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KID STUFF: Child-friendly gadgety gift ideas

My obsession with technology and gadgets came at a relatively early age - I got the Merlin, a handheld toy with red lights, cool sounds and the ability to play a mean game of tic-tac-toe.

Holiday gift guide 2012

A quick guide to Network World's favorite gifts

These days, it's real easy to turn your kids into techies - especially with easy-to-use gadgets like tablets and smartphones. For the first time in our Cool Yule Tools holiday gift guide, we've created a "Kid Stuff" category for kid-friendly technology gift ideas.

Note: Products are listed in no particular order or preference. Prices are also rounded-up estimates from either the product's website or Amazon.com. Better deals may be offered online during the holiday season.

The Game of Life Zapped edition

$25

With a generation of children now raised with smartphones, tablets and computers and all those apps, getting them to sit down and play a board game might generate cries of "BORING!" Hasbro has recognized this and taken some of its more popular games and added an iPad app component to them, creating "Zapped edition" versions.

While there is still a game board and pieces to move around the board, in the case of The Game of Life version, the spinner has been replaced by an iPad app. Players spin the virtual spinner in order to move their pieces around the board.

Fortunately, there's more than just that with the app - players can customize their "peg" with different hairstyles, outfits. When they get a job, they get to choose from a bunch of different careers, and then when they get married they can choose from three types of ceremonies. Also, special spaces on the board provide additional fun from the app - for example, landing on a payday spot launches a mini-game in which players try to spot their bonus under a cup (like the old-school shell game), or play a game of mini-Concentration/Memory to match icons based on their career. At other points during the game, players can watch short video clips courtesy of "America's Funniest Videos" - during one game I played with my kids, they kept repeating one particular clip because they loved watching it so much.

The app component did add some enjoyment to the game, especially for my younger children - if you're not playing a full game you can still access the mini-games to keep kids entertained for a bit. Other Zapped versions (including Monopoly, Battleship and SpellShot) are available as well.

- Keith Shaw

VINCI Tab II early learning tablet

$200

The VINCI Tab is an Android-based tablet designed for children aged 18 months to about 6 years. The 7-inch tablet includes a rubber outer frame that allows young hands to grip with ease, and units are available with or without Wi-Fi Internet access.

The tablet includes several early learning applications, ranging from Level 1 (for toddlers) up to Level 3 (pre-schoolers). The apps include things like storybook reading, to small mini-games (find things in a picture). There's also a gallery of videos to watch with a ton of kids songs (trust me, you'll be sick of "Wheels on the Bus" in no time), as well as a basic camera that lets kids take their own photos or videos.

Parents can activate Parent Mode with a password (oddly, you can't change the password), which lets them download additional apps for the device through VINCI's website. You can also connect the tablet to a computer and side-load music and photos.

I tested the unit with my three kids - ages 6, 5 and 3 - all of them seemed engaged with the unit, and especially enjoyed the music videos (they are bizarre and funny). All three of them have already been exposed to my iPad and those educational apps - in that light the apps offered by the VINCI tablet seem basic. The tablet seems geared more towards the 18-month to 3-year-old demographic - specifically parents who feel that "their baby is a genius" or to those parents who feel that they need to get a head-start on Harvard-training their child. I'm a bit doubtful whether watching Baby Ha Ha (that's the baby in the animated videos) will guarantee success, but then again I also played a bunch of Baby Einstein videos and songs for my kids when they were babies. Who can tell?

- Keith Shaw

Griffin Technology Crayola MyPhones earbuds

$15

These Crayola crayon earbuds are designed to appeal to kids, with the iconic Crayola style as part of the earbud look and feel. Parents should be happy, since the earbuds limit the volume of music to 85 decibels, protecting young eardrums.

The headphones come in fun colors such as Caribbean Green, Purple Pizzazz, Cotton Candy, and Blue Berry, with a crayon-shaped carrying-case and three earbud sizes to fit snugly inside of kids' ears.

The asymmetrical design allows for quick identification of right and left earbuds. These durable, fun, and inexpensive headphones would be a great buy for any kid.

- Abigail Weinberg

Firefly Hello Kitty toothbrush

$4

Every year during Christmas, my brother and I would open our stockings and we'd receive a new toothbrush. Sadly, this being the '70s, they didn't have cool gadgety toothbrushes back then, but now as a techie dad, I can still give my kids toothbrushes in their stockings, but with a techie twist.

Plus, if you're having a hard time trying to get your kids to brush their teeth, check out some of these toothbrushes, which come in a variety of characters (my 6-year-old daughter tested out the Hello Kitty version). A handy one-minute timer is also included in the brush itself.

Press the button, and a light blinks for one minute, giving the child a visual indication of how long he needs to brush his teeth for a sufficient clean.

Our tests produced no problems with the toothbrush - it does what it says and my Hello Kitty-obsessed daughter has another thing with a cute cat on it. These (and other characters) would make great stocking stuffers for the kids.

- Keith Shaw

Griffin Technology Crayola MyPhones (over-ear headphones)

$25

We've seen a bunch of volume-limiting, kid-centric headphones over the years, but none have ever been as customizable as the Crayola MyPhones.

For the base color, you get a choice of two colors - either pink or blue. To customize, you can create your own stickers with three included Crayola markers, or decorate with 40 different included stickers.

For parents, they should be happy with the volume-limiting circuit, that caps the volume at 85 decibels, so having them listen to "Call Me Maybe" or "What Makes You Beautiful" for the 847th time won't damage their ears. Plus you won't have to listen to the song either.

- Keith Shaw

Kidz Gear KidzControl Volume Limit headphones

$20

My kids have a few different music players (an old iPhone 3G that basically operates as an iPod, and two other kid-friendly players), but after a while I get sick of listening to The Wiggles or One Direction for the 128th time. Instead of letting them borrow one of my headsets, which are usually bigger than their heads, I grab a set of Kidz Gear headphones.

First, the headphones are shaped for their smaller heads, so they'll likely get a better fit than an adult-sized pair of headphones. Next, there's volume limiting technology inside, so they won't blast their eardrums while listening to Taylor Swift. Playing the volume down is probably a good idea for adults, too, but at least you'll know that with these kid-friendly headphones, they won't go above a certain decibel level.

You have a choice of five colors as well, so your budding fashion-conscious child will be able to be stylish as well.

We also tried one of the company's splitters, which lets you connect two headphones to listen to one music source, but the sound was so low on that one that we don't recommend it. But maybe that was my old ears' fault.

- Keith Shaw

Angry Birds Star Wars

Free to $3 (depending on platform)

There are a ton of kids apps available (see slideshow, cool apps), but I felt I needed to separate out the latest Angry Birds game from Rovio Mobile.

When my kids first started to get interested in my smartphone (and later tablet), the very first thing they got hooked on was Angry Birds. In fact, they're probably now better at the game than I am.

Both of my older kids also love Star Wars - it's hard to avoid the movies, cartoons and other merchandise associated with the 1977 movie (and all the other ones). Especially since their dad is totally obsessed with it as well.

So it was an easy purchase to get the combined app, where the birds take on the pigs in this epic Rebellion vs. Empire saga.

The gameplay is basically the same - you fling the birds at structures built by the bad piggies in an attempt to destroy the pigs and move onto the next level. Just like the original, different birds have different abilities - although in the Star Wars universe, you can identify them more by their character than just their color.

For example, the red bird is now Luke - starting off you just fling him, but as he learns the Force (later in the early levels), he then has the ability to use a lightsaber to destroy things (you swing the saber with a touch). Obi-Wan can use his Force power to push blocks out of the way - Han Solo (yellow) can fire lasers as he's being flung across the screen.

Rovio has done a great job integrating the Star Wars universe into the game - background scenery is fantastic, the music from the movies are all there, and the structures look like they belong in one of the episodes. Bonus levels feature a birdified R2-D2 or C-3PO, and the "mighty Eagle" has been replaced by a Millennium Falcon (falcon/eagle - get it?)

My only complaint is that gathering the "golden droids" for certain bonus levels are very difficult - especially for kids. It would be nice if Rovio could help out with a difficulty level or even some hints (although we just hit YouTube for a video viewing of how to complete the level when we really get stuck).

If your kids are obsessed with Angry Birds and Star Wars, this app is a no-brainer.

- Keith Shaw

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