A couple of weeks ago I had the amazing opportunity to speak at an event organised by Fundamentally Children (the people behind The Good Toy Guide and The Good App Guide) at the Apple Store in Covent Garden. I was part of an expert panel, discussing great tech toys for Christmas. Simon Jary the publisher ofMacworld, PCadvisor and TechAdvisor was there to provide his technical expertise, Oliver Quinlan, educational tech expert and author of The Thinking Teacher, was there to provide his educational expertise, Lucy Gill from Fundamentally Children was there to provide her app testing expertise, and I was there to provide my expertise as a tech-loving Mum.
The session focussed on three tech toy brands, Tiggly, Osmo and Sphero, and we looked at each on in turn. As part of my research for the event I was sent an Osmo starter kit and a Sphero SPRK (I had been sent the Tiggly products for review previously), so I was able to talk about the experiences we’d had as a family with each product.
I was asked first of all why I think tech toys are something people should consider as Christmas presents for kids. I am not sure what words actually came out of my mouth at the time, as I was quite nervous, but I hope I managed to summarise adequately that tech toys fit the three criteria I look for in a toy – that it be something my kids consider “fun”, that it last past Boxing Day, both in terms of build quality and in terms of how it hold my kids’ attention, and finally that it have some kind of “educational” quality. Now I don’t necessarily mean that it has its educational qualifications plastered all over the packaging, but I do mean that I like to see it broadening my kids’ horizons, engaging their imagination, or developing their understanding of the world in some way. Our kids are growing up in this amazing digital age, and they are drawn to the accessibility and ease of use of tablets. As parents I think we feel a lot of pressure to limit our kids screen time, which can be very difficult due to the appeal of the screen. This is where I think a good quality tech toy can prove invaluable – it has the appeal of a screen-based app, but when combined with a physical toy it can draw your child away from the screen to interact with the real world. So I think people should consider tech toys for Christmas because they are fun, have a long life, and encourage our kids’ development.
We as a panel then went on to show videos of three different tech toys in action, and discuss what we thought of them.
I have been a fan of Tiggly for a long time, and Tiggly Maths is definitely my kids’ favourite of all their products. The product is made up of 5 different “number rods” which interact with the tablet screen to help your child solve problems or play games. At the ages of 5 and 8 my kids are older than Tiggy’s target market, but they both still get out Tiggly Maths set out from time to time and still enjoy playing with it. So I think this toy is a great purchase for a pre-schooler and would give hours of fun play. I was interested to hear Oliver’s perspective of this one, because he commented that the games that go along with Tiggly Maths are varied, and very well put together in the sense that they don’t feel like maths at all. For example one game involves helping a chef gather ingredients together with which to cook. So this set really helps break down some of the barriers to learning maths which some parents or children might feel.
I hadn’t heard of Osmo before, but when we received our set to play with before the event we were all immediately hooked as a family. The geekdaughter was immediately drawn to it, which I was very pleased to see because at the age of 8 she is now much more interested in watching YouTube videos on her iPad than doing some of the more interactive stuff. Osmo is a great example of how a very simple accessory (in this case a mirror that goes in front of your iPad’s camera to direct it down at the table in front of it) can open up a world of new play options. The geekdaughter first wanted to play the Tangrams game, where you use physical puzzle pieces to try to match the pattern on screen, and Osmo tells you if you have got it right or not. But the app my daughter enjoys the most is the drawing app. This is very clever, and enables you to draw anything you can take a photo of with your iPad. You take the photo, the Osmo Draw app converts it to a line drawing, and then the camera superimposes the lines you draw on the paper onto the screen so you can effectively “trace” the picture. It’s very clever.
We found that Osmo made it very easy for us to play together as a family – the apps appeal to adults just as much as they do to the kids, and because they are based on familiar games – tangrams, hangman and drawing – they are very easy to pick up even if you are a less technically-minded parent. If your child is more of a creative type, Osmo would be a great gift.
Sphero is basically a little robot ball. If you’ve seen the trailers for the new Star Wars movie, you will have seen the new robot, BB-8, who is a ball with a head on top. Remove the head and you basically have Sphero. We were sent the SPRK edition which stands for School, Parents, Robots, Kids. It’s a fun toy that is designed to teach kids the priciples of STEM and coding. Sphero SPRK edition has a clear plastic case so you can see the workings inside, and also comes with a few things designed to help get the kids programming – a little notbook and a protractor. There are a vast array of different apps that work with Sphero, but the SPRK app is great because it uses a nice simple programming language to teach the kids how to program Sphero. The programming language is drag and drop, module based, similar to Scratch which is what most kids start off learning.
And even better, Sphero have put together a series of lessons that take your child step by step through programming Sphero, and make a great starting point for kids (or parents) who have no previous programming knowledge. I think these would be great for parents and kids to sit down together and work through.
Even though the geekson is right at the bottom of the recommended age for Sphero SPRK edition, he has fallen in love with it. He’s not up to programming it yet, but loves driving it around. What I particularly like about this toy is that it sparked his imagination, and he started playing with it in different ways – once he’d mastered driving it around, then he wanted to know if he could drive it along his Hot Wheels track (he could), and then he got loads of his toy cars out, and spend ages driving Sphero around them. It is a real crossover of tech toy and more traditional toy.
The geekdaddy runs two Code Clubs at local schools for year 5 and 6 kids (ages 9-11), and has taken Sphero to both of those. All the kids have got on really well with it, and have been enjoying programming it to drive around the classroom and do various actions. This is a fantastic toy, which so much fun and educational potential.
Tips for buying a Tech Toy
At the end of the session we were all asked for our top tip when buying a tech toy for Christmas. Lucy and I both gave very similar advice, which was to make sure you do your research. There are an ever-increasing selection of tech toys available, and they can represent quite a financial investment, so to make sure you’re choosing one that will suit your family it’s worth spending a little time up front to read other people’s experiences with the toy you are considering. Google for reviews, and also check the reviews of the apps in the App Store. Another top tip came from Oliver, which was to buy toys that you would enjoy yourself. Again this encourages the family to play together, and you’re more likely to be able to engage your child’s interest in a toy that appeals to you as well.
Where to buy these tech toys
All three products mentioned above are available to buy from The Apple Store. You can also find them in a variety of other high street and online sellers, or you can order direct from the manufacturers linked above. My recommended online retailer is Amazon, and if you have found this article useful you can contribute towards the running costs of this site by buying either Tiggly Maths or the Osmo starter set through my affiliate links. Sadly they don’t seem to sell Sphero SPRK.
Whilst our focus was on the iOS versions of these devices, I should point out that it is only Osmo that is exclusive to that platform – Tiggly Maths is compatible with selected Android tablets, and Sphero SPRK is compatible with a range of Android devices
If you would prefer to order your Osmo starter set direct from the manufacturer I have an affiliate offer which will give the first five readers who purchase via my referral link a $5 discount off a purchase of any full Osmo kit (discounts may vary outside of the US).
Disclosure: I was a guest of Fundamentally Children at the Apple Store, and they paid my travel expenses for the event. I was provided with an Osmo starter set and Sphero SPRK for review purposes, and have previously been provided Tiggly Maths for review. The Amazon product links in this post include my affiliate ID – if you make a purchase after clicking I will receive a small commission payment at no additional cost to you. I recommend Amazon because I use them personally. The Osmo link within this post will give the first 5 readers who make a purchase after clicking a $5 discount on any full Osmo kit (discounts may vary outside of the US), and give me a $5 refund against the Numbers kit I bought from them as a Christmas gift for the geekdaughter.