TL;DW (Too Long; Didn't Watch)
Smart toys make smart kids. At least that's the idea: Challenge your kids and it'll fatten up their brains, making it easier for you to escape during the zombie apocalypse. With that premise in mind, I've rounded up a few cool gadgets suitable for different age ranges.
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Let's start with an amazingly cool DIY toy called Makey Makey. It's billed as a sort of invention kit, but it's not complicated. It lets you turn almost anything in the real world into a touchpad that you can use to operate programs on your computer.
For example apple slices and bananas can becomea piano keys. And Playdoh shapes can become buttons in a game of Space Invaders.
The trick is an electronic board that plugs into your computer's USB port. Then you connect wires to the objects that you want to transform into controllers. You don't have to install any drivers or other software. Just plug the board in, and you can be inventing stuff in minutes. The Makey Makey kit sells for $50.
Here's another smart toy for inquisitive kids. I've loved Ozobot Bits for a couple of years now. They're teeny tiny robots that do one simple thing: They follow lines. Lines on computer displays, like an iPad, or lines you draw on paper with a marker.
You can make paths, mazes, and races for your Ozobot Bits. And it gets better—because they understand simple codes. Sets of dashes that look like colorful morse code tell a Bit to go fast or slow, turn, pause, zigzag, and more.
I'm just scratching the surface. A $49 Ozobot Bit 2.0 Starter Pack includes preprinted paper routes, markers for making your own routes, and apps you can install on your iPad for Ozobot games. You can play with Bits solo or in groups.
Looking for something suitable for younger kids? Then check out Painting Lulu Paper-to-Digital Coloring Packs. These are coloring books for the 21st century.
Each package comes with a coloring book that works with the Painting Lulu app for your tablet and a rubberized "Crayon" that works like a stylus for coloring on the tablet's screen. Your kids can color in the coloring book in the usual way and then scan their creation into the app, where they can continue to edit the image digitally.
This is a cool idea, but Painting Lulu's shelf life is limited. I don't think it will entertain kids much beyond about 7 years old, but it's a cool choice for kindergarteners who are into both your iPad and coloring. Individual coloring book packs sell for $7 to $10 each.
Last but not least, are your kids whining for a smartphone of their own even though you know they're way too young to have one? That's the target demographic for Pipsqueak.
Pipsqueak is not a phone; it's more like a tiny tablet that does only a few things. It can play music and videos, for example, along with a small assortment of games, and it can go to YouTube.
Keep your expectations in check, though. To put music and video on Pipsqueak, you'll have to attach it to a PC via USB and copy files over to it as if it were an external hard drive. For YouTube, you'll have to create a playlist in your YouTube account, and so on. The idea here is that the gadget gives your youngster a taste of using a phone, but you completely control what they can do with it.
And speaking of its being a phone, it really can function like one. If you connect Pipsqueak to your own phone via Bluetooth, your kid can use it to make calls—to specific contacts you've enter into a speed-dial list—and to receive incoming calls routed from your phone to the Pipsqueak.
Pipsqueak costs $100, and since it uses your home's Wi-Fi and your phone's Bluetooth, it doesn't incur any service fees or monthly charges. It's pretty much indestructible, too: I tossed this one around quite a bit, and it's none the worse for wear. It's also customizable with a variety of different color covers, at $10 a pop.