As a mom and professional tech-toy tester, I know what a big deal it is to shop for the right digital toys this time of year. We're all looking for that perfect storm between what our youngsters will love, love, love to play with, and what's actually good for their budding brains.
The biggest trends this year are robotics, toys that come to life with apps, and toys that get you to do something — including go play outside. So don't worry, weary holiday shopper, our handy list will help you pick out a perfect present for a youngster of any age. The best part? We've actually played with every single one of the toys on our list. While some look and sound good in commercials and online, there are a few that will drive you, dear parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles — absolutely nuts. Oh, and don't forget the batteries!
MORE TECH NOW: Gadget gifts for everyone in your family
Playskool Big Hugs Elmo, $60, needs 4 AA batteries
I can't get enough of this adorable, soft, and interactive Elmo for the youngest on your gift list. He plays songs, speaks over 50 phrases, and even dances. Oh, and as the name suggests, he's a great hugger.
VTech KidiBeats Drum Set, $25, 3 AA batteries included
Kids love music from the moment they are born, and this fantastic drum set is built to withstand even the youngest rock stars. It plays nine preset songs and lights up with the beat.
Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Remote, $8, needs 2 AAA batteries
Why do kids love remotes? Is it the buttons, colorful icons, or simply the fact that adults are always holding them? Whatever the reason, you can give a youngster his or her very own remote that not only features durable buttons, but also audio feedback and fun sound effects.
Zoomer, $80, battery included
A dog is man's best friend, and this adorable robotic canine can be a child's best friend too. Zoomer responds to vocal commands, performs fun tricks, and will never have an accident on the floor (though you can command to life his leg and all … ). He's the perfect pet!
Furreal Friends Cuddles, $70, needs 4 C batteries
This cute companion responds to tickles and swinging and can even be rocked to sleep. Plus, it's a monkey, which means the child on your list is probably going to fall in love with it immediately.
We all know kids can't resist tablets, but it's hard share our coveted slates with little gooey-fingered grabbers. For that, there's Samsung's brand new Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 Kidsit istwo tablets in one. In child mode the content is all kid-friendly — with educational and entertainment apps and parental controls. Then, you just change the mode, and it's a feature-rich Android device for grownups.
No matter if you're four or 40, Skylanders SWAP Force is endless entertainment— blending real toy play with an amazing virtual game world. The characters are little action figures that come to life in the video game when you place them on the "portal of power." This is one of my favorite games of the year. What's really cool is that you can swap heads and bodies and turn 16 characters into 256, so you never get bored.
Anki Drive, $200
Nerf Cyber Hoop, $20, needs 3 AAA batteries
This piece of sporty indoor equipment can be synced with an iOS device for the ultimate virtual dunk contest. It's a great way for kids to get some exercise in the frigid winter months.
Furby Boom, $65, needs 4 AA batteries
This is the next evolution of Furby and it's smarter than ever. It responds to both movement and physical touch and will gradually learn new ways to play. It even recognizes its own name! Now, here's the warning with this one. It will drive you nuts. It never stops making noise and there's no simple "on-off" switch. Before you run over it with your car (yes, you'll want to), the way to quiet it down is to pull its tail or lay it flat on its back. It still takes a few minutes for it to "go to sleep." Seriously, this is one toy that could be considered torture for grown-ups.
Romo is an adorable personal robot that uses your iPhone as his brain. Controlled by any iOS device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or web browser), the smartphone acts as Romo's intelligence headquarters, directing the robot to dance to music, shoot video, etc. Girls enjoy Romo just as much as boys making it a fantastic gender neutral toy that helps kids understand the intersection of robotics and computers.
This is an awesome, mess-free high-tech mirror. Using an iPad as the display, the tablet and companion app let you apply digital makeup to your image without all the mess. You can check out some first-hand playtime with this one in our own smart toy episode.
Draw Something Party, $20, needs 3 AA batteries
Like the smartphone app of the same name, the Draw Something Party game challenges players to draw whatever the game tells them to. It's a bit like Pictionary but much easier to play, making it perfect for pre-teens. The only bummer is that you have to tally the scores by hand. It would be really cool to have some high tech gold coins to help keep score.
This is such a cool toy. It's a Nerf weapon geared toward helping girls channel their inner Katniss Everdeen. You can create your own target and fire away in the house.
Razor electric scooter, $150 on Amazon
Topping out at around 12 miles per hour, Razor's electric scooters are a great choice for tweens and teens. They're stylish, reasonably affordable, and extremely durable. This is my 12-year old daughter's favorite "toy." This encourages kids to get up off the couch and go outside, even if it's just for a spin around the block.
This futuristic robot can run around on it's own, or use an iPhone as its face and brain, allowing it to perform a ton of cool tricks and tasks. It can act as a remote video camera, remote-control explorer, and kids can even reprogram it to say whatever they want. Fun and educational at the same time.
Lego Mindstorms EV3, $350
This isn't the same Lego set you grew up with. It's a hands-down standout for harnessing creative and thought-provoking programming potential. With infrared sensors and motion detectors, kids can quickly create complex models that blast, grab, strike, slither, roll, and shoot, in as little as 20 minutes, right out of the box.
What about iEverythings?
Of course kids will want iPads and smartphones of all kinds. My advice is to go for the iPhone 5C or the Moto X (or a much less expensive option), and iPad mini or Google Nexus 7. Set up basic parental controls, and make them responsible should their new shiny gadget get lost, stolen or broken. And I don't think kids should have them, but rather save the high-end devices for teens. Parents, these are luxuries, not must-haves.
I also keep getting asked if a smart watch is a good gift for a youngster. The short answer? No. It's just not worth it yet. Maybe in a few years when they do more than just provide a short extension from your phone. But it's hard to justify any child actually needing one. I think that's one "toy" that is better kept for another year. After all, there's plenty of other very cool stuff on this list. Jolly Holidays!