We tend to have a knee jerk opposition to electronic toys in our house, favoring puppets and kazoos over Let’s Rock Elmo. But we are perfectly willing to acquiesce that good electronic toys can engage kiddos in open-ended play, and prepare them for a techcentric world—without making parents rip their eyes out and stick beans in their ears.
While tablet computers have a ways to evolve yet, their multitouch interface is an amazingly accessible introduction to the nearly limitless world of computers for the younger set, and kid-friendly apps abound. While we hesitate to recommend a “toy” with a price point that starts at $500, we do recommend crayola’s iPad-compatible Crayola ColorStudio HD ($29.99) if you already have a tablet, or will be tucking one under the tree. ColorStudio HD comes with an iPad stylus that looks like a Crayola marker, but which unlocks the accompanying ColorStudio app’s “paper,” coloring pages, music and animation. Little digital artists can mimic a variety of media—crayons, paints, pencils, markers and more. The app can differentiate between the stylus and tiny fingers to encourage creative manipulation, and kiddos can save and e-mail their creations straight to Grandma. Of course, the virtual version doesn’t replace real finger paints and markers, but it’s a great introduction to digital art, and—parental bonus—it’s mess-free. Although you might want to consider encasing your iPad in an Otterbox ($79.99), which will render it nearly indestructible, before you hand it over to the kids.
And while you may still fumble with the DVD remote, your budding computer programmer will likely take off running with SmartLab Toys’ ReCon 6.0 Programmable Rover ($69.99). At first look, this little guy resembles a bevy of other toy robot buddies. This charming little rover has the potential to dance, navigate courses, deliver a treat to a pet or a personalized message to a family member, even carry a soda or guard a bedroom. But tech-savvy kids need to unlock that potential by actually programming ReCon themselves. The accompanying manual is an engaging intro to computer programming that starts out simple; the more advanced robot tricks motivate kids to keep learning.
Legos meet Light Brite with Laser Pegs, an award-winning glowing construction toy available in a variety of different sets starting at $25. Once a single Laser Peg is connected to the power source, each block added to the ensuing creation feeds the next piece low-voltage current, which illuminates each peg with colorful LED lights. While model kits are available, the pegs themselves encourage the exploration of color and light and the construction of whatever you can imagine.
Of course, when it comes to toys, endurance says a lot about quality and fun, and what’s old-school to you is still new to a kid. Colorforms 60th Anniversary Edition ($49.99) is a rerelease of the original set that launched the beloved brand back in 1951 and earned a place in the Toy Hall of Fame. With 350 bold geometric stick-ons, a reversible two-sided playboard, and a bit of Colorforms history packaged in a spiral-bound book, it’s a nostalgic gift for adults and still a huge hit with kids.
Books and games remain go-to gifts for us, and a handful of top game manufacturers—including Colorforms creator University Games—have teamed up with classic children’s-book brands to create lines of fun, beautifully designed learning games featuring favorite storybook characters. University Games has partnered with Eric Carle and Mo Williams in a series of games based on Don’t Let the Chicken Ride the Bus and the colorful creatures from the Wonderful World of Eric Carle. You Hoo Can You Moo ($10.99) is a favorite in our house. Similarly, Briar Patch has a line of Goodnight Moon and Madeline games, and I Can Do That! Games has teamed up with Richard Scary’s Busytown, Curious George and Dr. Seuss. The Cat in the Hat I Can Do That ($19.99) challenges kids to tackle feats as whimsical and wacky as the cat himself. Bundle a fun new game with a classic book and you’ve got the best of both worlds.
And just about as classic as it gets, eeboo’s Sidewalk Games ($8.50) is a clever packaging of traditional games including Skelly, a coin rolling game, London Calling, a fusion of hangman shuffleboard, and Potsy, a strategic sort of hopscotch. The set includes a rolling coin, sidewalk chalk and a book full of rules, game history and facts about the region of each game’s origin. Not all the games are well-suited to an upstate New York winter, but you can roll coins in the kitchen or paint a canvas Potsy court to ward off cabin fever in the living room with old-school flair.
And, of course, kids will forever delight in the enduring simplicity of wooden blocks, a bag of old scarves, homemade play dough, a tin can drum and a wax-paper comb or a shoebox full of tissue paper, buttons, paint chips and glue. Or give parents and kids alike the gift of a winter outing with theater tickets, museum memberships, or a velvet sack full of arcade tokens.