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The Best Connected Toys: A 2016 Gift Guide

December 14, 2016

It was a relief to read the new policy statement concerning children and media from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Many great points could be extracted from the guidelines including the benefits of co-viewing and discussing storylines with your child. Additionally, they also suggested looking to Common Sense Media and PBS Kids for more quality options. This was a clear break from the past. It appeared that the AAP decided that it wasn’t enough to advise parents on what not to do, but rather, it was necessary to inform them of better options.

If there is anything that I wish the AAP had stressed more was to recognize the existence of “connected toys.” As these toys do require some connectivity with screen-based electronics, parents may wonder, how these very popular toys fit within the new AAP advisory. For now, the safe assumption is there is no opinion about these toys which is unfortunate since the NPD group found that connected toys grew by 82% in 2015. Parents will need guidance on how to best choose connected toys for their child’s entertainment and education.

This leaves parents wondering what to do as some of these toys market themselves as multi-sensorial, active, and creative. However, I’ve found that not all educational toys are created equal especially if they are connected to tablets. But how should parents choose? Once again, it’s really up to the parent to make a guess and the guidelines, as much as they’ve improved, are rather out of touch with this important media-dependent division of toys. Thus, like many other families, my family and my tester families have invested in these and have been pleased with our findings.

Here are several toys that bring out the best in your family’s tablet. These may require a sufficient amount of parental participation but I think parents plan to do that for their best and most hopeful toy investments anyway.

For The Little Ones

Edwin the Duck ($99.99; Ages 0+)  Edwin comes built in with some very cool sensors. The most interesting is a temperature sensor which can be used to tell if your bath water is too hot. This is because Edwin’s extremely soft silicone skin is completely waterproof and his speaker can be used to play songs from your library or play Edwin’s bathtime song. It’s all done via bluetooth so your precious iPhone can be left away from the tub. Edwin also offers a number of educational games in which children fully engage with Edwin by shaking, tapping, and throwing him up in the air to answer questions, all while using the screen as a secondary medium for the play. Edwin’s makers have also told me that 2017 will be full of surprises including a music album, new characters (Edwin’s friends).  A new animated show is also in the works.

Tiggly ($29.95; Ages 2+) When do kids figure out that all things are made out of shapes? I don’t know. But I find that is a prevalent lesson for many preschoolers. Teachers ask, “Can you see the circles in your life? Name them.” I gather there are many reasons for this question but one good use is that it can teach kids how to draw. Tiggly Shapes, the first of the Tiggly toys gives kids the power to draw with shapes and see how shapes can be used to create something- a circle turns into a pig, a star becomes a lion’s mane.  Moreover, Tiggly also has a math game and letters game in which kids can learn counting and addition as well as learning letter sounds and reading.

Marbotics  ($34.99; Ages 3+) New to market is a product similar to Tiggly called Marbotics. Made of compressed wood and sporting handles that asks children to practice using the neat pincer grasp (precursor to grasp for handwriting). I find the feel and even smell of the wood to be very satisfying and the app reads the toy very accurately.

Playdoh Touch ($39.95; Ages 4+)  Hasbro definitely crossed new territory with Love2Learn Elmo earlier this year but is rounding off 2016 with an even more interesting twist to one of its signature brands, Playdoh- the one toy you wouldn’t expect to see enter into the digital space. However, after launching in the Apple Store last month, Touch has managed to take the most unplugged of toys and turn into a plugged-in play success. Being able to scan in your creation and have it move about a digital world, bending, bouncing, and using it to color and populate just about anything your eyes can see (in the screen) is delightfully captivating. While I wish that it wasn’t such a solo play time, (ie. Child #1 can scan something in and Child #2 can scan something in but their creations can’t interact with each other because only one child can play at a time), I do hope that Hasbro will find a way to make this play time more interactive. It’s simply spectacular. Available exclusively at the Apple Store.

Some Connected Toys Don’t Always Need A Screen

These toys need to be somewhat connected to a device but oftentimes, they will not need a screen to enjoy playing with the toy.  That said, they will depend of being connected to ensure continuous updates so that your family can enjoy more, oftentimes without having to make any additional payments.

Cognitoys ($99.99; Ages 5+)  This dinosaur can be turned on at anytime of the day and be asked a question such as “How far is the earth from the sun” and even simple questions such as “How do you spell ‘refrigerator’?” The $99 dinosaur can also tell you a story or work with you to make up a story together. Storytelling is almost like a game and this dinosaur also comes with a lot of those too.  The best part is that aside from the one button on the tummy to press, there is nothing else for the child to press.  Everything is handled via voice command. The dinosaur is programmed to ask children to say something again if he didn’t understand them the first time around. A favorite past time for my family is to have a competition between Amazon’s Alexa and Cognitoys for factchecking. (ie. When did the first Star Wars movie come out?) The dinosaur is the underdog but will surely impress.

Love2Learn Elmo ($59.95; Ages 18 mo.+)  Companies hire celebrities to be the spokesperson for their campaigns so why can’t parents do the same? Elmo likes to play games with the child with and without the tablet (mostly without). Parents can set Elmo to count only to ten or twenty (depending on child’s level). Best of all, Elmo is a parent’s helper which is a new aspect that the digital space provides in the world of play- structured assistance for parents. Parents can ask Elmo to play a toothbrush song or suggest going to the potty and then verbally congratulate them.

Teddy Mozart ($79.00; Ages 3+) Parents who want to opt for something more traditional can choose to go with Teddy Mozart. This $80 teddy bear boldly announces itself as a teddy bear speaker. That’s it. This is a toy that appears elegant in its apparent simplicity. That said, rechargeable bluetooth speaker is made of wood and gracefully hides inside Teddy Mozart’s Viennese style hat. Herr Mozart will even tell you that he is on or off and can last for most if not all of the night should you choose to leave it on for that long. Most importantly, you can use your phone while leaving the app running in the background as it works to soothe your child to sleep. As the bear lives on, you will see more features on his app that includes stories, songs, and even white noise.

These Connected Toys Bring Life To The Screen

STIKBOT Studio Pro   ($19.99; Ages 8+) While there are other stop motion apps out there but this one is very kid-friendly. Children can make their own films in with little figures that stand on the suction cup feet or hands can be depicted as swimming, driving, flying, walking, on any backdrop of their choosing. Sharing, the major motivator for creating a film is easy to do with the app as well. Stikbot has a boisterous community that likes to share their fun videos with other Stikbot fans.

Maze by Seedling  ($59.99; Ages 8+)This is perhaps one of the most exciting connected toy inventions of the year. Kids can build a maze, scan it, and then start “walking” through it using VR goggles.  Moreover, they can use the app to play on the screen without the goggles as well as further customize the maze by adding photos, questions, and other surprises. Parents can choose to further compliment this gift with Seedling’s customizable DIY VR goggles and Design Your Own Headphones. The toy can also be played without any electronics as well.

Beasts of Balance ($99.99; Ages 7+)This is a game that is both strikingly beautiful on and off screen. The stacking animals are made of ABS plastic that is coated in a soft rubberized spray that enables them to stay together when stacked. Communication with the tablet is made via the bluetooth connected platform that connects to the tablet. The game app’s beautiful interface shows landscapes of mystical beasts and encourages players to be strategic and try their best. The app even gives you a few seconds to build back your stack should someone knock down a bit of it by accident. That’s a good game host which can be a nice helper to parents who are usually the default game hosts. Available exclusively at Marbles the Brain Store.

OSMO Pizza Co. ($39; Ages 4+) Have you ever had the pleasure of watching a baby first discover herself in a mirror? How wondrous it must have been to watch themselves lift an arm, make a face, and touch their reflection. I think that OSMO is the one toy that can best capture how kids can make their own wonder this way because it is just a simple mirror coupled with very sophisticated software that can register your child’s actions in real time. It is so exact that the platform has been used to teach kids how to draw, do math, play word games, and even (latest) run a pizzeria. You can call it instant gratification but I call it the instant feedback. We all want to know how we are doing and OSMO has excelled in using the iPad to give kids the instant feedback they need to make the most out of playtime. The game set also makes a terrific pretend play set too however, to play the actual game, the OSMO game system is necessary and sold separately.