Blocks, a Tiny Racecar, and a Flying Shark

Five of the most innovative toys of 2011.

I wish I could say that I got interested in the toy business when I had a kid, but the truth is that I’ve always been a huge sucker for toys. I try to keep an eye on the latest inventions in the world of playthings, and when I spot something interesting I contact the company to see if they’ll let me try it out. I’ve tested out a bunch of toys in the past year, and I’ve had a great time doing it. In this column, I’m going to focus on the year’s five most innovative items—the toys I thought offered new twists on old forms of play. If you’re shopping for kids this year, you won’t go wrong with any of these.

Tegu magnetic blocks. Starter sets sell for about $50. Recommended age: 3 and up, but best for kids between 4 and 10 years old.

Wooden blocks are all the rage among educators these days. Studies show that playing with blocks improves kids’ math and language skills. Blocks are also thought to spur their creativity. Kids use blocks to tell stories while playing—they build houses, offices, cars, shops, and entire worlds where all their other toys can live.

I tried out several new block kits recently, and Tegu was one of my favorites. Tegus are magnetic—bring two blocks together and they connect with a satisfying click. This lets you build gravity-defying structures that you can’t achieve with other blocks. A few minutes after opening the set, I’d created a dinosaur, a skyscraper, and a windmill. And because the magnets allow the blocks to articulate around an axis even as they’re hooked together, my windmill could actually spin.

Tegus may sound like the wooden version of Lego, but there are some crucial differences. Will Haughey, one of the company’s founders, told me it’s impossible to manufacture wooden blocks with the same “resolution” as plastic. That means Tegu blocks have to be bigger that Legos, and they can’t have “expressive” elements like faces or trees or doors. (There are wonderful Tegu wheels, though.) Magnets also impose subtle rules for play: Because of polar orientation, you sometimes have to rearrange your structure to get two blocks to connect. These limitations make Tegus feel like more like a puzzle than a mere building toy.

My only problem with Tegus is that they’re expensive. The Discovery starter kit has only 26 blocks, which felt like too few when I really got into building something. The high price stems from the company’s mission—it uses only sustainable wood from Honduras and is committed to providing jobs for local craftsmen—and its manufacturing process, which requires splitting each block to insert the magnets, and then reattaching the wood in a way that looks seamless. But if you can afford them, you’ll have a great time.

CitiBlocs. 100-piece set sells for $20. Available in several colors. Recommended age: 3 and up. (There’s also a set for toddlers.)

These blocks are much more straightforward than Tegus—in fact, CitiBlocs may be the least complicated toy on the market. They’re small, precision-cut planks of New Zealand pine. That’s it: There are no magnets, snaps, connector pieces, or anything else other than gravity to keep your structure upright.

But CitiBlocs are just the right size, shape, and weight to make extraordinary things. You can stack the pieces vertically and horizontally, though vertically is the most fun. Because the blocks are so cheap, you can get enough of them to really go to town; your kid will easily be able to create structures that tower over adults. And then you get to knock the whole thing down.

Air Hogs Hyperactives Pro Aero radio-controlled racer. About $60. Available in several colors. Recommended age: between 12 and 15.

This radio-controlled racing car is tiny (about 5 inches long), but it makes up for its puny size in two ways. First, it’s superfast. It can reach speeds of 20 mph, which is the scale equivalent of more than 500 mph. Second, it’s got a plastic roll bar, which eliminates the main problem with RC racers this small and fast—they tend to turn over at the slightest bounce, and they’re usually impossible to right without some manual intervention.

The roll bar—a transparent plastic band that fits around the car—really works. I raced the car indoors and out, and it stayed upright on all terrain. It’s also got two sets of tires—foam for indoors and nubby rubber ones for outdoors—that you can easily switch out as you play in different places. The controller offers four points of control—forward, reverse, right, and left—and I found it quite responsive and easy to get the hang of.

There’s one big downside, which is that you can only race the car for a few minutes before you’ve got to recharge it by plugging the car into the controller (which requires six AA batteries). Each charge takes 30 to 50 minutes

Recon 6.0 Programmable Rover. About $60. Recommended age: 8 and up. 

Think of the Rover as a real-live version of Logo, the graphical language that’s a great way to introduce kids to programming. The rover, a 10-inch-tall robot who bears more than a passing resemblance to Wall-E, moves according to your commands. You enter in a list of orders on its front panel—Move 10 feet forward, turn right 90 degrees, etc.—and then watch the robot do your bidding.

In addition to chugging along, the bot can also record and play back sound files. The included mission book—which I found to be a really entertaining introduction to programming—has tips on how to get your Recon to tell knock-knock jokes, deliver a treat to your dog, or have the robot scurry about the house and spy on your parents and siblings.

Air Swimmers flying remote-controlled fish. Two models—clownfish and shark—sell for about $28 each. Recommended age: 8 and up.

This is one of the most bizarre toys I’ve ever played with. It’s also totally fun, and for the first few minutes of play, it will make you pee your pants with laughter. The Air Swimmer is basically a big, fish-shaped helium balloon that’s affixed with fins and a remote-controlled rudder. It comes unassembled, and assembly is a bit of a bear. First, you’ve got to get the balloon inflated at a party store, and then you’ve got to attach all the fins with small pieces of plastic tape. The whole process takes about an hour, and you’ll need a friend or supportive spouse to hold the giant balloon while you do so.

But once the fish is all set up it couldn’t be easier to play with. The controller has two buttons—one to point the fish up or down, the other to move the tail fin left and right. To move it forward, you move the tail rapidly from side to side, mimicking the propulsive force of a real fish. Voila—you’ve got a shark that can fly through the air.

What’s really goofy about this toy is how big it is: My shark is six feet long and three feet tall, so it looks totally hilarious coming down the hall. And I’d bet it’d be a great way to scare grandma on Christmas Eve.