Great Gifts for Kids: The Year's Best Books, Music, Software, Video Games and More

As the season of giving approaches, the 2010 National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) shares its best gift ideas for children. From 20 years of experience setting the Gold standard for children's products, NAPPA's team of expert judges, parents and child testers proudly present their top picks of products for children's learning and entertainment.

Toys
By Ellen Metrick

Toys allow children to mimic the world and do what the grown-ups do. Today's toys provide "grown-up" technology in durable, kid- and eco-friendly versions with less packaging and more natural elements. Dolls and plush animals continue to provide nurturing play, even as whimsical sounds and soft glows add new life to these classic favorites.

For Infants & Toddlers

Babipouce Activities, Corolle, $50; www.corolle.com; birth to age 3. This perfect first plush doll has soft vinyl hands and face. To lull baby to sleep, press the doll's back for a lullaby and gentle twinkling lights that gradually fade and stop. Machine washable.

Flow 'N' Fill Spout, Yookidoo by International Playthings, $16.99; www.intplay.com; ages 9 months and up. A battery-powered spout suctions to the side of the bathtub and continuously draws bath water up from the tub itself, allowing kids to play with running water without overflowing the tub. Cups are included for exploratory water fun.

Spring Roller, Chicco, $19.99; www.chiccousa.com; ages 6 months and up. This colorful, cylindrical toy invites baby to crawl, as it plays upbeat Caribbean tunes when rolling along the carpet or floor. Encircling the toy are manipulative activities with cause-and-effect buttons to push, and lights and sounds to intrigue.

For Preschoolers

Hot Dots Jr. - Ace the Talking Teaching Dog, Educational Insights Inc., $39.99; www.educationalinsights.com; ages 3 and up. The electronic dog "Ace" supports learning by pointing to correct answers on cards that focus on fundamental literacy skills. She lights up, gives a verbal "good job" and occasionally vibrates for added kudos. Ace lets kids know when an answer is incorrect, too.

MobiGo Touch Learning System, VTech, $59.99; www.vtechkids.com; ages 3 and up. "Edu-gaming" at its finest! Touch screen and slide-out keyboard accompany a clear voice and excellent video quality. Insert cartridge and start playing and learning. More games can be downloaded from the website.

Sing-a-ma-jigs!, Fisher-Price, $12.99; www.thesingamajigs.com; ages 3 and up. Oozing with personality, these plush characters make you smile and brighten your mood! Push their tummies and they talk and sing in goofy chipmunk-like voices. Each has a different pitch so that they can sing in harmony.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Zoobies, $40; www.zoobies.com; ages 5 and up. Snuggle up to this beloved bug from Eric Carle's classic tale - while reading! Exquisitely soft, the caterpillar plush toy opens up to a comfy pillow and unzips to reveal what he really ate: a warm, fuzzy blanket!

For Ages 5 & Up

Liv Dolls, Spin Master Ltd., $14.99 each; www.spinmaster.com; ages 5 and up. Glam to the hilt, Liv teenage dolls strut in style. Each of four diverse dolls can be posed and comes with interchangeable wigs and an online code for more games and fashion fun.

Makedo, Makedo/Reeves International Inc., $15; www.makedo.com.au; ages 5 and up. Kids create fun and functional items by using imagination and ordinary household recyclables. Armed with this set of connectors, hinges and multi-purpose tools, young children can saw cardboard and punch holes to make cars, costumes and more.

Real Construction Deluxe Tool Set, JAKKS Pacific Inc., $29.99; www.jakks.com; ages 5 and up. A "must have" for builders who are too old for pretend tools but too young for real ones. Build a garage for toy cars or a dollhouse with lightweight tools. Styrofoam-like faux wood and screws for solid construction.

Springfree Trampoline, Springfree Trampoline, Inc., $1,599; www.springfreetrampoline.com; ages 6 and up. Marketed as the safest trampoline, flexible fiberglass rods replace traditional metal springs and are located beneath the jumping surface for a safer and more natural bounce. The FlexiNet enclosure keeps kids safely inside and guides them back to the trampoline's center.

For Ages 8 & Up

Ground Force Drifter, Razor USA LLC, $299.99; www.razor.com; ages 8 and up. This steel-framed, electric go-kart zips through neighborhoods at speeds of up to 12 mph. Thumb-tab acceleration and a rear-wheel hand break put control in the palm of kids' hands; a high torque motor and Super Slider rear tires give the power and precision for spin-outs, fishtails and 360s.

Perplexus, PlaSmart Inc., $24.99; www.plasmarttoys.com; ages 6 and up. Methodically rotate and tilt this 3-D labyrinth-like maze, encapsulated in a clear plastic ball, to move a small metal marble through an intricate web of shoots and track. Totally addictive!

Potato Chip Science, Workman Publishing, $17.95; www.workman.com; ages 9 and up. "High in saturated facts," as the package states, this is not your typical science kit. Packaged in a potato chip bag, this set uses potato chip bags, tubes, lids, spuds and chips to conduct experiments with immediate results.

Board and Card Games
By Peggy Brown, with Kim Vandenbroucke

Games are more popular than ever and for good reason. They pack a lot of entertainment into a box and offer a cost-friendly alternative to movies, sports events and, of course, boredom! A game can also become the centerpiece of good, old-fashioned family togetherness.

For Preschoolers

The Amazing Alphabotz Superphonic Decoder Cards, Ideopolis LLC, $19.95; www.alphabotz.com; ages 3 and up. These oversized flashcards demystify upper and lowercase letters, the sounds they make, and how they work as a system. Charming and cheerful characters identified for each letter are designed in a new-but-retro style.

For Ages 5 & Up

Can You See What I See? Bingo Link, Gamewright, $15.99; www.gamewright.com; ages 6 and up. Quick! Find the soccer ball! The mitten! The scissors! Identify items and cover them to create a connection across your board. Learn simple strategy and how to be descriptive in the process. The first player to link across the board wins.

Animal Mastermind Towers, Pressman Toy, $11.99; www.pressmantoy.com; ages 5 and up. This problem-solving and deduction game makes you use your noodle to figure out the order of stacked animals on your opponent's tower. It's simple but tricky at the same time; fun to set up and figure out.

For Ages 7 & Up

Spot It!, BlueOrange Games, $11.99; www.blueorangegames.com; ages 8 and up. Four quick-match games come packed in a little round tin box. Magically elegant, each circular card has a series of pictures on it: one (and only one) picture on each card matches one (and only one) on every other card.

Minotaurus, LEGO Systems Inc., $24.99; www.LEGO.com; ages 7 and up. Setting up the game board is as much fun as playing it. A little chance and light strategy can get one of your heroes to the temple without confronting the Minotaur. The "game-scape" can be changed limitlessly for creative and imaginative play.

For Ages 8 & Up

Dweebies, Gamewright, $10.99; www.gamewright.com; ages 8 and up. Cute and colorful, the appropriately named Dweebies are lovable, laughable and clever characters. Capture them by playing matches at each end of a row to collect the most.

Scrabble Flash, Hasbro Games, $29.99; www.hasbrogames.com; ages 8 and up. Scrabble meets electronics in an unusually fresh way. Five electronic "tiles" have LCD displays and each shows one letter. Players arrange and rearrange the tiles to make words. The tiles magically know rules to three games and track your time.

Q-bitz, MindWare, $24.95; www.mindware.com; ages 8 and up. Complete visual masterpieces by using cubes with simple graphic elements on each side. Each player has his own tray, which he uses to align his cubes in a race to be the first to match the graphic on the card. Q-bitz includes three games with fun twists.

DVDs
By Ranny Levy

This year, three KIDS FIRST! senior jurors worked closely with child jurors to winnow the best from a pool of excellent submissions. We saw an exponential up-tick in sophistication and the use of computer-generated graphics and digital recording. The quality of content clearly reflects a commitment to create better programming that both teaches and inspires children.

For Toddlers

Big Bird, Little Bird, Sleeveless, 2010; 35 min.; $14.99; www.sarahickman.com; ages 0 to 5. Texas' official State Musician Sara Hickman nurtures babies' transition into tot-hood with this loving, quiet-time video. Gentle, colorful animation brings tender lyrics to life. Everything is pitch perfect as it flows from a cappella renditions to acoustic and string accompaniments. The cover art is also a winner!

For Preschoolers

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus - And More Stories by Mo Willems, Scholastic Media/New Video, 2010; 49 min.; $14.95; www.newkideo.com; ages 2 to 5. A hoot! Mo's pigeon uses every imaginable kid ploy to persuade off-screen kids to let him drive, but they don't buy it! Simple graphics and story lines, Woody-Allen-style humor and vaudevillian timing prove that Mo really "gets" kids.

Look Out World Here I Come! New York, Look Out World LLC, 2010; 30 min.; $19.95; www.lookoutworldhereicome.com; ages 2 to 5. Imaginary travelers Otto, Blink and Casey guide young viewers on a tour of New York City via cleverly mixed animation and real images. An unhurried pace, sing-along tunes and a 36-page activity book encourage fun and interactive learning.

Meet the Sight Words DVD Boxed Set, Preschool Prep Company, 2009; 108 min.; $39.97; www.preschoolprepco.com; ages 2 to 5. "Sight words" are words that are frequently seen but not easily decoded, such as "a," "and," "for," "have," "he" and "I." Using playful approaches with animation, graphics and letter personification, this series helps kids recognize words without having to "figure them out."

Wimzie's House - A World of Enchantment, Mill Creek Entertainment, 2010; 4 hrs. 10 min.; $9.98; www.millcreekent.com; ages 2 to 5. When Wimzie opens the door to her enchanting home, we can't resist stepping in - and all that follows is good. It's puppetry at its three-dimensional best! Superb theatrical sets and engrossing scripts help preschoolers sort through daily challenges.

For Ages 5 & Up

The Wheels on the Bus Sing-Along Travel Kit, Scholastic Media/New Video, 2010; 2 hrs. 12 min.; $24.95; www.newkideo.com; ages 5 to 8. Fifteen brilliantly illustrated musical storybooks on two DVDs keep kids and parents happy on road trips. Together with 13 songs on a music CD and an activity booklet with crayons, chidren are introduced to good, diverse music and art styles.

For Ages 8 to 12

The Secret of Moonacre, E1 Entertainment, 2010; 103 min.; $24.95; www.E1homevideo.com; ages 8 to 12. Stunning 1900s sets and costumes bring fantasy, history and mystery together in this film about 13-year-old Maria who, once orphaned, must rise to meet her destiny in a magical moonlit world of exotic characters and mythical beasts.

Storytelling & Spoken Word
By Marilyn McPhie

Storytelling has been called the oldest form of human communication. These days, instead of creating cave paintings and campfires as the backdrop for our stories, we pop in a CD and ride to the dentist via an island of wild horses or a sweetly shared imaginary world.

For Younger Children

Guess How Much I Miss You, written by Julia Lobo, illustrated by Rebecca Elliott, Publications International Ltd., 2010; $19.99; www.pubint.com; ages 18 months to 3 years. This board book tells of two bears who miss each other while apart. A concealed panel allows loved ones to record the tale in their own voice so that a child can hear her out-of-town grandparent, mom or dad read a bedtime story.

Perfectly Arugula, written by Sarah Dillard, Sterling Children's Books, 2009; Free; www.listenalongstorybook.com; ages 3 and up. A perfectly cute little hedgehog organizes a perfect party, but everyone is perfectly miserable until an uninvited guest shakes things up...perfectly. Directions for downloading free audio and streaming audio are provided.

For School-Age Children

The Lost Bicycle,, by Cory Hills, Reach Out Kansas Inc., 2010; $12.97; www.coryhills.com, www.reachoutkansas.org; ages 5 to 12. Master percussionist Hills uses marimba, kalimba, water glasses, gong, wood block, cow bell and cymbals to punctuate his stories. This mix of folktales, original and personal tales is snappy and satisfying.

Frindle, written by Andrew Clements and read by Keith Nobbs, Simon & Schuster Audio, 2009; $14.99; audio.simonandschuster.com; ages 8 to 12. This classic story - students in a battle of wits and words with a strong-willed teacher over a "frindle" (aka pen) - is funny, fast-paced and heart-warming.

For Tweens & Teens

Sisters Red, written by Jackson Pearce and read by Erin Moon, Michal Friedman and Suzanne Toren, Hachette Audio, 2010; $22.98; www.jacksonpearce.com, www.hachetteaudio.com; ages 12 and up. Granny's dead, werewolves are on the prowl, and sisters Scarlett and Rosie are out for revenge and blood - literally. The setting is contemporary and gritty; the characters are distinctive. Not your baby sister's Little Red Riding Hood.

For Family Listening

Tales2Go, Tales2Go LLC, 2010; $24.99 annual subscription; www.tales2go.com; ages 3 to 11. Get stories from great storytellers anytime from this on-demand website that offers more than 1,200 audio books and storytelling for under $25/year. (Note: One subscription covers downloads to one iPod, iPad or iPhone device.)

For Infants & Toddlers

Dancing Feet, by Lindsey Craig, illustrated by Marc Brown; Random House Children's Books, 2010; $16.99; www.randomhouse.com/kids. The lively rhyming language and jubilant art in this hardcover book will have kids joyfully dancing on happy feet.

Old MacDonald Had a Farm, adapted by Kim Mitzo Thompson and Karen Mitzo Hilderbrand, illustrated by Patrick Girouard; Twin Sisters Productions, 2010; $10.99; www.twinsisters.com. This traditional song is presented as a brightly colored, padded board book that includes a CD of 14 additional fun songs.

One Pup's Up, by Marsha Wilson Chall, illustrated by Henry Cole; Simon & Schuster Children's, 2010; $16.99; http://kids.simonandschuster.com. A counting book as sweet and peppy as 10 little puppies.

Up, Up, Up!, by Susan Reed and Rachel Oldfield; Barefoot Books, 2010; $16.99; www.barefootbooks.com. Sail away in a hot air balloon with three children and their dog in this beautifully illustrated book, which includes a sing-along CD.

For Preschoolers & Up

Beautiful Oops!, by Barney Saltzberg; Workman Publishing, 2010; $11.95; www.workman.com. This perfect gift book shows that there are life lessons in every "oops!" The book turns - through story and illustration - everyday spills, drips and rips into a beautiful and whimsical piece of art.

Chirp Magazine, Owl Kids; $29.99 for 1-year subscription; $45 for 2-year subscription; www.owlkids.com. This popular magazine is packed with fun activities and stories for your preschooler or beginner reader.

Heads, by Matthew van Fleet; Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, 2010; $16.99; http://kids.simonandschuster.com. This book is a treat for the senses. Its fun, stimulating, interactive play and lilting language celebrate a wild menagerie of happy and busy animals.

The Peter Yarrow Songbook: Songs for Little Folks, by Peter Yarrow, illustrated by Terry Widener; Sterling Children's Books, 2010; $16.95; www.sterlingpublishing.com/kids. Families can sing favorite folk songs with folk legend Peter Yarrow; a sing-along CD is included.

Swim! Swim!, by Lerch; Scholastic, 2010; $16.99; www.scholastic.com. Lerch is a fish in a tank who's lonely and looking for a friend. This silly tale of friendship is told from the fish's point of view and complemented with bold, comic illustrations.

For Ages 6 to 8

Amazing Airplanes, by Gaby Goldsack, illustrated by Lee Montgomery and Anthony Williams; Silver Dolphin Books, 2010; $14.95; www.silverdolphinbooks.com. Build five gliders with this hands-on look at aviation history. The book also includes historical photos, detailed diagrams and colorful comic strips.

Farm, by Elisha Cooper; Orchard Books, 2010; $17.99; www.scholastic.com. A beautifully told and comprehensive picture book that celebrates farm life poetically and factually through the changing seasons. The art is stunning.

My Name is Not Isabella, by Jennifer Fosberry, illustrated by Mike Litwin; Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2010; $16.99; www.Sourcebooks.com. A little girl decides to be many amazing women in history - all in one day.

Who Will Plant a Tree?, by Jerry Pallotta, illustrated by Tom Leonard; Sleeping Bear Press, 2010; $15.95; www.sleepingbearpress.com. The wonders of nature are shown through animals around the world as they contribute to the greening of our planet. The text is simple, yet profound.

For Ages 9 to 12

American Girl Magazine, American Girl; $22.96 for 1-year subscription (6 issues); www.americangirlmagazine.com. An age-appropriate alternative to teen magazines, this is the largest bimonthly publication dedicated to girls age 8 and up. Content includes school talk, health and beauty, party ideas, inspiring real-life stories, crafts and more.

Birmingham Sunday, by Larry Dane Brimner; Boyds Mills Press, 2010; $17.95; www.boydsmillspress.com. This illustrated book presents a pivotal moment in Civil Rights history and the consequences that followed.

Do Something!, by Nancy Lublin, Manessa Martir and Julia Steers; Workman Publishing, 2010; $13.95; www.workman.com. This guide to activism includes simple, do-able ways for kids of all ages to make a difference. It's a real get-off-your-butt book!

The Dreamer, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Peter Sis; Scholastic, 2010; $17.99; www.scholastic.com. This novel is a beautifully presented, fictionalized biography of Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning poet.

The Popularity Papers, by Amy Ignatow; Abrams/Amulet Books, 2010; $15.99; www.amuletbooks.com. Fifth-graders Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang are best friends and vow that they'll become more popular in school this year. First-time author Amy Ignatow nails a winner with this laugh-out-loud novel, told through text and graphics.

The Social Times Magazine, Autism Asperger Publishing Company; $51 for a year's subscription (nine issues), 10 student copies of each issue included; www.asperger.net. Teachers and students will find this a fun and educational supplement for social skills programs.

For Ages 12 and Up

The Cardturner, by Louis Sachar; Random House Children's Books, 2010; $17.99; www.randomhouse.com/teens. Alton Richards is recruited by his parents to become the assistant of his blind great-uncle at frequent bridge club meetings to inherit the rich man's estate.

Fat Boy Chronicles, by Diane Lang and Michael Buchanan; Sleeping Bear Press, 2010; $9.95; www.sleepingbearpress.com. Inspired by a true story, these first-person journal entries unfold the story of Jimmy, an obese teenager, and his emotional struggle to lose weight.

A Girl Named Mister, by Nikki Grimes; Zondervan, 2010; $15.99; www.zondervan.com. In free verse, the parallel stories of the Virgin Mary and a contemporary pregnant teen are non-judgmentally, yet grippingly, told.

Poetry Speaks Who I Am, edited by Elise Paschen; Sourcebooks, 2010; $19.99; www.sourcebooks.com. The greatest contemporary poets speak to our youth through more than 100 poems that matter. A CD of the poets reading their own work is included.

Music
By John Wood and Tor Hyams

Music for children and their families is alive and well! Indie artists shone brightly in NAPPA's 20th year, as they blended with established performers who continue to deliver. What a tremendous mix of new takes on traditional songs, terrific original songs and outstanding musicianship!

Lullabies

Music Together® Lullabies, various artists, Music Together LLC, 2009; $14.95; www.musictogether.com; ages 0 to 6. Music Together® CDs are perfect companions to this company's live classes, but the music can stand alone. This album contains traditional folk songs arranged simply and with minimal instrumentation.

Party Like a Twinkle Star, Charity and the JAMband, 2010; $17.98 double CD; www.jamjamjam.com; ages 0 to 9. From songs that sound like mom at your bedside ("So Long to the Day") to a folk version of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," your child will fall asleep with a smile.

Sing Me Goodnight, Lisa Redfern, Hurricane Music, 2010; $15; www.lisaredfern.com; ages 0 and up. Gentle and soothing vocals ride effortlessly on original and traditional folk tunes, with simple yet elegant arrangements. Two songs are dedicated to parents growing their families through adoption.

Sing Me to Sleep - Indie Lullabies, Various Artists, American Laundromat Records, 2010; $13.95; www.alr-music.com; ages 0 and up. Different, different, different! Indie artists embrace and retrace classic lullabies with a fresh heartfelt zest!

For Toddlers & Up

A Mighty Good Day, Hullabaloo, Hullabaloo Music, 2010; $12; www.hullabalooband.com; ages 0 to 6. Who knew that being a superhero depends on having the right "supersuit," or that anticipating a baby brother is like getting a "Baby Basketball" to play with?

Rock and Roll Garden, Bari Koral Family Rock Band, Loopytunes, 2010; $10.99; www.barikoral.com; ages 1 to 5. When little ones wants to rock out, Koral's crystal clean voice and modern piano style will get them moving. Songs about a little ducky, popcorn, colors and an "Uh Oh" tune are geared perfectly for this age.

The Wild World of Wildlife, Birdie Mendoza, Birdie's Playhouse, 2010; $10.99; www.birdiesplayhouse.com; ages 0 to 5. Engaging vocals, bouncy world rhythms and fun songs about animals from around the globe have you movin' and groovin' while learning!

For Ages 4 & Up

A Cow Says Moock, Alastair Moock, Moockshake Music, 2010; $15; www.moockmusic.com; ages 2 to 10. Intelligent, high-energy folk-rock with serious pop! Moock's distinctive voice gives pause to songs about a loving "Two Mommies" family, a new take on "Belly Buttons" and even "Spaghetti in My Shoes."

Eat a Bowl of Cherries, Rhythm Child, The Rhythm Child Network, 2009; $15; www.rhythmchild.net; ages 0 to 6. Focusing on the beat, Rhythm Child transforms traditional songs into new and soulful tracks that inspire us all to stomp our feet and shake our booties!

Funky Fresh and Sugar Free, Sugar Free Allstars, Wiser Music, 2010; $12.97; www.sugarfreeallstars.com; ages 3 to 10. This album is well produced and speaks to our inner child. From toy army men stuffed "In My Pocket" to wild beasts like a "Tiger in My Backyard," listeners travel with the fullest sounding two-man band you've ever heard.

Jungle Gym, Justin Roberts, Carpet Square Records, 2010; $16; www.justinrobertsmusic.com; ages 3 to 9. This album is a master class in writing and performing "family music" that doesn't talk down, around or in too precious a manner. Parents identify with Roberts' musical influences; kids just plain enjoy it.

The Kids Are All Id, Randy Kaplan, Randy Kaplan Music, 2010; $12.99-$17.99; www.randykaplan.com; ages 4 and up. Do not drink a glass of milk when listening to these silly songs of zany substance and skewed perspective because you will blow it out your nose!

Ranky Tanky, Rani Arbo, Mayhem Music, 2010; $15; www.raniarbo.com; ages 3 and up. Audio candy for the ears. This album sounds like you're at a house party and you brought the kids. The musicianship is stellar and the "set list" is on the nose!

Swimming in Noodles, Jim Cosgrove, Hiccup Productions Inc., 2010; $13; www.jimcosgrove.com; ages 3 to 8. The album title suits this eclectic mix of genres, woven together perfectly by the band's world sounds. Carefully constructed lyrics in the song "Just Like You" provide subtle, poignant lessons on how we're all equal no matter where we come from.

Take It Outside, The Okee Dokee Brothers, Okee Dokee Music, 2010; $15; www.okeedokee.org; ages 3 to 9. Seamlessly threading bluegrass and rock, this sassy musical hybrid album reminds us that fantasy ("The Extraterrestrials") and fun ("Auctioneer") are wherever we are.

For Ages 9 & Up

Sunny Day, Elizabeth Mitchell, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2010; $11.98; www.folkways.si.edu; ages 9 and up. I fell in love with this one. Mitchell's beautiful, endearing voice draws you into the folk-rock songs. Traditional, organic instrumentation keeps the thread of classic folk songs alive.

We're Not Kidding! A Tribute to Barry Louis Polisar, various artists, Rainbow Morning Music, 2010; $14.95; www.Barrylou.com; ages 9 and up. Polisar gained legendary status as a sassy songwriter who treated children with respect. This massive tribute album (60 tracks) has been re-imagined, rewritten and rearranged by some of today's most interesting Indie artists.

Software/Video Games/Websites
By Alex Chisholm

This year's big story is Xbox 360 Kinect. Microsoft's latest innovation eliminates the controller to open up fully immersive digital play. The early titles we tested are solid and just a glimpse of what we'll see in the future. Another headline: Increasingly wonderful content is now available online for all ages and for family gaming.

For Preschool & Up

Tag Reading System, LeapFrog® Enterprises, 2008; $39.99; www.leapfrog.com; ages 4 to 8. Tag brings the printed page to life with a pad-less, un-tethered pen system that provides new readers with word-by-word audio support for more than 40 Tag-enabled books. Youngsters explore words and images, sound out words and build vocabulary through games and fun audio. Parents can download additional content and track their child's learning progress online.

For Early Elementary Students

Herotopia, Herotainment, LLC, 2010; free (or upgrade with membership, $5.95/ month); www.herotopia.com; ages 6 to 12. This highly engaging virtual world invites youngsters to select and customize their own Superhero to defeat the Bully Bunch in settings around the world. Games, such as "Confucius Challenge," quiz students on international foods, flags, animals and landmarks. Herotopia is for parents looking for a safe, smart and entertaining learning experience for their kids.

Leapster Explorer, LeapFrog® Enterprises, 2010; $69.99; www.leapfrog.com; ages 4 to 8. Leapster is a great "first" handheld for young gamers with a bigger and brighter touch screen and easy-to-hold stylus. Kids play games, explore e-books and watch videos that feature such popular characters as Kai-Lan, Dora and SpongeBob. Content supports learning that parents can track, from reading to early skill development in math, science and social studies.

For Upper Elementary Students

Kinect for Xbox 360, Microsoft, 2010; $149.99; www.xbox.com; ages 6 and up. Here's a gaming experience where you don't have to hold any controller! With a special motion capture sensor that sits in front of your television, Kinect for Xbox 360 puts all of you at the center of gameplay. Whether you're cresting the white water rapids in Kinect Adventures, kicking the soccer ball in Kinect Sports or kart-racing in Kinect Joy Ride, you feel the action as you lean, jump, steer, swing and engage your entire body in controlling the game. Our kids testers LOVED it!

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, Square Enix, Inc., 2010; $39.99; www.kingdomhearts.com; ages 10 and up. Kingdom Hearts has been a wildly successful game that takes players through a series of fantastical adventures with new characters, heroes and villains. Kids play alongside favorite Disney characters and experience the stories and worlds they know so well in exciting new ways. In this latest installment for PSP, players solve the mystery of a missing Keyblade Master.

The Travels of Wiglington and Wenks Virtual World, Wiglington and Wenks Worldwide Pte, Ltd., 2009; free (or upgrade with membership, $5.99/month); ages 7 to 14. Who knew that Marco Polo traveled the globe with the help of a water rat who navigated by the stars? In this imaginative and highly engaging virtual world, children open secret portals, unveil the future and gain unimaginable powers by unlocking the secrets of Carto Wiglington's maps. Players are introduced to important people, places and topics in history, geography, mythology, science, culture and more.

For Tweens & Teens

Echo Smartpen, Livescribe, 2010; $169.95 for 4GB, $199.95 for 8GB; www.livescribe.com; ages 12 and up. This remarkable pen is a wonderful tool for learning how to listen, take notes and organize ideas. Simply point the pen tip to a preprinted record button on special paper and write key points or draw. Echo captures anything that's spoken or amplified within earshot, tying recorded audio to what's written. Students upload their recordings, writings and drawings to a computer to better organize, search and share their notes.

Global Agenda, Hi-Rez Studios Inc., 2010; $39.99; www.globalagendagame.com; ages 13 and up. One of our edgier entries, Global Agenda is a highly engaging strategy and action, multiplayer online game for teens. Although the crude humor and fantasy violence (ESRB Rating T for Teen) may not be right for all young people, our boy game testers loved the experience, which took them to the year 2155 and into a world devastated by the Third Great War. Players collaborate as teams on leveled missions to overtake an oppressive world government and protect humanity. Our testers really enjoyed the futuristic weaponry, gadgetry and richly rendered game world. The game's first expansion, Global Agenda: Sandstone, is also available.

Family Resources

KidZui K2 Browser, KidZui:The Internet for Kids, 2010; free (or upgrade with subscription: $8/month and $40/annual); www.kidzui.com; ages 3 and up. This previous NAPPA Gold winner still sets the standard for providing access to a broad range of popular kids' Web sites, while enabling parents to better track their kids' Internet usage, explore new resources to support homework and provide access to exclusive KidZui content (with membership). The avatar creator tool and communication features with friends are zippier than before, and a special filter pulls fun, yet appropriate clips from YouTube.


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