cameras, computers, TVs, and other high-tech devices. But each year they also get to play with toys and the latest gadgets aimed at junior consumers to see how fun and easy to use these products are.
Many of the toys here, available online and at toy stores and mass retailers, include learning elements, and some are just plain fun, but all include technology that bumps up the wow factor and the enjoyment. We even include a couple of toy tablets, perhaps a smart gift if your kid has held your tablet hostage.
One warning: Packaging for some of these products is hard to open, so have an adult do the job. And don't forget to check our battery ratings to find the best ones.
Ages 3 and older
To play, you insert one of the included maps into the front slot of the toy. Then use the stylus to click around the map and learn interesting facts as you go. (Did you know that Saturn’s rings are made of ice and rocks?) This isn’t a new concept, but here it’s well implemented and fun to use.
We used an iPhone along with the toy and got some extra animated content—eventually. The 3D images were especially cool. But the app is really slow to start up. And we couldn’t get the camera to identify things on the map without touching the screen with the stylus. We would like to see more troubleshooting and help, either in manual or online. Otherwise, this could get frustrating for parents and kids.
Vtech Cogsley Learning Robot
Ages 3 to 6
Cogsley is a sturdy little robot that moves, talks, sings, and teaches. He’s in the cute zone on the cute-to-creepy robot scale.
Tap Cogsley on the head to wake him up, then select the learning activity you’d like to play. His torso swivels, lights flash, and his eyebrows move up and down. His voice is fun—part nerd and part pitchman.
You can twist his ears, eyes, and nose, and he responds. Or you can drop chips into a slot above his nose to answer questions or learn new info. The chips seem a little losable for the age range, but Cogsley does come with a clip-on backpack to store them.
Cogsley also responds to clapping by dancing and singing. But the sound of his movements can drown out the music. And the LCD screen on his torso is a bit tough to see and read; it's not in color, nor is it back-lighted.
Two big pluses for parents: auto shutoff (to conserve batteries), and volume control (to preserve your sanity).
Ages 4 and older
This mobile microphone, which comes in five zingy color combos, really works, amplifying voices as kids talk or sing. It also makes three funny sound effects (elephant trumpeting, electronic whistle, and something we can only describe as “whacka-whacka”). We wish there were a few more, because they're really fun!
Even better, you can bend the 3-foot WrapStar to fit around your wrist, wear it on your head, place on a bike’s handlebars—the possibilities are nearly endless. But parents beware: Send your little stars outside with this one, unless you don’t mind lots of loud singing, because there’s no volume control!
Crayola Digital Light Designer
Ages 6 and older
When you first take it out of the box, the Crayola Digital Light Designer is a dark plastic dome. But add four D batteries, turn it on, and it transforms: An array of LED lights inside starts spinning and creates colorful designs on the transparent surface of the dome.
Using the included stylus, young artists can draw right on the dome and save up to 50 of their favorite designs. Kids can animate their drawings or play one of the games included.
One bummer: Its motor is pretty loud. That's too bad, because if children want to keep it on in their rooms at night, it might keep them awake. Still, if you can tune out the whirring noise, the toy does seem almost magical.
Mattel Loopz Shifter Game
Ages 7 and older
Loopz is an ingenious electronic device with built-in memory and reflex games. You pass your hand into the loops and follow increasingly complex patterns of lights and sounds. This is even better than the previous version, adding a new dimension to the challenge by letting you reconfigure the loops into different shapes.
As you play, the games get harder and harder. It takes practice and concentration to do well, but it’s fun, especially with another player. The device remembers high scores and gives feedback, such as “You’re a rock star!” And for a techie toy, the Loopz Shifter Game really gets kids moving.