Kids love tech and tablets, but Mom and Dad sometimes worry that an addictive app will make their little one a slave to the screen. Not to worry—at the 2013 Toy Industry Association Toy Fair, there were lots of alternatives to one-dimensional iPad play on display. One exciting new trend is the "appcessory"—a play system designed specifically to let kids use tech devices while allowing them to break free of flatland.
An appcessory is simply any product that integrates an app, tablet or phone with an off-screen toy that kids can manipulate in the real world. According to the Toy Industry Association, "app-plus" toys are part of a trend of toys that combine real and virtual worlds, integrating 3-D elements into play to create richer and more educational play. Check out these standouts from the fair:
SmartSee. (WowWee; ages 3 and up; price TBD; iOS and Android) SmartSee is like a child's little robot pal. Just download the app and pop an iPad or tablet into SmartSee's tummy, and you’re ready to play. The toy looks like a simple tablet stand with a cartoon face, but it's really much more. Once the tablet is snapped into place, it's "locked" so your little one can't bang or break it. This is a thoughtful feature for parents just testing the waters of new tech devices since letting little hands play with expensive electronics can be a concern. The off-screen elements interact with the app, such as physical alphabet blocks—just point them at the tablet. When you hold a block with the letter E on it toward the screen, for example, a related video starts to play. The interactive features are both awesome and educational, combining the benefits of tactile learning with a powerful tech punch. The SmartSee will be available in late summer or early fall of 2013—definitely worth a look!
Augmented Reality Puzzles. (Ravensburger; ages 5 and up; $14.99 and up; iOS) Have you ever wondered what do you do with a puzzle once it's put together? Of course you have! Already well-known for its challenging jigsaw puzzles, Ravensburger has added a line of puzzles that can be put together and used as a launching pad for games via an iPhone, iPad or iTouch (sorry, no Android yet). You and your family will have loads of fun snapping together city scenes, serene underwater environments or African animals—easier said than done with each puzzle at 1,000 pieces. Afterward, download the app that matches your puzzle and place your device over the scene to animate it and activate features. The puzzles all have different types of interactivity. With "Animals of Africa,” the app will bring the animals to life via a short video clip; the "Underwater" puzzle will generate a "Find the Fish" game. The puzzles all have different price points but are generally inexpensive, and the app is free. Puzzles are great learning tools all by themselves, but Ravensburger has given these brain teasers added appeal—and the games provide motivation for kids to finish what they started!
AppCrayon. (DanoToys; ages 3–6; $9.99–29.99; iOS) Do you want your child to have all the educational benefits of a high-tech learning tool without his little fingers poking at your precious iPad? The solution is the AppCrayon, a firm but flexible crayon-shaped stylus that's perfect for little hands just learning to write. Designed to appeal to preschoolers, this tool works with multiple drawing and writing apps. The triangular design was created by educational professionals to help toddlers and preschoolers practice their pinch grip—an essential early writing skill. This colorful stylus is a great way to get the littlest learners working on fine motor skills, while still having the benefit of early exposure to the wonderful world of apps.
Apptivators Tablet Robots. (WMC William Mark Corp.; ages 6 and up; $24.99; iOS and Android) Look out, tiny robots have taken over your tablet! Kids can watch hungry monsters skim the surface of the screen looking for food—and you better start tossing bugs into their mouth or they'll be angry! The game "Chomp Monsters" involves both an app and a real 3-D monster that your child can manipulate and interact with off-screen. "Robot Rundown" uses small car robots that race across a virtual track on top of the tablet or iPad. The basic structure of these games is not different from many other apps that work on reflexes and fine motor skills—the difference is that a lot of the action takes place in three dimensions, so your child gets a great learning experience along with a dose of tech. Just download the app and place the right "shell" over the robot, and it’s time to play! Available this summer.
Ubooly. (Ubooly; ages 4–9; $29.95; iOS) Drop your phone into an Ubooly and you might never get it back—so warns the folks behind this futuristic yet fuzzy new plaything. Ubooly is an interactive app and plush toy all in one. Just download the free app, unzip the Ubooly head and place your phone inside. Activate Ubooly by touch and you'll immediately see Ubooly's friendly face looking out from all that bright orange fur. One of the more amazing things about this toy is the voice activation feature. Ubooly will ask your child questions, offer games, facts and music, and wait for a response. It's uncanny and compelling—a real virtual buddy in a perky, protective package. Ubooly offers up a lot of useful educational games like elementary counting and fun facts on a variety of standard subjects. The real selling point is the experience of interacting with this appealing character. The app can be used without the stuffed body, but why would you do that? Available now. (There are some in-app and add-on purchases that parents should be cautious about.)
Tiggly Shapes. (Tiggly; ages 2–5; 29.99; iOS) Tiggly Shapes are toddler-friendly tools that interact with the Tiggly iPad apps in the same way as traditional shape recognition or matching games. Kids can grasp the pieces and place them on the pad to make things happen. An advantage of this system over traditional puzzles or "fit the shape into the hole" games is the virtual reward system—success in matching shapes can create new things and encourage young ones to explore. In the Tiggly Safari app, for example, following the shape-matching prompts creates creatures that match the scene. The system is designed for the littlest learners, from toddler to preschool, and it targets basic visual and fine motor skills. The developers have designed the physical shapes to be both easy to grasp and manipulate, and also harmless to the surface of Mom and Dad's expensive iPad—a gentle and effective way to integrate virtual and physical play. Available this summer.