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This holiday season's hot toys mix learning, tech and fun

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

When it comes to hot toys this holiday season, prepare yourselves, kids. Santa and his elves are throwing some learning into the mix.

As holiday shopping kicks into high gear over the next few weeks, toys will be a top seller and many this season are infused with a learning component woven right into the design, though some familiar names like Lego and Barbie will continue to be popular.

STEM toys, those that focus on science, technology, engineering and math for kids, continue to gain steam and are now being made for little ones as young as 18 months old. Even robotic toys also are now designed for kids as young as 5.

Experts say when it comes to picking toys, children increasingly want ones they can operate themselves with less help from Mom and Dad.

"Kids want something that's 'This is how you start it, but let me figure the rest out,'" said Aric Klar, co-owner with his mom and brother of Toyology, a chain of specialty toy stores in Metro Detroit with locations in West Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester and Royal Oak.

Aric Klar, co-founder of Toyology, poses for a portrait inside the Royal Oak location, November 20, 2019.

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans are expected to spend between $727 and $730 billion this holiday season, with the average consumer spending around $1,047. Of that, about 39% will be spent on toys, making it one of the top categories, behind clothes and gift cards, according to an annual NRF survey.

But what will be the next Tickle Me Elmo or American Girl Doll in 2019? It isn't clear, though according to the NRF's annual November Holiday Consumer Survey, Legos, Barbie dolls, LOL Surprise Dolls, video games and Hatchimals will be among the top toys.

Klar contends the toy industry has changed without what he calls a "retail driver" like Toys R Us. The industry is now more category-driven as opposed to product-driven, he said.

"What you see now are people trying to dabble into different categories or expand their current offerings into different categories to be a category leader," said Klar. "What we're seeing, with robotics, for example, we used to work with a couple companies that were only focused on making products for kids 8 and up. Now we’re getting as low as 5 for a robotics kit."

And tech-infused toys are especially hot. The Osmo Genius Starter Kit, for example, one of Amazon's Kid Picks from its Holiday Toy List, includes tactile shapes that also uses an iPad to teach problem-solving, math and drawing. Digi-Nail Studio, meanwhile, turns selfies into personalized nail decals for little girls.

Even Mattel's new Pictionary Air, named one of 2019's top toys by the Good Housekeeping Institute, uses a special light-up pen and smartphones instead of the traditional pencil and paper the game once relied on.

Digi-Nail studio, on sale at Toyology.

Inclusion also is a new trend this year with toys.  Earlier this fall, Mattel introduced a new line of dolls, Creatable World, that can be customized to let kids create dolls that look anyway they'd like, whether it's a boy with long hair to a girl with short hair.

"Toys are a reflection of culture and as the world continues to celebrate the positive impact of inclusivity, we felt it was time to create a doll free of labels," said Kim Culmone, senior vice president of Mattel Fashion Doll Design. "Through research, we heard that kids don't want their toys dictated by gender norms. This line allows all kids to express themselves freely."

Mattel introduced a new line of customized dolls this fall called Creatable World.

Klar -- who admits he actually isn't a big fan of toys -- believes in toys more as tools. The father of two who got his start selling Beanie Babies as a 12-year-old at his grandfather's drug store says its about helping kids reach milestones.

"I always joke that we can be more impactful than teachers sometimes," he said. "The ability to take a kid to get off that Lego wall and look at some of this robotics stuff a little more -- that's super rewarding. I don't know if that will be impactful for that kid for 5-10 years. He might go to Michigan's engineering school. I don't know... But me selling the right tool allows me to have the largest possible impact on that child."

So if you're on the lookout for toys for your kids, whether they're a toddler or a teen, here are some suggestions.

Robotics and STEM toys

Magna-Tiles are 3-D building sets that start engineering and math early by offering kids a chance to build their own creations with special tiles that connect together.

Toyology, which also its own wholesale division called On Trend and develops its own toys, has its own line called Stax. 

Stax magnetic building blocks, for sale at Toyology.

Some of the most popular toys, Klar said, are toys that let kids have a sense of independence. Toyology has a product called Space Cadet that uses infra-red technology to fly. Sensors let kids to move the cadet through the air with their hands without actually touching it.

"We call it interactive entertainment," said Klar. "It allows the kid to control with their hands and not worry about a remote control.'"

Charms and more

When it comes to toys for girls, the '80s are back -- and many retailers have the charm bracelet kits to prove it.

"Charms are coming back big-time," said Klar.

Sparkle Bracelets made by Bloomfield, MI. company Craft-tastic By Ann Williams

Craft-tastic makes five charm kits, from its DIY Puffy Charms to DIY Sparkle Charm Bracelets Kit. Craft-tastic is one of several brands -- it started with a spinning loom set called Loopdedoo -- from the Bloomfield Hills-based Ann Williams Group. The company is named after founder Sheila Wright's children. 

Wright says crafting "emotionally transports" kids out of challenging situations and gives them a sense of accomplishment and pride.

Kids ''feel good about something they made with their hands," said Wright.

Books are back

Another hands-on toy that lets children express themselves creatively are book kits. IlluStory are kits that let kids write and illustrate their own story, which can then be shipped off to be made into an actual book.

But for kids who've grown up in a digital world, hard copy books also are popular, says Klar. He says kids books about empowerment are especially hot these days, such as "Strong is the New Pretty," "Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2" and "Ground Breaking Guys."

"It's all female and male empowerment," said Klar, who sold more than 30 books to one customers in early November. "We should open a little bookstore. Books are back."

Klar says he thinks hard copy books are popular for the same reason children love slime.

"They never played in dirt like me and you," said Klar. "They don't know what dirt feels like this. (It's the same with books) They don't know what a book feels like."