***A version of this article and video appear in USA Today***
It’s hard enough to pry myself away from a screen these days, but when it comes to kids? Forget about it. It seems like babies are now born with the swipe, pinch, and tap reflexes ready to go out of the gate. Paired with the pandemic, many parents feel like screen time — theirs and their kids’ — is totally out of control. Which leads us to this years’ hottest toy trends.
This year is all about screen-free fun, tech toys that teach, and perfect pets (all the fun, none of the mess). Here are some of the best I—and my team of young reviewers—have tried out first hand.
STEM GETS AN “A”
STEM — which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — toys have been all the rage for the past few years. They are super fun to play with, but also teach kids critical basics. What’s new this year is more emphasis on STEAM, and the “Arts,” including humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design, and new media.
One top toy hitting squarely in that STEAM target this year is Artie Max the Coding Robot by Education Insights ($110). This little bot-buddy teaches kids, ages eight and up, coding through creativity.
Artie speaks five coding languages — like Snap!, Python, and C++— some of the same languages that make space travel possible. Kids build code that makes Artie draw with markers that come loaded on its back. Built-in tutorials help them jump right in, and seeing instant results means more excitement out of the box.
Artie Max connects to any WiFi-enabled device. It also has the added benefits of remote control, line-following, color sensing, light-up eyes, and emotive sounds, which makes it feel even more like a robot companion than simply a coding tool.
LET THE MUSIC PLAY
While we’re talking about the arts, let’s not forget music. It’s been one of the hardest-hit areas of education during the pandemic. Top ed-tech company, BYJU’S FutureSchool, recently launched Perform with Music, a modern online-based curriculum for kids ages six-to-18 to learn to play the guitar or the piano.
For any parent who’s begged, cajoled, and bribed (I’ve done all three) kids to practice their instrument already, this truly is the gift that keeps on giving. It’s online, but one-on-one with an engaging teacher who helps kids master technical skills and build social confidence. Teachers also use games and fun projects to encourage kids to make practice feel more like fun and less like a chore. They’ll even help you put your music on global streaming apps or do live performances.
The first trial class is free, no instrument needed even — and is so well received that starting in November, they added music classes for adults too. You really can foster a lifelong love for music with this immersive course. (1-hour private classes start at $24.)
TECH THAT TEACHES
We already know that screen time is not created equally. When kids use tablets, experts say it’s often better to engage with interactive — versus passive — content. If you already have an iPad or Fire tablet, Osmo kits and play bundles hit that sweet spot — blending the best of hands-on learning with digital magic.
I’ve reviewed nearly all of the various kits, games, and play bundles since they first launched, including the Genius Starter Kit ($99) and latest Math Wizard “Fantastic Food Truck” ($59) release.
The Genius Starter Kit, for kids ages 6-10, lets youngsters draw objects or arrange physical game pieces, and their actions interact with the world on a tablet screen. It includes five game apps that help with math, reading, spelling, drawing, problem-solving and more, and it evolves and grows as your kids do — so it’s not like one of those toys they play with for a few minutes then never touch again.
The Fantastic Food Truck is a fun way to learn geometric concepts by helping “Chef Reina and her assistant Betty,” launch their food truck business. This one is curriculum-based for first and second graders and helps them learn how to compose, partition, and identify attributes of shapes. Kids can create ingredients with geometric shapes and prepare orders for hungry customers. They can also blend, fry, glaze, sprinkle, and combine ingredients in many other ways to make each dish special. So. Much. Fun.
Many of the hottest must-have toys this year keep kids engaged, entertained, and have educational benefits too. Two popular choices in this category include Coding Critters “MagiCoders” by Learning Resources ($55), and the Toniebox ($130).
For screen-free interactive play, it’s pretty amazing to watch a four-year-old learn to code with the help of a “magic wand,” and “spell book.” My four-year-old tester friend has been playing nonstop with Skye the Unicorn, while I’ve been busy with Blaze the Dragon. They are tangible, physical toys — that follow basic remote-control codes to push a ball through an obstacle course, dance, or even follow you around. Both Critters have two modes: Spell Mode lets you cast 12 coding spells, while Code Mode lets you move Skye or Blaze through various challenges. They both come with a 22-piece interactive playset, and kids can make up their own codes too.
The Toniebox and the little action figures you use with it called Tonies is another screen-free must-see. Toniebox is a smart speaker for kids ages three and up. Put your Tonie on top and it comes to life, playing songs, interacting, and telling stories from their favorite movies, TV shows, and books.
Youngsters can adjust the volume by pinching the ears on top and pick your track by tapping the side of the box. Kids love the tactile play and imaginative stories and songs; parents love it because it is screen-free (guilt free!) entertainment! They have all kinds of different sets — but Wren and I have been reviewing the Disney starter set bundles from Target ($130) that feature favorite Disney characters like Elsa from Frozen, Moana, Woody from Toy Story, and Sulley from Monsters Inc.
If your child’s begging for a pet, but you’re in need of a serious break from anything else that eats, sleeps, and poops (this could be my parenting theme song), check out some of the season’s top interactive tech-infused favorites.
Behold the Glamicorn, one of three new interactive Purse Pets from Spin Master ($25). It’s the most unexpected and wonderful wearable I’ve reviewed this year, mainly because it’s equal parts futuristic, fashion-forward — and incredibly fun. Just touch its forehead to hear it coo and purr, snap a selfie, then pet and hold and they’ll blow you a little kiss.
For ages five and up, each pet purse features unique sound effects that match their animal and give them distinct personalities. Glamicorn is sweet, elegant, and regal. Fierce Fox is clever, mischievous, and silly, and Leoluxe Leopard is tenacious, energetic, and wild.
Each one has two modes: In Magic Mode, you can play games and music together. In Runway Mode, you do your best “strut and spin” while your purse pet plays music and photo-snapping sounds and then ends with a big round of applause.
If you want to go with a more traditional toy pet, check out Moji the Lovable Labradoodle (on sale right now for $80) from SkyRocket Toys.
Moji has an incredibly animated face and responds to kid’s voices and touch with more than 150 reactions. Its smart collar also has a color screen that displays different animated emojis to communicate what he’s thinking. For example, if he’s hungry, that’ll show up on his collar and kids will know that it’s time to feed him. (Don’t worry, it’s just pretend food.) This one’s for kids ages four and up.
The other tech toy I snapped up for my BFF’s daughter this year is the VTech KidiZoom PrintCam for kids ages four-to-eleven. For years now, I’ve been recommending instant cameras for adults that print actual photos, and now there’s one just for kids (and last I looked, it’s on sale for $50).
The KidiZoom PrintCam is sturdy and easy for little hands to hold, thanks to the child-sized grip on the side. A back screen lets kids see exactly what they’re shooting, and they can take selfies by flipping the lens up.
They can also add all kinds of effects — such as hearts, stars, or super fun frames — before printing the black and white photo out right on the spot. The camera comes with a roll of paper that can handle up to 80 pictures and refill rolls cost $10. Parents can add a microSD card if they want to save their child’s best snaps too.
Which reminds me, if there’s a toy you really want to make sure lands under the tree this year, snap it up ASAP. Supply chain and shipping challenges mean a whole lot of the best-of could be nearly impossible to get last minute.