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Every year I try to keep an eye out for innovative toys. That’s partly because I like techie things, but mostly because I love toys. When I say this, readers often question my maturity. Also, when I told my wife the other day that I’d be spending my afternoon playing with a Furby, she looked into getting our union annulled.
I don’t care, though. Toys are fun. Especially these five, the most innovative playthings of the year.
As grad students at MIT a few years ago, Dave Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi were looking to build computers that develop spatial-reasoning skills. The result—as Merrill explained in a hit 2009 TED talk—are these irresistible “intelligent blocks.” Each block has an LCD screen and sensors to determine how it’s oriented and when it’s been moved. They’re also loaded with several games that take advantage of the blocks’ spatial awareness—for instance, shape- and word-matching games in which you rotate and connect sequences across different blocks. Best of all, they require no tech expertise to set up and use, and they even come packaged with batteries. Within five minutes of cracking open the box, I was deeply immersed in a game.
Think of these as Legos for electronics. Each littleBits block is a piece of an electrical circuit—a switch, a power source, or an endpoint like a light or a fan or a vibrating motor. It’s your job to stick them together in creative ways. The pieces snap and hold together magnetically, and because they’re color-coded and only snap in certain directions, they’re fantastically easy to learn. They’re recommended for kids 8 and above, but I bet even younger children can get the hang of these.
The only problem with littleBits is that they’re expensive. I found the starter kit limited, with too few interesting parts; the extended kit, though, is a blast. If you want to try something else in the same vein, Snap Circuits—an $80 set of modular electronic parts that snap together on a plastic circuit board—are slightly more complicated but also cheaper.
I was skeptical of a tablet computer for kids. Not because I think kids shouldn’t be using computers, but because when I give my 2-year-old my iPad, he usually navigates to the Netflix app and begins watching Curious George. In other words, he uses it as a TV.
And that kind of explains the idea behind the LeapPad2. It gives kids all the accoutrements of a grown-up tablet—a camera, a touchscreen, apps—but everything is rendered in big, kid-friendly plastic, and all of the experiences are nominally educational. I can’t tell you whether they’ll actually make your kid smarter—“all things in moderation” is a good guideline for kids and electronics—but if you have a young child and a tablet computer, you understand how hard it is to keep the two separate. The LeapPad2 allows you to give him a taste of tablets without worrying he’ll veg out. Also, he can’t break this one as easily as he can smash your iPad Mini.
Furby, starts at $54, costs more depending on the color.
If you’ve been jonesing for the late 1990s’ cultural infatuation with virtual pets, the re-engineered Furby is for you. A cuddly alien doll stuffed with robotic guts, Furby has no real purpose other than to sit there, wiggle her ears, scrunch her belly, and talk back to you. In that way she’s like a lot of members of your family. You keep her around because she sometimes does unexpectedly cute things, and because when she doesn’t, you feel some responsibility to mold her behavior. Yeah, it’s totally weird.
Unlike the old model, the new Furby is capable of developing a personality based on how you treat her. If you’re nice to her, she responds sweetly; if you jostle her, she may develop a juvenile attitude. That seems to have happened to mine; thanks to the companion iPhone app that translates Furbish to English, I gathered that a lot of her responses include the phrase “OMG!” I suppose it’s good preparation for when my kid turns 14.
Lazer Tag Twin Pack, $52.81.
These things are a blast. Picture laser guns of yore, but without the hassle of a sensor vest—the guns detect and keep track of your hits and misses by themselves. They even keep track of ammo—when you’re out, you’ve got to reload—and they alert you to other players nearby. Though I only have two, I imagine they’re really fun in large groups. (They can accommodate up to two dozen players in multiple teams.)
You can also hook them up to your iPhone or iPod Touch. The companion app acts as an augmented reality viewfinder, showing you game stats as you aim your weapon. The app also lets you play a single-player video game, but that mode is kind of lame. One thing: The guns only fit older fourth-generation iPhones and iPod Touches; today’s bigger iPhone won’t fit in the weapon’s built-in cradle.