-friendly headphones with built-in circuitry that limits the volume to an absolute peak of 85 decibels, no matter what device they’re using to listen to music, videos, or storybooks. They won’t break the bank at $20 per pair. And the frog and penguin shapes are totally adorable.
The brightly colored Humlan headphones from Urbanears aren’t designed for kids specifically, but the $49 cans are still a great option for parents of tweens and teens—you know, children in their, um, shall we say greasy stage? They’re washable. The headband wrap and ear cushions can be removed and machine washed, a great idea for something that gets used every day.
Plus, they encourage sharing, with a ZoundPlug, a fancy name for an extra headphone jack built in to one ear cap. You can plug any other set of headphones into the ZoundPlug and boom, both pairs can listen to one device, without having to carry a splitter. There’s also a microphone and remote to let them use voice- and videochatting apps, and control music playback.