By Marc Saltzman
Summer is in full swing—time for the great outdoors in the garden, at the cottage, lounging by the pool or “glamping,” and for adventure-filled road trips with friends and family.
But just because you’re spending more time with Mother Nature doesn’t mean your high-tech companions have to be left on the shelf. In fact, there’s no shortage of ways you and the kids can have fun on the go this summer.
Here’s a look at a few noteworthy champions.
Music and warm weather seem to go hand in hand. Whether you’re looking for speakers for a garden party or at the beach, in a hot tub or by the campfire—or even new ear buds for private listening during a jog around the neighbourhood—there are several super options.
Take turns playing DJ with the JBL Charge 4 Waterproof Wireless Speaker ($209). This gadget leverages Bluetooth 4.2 technology, which lets you easily pair your smartphone, tablet, laptop or any other Bluetooth-enabled device—even more than one at the same time. A proprietary driver and two bass radiators help deliver well-balanced, clear and powerful sound, plus you can combine up to 100 JBL Connect+ enabled speakers (sold separately) to further amplify the audio. This IPX7-rated (i.e. waterproof) speaker has a battery that lasts up to 20 hours, plus you can charge up your smartphone by plugging it into the speaker’s USB port while on the go. A built-in mic also lets you accept hands-free calls through the speaker.
If earbuds are more your thing then Sennheiser’s Momentum True In-Ear Sound Isolating Wireless Ear Buds ($379) are simply the best-sounding truly wireless earbuds available right now—although their price point means they’re more a good Mother’s or Father’s Day gift than for the kids. These buds wirelessly sync with iPhones and Android devices, and you can expect to hear your music (or podcasts or audiobooks) with exceptional clarity. Low-latency “transparent hearing” means listeners will stay much more aware of their surroundings for safety, too. The lightweight buds fit snugly in your ears (you’ll find four tip sizes in the box), while fingertip controls on each earbud allow for command of music, calls and your voice assistant.
There’s now a clever solution for parents who prefer not to hand over their pricey tablet to their little ones in the backseat. Enter the LeapFrog Epic Academy Edition. At $159, it’s an inexpensive, kid-proof option that’s centred around safe fun and learning. Along with the world’s first playable home screen, this durable seven-inch Android tablet is preloaded with LeapFrog-exclusive content: Games, activities, and e-books. A nice extra…as the child ages, Mum and Dad can unlock access to a full Chrome browser and the Amazon App Store for more age-appropriate downloads. For younger kids (ages 3–6), the Leapfrog Epic also works with the new “Leapfrog Academy,” a stellar $7.99/month subscription service with access to more than 1,000 games and learning activities.
For older children, the gadget that started the tablet craze way back in 2010 is still the best option in 2019. Apple’s latest iPad mini (from $529) packs a stunning 7.9-inch multitouch Retina display; a powerful A12 Bionic chip for fast performance (read: Fortnite matches!); long battery life; dual cameras for FaceTime chats with friends; and the iOS 12 operating system, which offers several new features and supports multitasking (such as split-screen apps and picture-in-picture). The new iPad mini also supports the Apple Pencil (sold separately) for those who want to draw, sketch or write on the screen. Of course, an iPad is only as good as the software that runs on it, but there’s no shortage of high-quality yet free or inexpensive apps in the App Store.
Let’s go camping
The Cinch! Solar Bundle (from $625), is a fab “pop-up” tent for up to four people. Cinch! not only pitches in seconds but also comes with its own solar power panels, an LED lighting system and a 13,000 mAh battery with USB ports. That’s enough for five or six smartphone charges! An Indiegogo success story, this fourth-generation, UK-based tent also features panoramic inner doors, an integrated canopy to control the tent’s climate, an enclosed groundsheet (so no bugs) and more than a dozen different options for laying out the tent. There are lower-priced models for those who don’t need the solar panels or who just need a two-person tent.
You don’t need to be a boy scout to “be prepared.” The Eton FRX5 BT ($99) is an uber-rugged and weather-resistant emergency radio, powered by a 2,000 milliamp rechargeable battery, hand-crank generator, and solar panel. Fear not…this radio’s got you covered with AM, FM and NOAA weather bands for storm alerts and flashing coloured lights that warn of upcoming severe conditions. This “kitchen sink” Eton also includes Bluetooth support to stream from mobile phones, plus an LED light, alarm clock, phone charging (via USB) and likely anything else you can think of. Another great gift for the guy or girl who has everything.
The Swiss are best known for their chocolate, watches and army knives. While the first two might not be ideal for a backwoods camping trip, the latter is an essential—and can today do more than ever. Need to secure some work you’ve done on your laptop while being at one with nature?
Now you can actually back-up your data securely using the Victorinox Swiss Army Knife—Midnite Manager @ Work ($89). This magnificent, multi-tool gadget has a 16 GB USB thumb drive, an LED light to help you see in the dark and the usual assortment of tools: A blade, scissors, bottle opener, flathead and Phillips screwdrivers, nail file and bottle opener. You know the drill.
Drones, ’bots and animatronics
While kids are often told not to crash and break their toys, Flyblocks ($69) encourages it! Embracing the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education movement, this Canadian toy challenges youngsters to build their own drone from 72 snap-on pieces, a pre-programmed circuit board, and a bundled remote control. Whether they want to follow the instructions or create their own drone design, Flyblocks offers a creative way to take to the friendly skies. If at first your son or daughter doesn’t manage to perform a perfect landing, it’s just as much fun to crash, collect the durable pieces and start all over again. A great way to put in hours of good STEM learning together.
What is as small as a field mouse, super smart and plenty of fun? The answer: Anki Vector ($299), a teeny-weeny autonomous and cloud-connected robot that promises to develop as time goes by thanks to “over-the-air” updates pushed by its makers. Hard to believe, but we’re told there are a thousand animations in this little ’bot that cause it to react to its environment with a full-throttle personality. Vector comes with an array of four microphones to hear and detect commands from kids and their friends. Just say “Hey Vector” to get the ’bot’s attention and deliver a voice command. The small robot can perform tasks (maybe even some of your kid’s chores?), as well as play games and offer other engaging experiences.
For young kids who enjoy adventuring in a galaxy far, far away, meet Ultimate Co-pilot Chewie ($149). At 16 inches tall, Chewie is an animatronic plush toy (batteries required) of everyone’s favourite Wookiee from Hasbro’s FurReal brand. Talk to or touch Han Solo’s loyal friend and you’ll be rewarded by more than 100 cool sound and motion combos, and a number of different facial expressions. Big and little kids alike will also love Chewie’s iconic bandolier and satchel, roars and poseable legs.