Top picks for 2017: Brain-boosting toys for your children
Ed Power asks the experts for the best brain-boosting presents
With December 25 approaching, thoughts are naturally turning to bright shiny playthings waiting under the Christmas tree. Globally, the toy business is worth €90 billion annually and companies invest huge sums and man hours in products they believe will fire the imagination of kids.
But in a world dominated by social media and the internet, getting children off the couch and away from apps and video games has never been more of a challenge. This year, one of the solutions the industry is focusing on is "collectibles" - toys that speak to boys', and girls', love of multiple varieties of the same plaything.
"Collectibles are huge, accounting for nine per cent of toy sales this year and the creators of them, such as LOL, are now making bigger versions to tempt the family cash for Christmas," says Peter Jenkinson, Editor of the Toylogy website.
"Fingerlings, Hatchimals CollEGGtibles and Zomlings are wildly popular in the lower end of the price spectrum. Retro TopTrumps and Rubik are having a great time as nostalgia kicks in and at the top end." Such is the demand for collectibles, shortfalls are already being reported for leading brands.
"These are small, pocket-sized items that kids can play with and trade to complete their collection," says Jackie Breyer, Editor in Chief of toybook.com. "At €14.99 and under, they are affordable gifts, but some - including Fingerlings, Pikmi Pops and L.O.L. Surprise - can be hard to find already. Kids are particularly enamoured with toys in 'blind' packaging. They love to be surprised by what's inside."
"The L.O.L Big Surprise ball looks like this year's 'hard to find' Christmas toy. Especially for the pre-teen girl market," says YouTube toy reviewer Stuart Bullock of Toy Review UK. "The app enabled BB9E from the forthcoming Star Wars movie will be a must-have for big kids and little ones. Perennial favourites like Lego will always be a big hit at Christmas time, licensed sets from blockbuster movies: Justice League and the aforementioned The Last Jedi will be big hitters. Don't forget Minecraft!"
However, though kids may know what they want, parents will naturally wish for their children to play with toys that do more than pass the time. The concept of toys that boost intellectual and emotional development is as old as the first junior science kit. Here are some top picks for 2017.
For babies and toddlers:
Lamaze Stacking Starseeker, €20 (Amazon)
Crinkles are a big hit with babies and this colourful toy from infant-specialists Lamaze delivers just what they love. There's lots of opportunity for interaction and building motor-skills, with the rocket-shaped toy separating into four segments, which baby can take apart and reassemble.
LeapFrog LeapStart, €39.99 (Smyths)
This pre-playschool "interactive learning system" from early education market leader LeapFrog will help familiarise young children with words and numbers. A stylus is used to play audio samples, introducing kids to counting, animal sounds and pronunciation. Sixteen separately sold books allow children to participate in puzzles and reading challenges, suitable from six months to seven years.
LeapFrog Scoop and Learn Ice Cream Cart, €49.99 (Smyths)
Kids will get out kick from pushing this colourful cart while "selling" ice cream. Along the way, they will become familiar with rudimentary concepts in colours and numbers, as well as learning basic sequencing skills. The best bit is a "smart" scoop that calls aloud colours and flavours of ice cream as the child selects them.
Magformers Construction Set, €34.99 (Smyths)
Children can build colourful 3D structures with these plastic toys that link together using magnets. In addition to encouraging imaginative thinking, they assist with motor-skills and hand-eye coordination. A huge range of Magformers is available, including light-up LED kits.
Fisher-Price Think and Learn Teach 'n Tag Movi, €49.99 (Smyths)
A robot kit for very young children, the Teach 'n Tag will encourage kids to follow it around the house - thus giving them something to do beyond vegging in front of the TV - and participate in simple games. The device also facilitates critical thinking by, for example, asking "What shape is a ball?" (press read for circle, blue for square etc).
Melissa and Doug Lacing Beads in a Box, €22 (Amazon)
Children will enjoy threading beads on to a string - building motor skills along the way. The kit also comes with wooden blocks for stacking, aiding the development of hand-eye co-ordination.
Kano Computer Kit, €220 (Amazon)
A crash-course in IT, this kit contains a entry-level computer which the child snaps together, as if playing with Lego. The CPU is then connected to a screen - Kano offers one as an add-on if you haven't one of your own - and simple apps and games introduce children to the basics of programming, utilising the widely-used Python language.
Ubtech Jimi Robotics Kit, €139.95 (Apple Store Ireland)
If robots really are inevitably about to conquer us, make sure your kids are ready with this snap-together set. Once the robot is assembled, a companion app is used to control it. They can dance, walk, spin and jump - fun for kids and also an introduction to basic engineering.
My First Lab Duo Microscope, €153 (Amazon)
This high-quality microscope encourages your kids see the world in an entirely new light. Magnified up to 400 times the original size, under the lens, flower petals, hair strands etc take on a whole new appearance. The kit includes petri dish, test tube, slides and an activity book, with tips on how to get the most out of the microscope.
Lego Mindstorm, €279.99 (Lego Ireland)
One of the best mass-market robot kits. Build a robot and then download the accompanying app and learn how to programme your creation using software coding. Expensive, but a toy that will grow with your child as they become more adept at programming.
Cozmo by Anki, €219.99 (Smyths)
Cozmo is among the most advanced robots created for kids. The cutesy 'bot packs a lot of power, with complex software that means it learns to "recognise" its owner, and can be programmed to complete simple tasks.
Makeblock Robot from €100 (Amazon)
A cheaper option for anyone sent running by the steep price of Cozmo and Mindstorm. There's a lot to get stuck into: unlike pricier rivals, this is a full kit, so components - motherboards, wheels etc - have to be put together from scratch with the provided screwdriver and wrench. But this is actually a potential selling point, as the toy doubles as an early introduction to electrical engineering. It makes for a steeper learning curve, but arguably greater adaptability - and with a relatively tolerable impact on your wallet.
Clarification: Tangleweed And Brine by Deirdre Sullivan is published by Little Island (€15.99), not New Island, as printed in yesterday's Irish Independent.
Tips to protect your kids' smart toys from hackers
Could your child's teddy bear be spying on you? With internet-connected 'smart toys' increasingly common, fears are growing hackers could use kids' playthings as a backdoor into your house. Here's how to stop them...
1. Tablets: Hackers might try to access you or your child's information using malware, so make sure the device has the latest anti-virus software installed, such as Avast Mobile Security and Antivirus and Lookout Antivirus and Security.
2. Smart Dolls or other playthings: When registering the toy, check what data it is sharing with the toy maker. A teddy bear company should not need to know your location or other private details.
3. 'Starter' home computers: Again scrutinise the small print - what is the manufacturer doing with your child's personal data. If it is sharing the information with third parties to "improve" the product, think twice about whether you wish to give your permission.
4. Other smart toys: If a toy has smart features, do some research beforehand. Have there been data breaches or reports of malware infection? If so, think carefully about the risks.