Toymakers have seen the future -- and it has a USB port.
Students heading back to classes this fall will have the usual must-have list of school supplies -- scribblers, glue sticks, pencil crayons, etc. -- but retailers are hoping parents' shopping carts will also include new gadgets and games that combine hands-on and high-tech play.
"The biggest trend this year is products that combine physical play with technology," says Erin Ruddy, editor-in-chief of What's UP, a Canadian family magazine.
Not only has the digital age brought new meaning to the old saying "an apple for the teacher," today a more fitting phrase might be "an app for the student."
"We went to the big toy fair in New York and the central theme was products where parents could download apps, the idea being that kids could use the iPod for educational purposes," says Ruddy, whose magazine tests and reviews products sold at major retail outlets across the country.
Ruddy recently stopped in Winnipeg on a cross-country tour to showcase some of the latest offerings:
(For more information, go to www.whatsupfamilies.com)
Apptivity Hot Wheels Game
($17.99 for one car and one free downloadable app, ages 4+)
Now here's a good idea: Let the kiddies drive their Hot Wheels cars all over your iPad. Actually, the people at Mattel have created a new plastic version of their wee automobile that's equipped with non-scratch wheels and special retractable sensors. Fire up the Hot Wheels Apptivity app (available at the iTunes App Store) and watch your child train to become a Team Hot Wheels driver while navigating a series of interactive challenges in the top-secret test facility. The touch screen responds to movements as the youngster controls the cars speed and path in real time. There's even sound effects.
While those of us who didn't grow up in the digital age may be wondering what happened to the orange tracks, Ruddy says Mattel's toy-meets-tablet game, beyond turning an iPad into a very pricey playmat, aims to bridge the gap between physical and digital play.
"Parents don't always want their kids attached to a device, of course," she says, "but companies are capitalizing on the fact that parents have these digital devices at the ready."
Hot Wheels has also launched a new in-school program, Ruddy adds, where teachers can download lesson plans that teach kids basic math skills.
Don't have an Apptivity Hot Wheels car? Apparently fingers will work just fine.
($49.99, ages 3+)
No more old-school music teacher rapping little knuckles as they stumble over scales. The iTikes Piano combines stand-alone keyboard play with app-based play for two-way interaction between budding musician and smart technology.
Without an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, it functions as a stand-alone electronic keyboard, Ruddy says. With one of those devices, kids can use app-based games and exercises to learn about pitch, rhythm and other fundamentals of music. Light-up major keys allow users to play along to such classics as Old MacDonald.
"The games all offer real piano instruction to the child," Ruddy says. There's even a record and playback feature for budding composers.
($4.99 and up, ages 8+)
Remember Pogs, that insanely popular game in the early 1990s that basically turned cardboard milk bottle caps into a hot collectible? The masterminds behind that fad are back with Roxx -- kind of an edgier, 3D version of Pogs, but this time (surprise, surprise) there's also an online component. And it's specifically targeted at school-age and tween boys.
"It's going to be the coveted toy in terms of collecting and trading and socializing in the school yard," Ruddy predicts. "They're based on skateboard culture. You do 'trixx' with them."
Roxx, rooted in the old New York street game called Skullies, features "flipping discs" with artsy images (72 in all) of everything from robots and headphones to superheroes and hamburgers. "Proprietary and licensed designs" reinforce collectability and game play, according to the website.
Players launch, flip, flick, slide and otherwise play their Roxx in games of skill and chance, some of which involve a wok-like arena.
They can also go online to ROXXNation.com, the "community platform" to find new activities, competitors and accessories to purchase.
($89.99, ages 3 to 9)
Not to state the obvious, but a lot of parents are probably not comfortable sharing their iPads and tablets with young children, given their reputation for sticky and fumbly fingers.
VTech's kid-friendly tablet has virtually everything the grown-up version does -- photo/video camera, music, e-reader, games, microphone, (popup) keypad -- except that it can't go online.
Most importantly, "it's really durable, and it lasts," says Ruddy, whose sons, ages five and three, are big InnoTab fans.
"Once kids reach six, seven, they start wanting this," she says pointing to her own iPad. "It seems the progression to the real thing is getting earlier and earlier."
The newest feature on this latest InnoTab model -- which has a five-inch touch screen and looks a bit like a picture frame -- is that it can stand up like an easel and has a swivel camera so youngsters can take pictures of themselves. They can also use the art studio app to do creative things -- like draw moustaches on the photos.
Additional apps for games, e-books and music can be uploaded to the tablet through VTech's Learning Lodge Navigator. Cartridges with licensed characters teach essential reading, logic and creativity skills and are sold separately.
Mimico USB Drives
($9.99 and up)
Never mind the reinforcements and duotangs: These days, your typical elementary school supply list is likely to include a data-storage device otherwise known as a USB key or flash drive.
Functional though it may be, Mimico is making sure this staple also meets students' standards for cool by turning them into little collectible figures called Mimobots.
"They're designer USB flash drives that you can actually wear," Ruddy says. "You can get Star Wars characters, superheroes, there's even an Einstein."
The USB drives come pre-loaded with "digital exclusives," including sound clips and desktop designs, free TV episodes and mimozine videos.