8 best tech toys for kids

Our picks get kids moving, thinking, and creating

Published: November 11, 2014 06:00 AM

Why tech toys?

When you think about technology and play, you might visualize motionless kids staring at screens and playing mindless video games. But every year, we visit the annual Toy Fair in New York and scour the Internet looking for better options. And we always manage to find plenty of tech toys that can engage, motivate, and teach your children, and get them moving,  thinking, and creating.

Don't forget the batteries for the toys that need them, or for other electronics presents you're giving. Our review of AA batteries lets you know which are worth the money and which to avoid. And find more ideas with the help of our Holiday Gift Ideas page.

Read on to see our picks for 2014.

—Carol Mangis

Best for younger kids

Crayola virtual fashion show

Hexbug Aquabot 2, ($20, bowl included)

Age 3 and up

This little robotic fish starts swimming when it’s immersed in water—and it moves so realistically, it's almost scary. The Aquabot explores its environment, sensing when it hits a wall and needs to adjust direction. The fish-bot has a 5-minute shutoff timer; you reawaken it by dropping it back in the water. Our Aquabot did need to dry out once in a while before it started swimming again. You may want to pick up an extra one for your office, by the way; we did!


Crayola Virtual Design Pro Fashion Collection, Crayola Virtual Design Pro Car Collection ($40 each)

Age 6 and up

When they first open the box, children will ooh and ahh over the rainbow array of color pencils and markers, as well as pattern stencils that come with both kits. A booklet with colorable outfits (the Fashion Collection) or cool autos (the Car Collection) is also included. Download the corresponding app to your iPhone or Android phone or tablet (use Wi-Fi: they’re huge), and you can scan your creations in and watch your outfits walk down a virtual runway (pictured at top), or drive your cars in a variety of fun environments. Once kids fill in the booklet, you can print more scannable pages free of charge.
These kits are a great hybrid of creativity and technology, and they’ll be playable for a long time. One caveat: Each app has one in-app purchase, $3.99, that “unlocks the full experience and all content,” so make sure your child gets your permission before hitting the app store.

Popar Human Anatomy 3D Chart ($20)
Age 5 and up

The colorful, detailed chart is impressive all on its own, but kids can get even more out of it by downloading Popar’s companion app to an Android or iOs smart device. Point the device’s camera at the chart to see close-ups of anatomical systems (skeletal, respiratory, and so on) that you can rotate and zoom into using familiar touch-screen gestures. Some sections offer additional facts, animations, and videos, too. If kids are away from the poster, they can still watch videos and view different aspects of the human anatomy.

The app is free, but it’s very large; you’ll need to make sure there's room for it on your device, and it’s best to download it when you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network. It worked well with the chart, but was sometimes unresponsive on its own. 

Find more reviews, tips, and news in our guide to video games, consoles, tech toys, and kid tablets.

Best for older kids, teens (and grown-ups!)

Creating a cube with the 3Doodler

3Doodler ($100; extra plastic packs, $10 each)

Age 14 and up

If a 3D printer and a glue gun had a baby, it would be named “3Doodler.” This clever device comes with two packs of colorful plastic strands that you load in through the back. The 3Doodler heats the plastic and extrudes the melted material—so you can build any 3D object you can draw. It takes some practice and a steady hand, but once you get the hang of it, your imagination is your only limit!

We strongly recommend that beginners visit and watch the tutorial videos before they start; the tips are invaluable. Caution: This is not for children; it gets very hot. But teens and grown-ups with a crafty, maker bent will love it. 

Sphero Ollie ($100)

Ages 7 to 14

This charming little cylinder on wheels is actually an app-controlled robot: It rolls and spins very fast in all directions, and you control everything it does via a free app on your iOS or Android smart phone (check at to make sure that your device is compatible!). You can race Ollie, have it do tricks and jumps, and even bounce it off the walls—it’s made of tough polycarbonate.

But there’s more: Two additional free apps Sphero offers for its other robot toy (also Sphero) work with Ollie too. MacroLab and OrbBasic let kids create their own routines for Ollie to follow, a fun way to learn about programming. Battery life is about an hour, and Ollie recharges via USB. 

MaKey MaKey ($50)

Age 8 and up

This unassuming-looking kit holds lots of inventive possibilities! It lets kids turn everyday objects—anything that can conduct a current—into computer touchpads. First connect the included circuit board to a computer. Then find some conductive objects (silverware, fruit, Play-Doh) and clip them to the board using included cords with alligator clips on either end, assigning keyboard functions to each object (the Space bar, the mouse click, and Arrow keys). We used a spoon and fork to try it out—and were playing onscreen drums with silverware in no time!

The website has lots of wonderful projects you can create—including a banana piano. You may need to experiment with various objects to find the best conductors.  

Activity trackers for kids

LeapFrog LeapBand and Doria KidFit

Activity trackers are a great way to monitor your child's movements and motivate them to consider physical fitness. This year, we found several such devices made just for kids. We tried out two of them.

LeapFrog LeapBand ($40; green, blue, or pink)

Ages 4 to 7

When they first use the LeapBand (pictured at left), kids choose a cute onscreen pet to customize and play with (games offer healthful tips). The LeapBand also issues movement challenges, such as "Pretend to hit a baseball!" and "Jump like a tiger and make a loud roar!" As they move, kids earn “Joules” that they can redeem for additional games and use to unlock more pets.

Parents can personalize this device for their child—for example, specifying “Quiet Mode” hours when the LeapBand operates only as a watch. When the LeapBand is synced with a computer, parents can see their child’s daily activity and progress over time, and load more challenges. It’s easy to learn to use the LeapBand, and young kids will have a lot of fun with it—and move more, too. Our only complaints: The wristband is stiff and could feel uncomfortable on some small wrists, and there’s no way to lower or mute the sound. 

Doria KidFit, $50; blue, pink, yellow, or black
Ages 5 to 13

The KidFit (pictured at right) works more like a "grown-up" activity tracker: This rugged slap-bracelet-style device syncs with your phone and the KidFit app (Android or iOS) to record your child’s activity and sleep patterns throughout the day and over time. It also motivates kids to keep moving with a variety of goals (“Hit your daily target 3 times,” “Walk 20 miles in one week”). 

Setup was seamless; just turn on your phone's Bluetooth and press the Action button on the KidFit’s display, and you’re done. No data shows up on the display; you use different color lights to control the KidFit. Press the Action button to sync, and a blue light appears. Hold it for 2 seconds to turn sleep-tracking on—an amber light blinks 5 times. In the morning, wake the KidFit up by holding the button again for 2 seconds, and a green light blinks 5 times. Nothing is stored in the cloud; it's all on your paired phone, so don't worry about data privacy. To charge, you have to pop the small unit out of the band, which is a little awkward, but a charge should last about a week.

A couple of wristband devices for children that we didn’t test but which look promising are the GeoPalz ibitz, $35, and Vtech Kidizoom Smartwatch, $60. The iBitz is a clip-on wireless pedometer that syncs to an app on your smart device. Parents can set goals for kids, and they earn rewards such as play time, screen time, an adventure with a parent, and coins and content to use on Disney's The Kidizoom isn’t a "real" smart watch, but it lets kids 4 and older take photos and videos with effects and filters, play games, and learn how to tell time.

—Carol Mangis

Gadget Gift Finder
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More holiday gift ideas and tips


Use our interactive Gadget Gift Finder to discover the best electronic gifts for the athletes, movie buffs, music lovers, photographers, and travelers that may be on your holiday shopping list.

Visit our Holiday Gift Ideas page where you'll find our experts' picks on:

- Top tech gifts for kids and teens

- Top tech gift for Mom and Dad

- Top tech gifts for Grandparents

- Top tech gifts for $200 or less

- Top tech gifts for $100 or less

Editor's Note:

This story also appeared in the December 2014 issue of ShopSmart magazine.

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