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TOY REVIEW

Not-So-Techno Toys

Cheap, Ingenious Toys Without the Microchip

By Joel Rosenberg
ADVISORY BOARD

These days the toy industry is busy stuffing technology in their products any way they can. Dolls talk, balls light up, and even “Sit ’n Spin,” the classic that lets kids whirl themselves dizzy, now plays music. But whether it’s some conspiracy with the battery industry or just one Jones keeping up with the next, technology has arrived in toys.

I do think there are some cool tech toys out there. The $200 LEGO Mindstorms Robotics Invention System is great. And since I used to work at Intel on their toys, I think the IntelPlay line, which includes the $99 QX3 Computer Microscope, is great too.

But my favorite toys of late are really no-tech, even though they’ll appeal to people who like science and technology. So here are three toys under $20 that you've never heard of, and that would make great gifts for that budding geek of any age who's hard to shop for -- including yourself.

Can You Dig It Sand Tools

$12.99 + shipping, <www.sandtools.com>

A shovel and pail are fine for building an ordinary sand castle, but it takes a little more to cut it in the precise and detailed world of sand sculpture. Enter Can You Dig It Sand Tools.

This set of six durable plastic tools, designed by an award-winning sand sculptor, includes three square head shapers -- the papa, the mama, and the baby -- for creating features of various sizes, along with a bull nose shaper for rounds, a wedge hoe for clearing away large amounts of sand, and a c-shell scoop for more careful sand removal.

Available in yellow or purple, the set comes in a mesh drawstring bag so that the tools can be easily rinsed off and air dried. This is a perfect toy for summer, at the beach or in the (wet) sandbox. If the kids give you the chance, you’ll be playing with Sand Tools. Otherwise you’ll be wishing you had a set of your own.

Wedgits

Junior Set, $16.95 + shipping, <www.wedgits.com>

If LEGOs are building blocks, then Wedgits are building diamonds. Each piece is essentially a square, whose sides have a cross-section of another square rotated 45 degrees. They’re like plastic rings, only instead of being round with a round cross-section, they’re square. And square is cool in Wedgits.

That’s because the five different sizes, each a different color, fill space in interesting ways. In a “standard” configuration, they form a pyramid. But when you start putting them together at right angles, all sorts of new spaces for other blocks pop up. And soon these things become like 3-D tangrams, starting to resemble boats and towers and frogs.

But perhaps the coolest part of Wedgits is that it’s possible to make the blocks “wedge” together and form solid structures. And that’s where all the fun stuff -- opposing forces, levers, fulcrums -- comes in. The junior set comes with 15 pieces that form a double pyramid, along with an acrylic storage base which makes it a nice toy for your desk. An activity book, design cards, and larger sets (that get much larger) are also available, but are certainly not necessary if you just want something fun and imaginative to play with.

Walkalong Glider

$9.95 + shipping, <www.walkalongglider.com>

Think paper airplane, only instead of throwing it, you walk behind it and steer it, and instead of paper, it’s styrofoam. And that’s the Walkalong Glider.

When you walk, air is forced to flow around your body. Since some of that air flows up, if you put a wing in just the right spot it’s possible to keep it aloft by slowly walking behind it. And when you want it to change position, you simply change your position, and the air flow then adjusts the wing.

I saw the Walkalong Glider on Scientific American Frontiers, the quality PBS show with Alan Alda <www.pbs.org/saf>. Alda had some initial trouble flying the Glider, as most beginners will. But it comes with instructions and suggestions such as using a board to generate lift when first starting out. Just dropping the 45 cm (18”) wing and watching it soar will be inspiration enough to persevere.

While it is just styrofoam, and thus fairly delicate, the instructions say it’s easy to repair. And though it may not be a great choice for the little ones, it’s perfect for those who dream of flight, as well as those that don’t -- yet.