The price of admission to this year's hottest toys list is a touch of tech. Not that old double-A battery and an on-switch kind — today's toys come equipped with capacitive screens, augmented reality, and the assumption that you already have an iPad, an iPod touch, or an iPhone in the family. You know what that means? There's a good chance our youngsters are (or will soon be) more tech-savvy than we are.
The good news? Many of these toys will do more than just suck those little brains in and get them glued to yet another screen. Choose right, and their favorite new tech toy could help teach them about math, science, physics, digital photography, computer programming, or even motivate them to go outside and learn more about good ol' Mother Nature. Here are some of the best teaching toys that I've seen and tested so far this year.
Apptivity Monkey1. Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn AppTivity Monkey
This Fisher-Price plush toy has an iPhone or iPod touch case embedded in its belly. Download a free app, stick the smart device in the monkey's case (where it's well protected), and then turn your toddler loose. Your little one just needs to squeeze the monkey's paws to learn about numbers, letters, colors, and more. Even without an iGadget, kids can listen to songs and phrases. Cute, cuddly, and connected.
2. Fisher-Price and Disney Master Moves Mickey
Ages: 2+ years
In stores: August 2012
Move over Elmo, Master Moves Mickey (MMM) is getting kids off the couch and teaching all the coolest moves. Already nicknamed Sir Mick'sAlot in my family, this little dude is all dolled up in his freshest dance gear and ready to get down with 15 breakdancing moves, eight original songs, a handful of interactive dances, and plenty of cute new Mickey Mouse one-liners to get the whole family up and dancing. With his signature enthusiasm and easy-to-understand directions, MMM teaches little ones and adults alike how to bust a move all on their own.
VTech Switch & Go3. VTech Switch & Go Dinos
Here's an interesting twist on the old Transformers idea. It's a toy car that turns into a dinosaur, with a built-in LCD screen for customized animation, dinosaur and vehicle sound effects, and educational dinosaur facts. In dinosaur mode, action buttons trigger interesting facts about each dinosaur as it comes to life, exclaiming up to 30 expressions such as, "I'm a herbivore. I chow down on plants," or "They call me spine lizard because of the long spines on my back."
4. The Nat Geo Wild Anteater Bug Vac by Uncle Milton
Ages: 5+ years
In stores: Fall 2012
Kids and bugs, with no ew factor — that's what this little device by Uncle Milton is all about. At the touch of a button concealed under this baby anteater's tail, you can quickly and safely collect and observe live ants and other small insects. Then, you can remove the anteater's belly and a look at the bugs inside via built-in microscope. When you're done, you can safely release the critters back into their environment. No "Look what I found, Mommy!" live spider freak-outs for squeamish moms like me who aren't so crazy about those creepy-crawlies all up close and personal. There's no better playground than the great outdoors to encourage kids' curiosity, imagination, and connection to the world at large. This toy is perfect for all of those.
Photo Fashion Barbie5. Mattel's Photo Fashion Barbie
She's a doll, a mini-fashion mogul, and a perfect example of the kind of ingenious mobile marketing that will soon be second nature to our kids. Photo Fashion Barbie has a built-in (or rather belt-in, since you take a picture by pressing her snazzy heart belt buckle) digital camera hidden in her back that can shoot up to 100 photos. Barbie can even instantly display the photos mini-billboard style from a screen on the front of her shirt. Why not? Modern Barbie has a lot of great talents, skills, and can do anything she sets her mind to. It's nice to see her creative attributesdisplayed front and center, as well.
6. Smart Lab's ReCon 6.0 Programmable Rover
Ages: 8+ years
In stores: Now!
Here's a great toy for the budding rocket scientist. The Rover is a toy, a robot, and a tool for learning. You just program the ReCon 6.0 to navigate any path, from a simple, straightforward passage with a few turns here and there, to a more sophisticated and intricate course. The Rover teaches early programming, basic math, and problem solving — no computer required. It also comes with a microphone, speaker, LCD screen, cargo hold, headlights, and triangular track system, so it actually travels smoothly over all kinds of surfaces.
Force Flyer Helicopter7. Regal Elite Force Flyers RC helicopters
Regal Elite's new Force Flyer is controlled literally by a wave of the hand. You just strap the control pad onto the back of your hand and secure it via Velcro strap around your wrist. You use your thumb to control the speed of the helicopter's rotors and altitude; it soars up to 100 feet. Turn your hand a fraction in any direction, and the Force Flyer responds by using the glove's built-in accelerometer, similar to that in a Wii remote. Put in the hands of a child, this new RC helicopter will dazzle, wow, and awe. Put in the hands of an adult like me, it will test your patience. (I couldn't stop crashing the darn thing.) Still, it's one of the coolest toys I saw during this year's Toy Fair in New York.
Smart toy trends for you
We've seen so many new toys and games this year that interact with an iPad, an iPhone, or an iPod touch, but nothing can beat toys that interact with you. When it comes to picking out smart toys for today's connected kids, choose ones that let you engage with them in cooperative play. That means games and challenges where the family tackles the bad guy or solves a problem together — in other words, play with your kids. No matter how modern all of this fun gets, playing with the whole family is still the best choice of all.
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