Best connected toys, games and apps for the whole family to share

By Peter Jenkinson on

If you are planning some digital family quality time, here is a list of connected tech gadget, apps and toys that will help you explore the online world together.

Activity on a vast proportion of smart devices was most certainly a solo pursuit a few years ago, for children and adults alike.

Smartphones, tablets and connected toys were lauded (even applauded) as digital babysitters, keeping the young ones quiet while parents went about their tasks. But in more modern times they have since become a much more collaborative place to learn and play for the whole family. And we heartily approve.

With widely reported security breaches of cloud networks behind them, toy companies seem to have their act together. And various playthings which used direct app access to the internet have been replaced with toys using only Bluetooth for play, making for safer tech toy use for young and old.

That’s why we’ve put together 10 cool and safe apps, games and toys for children to share screen time with their parents. Collating these shouldn’t have been this much fun.

Heads up 

Available on iOS and Android
Cost: 99p

No smart device should be without this app. Made partly famous for its regular appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ American show, the Heads Up app has had some enhancements of late and regularly appears at the top of the charts on iTunes and Google Play.

It is a word guessing game based on the parlour activity where you stick Post-It notes your heads and try to guess what’s written on the one on your own. The app simplifies this and is un-put-down-able.

Hold a device to your forehead and other players offer clues as to what is displayed, from celebrity names to daft accents – just guess before your time runs out.

Where a smartphone improves the age-old game is that you can tilt it up to pass or down when you get a correct answer. Whole family play is great, but even one-on-one is equally good fun.

Beasts of Balance

Interactive board game
Cost: £69

Given the rise in popularity of board gaming over the past couple of years we’re finally treated to one that has been digitally boosted, brilliantly.

The play pieces – beasts – are digitally enhanced with NFC contact technology, so the game recognises them individually.

There are six beasts, magical artefacts and other connected pieces to add up to 24 in total, which combine to make a tower and fantastic combinations. Players stack them and see their creations replicated on an iOS or Android tablet or phone, which populate an in-game world of their own. However, should they crumble or the volcano blows it’s game over.

As the game plinth uses Bluetooth to connect to a device, it is safe and localised. A new Battles expansion pack comprising game-changing tactical cards is in development and will add another dimension to this well-executed game.

Sphero Spider-Man

App-enabled superhero
Cost: £149.99

Moving beyond Bluetooth balls, the Sphero engineers have shifted from the cute to crime fighting.

A non-robotic first for the outfit here is its Android or iOS-powered, premium-rubber made, web-slinging superhero, Spider-Man.

The licensed Marvel character doesn’t depend on an app to make it fully functional but the bulk of the fun does lie in connecting it to a smartphone or tablet. Behind the animated light-up eyes is where the “brain” of the operation sits and turns it into a talking and listening companion. A click on his spider logo readies him for action.

This toy contains over 100 comic books-worth of story-telling, and he interacts with simple voice commands; just say “hey Spidey, tell me a story” and he’ll respond. He can also reply to a stack-load of innocuous questions and the beauty lies in his quirky responses, with the content curated by an actual human Marvel scribe.

The wallcrawler has a load more tricks and the IR and motion sensors create a level of AI that kids of all ages will enjoy interacting with.

Classic Words

iOS and Android app
Cost: Free

There are many variations of word-based tile-laying games but this one stands-out thanks to its pass and play abilities. Aimed at children eight and over, it is a great way to improve vocabulary and get parents involved in exploring and discussing new words.

You play letters to build the board, a la Scrabble, but the app automatically scores all the nuances, such as triple letter and double word counts and adds a competitive spirit to wordplay without any manual tallying. It can also be played solo and, as it supports six languages, is ideal for everyone to gem up on some European parlance.

Toddler Fun Learning

iOS service
Cost: £1.99 a month

For knee-high digital natives, this anti-meltdown app aims to limit screen time and assist in avoiding those time to turn it off tantrums. All the content is aimed at two to six-year-olds to watch along and is all educationally themed, promoting Q&A sessions with mum and dad.

New content is regularly delivered and the preset parent timer lauded by many. Rather than you decide verbally when screen time is up, the app delivers on-screen characters that sing a goodbye song, thereby encouraging kids to put their device down and go and play elsewhere – subtly of course.

Mardles DicovAR

iOS and Android augmented reality game
Cost: £9.99 a month

Colouring-in has always been a kids favourite and something a parent can collaborate with, and it gets a magical makeover courtesy of Mardles.

Using augmented reality to bring on-paper subjects to life, children will marvel that their efforts become animated. There are several in the series, bringing 2D characters to life with sound effects for added “oohs and ahhs”.

As a bonus, there are facts embedded in each coloured-in page and the technology even extends to separate stickers that use the Mardles app to bring characters to life almost anywhere.

Later this year, the developer intends to release interactive masks and an immersive story book. As it stands there is still so much fun to be had – 15 pages in each colouring book to be exact.

Marble Mixer

iOS app
Cost: £1.99

Falling into the huddle-round category of play, this game is for up to four players and could well be the catalyst that has you upgrade your iPad to a Pro.

It is simple to set up and play. Just tap the corners of the tablet screen where a player is present and you can start pinging virtual marbles across the play surface. Three games are on offer; Table Tactiles, where you to try and land your sphere in a scoring section but stay out of the hole in the middle; Space Mania is more frantic as you shoot unlimited marbles for a minute, and the Monster Picnic game has you feeding an on-screen monster with marbles.

The balance between keeping something simple yet engaging enough isn’t easy to find for a family game but this one delivers just that.

Osmo

Educational toys and apps
Cost: £29

All manner of co-operative and collaborative play is on offer from the Osmo system.

At its core, there is a base unit for your iOS device to sit in and a plethora of game kits to bring edutainment to life in the best way on offer. Highly tactile play pieces work with your devices’ camera and bring the in-play action to life.

From numbers and words for younger audiences, through to a pizza play game and a couple of basic coding packs for up to 12-year-olds, there’s something for most ages.

A stand-out element of Osmo is the Masterpiece app which uses images from your album or objects placed in front of the device to be hand drawn and then, of course, collaboratively coloured-in.

Cozmo

App-controlled robot
Cost: £199.99

It would be remiss not to include a coding offering of some kind in this list but where to begin? The market for outstanding coding, educational toys has grown significantly and the quality now on offer is simply staggering.

But it is Cozmo from Anki that is likely the best plaything to assist in the development of coding skills. It is also a pursuit that is best enjoyed collaboratively.

The Cozmo Code Lab is a highly intuitive visual programming language allowing children and adults alike to tap into the Cozmo technology. Start simple by dragging and dropping blocks to create real time sequences for your robot to undertake then develop your coding skills together.

Eventually, you and your child will be taking on much more sophisticated projects. Perhaps you’ll even create a new game for you and your Cozmo to play.

Carcassonne

iOS board game
Cost: £9.99

There are many board games that have made the leap from tabletop to iPhone or iPad app, but this one sets a high standard.

Carcassonne is a picture tile-laying game aimed at children aged eight and above. The premise is to develop a network of roads to connect cities, place mediaeval cloisters and cities and score points for correct combinations. It sounds complex, but can be learned quickly and create discussions between kids and their parents.

Not only does this digital version of the game mean there isn’t any tidying up to do, with all the action on screen, you can also add expansion packs to offer new play experiences.

Translating a traditional physical game that was wildly popular across the planet was going to be a tall order but even die-hard fans laud the digital version as just as good – high praise indeed.

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