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Toys with real play value, smarts, and growth potential are more important than ever before in this most cooped-up of holiday times. So, we’ve been making our lists and checking them twice to bring you our favorite tech toys.
Yoto Player smart audiobook player
The Yoto Player promises to sharpen young users’ focus, imagination, and engagement as the children choose and enjoy their own commercial-free, audio-only adventures. Specially developed for ages 3-8, Yoto is a super-friendly smart speaker that plays content held on durably finished memory cards ($6-$12). When a card is inserted into the device, kids can hear beloved audiobook stories, like Winnie the Pooh, Wind in the Willows, and Peter Pan (some titles attractive for children up to age 12), plus music, educational content, games, and soothing sounds for bedtime. Coded cards also play the free Yoto Radio station and a 15-minute Yoto Daily podcast. You can also record a Make Your Own Card to send messages, create playlists, and narrate stories for those times when you can’t be around.
Not totally screen-less, the tiltable cube-shaped Yoto Player has a minimalist pixel display that summons up a simple image relating to the content and functions as a clock and (when flipped over) a night light. Even the docking battery charger is DIY kid-friendly! Parents maintain control with Bluetooth, WiFi, and a connected Yoto iOS or Android app to adjust sleep and wake times, customize the night light, set parental controls, and access free content.For ages 3-8
Price:$124.98, on sale for $109.99 for the Yoto Player and six cards on YotoPlay, check price on Amazon
Botley 2.0 screen-free coding robot
No smart screen, computer, or internet service is required to run Botley 2.0 around the floor, and yet, in his sneaky way, this adorable wheel-about robot introduces youngsters to the process of coding. Directional arrow cues entered into the specially-paired, push-button remote control will guide Botley 2.0 through programmable sequences of up to 150 steps in six directions. Kids can also place direction cards on the floor that the robot detects with an underside sensor and follows. A front object sensor defensively stops the bot when an obstacle is detected, or the user applies an If/Then command set – a staple of coding – to circle around the problem.
Botley 2.0 also can transform into a train, police car, dinosaur, or glowing-eyed ghost that’s quite a fright in a darkened room. Accessory kits like Crashin’ Construction ($16.99, check price on Amazon) and Action Challenge ($19.99, check price on Amazon) give kids more obstacles to build and the robot to mow down.
For ages 5-10
Price: $64.99 on Learning Resources, check price on Amazon
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit augmented reality racing game
Nintendo has long been into the fusing of virtual and physical – offering video games that interact with toy objects. So it doubled down with the Augmented Reality-enhanced Nintendo Switch title Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit. It’s a hybrid game that has game characters racing around an on-screen course while a very real, RC battery-powered Mario Kart vehicle buzzes around the actual floor in your home. Users set up the home course with special game gates and household objects, then watch as the course replicates on their Switch screen. If the Switch is connected to a TV, the course also features animated game environments (jungles, snowscapes) and obstacles (like plumber-biting piranha plants).
As a player steers the physical vehicle around using a Switch Joy-Con, the motion is shown on-screen. And the fun stuff goes both ways. Hit a boost (or obstacle) in the on-screen game, and the Mario Kart speeds up (or slows down) in your home space. Up to four players can race simultaneously. Each must bring their own Nintendo Switch (or Switch Lite) system, Mario Kart Live game, and either a Mario or Luigi kart (one or the other is included in a game kit.) Racers, start your engines!
For ages 7+, rated E
Price: Both versions are $99.99, available on Best Buy
Rollplay Flex Kart e-trike
A pre-schooler might not be great with joysticks but still could lord it over older siblings – and master hand-eye coordination – by riding around the park on a Flex Kart from Rollplay. Not a game simulation, Flex Kart is a real and extremely cool-looking electric vehicle intended for ages 3 to 5 or maybe a bit older, so long as the rider weighs less than 55 pounds. Sweeter still for parents, this is one of the first battery-powered ride-ons that folds in (front wheels) and down (the steering column) to make a more compact, 17.3-pound package that can slide easily into a car trunk or a closet. A Flex Kart measures 30.7” x 21.3” x 19.1” when opened and 30.7” x 10.6” x 9.25 when folded, so it becomes suitable even for apartment dwellers or visits with the grandparents.
Safety notes: Top speed is two mph – no sweat for a walking parent to keep pace. A Flex Kart only moves in a forward direction and the young driver must keep fingers pressed on a power button or else it stops. The seat is curved for stability but there’s no seat belt. First reviewers have reported a run time of 30-45 minutes per charge (recharging takes 8-12 hours).
For ages 3-5
Price: $119.00, on sale for $98.00 on Walmart
Snap Circuits MyHome
Many fun, teachable moments come while constructing Snap Circuits MyHome, a Techlicious Top Picks of Toy Fair 2020 winner. This electronics exploration kit energizes users to assemble a house or city building with colorful plastic walls and base grids, then populate it with circuit parts and working components that all snap together. Demonstrating how wiring and electricity work their magic, the kit teaches kids how to activate a doorbell, spin a motorized ceiling fan, switch on a light, or trigger an alarm! And there’s an eco-lesson to learn here too. After attaching the in-line power-meter, note how the needle bobs and consumption soars (or drops) when devices are switched on (and off.) A kit includes 30+ projects and 60+ Snap Circuit parts – all low voltage and made with “CircuitSafe Fuse Technology.”
For ages 8+
Price: $74.99 on Elenco, $59.99 on Target
Lenovo Smart Tab M10 HD (2nd Gen) with Google Assistant
The Lenovo M10 HD (2nd Gen) with Google Assistant is packed with learning content for children, making it the most innovative for the whole family tablet this season. The M10 is the very first tablet computer with Google Kids Space, offering each of your children an individual account and safe, walled-garden access to specially curated activities and explore zones. (Access to other apps requires parental approval unless you change the default setting.) Tapping the Read tab serves up free, age-appropriate books selected by experts for kids up to 9 years old. The Watch tab opens curated, creative and fun videos from YouTube Kids. With the Make tab, videos spark creation and discovery with activities ranging from simple drawings to silly science projects. Older family members sharing the device get their own sign-ins and unhindered access to content and the online world.
The M10 runs Android 10, packs a thin-bezel 10.1-inch HD IPS touchscreen with blue light protection, front (5 MP) and rear (8 MP) cameras, Dolby Atmos-enabled stereo speakers, and a dedicated headphone jack. There’s 2 GB of permanent memory in the base model (4 GB in the step-up), plus add-on memory card storage of up to 64 GB eMMC and 256GB microSD. For connectivity, there’s WiFi, Bluetooth 5.0, WiFi Direct, and even onboard FM radio. Battery run time is 8-10 hours between charges.
For ages 3+
Price: $129.99, on sale for $120.99 on Lenovo
Fujifilm FinePix XP140
Cameras offer a great opening for shy, artistic youngsters to jump into a situation, express themselves, and be creative, often without ever uttering a word. But digital cameras with “Kid” in the name should be avoided for ‘tweens and older. The Fujifilm FinePix XP140 is a perfect older child’s first camera that can last a long time. It’s an affordable waterproof/dustproof memory grabber they can take on a dive (up to 82 feet) or drop (up to six feet) without regret on a hiking trail. The compact body, sturdy construction, closely spaced buttons, and all-around ease of use also make this snap- (and video-) shooter ideal for the butterfingered.
The XP140 packs a 16.4-megapixel image sensor and a 5x optical (and 2x digital) zoom lens, collectively capturing sharp images despite the extra layer of waterproof plastic protection. A 3-inch color display helps with composition, and the default SR Automatic Scene Recognition mode adjusts camera settings well for most situations. And, there’s a blur-minimizing Party mode that cranks up the ISO rating and shutter speed for indoor shots (not just for parties). Shooters also benefit from automatic face and smile detection, image stabilization, and a five-mode flash with red-eye detection. Images are stored on low-cost, removable SD memory cards (a 16GB card is included) that you can transfer to smartphones and printers via built-in WiFi and Bluetooth.
For ages 10+
Price: $229.99, on sale for $149.95 on B&H Photo Video
SnapStyle Printable Masks
SnapStyle Printable Masks is a crafty kit for making highly personalized cover-ups for the fashion-conscious teen or tween on your list. To create a new look, you use the SnapStyle Mask Creator App to take or grab an image from the camera roll to print on the mask, like a close-up shot of a fabric you want to match. The app helps to adjust the image and preview how the finished product would look on your face. If satisfied, tap “create print file,” insert the special 100 percent cotton printable fabric sheet into an inkjet printer, and hit start.
Next comes the really crafty work – peeling the printed fabric from the backing sheet, cutting off excess material, lining up and folding sections, inserting a bendable nose strip and filter sheet, gluing down bits with adhesive strips, then measuring and attaching elastic ear loops. SnapStyle claims the whole process takes five minutes and that the masks will fit ages 3+. But sealing those sticky spots demands using a hot iron, so a parent will need to get involved with younger crafters.
For ages 6+ with parental supervision
Price: starting at $9.99 for a 2-pack on Snap Style Masks, check price on Amazon
CucinaPro Bubble Waffle Maker
My favorite ten-year-old has a bubble waffle maker at the top of her get-me-please list this season. Fun for multi-generational collaborations with very tasty rewards, this device externally resembles a conventional electric waffle maker. But with round pockets carved into the two interior sides of the (sandwiched together) heating plates, this cute gizmo produces a sheet of bubbilicious dough balls – crispy around the edges, airy or moist in the middle – in just five minutes. Formally known as Hong Kong Egg Bubble Waffles, kids get into the prep by customizing the batter – my Leah likes blending in Oreo cookie bits. Practice makes perfect, and instructive messes come with the territory. We like the CucinaPro Bubble Waffle Maker, which has feet on both sides (useful for half-done, bubble waffle-flipping) and indicator lights to clue when “heating” and “ready.”
For ages 8+ with parental supervision
Price: $59.99, on sale for $39.44 on Walmart, check price on Amazon
Tile Limited Edition
Are your kids constantly losing keys, bags, wallets, and other assorted items? Improve their lives (and yours) with the gift of Tile, a Bluetooth tracking device that hooks to a bag or slips into a wallet. When they instigate a search with their phone, the Tile sounds a “here I am” ring and maps its location. Even if they’re out of range, other Tile users might help to pick up the scent. The Tile community data sharing is all done in the background, and anonymously, so you don’t have to worry about their privacy being compromised.
New this season are brightly decorated Limited Edition Tiles. Choose from sophisticated velvety black and red Tiles, suitable for attaching to a nice handbag, and fun designs that celebrate everything from sports, video games, love of pets, sunsets, sushi, and more. The Tile Pro has a range of up to 400 feet and the loudest ring, while the Mate and Slim (for wallets) have a 200-foot range. The Pro and Mate have replaceable batteries.
For ages 10+
Price: $36.99 for a Pro, on sale for $28.99 on The Tile App; $52.99 for a Mate and Slim, on sale for $41.99 on The Tile App, check price on Amazon
[Image credit: gift opening gift via BigStockPhoto, Yoto, Learning Resources, Nintendo, Rollplay, Elenco, Lenovo, Fujifilm, SnapStyle, CucinaPro, Tile]