Is it just me, or do the Christmas decorations come out earlier every year? It's not even Halloween yet, and already the largest U.S. specialty toy store is urging parents to reserve the top toys of the season, or face coming up empty handed. Now, we all know there's a whole lot of marketing hype at play here, but Toys R Us has stopped taking reservations for its own Tabeo kids tablet and the much anticipated new Wii U, due to already high demand. Does that mean there might be something to all this must-have toy madness?
Either way, this year's top, high-end toys tip the scales toward an interesting new trend. Many of them combine the best of the digital world with the engagement of the real world, to create modern toys that both educate and entertain. Here are my favorites so far this year:
1. Barbie Photo Fashion Doll
Buy: From Mattel
Barbie Photo Fashion is bright, beautiful, and rocks the latest fashion trend, but there's a whole lot more to this little doll than meets the eye. She's equipped to introduce kids to the world of digital photography, graphic design, and modern marketing.
This Barbie doubles as a digital camera, with a built-in best-shot billboard. By pressing her belt buckle, you turn on a lens embedded in Barbie's back, which features a 0.3-megapixel camera. The camera shoots and stores up to 200 photos, and displays them on the LED backlit screen built-in to Barbie's shirt. Kids can customize photos with more than 30 filters, frames, and stamps. Compatible with both Mac and PC, Barbie Photo Fashion Doll can encourage creativity in a modern, pop culture sort of way way. Look out supermodel-turned-supermogul Tyra Banks, this Barbie is on to your kind of multimedia super powers.
2. Hot Wheels Apptivity
Buy: From Amazon
Here's another high-tech twist on a perennial favorite, Hot Wheels Apptivity. Kids can use specially designed, screen-safe Hot Wheels cars on their parents' iPad. The cars actually interact with a free app. It uses a conductive technology, so the app recognizes each vehicle and its driving style. Now, of course this means parents have to be willing to give up the iPad for playtime. Apptivity also came out several other popular toy-meets-tablet games including Fruit Ninja, Batman, and Cut the Rope. If you lose one of the race cars or action figures, you can still play the apps with your fingertips.
Buy: From Amazon
A big trend in general this year is the "rad" revival of toys that first came in the 80's and 90's, like Furby. Today's more modern furry friend encourages interactive play, through progressive learning. That means that the more a child plays with it, the better it learns to perform a trick, speak, and even pick up on the personality of the child playing with it. Furby even has sensors all over his fuzzy little body that help him react in a realistic way to kids movement and speech. Oh, and he's got his own own smartphone and iPad app too. One word of warning for parents: the cutesy sounds this little guy makes will drive you crazy after awhile (like most kids toys that make noise). Nothing that set of ear-plugs won't fix.
4. Rubik's Stack & Build Blocks
Ages: 18 months+
Another toy making a comeback (though really, it never went away) is the Rubik's Cube. But this holiday season's must-have version is the Rubik's Stack & Build Blocks set that turns the classic puzzle into a set of 20 building blocks, perfect for the stroller set. The blocks have the same bright colors of the classic cube, and come in four shapes: triangles, squares, and small and large rectangles. These building blocks encourage creative play, help develop fine motor skills, and teach little minds about sizes and shapes.
The cost of this toy is high, because what a child can do with it is seriously that cool. By using what looks an awful lot like regular building blocks, kids can create simple, reconfigurable robots that can actually move around, respond to light, react to sound, and display other lifelike behavior. It works by combining sensor, logic, and actuator blocks. Depending on the combination, you're basically "programming" the robot to perform different tasks. The different types of cubes elicit different actions, and reactions, in the simple robot, without any wires, tools, or programming skills. This is a great way to introduce young minds to the core concepts of robotics and programming logic.
6. Tablets for Tots
Cost: $80 — $150
Parents ask my advice about kids tablets all the time, and it's tough to recommend just one. The one you choose has a lot to do with your budget. In the sensibly priced range, I really like both of the new, upgraded LeapPad 2, and VTech InnoTab 2 kids Tablets. Both focus more on learning capabilities than flashy tech specs, though they hold their own with more memory to store apps and creations, and faster processors that can handle more complex software. They also both have a 5" touch screen, tilt sensor, microphone, and built-in digital photo/video cameras. Either of these tablets are fantastic first choices, great for learning early reading and math skills.
7. PlayStation Wonderbook
Cost: $40 for stand alone, $80 for the PS3 bundle
The new PlayStation Wonderbook is essentially a digital, holographic pop-up book. It works with the PlayStation Eye camera to "see" what's happening in real-time, then layer it augmented reality-style with various events and activities on the screen. The first title coming out is the "Book of Spells," written by J.K. Rowling. It teaches you how to become a wizard, and by using the PlayStation Move controller, you can actually perform spells with an onscreen wizard's wand. It's sure to captivate and engage audiences young and old, with it's multi-sensory storytelling magic.
8. Activision Skylanders Giants
Cost: $75 (for starter pack)
One of the most popular selling games for the 2011 Holiday season was Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure. Now, Activision's bigger, bolder sequel Skylanders Giants, is poised to dominate this year as well. Skylanders broke ground as a revolutionary bridge between video gaming and action figures. With the Giants starter set, and a video game console (PS3, Wii, XBox 360), you can bring action figure to life inside the Skylanders game universe. The figures actually save and store your levels and information as well, and each comes with it's own special powers. I like the way this provides a portal for positive play, away from the screen, creating a nexus between gaming, imagination, and active play, while creating a fairly positive storyline.
9. Digital Light Designer
The Digital Light Designer lets you draw and color with light. With a digital stylus, kids can create and manipulate 96 colored LED's inside a 3D, light-up dome. You can even animate the art with special effects like color change, rotation, and three panel animation. It also comes with games and an activity mode, and lets you create and save your favorite drawings and personal messages to light up a room later.
10. Wonder Box
Cost: $20 per month
For a truly interactive toy, take a look at Wonder Box from Education.com. It's a subscription-based monthly service, that delivers ready-to-go science, craft and other fun projects right to your doorstep. Each month has a different theme, such as mad scientist, nature, or once upon a time. Each box is filled with age-appropriate projects to help educate, enrich, and entertain kids. This is a great way to get families to spend more quality time together, while helping kids satisfy their curiosity about the world around them.
As a mom, I know first hand that the best toys are the ones your kids actually play with. As someone pointed out the last time I did a toy round-up, sometimes the best toys are a simple cardboard box or set of pots and pans. But if you're like me, there's a good chance you'll want to pick up a few of these toys, just so that you can play with them, too.
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