When holiday spending tightens, gadget makers hang their hopes on the little ones and bet that budget-cutting parents will continue to spend on their kids. "We've shifted our focus a bit, more toward babies and young children," says Adam Hocherman, whose company—American Innovative—has sold a variety of alarm clocks and timers for college students, cooks, and executives. His big product this season is a sleep-training clock for the post-crib and preschool crowd.
Teach Me Time! ($40) is an alarm clock in a soft-looking plastic ball that doubles as a night light. In a brilliant touch, the yellow glow turns green at a time set by the parents. That signals youngsters it's OK to get out of bed, assuming they're the cooperative sort who will let Mom and Dad sleep.
It's also a dual-faced clock that displays time with analog hands and a digital display. The clock also offers a game to help learn time, aided by a friendly woman's voice. Wizened kids can continue using it as a conventional alarm, complete with snooze button.
Leapfrog, meanwhile, made its teaching tools for young readers mobile with the Tag Reading System ($50). A penlike stylus reads aloud in character voices as it slides across specially made books. Surprise sound effects and dialogue embedded in illustrations, as well as accompanying word games, help keep kids entertained much longer than is typical for a single book. Which is good, because the system comes with only one (ours was Ozzie and Mack). Additional books cost $14.
The system is simple enough for youngsters to master. But parents get to wrestle with software for their Mac or Windows PC that loads audio onto the pen, which can hold five books. The computer link also generates reports on which books the kids are reading and their progress. (Just don't use one pen among several kids—that throws off its monitoring and reward system.)
Parents who take comfort that the Wii game console at least gets their child off the couch might blanch at its $250 initial cost, if they can even find one. U-Dance ($75) offers similar interactive fun, if for a much more limited range of activities. Players strap "motion tags" onto their feet and see their dance steps reproduced on a TV. The console includes 12 dance hits, including oldies like "ABC" by the Jackson 5 and newbies like "Run It!" by Chris Brown.
The system works surprisingly well for its price and does encourage a range of moves unfettered by having to stay on a mat, like in most dance games. But its limited number of songs (there's no way to install more) might not hold the attention of the tweens that are its target audience.
Turning night into day, the EyeClops Night Vision Goggles ($80) might appeal to kids in a wider range of ages. More like a mask than goggles, it straps across both eyes. Since it carries five AA batteries, it has a heavy feel. But it actually works, using legitimate infrared technology to light up the night as far away as 50 feet. Only one eye gets the vision, though, and even its field of view is narrow; this is not a tool for navigating an obstacle-laden field. And it's not so good for hide-and-seek: The night vision sometimes employs a ring of red infrared beams that might give away your location to someone watching closely in the dark, even with unaided eyes.