Most children's tech toys are more expensive than regular toys, so in today's economy, it is important to select the ones that enhance play and learning through the use of technology. Here are some of this year's best:
FOR YOUNGER KIDS
Fisher-Price Computer Cool School
(For ages 3-6, from Fisher-Price, $60, with add-on software for $16. Requires computer running Windows.)
This tech toy allows young children to play on their parents' computers but keeps the parents' files safe. This toy bundles a special keyboard (with traditional keys and additional big trigger buttons, a drawing tablet, and attached stylus) with its own learning software that offers fun activities in reading and writing, math, science, music, and art. The system offers add-on software featuring branded favorites including Scooby Doo, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Sesame Street, and others. With keyboards of their own to play on, kids' sticky fingers never gunk up Mom and Dad's typepad.
Tag Reading System
(For ages 4-8, from Leapfrog, $49.99, with add-on books for $13.99. Works with Window or Mac computers.)
With Tag, kids can learn to read by holding a special outsized pen over books. Tap the device anywhere inside a Tag book and it responds by either reading the book, reading individual words, making the illustrations talk or make noise, or playing a game using the words and illustrations on the page. It is amazing to watch. The system comes with one book, but four additional books can be added into its memory by connecting it to your computer. Additional books include many children's classics (i.e. "The Little Engine that Could," "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom" and "Olivia") or ones featuring branded characters like SpongeBob SquarePants and Kung Fu Panda.
FOR OLDER KIDS
(For ages 8+, from Jakks Pacific, $79.99)
One of last year's most exciting toys was the EyeClops Bionic Eye, a 200x microscope that you could plug into your TV. The next generation of that toy is this year's EyeClops BioniCam which adds 400x magnification, the ability to take photos and videos of what you magnify, and portability. Kids just turn it on and point to see the world magnified as displayed on the toy's built-in color LCD screen. The toy has three magnification settings of 100x, 200x, or 400x. Photos and videos that you take can also be viewed on the TV or via computer.
For younger children (ages 6+), the EyeClops Bionic Eye is still available, but this year's version adds a 400x magnification setting to last year's model which had only 100x and 200x. It costs $49.99.
(For ages 7+, from Mattel, $149.99)
Not exactly cuddly, but absolutely adorable is this fierce biomorphic robot dinosaur. He walks on his own hind legs, comes when he is called, makes fascinating facial expressions, feels like a reptile, and roars to make a variety of sounds. He responds to both touch and voice, and comes with a bone which you can feed him. He can be programmed to step forward and roar (attack), guard a room, make funny sounds like burping, or answer questions by nodding or shaking his head. He's expensive, but so entertaining, and would be the perfect "pet" for a dino-loving kid.
(For ages 8+, from Hasbro/Tiger Electronics, $74.99. Plugs into a TV.)
Here's a way to bring the popularity of Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) gameplay to your television without owning a console gaming system. Plus, with this dance game, there's no dance mat, just your feet wearing slip-on Motion Tags (an elastic band holds a special button which you slip over your feet or shoes). To play, you follow footprint icons on the TV screen, and the game tracks your dance movements which can include jumping, sliding, cross-overs and more. This dance game allows for more innovation than DDR as you dance through the 12 songs and other games.
Flip Video Mino
(For ages 8+, from Pure Digital Technologies, $179.99. Works with Win/ Mac)
For the YouTube generation, this is an amazing little camcorder that fits easily into your pocket. About the size of a cell phone, it packs an amazing amount of digital punch. You can record up to 60 minutes of high-quality video, then connect the camcorder to the computer using the flip-out USB arm. The Flip then launches its own software that allows you to view videos, edit them, snap still photos from the videos, and even combine videos into make movies. These movies can then be uploaded to YouTube, Myspace, and AOL Video, or sent to friends. This is an amazing "toy" for tweens, teens and even adults.
Jinny Gudmundsen is the kid-tech columnist for USA Today.com and Gannett News Service, and is also the editor ofComputing with Kids.