NPR logo Old-Fashioned Toys with a New-Fangled Twist

Old-Fashioned Toys with a New-Fangled Twist

Tweens may have been sucked into a world of cell phones and MP3 players, but younger children still can find joy without a joystick — which is good, because how else would parents get to indulge their inner child? Here's a selection aimed at pushing the old-fashioned buttons of creativity, free play and learning — with a few modern twists.

Fire-Breathing Puppets

Two dragons are better than one, if you're playing with the Dragon Duo. Folkmanis hide caption

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Folkmanis

Two dragons are better than one, if you're playing with the Dragon Duo.

Folkmanis

Dragon Duo

Folkmanis

Ages: 3 and up

Price: $47.99

A human fighting a dragon would likely be toast, but dragon-on-dragon battles are an entirely different animal. By sticking your hands in the 42-inch-long monster, you can make the two fanged heads bicker or just be buddies (one child can manage it alone, or pals can share puppetry duties). With the dragons' slightly goofy expressions, they can play mean without being menacing to younger tykes. Chill in the air? Drape the duo around your shoulders for a striking shawl certain to enchant Eragon fanatics.

Eight-Legged Artist

Is Doodle Doug right-handed or left-handed? I don't know, it has eight hands! Ohio Art hide caption

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Ohio Art

Is Doodle Doug right-handed or left-handed? I don't know, it has eight hands!

Ohio Art

Doodle Doug

Ohio Art

Ages: Four and up

Price: $15

Beneath that silly spider facade hides a riff on the classic spirograph. Let Doug loose with a colored marker gripped between his two front legs and he makes gorgeous geometric patterns. Then kids can make their mark by experimenting with the pattern stamps (hidden on the bottoms of his orange boots), filling in gaps with whatever color strikes their fancy or scribbling over the design with an entirely original creation.

Bear Market

The Li'l Luvables Fluffy Factory is like Build-a-Bear, without the mall traffic. Spin Master hide caption

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Spin Master

The Li'l Luvables Fluffy Factory is like Build-a-Bear, without the mall traffic.

Spin Master

Li'l Luvables Fluffy Factory

Spin Master

Ages: 3 and up

Price: $40

If the thought of being tugged into Build-a-Bear Workshop at the mall again makes you want to tear a teddy limb from limb, take the edge off with this kit that lets your children stuff bears at home. It comes with three "skins," fluff, a factory (a hand-cranked fluff spewer) and a set of 12 li'l wishes (charms to hide inside a bear). The finished product might not look as professional as a mall job, but the kids won't care. Besides, they'll have three new teddy bears ready for picnicking and other adventures.

Brainy Trainy

SmartVille Alphabet Train Station is a must for any aspiring conductors. VTech hide caption

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VTech

SmartVille Alphabet Train Station is a must for any aspiring conductors.

VTech

SmartVille Alphabet Train Station

VTech

Ages: 12 months and up

Price: $40

Just a basic track, station and locomotive combo has thrilled kids for generations, but this one kicks up the entertainment (and educational) value with high tech tricks. Letters are projected on a screen when the train rolls over them, and the choo-choo can trigger song time ("Oh Susannah!"). While awaiting the next departure, kids can amuse themselves with the talking clock tower, animal figures who identify themselves when plopped into slots around the track and a mini-piano (a must on the roof of any train station). A train set connoisseur will be unimpressed by the one boring loop of a track, but it's a good start for aspiring conductors.

Sk8te Over Those Keys

I Can Play Piano is like Dance Dance Revolution -- for your fingers. Fisher-Price hide caption

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Fisher-Price

I Can Play Piano is like Dance Dance Revolution -- for your fingers.

Fisher-Price

I Can Play Piano

Fisher-Price

Ages: 4 to 8

Price: $65

By turning toe tapping into a video game, Dance Dance Revolution pushed legions of kids off the couch. I Can Play Piano is a plug-and-play unit that uses the same idea except it's fingers instead of feet that follow the commands on the screen. And in the process, your kids might learn how to tickle the ivories (even the Music Teachers National Association thinks so.) The classic pack that comes with the system features eight tunes, including "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "Heart and Soul." Level one lets players pluck out a few notes on the three-octave keyboard; level two jumps up in difficulty. Skilled players can switch the mode, so that instead of getting color-coded clues, they only see musical notes. After entertaining the relatives with "Fur Elise," they can snap up the "Pop Stars" cartridge ($15) to impress friends with a rendition of Avril Lavigne's "Complicated."

Pirates of the Backyard

Arrgh, matey! There's booty to be found in the Treasure Hunter. Wild Planet hide caption

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Wild Planet

Arrgh, matey! There's booty to be found in the Treasure Hunter.

Wild Planet

Treasure Hunter

Wild Planet

Ages: Four and up

Price: $25

Pretending to be a pirate is always more fun when there's booty to be found. This handheld chest splits into a bottom with a compartment for a secret surprise and a top that acts as a treasure map. Hide the bottom and it sends a signal to the top, so it beeps and flashes colors as the hunter gets closer. With a range of 40 feet, the kit is not going to keep older kids busy for too long — but might give dad or mom enough time to get dinner on the table. And when the kids grow out of the toy, parents might think about using it to keep track of their keys.

Easel Does It

The interactive Spark Art Easel offers shape and color suggestions for budding young artists. Fisher-Price hide caption

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Fisher-Price

The interactive Spark Art Easel offers shape and color suggestions for budding young artists.

Fisher-Price

Spark Art Easel

Fisher-Price

Ages: 3 to 10

Price: $80

Genius requires inspiration, and that's what your pint-sized Picasso will get from this interactive easel. Tap the stylus on images around the edge of the workspace to get spoken prompts, such as "Try drawing something that sounds like wooo-woooo." The easel offers color and shape suggestions, too, along with silly sounds. When working on the easel, kids can pop magnetic characters into their landscapes, or, they can flip it down into a craft table and use 3-D models to populate their world. With a touch of the stylus, those included pieces will make noise, but what makes the masterpiece come to life is the child artist's creativity.

I Am a Robot. No, Really.

Transform into a mohawked-alien with Giggle Gear. Cranium hide caption

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Cranium

Transform into a mohawked-alien with Giggle Gear.

Cranium

Giggle Gear

Cranium

Ages: Six and up

Price: $15-20

Perhaps the only thing better than playing with a bug, alien or robot is being a bug, alien or robot. With a cap, mask or set of goggles, children can transform into their creature of choice (or a fairy with the slightly more girly version of the set). The masks sport the coolest feature: an electronic voice morpher that lets them change the sound of their voice. But a cap with mix-and-match parts including mohawks and a glowing alien eye might wow the playground crew even more. You may have to set some ground rules though: No scaring Uncle Buddy by answering the phone with the creepy voice of a Martian.

Toys Grow Up So Fast Nowadays

In baby mode, Little Leaps contains three large buttons, but in toddler mode (enlarge to see) the buttons transform into a joystick. LeapFrog hide caption

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LeapFrog

In toddler mode, Little Leaps morphs into a joystick with two buttons.

LeapFrog

Little Leaps

LeapFrog

Ages: 9 months to 3 years

Price: $40

Your youngun' won't outgrow this learning toy in a couple of months. This new educational system grows up with them. Start in "baby" mode, with three chunky buttons on the controller, and the appropriate level DVD. With a mix of songs and stories told through animation, live action and puppetry, Little Leaps will prompt the wee watcher to press to hear names of animals and letters. In a few months, graduate to "toddler" by flipping the controller over so it's a joystick with two buttons, and select DVDs with more advanced content, with topics like manners and foreign languages (any of the segments can be played in English, Spanish, French or German, too).

Say Auf Wiedersehen to 25 Grand

If money's no option, treat your children to the ultimate party. Corbis hide caption

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Corbis

Fashion Design Party

FAO Schwarz

Ages: All

Price: $25,000

Got a tiny Tim Gunn or little Laura Bennett? Got a huge wad of cash burning a hole in your Coach Bag? Spoil your kids rotten with a fiesta straight outta reality TV. Pre-party, the host and nine guests are sent an "Imagine This Couture Designer Portfolio" that explains the tenets of outfit and handbag design. Then, they all gather at FAO's New York party room to enjoy refreshments, while professional illustrators prep sketches of their creations. At the end of the bash, the kids give their handiwork the once over and decide which outfit they'd like to actually have. Within two months, the sketches are turned into the real deal and the guests can model their haute looks in a runway show/ice cream social for up to 50 onlookers.