Gift giving for kids has gotten a lot more complicated over the past two decades or so. Gone are the days when you could just buy a doll or toy truck and know that it would be enjoyed by the child and fairly noncontroversial with the parents. A lot of that recent complication comes from how tech-heavy toys have gotten, from robot kits to drones to AR-enabled playsets. And that's before you even consider video games and consoles like Xbox or PlayStation.
When it's your kid it's a little easier: After all, you should know what they like, what they'll take care of and what rules you've set for them. But what about your best friends' kids, your nieces and nephews or young cousins? While there's no silver bullet gift since every kid is different, there are some general guidelines you can follow when purchasing a tech gift for kids, one that won't have the other adults glaring at you or the kids tossing it to the side in favor of something shinier.
No, not your budget. Obviously you should only buy within your means (and kids don't care what you spent anyway). I'm talking about the budget of the kid's parents here. You don't want to be rolling in with an Xbox One X when Santa could only afford some toy blocks or a pointy princess hat. That kind of petty showmanship should be left to noncustodial parents after a bad divorce. Talk to your friends or family and find out what kind of budget they're working with and how expensive an item they might be willing to take into their home. If they're comfortable with you being the adult who gives the kids a big-ticket item like a game console or television, knock yourself out. If not, lower your cash outlay a bit.
Look, a lot of tech products are about the ecosystem. Are you an iOS or Android person? Xbox or PlayStation? That sort of applies to kids too, though in a different way. Obviously you shouldn't buy them games for a system they don't own or gift cards for a store they don't shop at. But in a lot of cases you need to find out if they even have a device at all: There's no point in buying them an app-controlled RC car when they don't have a phone or tablet. On top of that, there's the screen-time consideration. Are the kids only allowed to play video games for an hour each night or just permitted to use a device on car trips? Find out the rules in the home and work with them. Honestly your best bet is to get something that doesn't require a screen when possible. Ones that get the kid outside will probably thrill parents. Gifts that can be easily shared with a sibling are key too: Two-player games will go a lot further and avoid fights over who gets to play first. On that note, buying a family an extra controller for their system is a great idea.
It's important to keep in mind suggested age groups for products as well, and not just for the kid you're giving the gift to. Does the product say 10+ but there's a six-year-old in the house as well? Despite everyone's best intentions and efforts, that kid is going to end up messing with it at some point; that's just how younger siblings work. In these cases, try to avoid things that are easily smashed or have small parts. Otherwise the gift recipient will end up with a broken heart and a lifetime of resentment toward their brother or sister (I'm still salty about my Super Soaker, James).
If you're buying a STEM gift that requires some parental assistance, you better be sure that the parents actually have time to help their kid out; otherwise it's just going to sit in the box. In these cases you could also make a gift of your time and offer to babysit or otherwise spend a few hours with them and their new toys. Parents will appreciate you taking their kids off their hands for a little while, and it'll make the gift more meaningful since it'll have a nice memory attached to it.
We want to teach kids teamwork, and you can probably do that with some fun co-op games or a large building product like a LEGO set. But teamwork will also serve you well when giving gifts. If in talking to your friend or family member about what their kids like, they happen to mention that they're buying their kid a new game system or a tablet, jump on that. And we don't mean a financial contribution (though that's nice too). Buy add-ons for the big gift that make it even better, because if the kid is getting a big present that they're bound to be excited about, any other thoughtful but ultimately small trinket might fall by the wayside.
To avoid that, get something that the kid can enjoy in tandem with the big-ticket item. That includes obvious purchases like new games, but additional game controllers and app-controlled toys will get a lot of play. Avoid overly practical gifts like cases, as they're basically like socks -- nice to have but ultimately boring. If you insist on doing it, try to tuck a small surprise inside, like a figurine of their favorite video game or anime character.
Cases also make great packaging for gift cards. They might seem like a lazy gift, but with so much digital content out there, kids will appreciate having the extra scratch so they won't have to beg their parents to buy them Fortnite skins.
You give a child their birthday present and they're super excited, but hours later you find it abandoned on the floor. It's a pretty common tale, one that afflicts analog and digital gifts alike. We've already discussed some of the ways you can avoid this -- gifts that compliment each other or add new value to something that they already have and enjoy are sure wins. Amiibo are nice gifts for kids who have Nintendo systems, and children with big LEGO collections always like having more parts to build with.
If purchasing a STEM kit, make sure it's not single use. The kid should either be able to disassemble the pieces to build something else or the toy they've just built should be good for long-term fun. Sure, building their own guitar or synth might be interesting, but what if the kid isn't into music? And what fun is a robot that can only do one thing? The end result of all that labor should also be entertaining.
Save outdoor toys like drones for the summer, and focus on indoor activities in the winter; otherwise the kid will quickly lose excitement and forget about the nice gift you just gave them. Remember that there are opportunities aside from the winter holidays and birthdays to give gifts: The end of school is an event worth celebrating, for example, and children have plenty of free time at that point to enjoy things like complicated coding kits.
Also: Buy batteries. A lot of toys still run on batteries, and when you're a kid there's never enough in the house. Make life easier for the kids (and their parents) by including a supply of batteries to keep toys running for a few months.
Always, always, always check to see how noisy a gift will be once it's powered up and assembled as well as whether it can be easily turned off. No use in getting something that will drive parents up the wall with incessant beeping and wailing: It'll end up tossed in a closet with the battery pulled out. So don't do it unless you have some kind of vendetta against your family or friends. However, if this is the route you must take, may we suggest you buy the kid a drum kit instead? No batteries required, and the kids will love it.
The best tech gifts for kids
Moonlite Starter Pack -- The Very Hungry Caterpillar Edition
It's important to read to kids. It helps their literacy skills and lets parent and child bond in the process. It's best done with a paper book, because those are more tactile and leave less opportunities for distraction. But for those times when the allure of a device is too strong or you're reading to a large group of children, Moonlite hits a sweet spot. You snap the small projector onto your phone, then insert a story reel containing a classic picture book like Goodnight Moon or The Little Prince. Moonlite will project the story's vibrant illustrations onto a nearby wall while accompanying them with sound and music to create an immersive experience that might actually get the little ones excited for bedtime.
National Geographic Kids
Children are naturally curious about the world around them, so why not satisfy their curiosity with a near monthly dose of knowledge, delivered straight to their mailbox? Each issue contains plenty of articles about science, technology and the natural world as well as games and other activities to keep them busy. But perhaps the greatest present of all will be the novelty of getting something physical in the mail, a rarity for a generation of children who get most of their information digitally. Print isn't dead, and magazines like National Geographic Kids are a good way to show them why adults love paper so much.
Yep, that magazine you used to read in dentist waiting rooms is still around. And yes, it still publishes Goofus and Gallant comics. Though this magazine has been in print for almost 80 years, it's evolved over the decades, and current issues carry plenty of articles about science and technology as well as crafts, recipes and puzzles. (Oh yeah, Hidden Pictures is still a thing.) The magazine also encourages reader submissions, so it's a great opportunity for some kids to see their work in print. And there's no advertising -- something parents will appreciate in a consumer-driven world where their kid's attention is increasingly monetized.
Overwatch Pachimari 3D Mood Light
Gifts don't always have to be toys or games to be appreciated. They can even be a little practical without your resorting to boring presents like (ugh) socks. If a kid really likes a particular video game, you can pick up some kind of branded decoration for their room, which they'll appreciate every time they go in there. If their game of choice is Overwatch, this adorable little mood light will look nice on a shelf next to all their Funko Pops (because every kid has Pops now) or next to their bed if they need a nightlight... even if they'd never admit it.
Robots for kids tend to come as fully assembled toys or complex kits meant to teach the basics of coding. Mattel's Kamigami line of bug-shaped robots aims for the middle ground there, with a moderately easy-to-assemble kit that doesn't require any tools. The bots even skitter around like real insects, making them a lot more fun to watch than a standard RC car and certainly a lot safer (and harder to lose) than a drone. And if you did want the kid to learn a bit of STEM from their new toy, there is a rudimentary coding section of the app that allows children to program movements for their bug and even train it to do a little dance that they'll be sure to show off to all their relatives at family gatherings.
Tech Will Save Us Light Racer Kit
Kids love to decorate their bikes with things like stickers, streamers and reflectors. And parents love when their kids are riding their bikes instead of, say, running around the house driving everyone up the wall. So the Tech Will Save Us Light Racer Kit is a gift guaranteed to make both sides happy while also imparting a bit of STEM know-how. Children are tasked with building an electromagnetic light with easy-to-follow instructions that will teach them about things like coils, emitters and capacitors. In the end they'll have a nifty light that flashes as the wheel goes round and round -- DIY bling for their ride.
Maybe drones are the hot thing right now, but they're not exactly the best gift: They can wander into other people's yards or hit other kids in the face, and in some places they're not even legal to fly, thanks to airspace restrictions. The PowerUp Dart is still a drone, but it's also a paper airplane. It's small and light, and kids have to put it together themselves (with plenty of room for customization). It's a great example of how a classic toy can be updated for the tech age. You might even get some great bonding moments as parent and child watch it do tricks the former could only dream of when they were young.
Air Hogs Extreme Air Boards
If you ever played with three-inch GI Joe figurines as a kid, the Extreme Air Boards will invoke a sense of nostalgia for you. They bear a faint resemblance to those figures but with the notable addition of two rotors on a board so the little stuntman can fly through the air. Each set comes with two modes: The stunt boarder can do cool spins and flips in the air, and attaching the paraglider lets it fly faster and farther like a more traditional drone. It's basically two toys in one, both of which will make welcome additions to the kid's next action figure adventure.
Controllers are expensive, and systems often come only come with one in the package. So families with multiple kids will always appreciate help with avoiding a fight over who gets to play next. And while an extra set of the standard Joy-Cons might be useful, the SN30 can be a nice addition to any Switch setup, thanks to its array of buttons and comfortable grip. Kids will like having more options for playing their favorite games (new or old) while parents might be moved by the retro feel of this SNES-inspired gamepad.
A valuable skill for kids to learn is teamwork. But they usually only get to practice it in sports or class projects. Instead, give them this cartoonish cooking game so they can learn cooperation and coordination by battling their way through a series of increasingly complicated and delightfully weird kitchens. It's available for all the major systems, and up to four players can join in on the fun, which makes it a great purchase once you've picked up a few extra controllers for the kids. Or even their parents, because families should learn to work together, right?
Mowin' and Throwin'
It's hard to get kids to do yard work, and they usually do a terrible job anyway. But asking them to do virtual yard work is a lot easier, especially when they get to compete against their siblings and friends in a no-holds-barred lawn battle where grass is mowed and rocks and fertilizer are thrown. One-on-one or two-on-two matches are available, making this great for groups of varying sizes. Sometimes you might not be able to get the kids to go outside, but at least you can get them playing in the same room together, thanks to local co-op play.