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Oregon Family Magazine

6th Annual Oregon Family Holiday Gift Guide

11/30/2017 ● By Sandy Kauten
Kids are multi-faceted little beings — fueled by curiosity for new experiences and an interest in the world around them. Gift giving can provide a unique challenge for parents or other loved-ones to find toys, games and gadgets that encourage their curiosity and also provide the playtime that young brains need.

We tested two dozen such toys, games, and gadgets for this year’s holiday gift guide and we’re sure you’ll find something that’s just right for the kid in your life.

Toy Testers:

Xander, Age 5: If it’s not hands-on, don’t bother. He wants to tinker, build and explore — especially with toys that he can co-opt mom, dad, or big brother to try with him.

Braxton, Age 11: He’s tested toys for all six gift guides and this year helped to sort through all the options to pick his favorite ideas. He wants to be challenged, entertained and doesn’t mind if a toy or gadget sneaks in a little new know-how or a new skill.

(Xander and Braxton are my kids.)

Brandon, Age 12: Always up for a challenge, Brandon loves building sets and engineering kits that require focus and determination.

Brandon is the Oregon Family Magazine publisher’s son.

Sammi, Age 7 and Allison, Age 13: These sisters love tech and science toys with a girlie twist. While far enough part in age to be interested in different things, they’re also close enough to enjoy working on projects together. Sammi and Allison are the daughter’s of my lifelong friend, Carissa.

Interactive Friends

An interesting theme emerged from this year’s round-up. Several of our favorite toys focused on creating and interacting with new “friends.” What better way to encourage programming and building?

 Cue & Dot from Wonder Workshop ($199.99 and $79.99;

Wonder Workshop has three programmable, interactive robots. We tried two of them — Cue (ages 11+) and Dot (ages 5+). Xander and Braxton were in love with these two the moment they turned them on. Each comes with easy-to-use apps that provided some guided activities so your kid can get to know how the robot functions.

Once the basics are out of the way, they can either continue to more advanced activities or just “free play” with an open canvas on which to build programming and code. Dot’s free play was a little overwhelming for my five-year-old on his own, but we found plenty of clever activities to do together — our favorite was created a door alarm. Hang a programmed Dot on the door of the bedroom and the door opening triggers Dot to replay a message that your kid records (ours was, “hey there! where do you think you’re going?”). Each robot has a distinct personality and memorable one-liners that I hear my kids repeating all the time.

Parker Bear ($59.99;

Parker is a new twist on a traditional teddy bear. With a set of wooden doctor’s tools and an easy-to-use augmented reality mobile app, your child can practice diagnosing and treating Parker’s ailments. Augmented reality (AR) creates virtual layers when the mobile device is pointed, in this case, at Parker. You can see if he has a tummy ache or maybe a broken bone. Then when it’s all said and done, he’s an excellent soft, cuddly friend to watch a movie or share some quiet time.

OffBits ($14.95; or

The OffBits are decidedly low-tech — each kit uses “spare parts” like nuts and bolts — but the end result is a set of fun new friends that you can build and rebuild into a range of bots and vehicles. Recommended for 6 and up, but it was still a fun project for my 5 year old and I to build together. He helped with some of the easier parts and had fun playing with them when we were done. The kits are at such a great price point, it’s easy to pick up a few friends to build and play with.

Cozmo ($179.99; Toys ‘R’ Us or

My 11-year-old couldn’t have been more excited about the new Cozmo from Anki and when we got our hands on one to try, it did not disappoint. This little ‘bot is fun, challenging and engaging with personality plus. Cozmo is packed with interactive features and games that has kept my tween engaged and challenged — he needs care and interaction to stay happy and healthy. With the newly released Code Lab programming language, Cozmo owner’s can tap into his advanced robotics technology to program the robot. The 2017 Cozmo is a also little sleeker in a collector’s edition with a pretty hot looking Liquid Metal finish.

Chill Out

Sometimes we just need to chill out. And with kids who are running non-stop with school, sports, after school activities and more, it can be especially important to have some down time. These five toys, tools and gadgets can help calm busy minds with creativity.

Creative HALO Bluetooth Speaker ($69; or Amazon)

There’s nothing like music to help relax, focus or shake your groove thang. Our whole family gives the Creative HALO speaker our enthusiastic endorsement. It has great, rich sound for that shared playlist of pop sing-along songs or soothing wind-down tunes for a cozy Sunday at home. Download an app, and program the lights on the front of the speaker to suit your mood or your music. I like the “full spectrum” infinite rainbow lights, while my tween likes to change the lights to match his favorite sports team colors. Oh, and it can also function as a speakerphone.

Rocketbook ($22;

The mommy guilt when I need to recycle my young artist’s work is strong. Rocketbook Color helps with a clever solution using pages that work with Crayola wet and dry erase crayons and markers and an app! The 12-page book has 8 blank pages for free-form art, 2 dot-grid pages for structured drawings and 2 lined pages for handwriting. I was especially interested in the lined pages for my kindergartener to practice his letter and number writing. The app was easy to use and it integrates with Google Docs, Evernote, Dropbox, Box, Microsoft Onenote, Slack, iCloud, and iMessage.

Earth Paints ($19.95 - $29.95;

The Children’s Earth Paint Kits are made here in Oregon. The kits come with packets of vibrant, gorgeous paint colors in powder form. Add equal parts water and powder and you get beautiful earth-based paints that you can use on rocks, wood, fabric, glass, paper and more. The colors are made with natural earth and minerals — just like paint colors have been made throughout history. My kids have always loved playing with paints and we’ve often relied on cheap materials for their at-home projects. But I am so impressed with the quality and colors of this kit! The Earth Paint Kits would make great classroom gifts, too.

 Infinite Spin Fidget Spinners ($24.97;

The fidget spinner fad confuses me, but when Infinite Spin offered to send one for review, I figured we should try it. The spinner is a weighty metal with extraordinarily smooth movement that’s completely silent. That’s right! You can’t hear the little ball bearings at all. So different from plastic spinners available at every department store. After playing with this spinner, I can see how some kids (or adults) would appreciate having a fidget spinner like this one to calm a busy mind.

The Cube ($12;

The Cube provides a new twist (pun intended) on the Rubik’s Cube. This speed cube from aGreatLife incorporates a generation's worth of ideas to make cube 3D puzzles better (including an online solution guide to help). It is a fun, inexpensive and unique gift for everyone… perfect for kids or teens. They come in a bunch of sizes, too (from 2x2 to the more familiar 3x3x3 size). Oh, and besides the cubes, aGreatLife has all sorts of clever, inexpensive gifts like kites, craved wooden slingshots and whistles.

Get Outside

The weather looks an awful lot like Winter in the Willamette Valley, but it’s still important to get some outside time — maybe even more important! We’re moving, grooving and exploring our outside world with these three products.

GoTrax Hoverfly XL ($299;

If we had to pick one favorite product from this year, my 11-year-old would, hands down, pick the GoTrax Hoverfly. And with all the great stuff in this year’s guide, that’s a high bar. I must admit, I was skeptical of the hoverboard. But the founder of GoTrax helped me to understand that the “bad press” from hoverboards in the past came from cheap models without safe batteries or charging functions. The GoTrax Hoverfly is an “offroad” hoverboard with thick tires and a substantial frame. The board comes with a great instruction book, a “learning” mode that’s a little slower so you can find your balance and the company’s website has some really great blog articles about exploration and travel. GoTrax provides an all-around great experience from the minute you open the box.

GeoSafari SeaScope ($36.99;; Amazon)

We have a big pond in our backyard that provides countless hours of speculation about what’s under the water every year. The SeaScope magnifies underwater exploration with a 5x scientific scope with built-in LED that helps kids investigate sea life, from sea stars to kelp beds, without getting wet! No major discoveries yet, but we expect our developing scientific observation skills to pay off soon.

Board Blazers ($19.95; Amazon)

Your kids thought skateboarding or scootering was fun before Board Blazers — just wait! These under board LED lights amp up the fun for skateboards, scooters or longboards at twilight. And for teens out later at night, the lights are not only awesome looking, but increase visibility and make boarding safer. I found that the four little lights attached easily and kept the kids outside long after they’d have normally been whining about being cold or bored (without actually being cold or bored). I call that a big win.

Taking Shape

Science, Technology Engineering Art and Math (STEAM) is still all the rage — for good reason. STEAM toys help to build critical thinking and problem solving skills. We found a new batch of toys and kits for kids to develop these skills in sneakily fun ways.

Groovy Lab in a Box ($36.95:

In each Groovy Lab in a Box is a unique engineering design project that uses project-based learning to teach kids ages eight and up about STEAM. While probably ok for kids 8 and up, our 13-year-old tester found it appropriately challenging (and rewarding). His mom says that it kept him engaged for hours and he was so proud of himself when he was able to build something that actually worked. You can get a one-off box or subscribe so you get a new box every month.

Roller Coaster Challenge ($29.99; Amazon)

This game is more than just a building kit - and that’s very much what set it apart for Braxton (besides the fact that he loves roller coasters of all sorts). The kit comes with 40 cards to challenge your logic and building prowess. Outside the challenges, the set provides tons of fun with freeform coaster building, too.

City Engineering & Design Kit ($24.99; or Amazon)

With big, easy pieces and tons of great ideas to get you started, this building set is great for younger elementary school kids. My five-year-old needed a bit of support and encouragement, but we had fun building a zip line and parking garage together. The garage stayed together for several hours while he tested all his die cast cars to make sure they could navigate around.

IllumiCraft Light Up! Cell Phone Speaker Dock ($19.99; or Amazon).

This kit encourages girls to build a simple electric circuit that creates a speaker dock that lights up. The sound gets amplified through the box (not electronically). Our teen girl tester enjoyed putting this kit together and was especially pleased when all the lights worked and her design was a success. As mom said, she probably won’t use it for a speaker dock — she’s 13 and prefers her headphones — but little sister Sammi decided it worked great for her. This kit is probably best for upper elementary age girls (before they discover headphones).

Magnaflex by WowWee ($19.99 - $49.99; Amazon)

The big, bright colorful pieces in this creative construction set immediately appealed to our five-year-old tester. Each individual piece has a strong magnet on both ends that can be used to join the pieces and create tons of great projects. We made a crown, an octopus and a rainbow from the instructions provided. Beyond building specific things, I have to admit it was just as fun playing with the magnetic ends, making patterns and exploring the magnets’ polarity.

Soft Circuits from ChickTech ($99;

ChickTech is a Portland-based nonprofit focused on facilitating hands-on technology-centric events and programs to empower, support, and increase the confidence of women and girls. The Soft Circuits Kit provides materials for two projects — an LED bracelet and an interactive totebag. The kit is totally accessible and helps girls to learn the basics of electronic circuits and coding with Arduino. It took a little patience and focus, but our teen tester was stoked about the projects she was able to create. Plus your purchase will support broader ChickTech programs.

Boom Blast Stix ($14.99; or Amazon)

Boom! The goal is to lock and stack the “stix” as high as you can before the pieces explode all over the table. Simple in concept, but high in anticipation! And there’s definitely a bit of thinking about the physics of the game in the strategy or locking and stacking.


Whether your kid is interested in a country on the other side of the planet, how seeds grow or why our fingerprints can identify us as individuals, the four products here will help him or her explore their world.

Oregon Scientific SmartGlobe Explorer Augmented Reality ($129.99; Amazon)

Oregon Scientific SmartGlobe’s have been a big hit with our reviewers in previous gift guides. This year was no exception. The updated SmartGlobes have a pretty amazing augmented reality feature. After downloading an app for your Apple or Android phone, you can point the phone at the globe and animated content pops up giving you a new way to explore landmarks, animals and even dinosaurs. The globe also splits in half for even more exploration of the solar system and earth’s internal structure. My tween is taking social studies for the first time as a sixth grader and the globe is reinforcing much of what he’s learning in school. I get a lot of “Mom! Did you know?”

Project Mc2 Perfume Maker ($29.99; Amazon)

The Project Mc2 products provide a little glam tech for girls interested in science. This kit provides girls with the tools to formulate their own perfumes using cosmetic chemistry and also lets them combine fragrant household items like vanilla or flower petals to create unique scents. Our testers agreed it was a fun project. Their mom added that following the directions reinforces the science and chemistry behind perfume.

Back to the Roots ($19.99 - $99.99;

It may be winter, but the Back to the Roots indoor garden kits will let you harvest herbs, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes or chili peppers all season long. These indoor gardening kits are 100% Guaranteed to Grow. We’ve set up mint, basil, cherry tomatoes and an oyster mushroom garden and the kids are excited to see their progress. We have a big backyard garden in the summer, but this is way more hands-on and up-close for sharing the experience. The kits include everything you need, including biochar technology inside that prevents over & under watering. The Back to the Roots website even has some curriculum about mushrooms (I definitely learned some things reading through it).

Forensics Fingerprint Lab ($14.95; Amazon)

My young detectives got such a kick out of this kit. Thankfully everyone that’s come through the house in the last week has now been fingerprinted. The kit is pretty basic — collect fingerprints by dusting them with black powder and then lifting them with clear stickers. There’s also a bit of info in the box about fingerprints and why they’re used by detectives.

I’m sure you’ll find something unique, creative and maybe even a little educational on this year’s gift guide for the kids in your life!

to see the full gift guide, click here... and thanks for looking!!