Toys don’t need technology to be fun—and it shouldn’t be the whole point of a toy. But when it’s done right, tech can elevate a toy from fun to amazing. We look for that magic extra element in the toys we recommend.
This year, we found more toys for younger kids than we usually do. But our list will help you find the perfect gifts for all the tiny humans in your life. (For ideas for someone else, check out PCMag’s full holiday gift guide.)
For Future Space Explorers
Kids can build their own interplanetary headquarters while learning the fundamentals of electrical circuits: This kit gives you everything you need to build a base station featuring lights, sounds, motion, and even little astronaut and robot explorers to inhabit the station. It comes with a pictorial guide that shows how to build the circuits and the rest of the station. The company offers two other kits as well—Rover ($44.99) and Rocket ($34.99)—and they can all combine to create a space empire. Ages 6 to 12; uses 9 AA batteries.
For Puzzle-Loving ‘Cubers’
The Rubik’s Cube has been around since 1974, but it’s still as intriguing—and hard to solve—as ever. The HeyKube adds a smart element to the traditional cube puzzle: Scramble it up, and it remembers the moves you made and guides you to solve via LED lights and audio cues. It also contains 16 preprogrammed patterns it’ll teach you to solve. Even more fun is included for prospective coders: You can create your own light-and-sound patterns and games using a Raspberry Pi (not included). Ages 8 and up; rechargeable battery.
For Cuddly-Animal Fans
Open the box and let Momma Roo loose; She’s an interactive and very cute plush hybrid of a kangaroo and a panda. When you play with her, you’ll start to see some movement in her pouch: It’s a baby PandaRoo who’ll eventually pop his head out. Momma and Baby both have lots of different movements and sounds; they can play games and sing songs, as well. Parent take heed though; there’s no volume control. Ages 5 and up; uses 4 AA batteries.
Harry Potter fans will flip over Hedwig, Harry’s pet owl (and my personal favorite of the plush interactive toys this year). Speak to her softly, and she makes charming sweet chirps and hoots; her responses are unpredictable and lifelike. Be careful not to pet her the wrong way and ruffle her features, or she’ll let you know she’s not pleased. Ages 5 and up; uses 3 AA batteries.
For Tiny Learners
This smart plush octopus-bot teaches kids as they play. It’s sweetly cuddly on its own, but it comes to life by integrating with a tablet and plays interactive games, reads stories, and helps your child develop motor skills and learn ABCs, spelling, and more. In addition to Octobo itself, the Starter Pack includes the Underwater Storybook, six interactive tokens, a play guide, and three apps; there’s also an Advanced Pack for older kids, and an Everything Pack with—you guessed it—everything. Ages 4 months to 7 years; uses 4 AA batteries.
For Traveling Tots
This bunny is a great companion for younger kids. It comes loaded with over 70 entertaining stories, poems, and songs. Parents can also record themselves reading a story or singing a song for their child. The Story Pal comes with a carrying strap and has a headphone jack (headphones aren’t included) and volume control, so it’s truly usable “on the go.” And LeapFrog toys are well made and rugged. Ages 3 to 8; uses 3 AA batteries.
For Young Pilots
A nice hybrid of physical toy and digital tech, the Smarty JOJO helps to teach young kids colors, shapes, right-and-left, up-and-down, and more. (It’s aimed at preschoolers, and we don’t often come across well-designed smart toys for that age group.) The cute plane gives kids missions, such as “Find something red!” Kids zoom it around and land on a red object. Smarty JOJO can recognize whether they got it right—and will light up in that color, to boot. And it talks, too, giving kids words of encouragement. Ages 3 to 5.
For Robot-Toy Players
We already thought the Sphero programmable robot ball was pretty cool. The Sphero Mini Activity Kit is a less expensive alternative that includes a clear-shelled, drivable Sphero Mini ball with a gyroscope, accelerometer, and LED lights for 45 minutes of battery life. Also in the kit are accessories for 15 projects kids can build, play with, and even try some simple coding. Ages 5 and up.
For Young Creators
Osmo’s kit conceptualizes basic lessons for young children. It includes a small, downward-angled mirror, a stand, a play mat, 38 silicon rings and sticks for creating letters and shapes, and 19 costumes and a character board for the two dress-up games included with the set. It requires a tablet—ideally an iPad or Kindle Fire—and connects to Osmo’s apps suite. The mirror slides over your tablet’s camera, allowing the device to “see” your creations and scan them into one of Osmo’s games.
Four free apps are compatible with the Starter Kit out of the box: ABCs and Stories are educational, and Costume Party and Squiggle Magic provide more open, experimental experiences. The character board features a generic, gender-neutral child onto which you can layer clothes and props—everything from space suits to tutus. Osmo’s starter kit is a little pricey, but once you’re signed in and set up, it’s a good first step on your child’s educational journey. Ages 3 to 5.