With the holidays quickly approaching, many folks are looking to purchase toys and games that both entertain children and provide kids with an opportunity to learn. Earlier this year, I looked at 7 such offerings, and, today, I discuss 3 new ones that help children hone skills in ways that more formal training mechanisms sometimes cannot.

Thank you to my daughters, Penina, Mimi, and Tammy, for helping with this review.

mBot

mBot is a series of robots that children can assemble and control with "drag and drop" programming. The various mBots - which retail for $94.99 and up (some models intended for schools are currently on sale for significantly less) - teach children about both computer programming concepts and electronics/robotics. Kids connect mBot robots to either computers or mobile devices from which they effectively assemble code snippets to control the devices. There are also expansion packs that one can purchase to add more physical components to the mBots.

Beasts of Balance

The Beasts of Balance game, which retails for $99.99, allows children to create "worlds" of different animals - but, the kids playing the game must also ensure that the animals have enough energy to survive and thrive. Animals evolve, and can be actively crossed to create new species. While the game is played by children using physical pieces representing different animals, energy, and actions - the result of players' actions is displayed on a smartphone or tablet - so kids actually see the virtual world that they create. Besides teaching creativity, creative strategy, and some essentials of operations management, the game also involves some physical skill and related strategy: pieces played during the game are stacked into a tower - if adding a piece causes the tower to collapse the children must reassemble it quickly - or a volcano erupts and destroys the world.

Drones

Today's children are digital natives who view drones as normal as their parents did paper airplanes. I have tried out several drones; various offerings seem to have different strengths and weaknesses. One particularly convenient offering is the Pocket Drone from Odyssey Toys - it is small enough to literally fit into a jacket pocket, relatively inexpensive (it sells for a little over $90 on Amazon), and has a built in high-definition camera and advanced controls including auto-hover, so if you are traveling for the holidays or going on a vacation and want to bring a drone for your children (or for you) to use while away, this one seems like a good choice. Keep in mind when that flying drones is not as simple as it looks - which is one of the reason that flying drones builds skills and an understanding of some of the principles of flight - so you may want to either practice in a wide open field before attempting to fly anywhere near buildings or indoors, or practice with a cheap, non-camera drone with big propeller protectors, before moving onto the drone you actually travel with and use for capturing aerial photos and video. Also, remember that drones have fast moving propellers that can hurt someone - so exercise proper caution before letting children use them.

As before, I plan to review other cool technology-enabled toys in the future as they enter the marketplace. Also, if you are interested in watching a television show with younger children that depicts in an entertaining fashion how they can effectively and safely use technology, check out Dot.

Published on: Dec 15, 2016