We sorted through offerings from more than 1,000 exhibitors at New York's annual Toy Fair to find some of the most promising new playthings out there. They run the gamut from tablet apps and plug-and-play games to blocks and craft kits, but they all have one thing in common: They're taking tried-and-true toys to the next level.
Building on Blocks
It's tough to beat a classic set of wooden blocks, but European toy maker Haba may have done it. Not only can their Technics block sets be mixed and matched, but they also offer plenty of add-ons to take your kid's construction to the next level. Pick up the vehicles set for axles and wheels to turn simple blocks into cars, trucks, and trains; a ball-track set let your little one explore the laws of physics; or try out our favorite, the optics pack, to convert a basic block set-up into a wonder of optical illusions (complete with attachable zoetrope for hand-drawn animations). The basic set will set you back $35 and is good for ages 3 and up.
Playmobil is taking on environmental issues with their latest line of playsets, Future Planet, for ages 7 to 12. Elementary school-aged players may love the elaborate, futuristic scenery, but it's the older kids that will really delve into the backstory. In Future Planet, the eco-conscious E-rangers work to conserve the power of their energy source while the greedy Dark Rangers are looking to hoard and squander all the resources. The E-Ranger headquarters is powered by (battery-operated) light up red crystals, with a functional solar-powered fan on the roof and an infrared knockout cannon to stop enemy vehicles in their tracks (literally). Each add-on kit offers its own abilities from mechanical arms to remote-controlled attack vehicles. The E-Rangers headquarters will retail for $129.99 and the Dark Rangers' headquarters will go for $79.99, with additional kits sold separately, and all coming out this summer.
Ravensburger's new 1,000-piece puzzles are certainly lovely on their own, but if you own an iPhone or iPad, you can watch them come to life. Ravensburger's Augmented Reality Puzzles ($20, ages 10+) come with a free app download and, once assembled, each unlocks a different activity on your phone or tablet. Construct an overhead view of Paris and you'll get a 360-degree virtual tour of the City of Lights complete with fun facts on famous landmarks. Kids will have a blast spotting fish in the aquarium puzzle game and watching videos of the safari puzzle animals in action. The first sets will roll out this summer, but expect to see even more puzzles introduced come fall.
Serving and Learning
Mattel’s Servin' Surprises Cook 'n Serve Kitchen & Table ($79.99, ages 2 and up) is a lifelike kitchen station with oven, grilling station, and built-in stovetop. The included serving tray interacts with whatever food is on it, playing associated sounds and silly songs. The center of the table lifts out to reveal storage within and the oven detaches, turning the kitchen serving station into a regular play table. Another new feature: the table can adjust to grow with your child. The serving station and foods (including pizza and cookies) will be available this summer along with an additional tea set.
Stickers never go out of style and little ones will be extra excited to show off one-of-a-kind creations. Australian toy maker Moose Toys announced their first craft kit, the Gelarti Designer Studio ($19.99, ages 5+), a sticker-making station where kids can fill in designs with a wide range of paints for brightly colored art. Kids can also add fuzzy surfaces and glitter for extra pizzazz. Moose Toys says Gelarti creations only take about 30 minutes to dry and will stick and restick handily without leaving behind any nasty residue. The initial set will be available in time for Easter; 3D sticker sets will be rolling out for fall.
Having a Ball
We’re always looking for ways to get kids up and moving. With the TheO from Physical Apps, kids up are coached through an array of games and exercises by a range of applications you can download to your iPhone or Android smartphone. Your tech will be protected within this big orange ball as children are led through games ranging from hot potato to lawn bowling. Apps also include fitness programs for grown-ups and Sesame Street video for little ones. TheO will be available for purchase in May and the ball and related apps will cost $24.95.
Crack the Code
Future programmers, puzzle enthusiasts, and building masters alike will want to try out Codee ($7.99, ages 7+), the newest set from Techno Source. Each pack includes a long string of plastic links and a "formula" that corresponds with the chain. The links are numbered in chronological order from 1 to 64. On each link are the letters A to E on one side, and F to J on the other. Then on the inside are numeric signs , +, -. For each step in the formula, there is a number, sign, and letter (for instance 1 > F). You don't have to worry about the numbers, since they go in order, but twist the links until the proper sign is in the middle, and then rotate the links to get the proper angle based on the letter. Once you build the entire code, you'll have a figure; they range from penguins to robots to alligators to pigs (depending on the pack). Or, even better, kids can play with the links to create their own shapes, which can then be "decoded" for others to recreate. Builders can post their formulas on Techno Source's site and look for other codes to try out infinite new shapes and designs!
Build By the Book
Get budding Lego builders excited about learning with the toy maker's newest line for the pint-sized set. Lego Read and Build ($12.99, ages 18 months and up) is geared towards preschoolers, blending picture books with simple Lego block sets. Kids can build along as parents read aloud about farm animals, cars, and bugs (all out in March), with more kits coming soon. .
On a Roll
What happens when you give a stuffed animal a set of wheels? You get Little Tikes' Pillow Racers ($39.99, ages 18 months to 3 years). These pillow-like creations have a desk chair-like set of wheels so they can easily move in any direction and a handle on top to help little ones ride along. They're great for active play, and the stuffed animals can also be detached for cuddling or cleaning.
Switches and Circuits
The starter littleBits kit ($89 each, ages 6 and up) contains everything budding engineers need to set up their own circuits; kids can connect the battery to any number of switches from buttons to dimmers to pressure sensors to create reactions. A project can be as simple as setting a LED to pulse while more creative efforts can involve rigging up any sort of contraption (a sample device involved a motion sensor and a light inside a piggy bank that lit up when money was deposited). Sets are available now and add-ons range from $10-$40.
Make Some Noise
Toy cars are great, and now Wild Planet's Sonix City ($19.99-$24.99, ages 4+) adds an extra layer of fun with great sounds effects. Kids can run cars over any of 100 touch points on the various road maps to unlock sounds like honking, screeching tires, sirens, and construction noises. Sonix City comes in four flavors — race, air, rescue, and construction — and will be available for purchase next fall.
Fans of Pac-Man young and old will have a blast with Bandai's Pac-Man Connect-and-Play Video Game ($24.99, ages 8 and up). Even the console looks like everyone's favorite hungry adventurer (with handy built-in cord storage), and flips around to reveal a standard arcade joystick and buttons. The set, hitting stores shelves in fall 2012, doesn't just come with the original Pac-Man; expect 11 other retro '80s faves including Galaga and Pac-Man 256.
Sky's the Limit
The Chuggington Die-Cast Railway is all about building up; while old-school train sets might have a bridge or two, Tomy's are made to reach the ceiling (literally — sample set-ups at Toy Fair went as high as seven feet!). Kids can send Wilson and friends careening around careening around curves, rolling through trestle bridges, and jumping across overpasses — or store them away to rest in the station house. Play sets will be out this summer and start at $14.99 (ages 3+).
If you live in one of the 20% of American households that has an iPad, then it's likely your little one has reached for your device more than once. Turn tablet play into an interactive experience with Mattel's new Apptivity collection ($9.99 for one, $19.99 for a two-pack, ages 4 and up). Hot Wheels fans can purchase cars made from special conductive plastic to pair with Mattel's free Hot Wheels app. Once your little one places the toy on your iPad during play, the cars can navigate the on-screen world, driving over scenery or interacting through games. Each car design has different advantages in the games (some might be better at drifting while others accelerate faster) and, off the iPad, the three conductive pins on the bottom of the toys can be retracted, turning them into the normal Hot Wheels models your little one knows and loves. The Hot Wheels set is launching in late spring; expect to see tie-ins to popular iPad apps (think Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and Fruit Ninja) in the fall, as well as WWE, Batman, Barbie, and Monster High models out in time for the holidays.
More from Good Housekeeping: