5 Tips for Choosing Electronic Toys for Kids That Are Educational, Too
Toy aisles are overwhelming, to say the least, so a little guidance is helpful when picking ones that are both high-tech and educational for your kids. Experts weigh in with practical tips for finding a fun, age-appropriate toy that actually enhances your kid's learning experience.
When it comes to toys, today's kids get the best of both worlds. They still play with the classics we loved growing up, but they also get to learn and explore with new and innovative electronic toys. Yes, it's important for your kids to go back to the basics with blocks and puzzles, but there is educational value in high-tech toys as well.
When choosing an educational electronic toy for your child, experts agree you don't want to buy them just for the bells and whistles. You'll want to consider the following.
1. Is it safe?
Electric and electronic toys should be "UL Approved," which means they've been inspected for safety and quality by the Underwriters Laboratories. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends avoiding toys with button batteries, since they are choking hazards, or high-powered magnets.
2. Is it fun?
"It has to be fun," Chris Byrne, aka The Toy Guy, an independent toy analyst, researcher, and consultant, tells Parents.com. "The last thing you want is for a kid to feel like playing with an educational electronic toy is just more homework."
When looking for a toy that will be fun, it's most important to "know what your kid's into," says Byrne. "If your child likes cooking, for example, they might like a learning kitchen. If they're into trucks, they might like something electronic with wheels... The great thing is most kids are into a lot of different things, so you have options."
Byrne says any toy that's "colorful, engaging, and interactive" has fun potential. He also recommends getting toy recommendations from parents whose kids are similar to yours in age and interests.
3. Are the electronic elements actually adding to it?
If they're not, you're likely overpaying for add-ons that don't enhance your child's play experience.
"The electronics have to be purposeful," says Heather Weeks, the director of product development at Educational Insights. "It can't just feel like a thrown-on sound effect or a light. It really has to be kind of inherent and important to the function of that toy."
4. Does it complement your child's other tools of play?
High-tech toys aren't a substitute for basic building blocks and board books. Those traditional toys help kids develop fine motor skills and encourage imaginative play. Electronic educational toys shouldn't replace them.
"Just like you have a balanced diet, you need a balanced toy box," Byrne says, "Kids are going to live in a world with screens, but they need the physical and the kinetic types of play, too...They need all these different experiences."
5. Is it age-appropriate?
If a toy doesn't match your child's developmental stage, it's not going to be an effective tool for play or learning. Fortunately, the age ratings listed for most electronic toys are "very accurate," says Byrne.
"There are age ratings that are for safety, like for small parts," he says, "but usually, if you read the package, it'll say this toy teaches these skills, or it works on these skills for kids in a certain age range."
Here are some top picks for electronic educational toys based on a child's age.
- RELATED: The Age-by-Age Guide to Toys
0-24 months: At this age, parents should know kids "aren't going to do much more than bat at an electronic toy," says Byrne. There are apps designed for kids as young as six months, but babies benefit more by playing with their parents and traditional toys than from screens at this age.
2 and up: Byrne highly recommends VTech's Touch and Learn Activity Desk for toddlers. "The kid gets to sit at it and feel big," he says, "and then there are a lot of activities that they can do like counting, early writing or drawing."
Toys like activity desks require four AA batteries; for maximum, long-lasting power, we recommend a long-lasting battery like new Duracell Optimum.
Another popular toy for kids in the 2-4 age range is the WowWee Pinkfong Baby Shark dancing doll. Emily Chacra, a brand manager for the WowWee Pinkfong Baby Shark line, says this particular toy is "really great for a 2-year-old is the fact that you have that musical component coupled with the really soft and cuddly plush—and it also happens to dance."
"Mom or dad have to help a little in the beginning, but basically, the child can just tap Baby Shark's head or they can clap to activate him," she says. "He'll talk, he starts to move around and he'll eventually start playing different songs—one of which is the 'Baby Shark' song."
3-5: Kids are rapidly developing at this age, so any kind of electronic toy that can grow with them is going to be a good value. Byrne likes the LeapPad Jr., a tablet recommended for kids ages 3-7.
Weeks recommends the Design & Drill Activity Center from Educational Insights. "Preschoolers love it because it has a real, working electronic drill, just like what mom and dad have," she says. "I think they love the power of holding a tool that really works."
4-7: By the time they're in preschool, kids want toys that are interactive and engaging. Weeks recommends Educational Insights' GeoSafari Jr. line, which includes talking microscopes, telescopes and globes.
"With any of these GeoSafari Jr. toys, you introduce the child to a real science tool, but you simplify some aspects of it," Weeks explains. The electronic aspects of these toys "really elevate the imaginative experience," she adds.
7 and up: There are some incredible electronic toys for kids this age—including many that are STEAM, which means they fall under the categories of science, technology, engineering, art, and math. Weeks recommends Artie 3000, a programmable robot that teaches kids to code. Artie 3000 is Wi-Fi enabled and requires four AA batteries (sold separately).