Loveable Characters

Thanksgiving is right around the corner and chances are, you probably haven’t bought your turkey yet. But we’ll bet you’re already on the lookout for Holiday presents for everyone on your lists. Here are some fun options that will bring a smile to everyone’s face.

rilakkumaRilakkuma (Aliquantum)
We know, we know, it sounds like something from Pippi Longstocking (who lived in Villa Villekulla), but Rilakkuma is the latest in a long line of adorable, collectable characters from Japan to have finally made it to the U.S. If your kids (or you) are into anime, all things Japanese, or simply cute plush toys, this one should be on your list. Some people have called Rilakkuma a “mysterious brand,” which is odd, considering that he’s been quite popular in their homeland for more than a decade. Here’s the backstory: Rilakkuma (a bear) and his friends Korilakkuma (another bear) and Kiiroitori (a chick) appeared out of nowhere in the Tokyo apartment of a hard-working woman named Kaoru. The three friends—each with a different personality—go on adventures and make mischief while Kaoru is at the office. All three are soft and sweet for little kids to cuddle with, plus Rilakkuma has a secret zipper pocket in his back for hiding small treasures. But, anime and Japanese crossovers are popular with plenty of tweens and teens too. Available at FAO Schwarz and Hot Topic, from $8.99 to $199.99.

snoopySnoopy, Charlie Brown, and many, many more figures (Schleich)
Schleich makes a dizzying array of realistic figurines and toys, including animals (from chicks and frogs to whales), mythological creatures (including elves, dragons, unicorns, and Medusa), and your favorite cartoon characters. Some of the most popular items are the riding sets and Peanuts. The riding sets come with a harness, saddle, rider, and a horse, of course. The Peanuts characters—Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy, and the rest of the gang—come individually or in “scenery packs,” which include several characters and scenes from the comic strip featuring those characters. Definitely not your average plastic toys, Schleich figures are high quality, solid, and beautifully hand painted with amazing detail. Collectors will love Schleich, as will kids ages 3 and up. The figures come individually or in beautiful sets with buildings, vehicles, and other accessories. Prices vary widely, depending on the size of the figure and the size of the kit, so check the site. http://www.schleich-s.com/en/US/

rumble fistsRumble Fists and WWE John Cena Spar Bag (Tech 4 Kids)
Playing with gorgeous collectible toys is great, but after a few days cooped up in the house, the kids are going to be climbing the walls (and you won’t be far behind). Tech 4 Kids’ Rumble Fists and WWE Spar Bag are perfect for making playtime more active. Rumble Fists are giant WWE-themed “gloves” that fit over kids’ hands and make noise (a punching sound and adoring fans cheering) when they touch anything. Kids can choose from John Cena, Dolph Ziggler, or the Rock. Rumble Fists are squishy so they won’t do much damage, but you should have some safety rules in place.

spar bagRumble Fists go perfectly with the WWE John Cena Spar Bag. It’s about three feet (or a meter) high and has a full-figure image of John Cena in mid-punch. Inflate it, fill the bottom with water, and flail away. The heavy base makes it pop right back up after every smack. It’s a great way to work up a sweat, and it’ll give kids bigger kids an alternative to tormenting younger siblings. Rumble Fists are $24.99, the Spar Bag is $9.99. Available at your favorite retailer or http://www.tech4kids.com/

Chip Off the Old Blocks

Here at Parents@Play, we’ve been reviewing toys and games for a long, long time, and one of our absolute favorite categories is building systems. They’re a great family activity, they appeal to kids of all ages, and they’re wonderful for developing hand-eye coordination, thinking-, and other skills. Some, like Lego and K’Nex, have been around since before we were kids, and we love them. But we also love seeing how some companies have put new spins on old systems, and how others have created new and unique pieces that go together in new and unique ways. Here are three that we know you’ll enjoy as much as we did.

instructuresInstructures (Poof-Slinky)
Instructures (a blending of “instructions” and “structures”) is one of those new-twist-on-old-blocks games. It uses regular, wooden blocks in a variety of shapes (columns, cubes, arches, triangles, and so on) and sizes. The new twist is that building becomes a competitive team sport. Here’s how it works: Players divide into two teams and each one gets a set of blocks. One person is appointed Foreman (it doesn’t matter from which team since there’s a new Foreman for each round). The Foreman takes a card from a deck that has photos of different structures build out of blocks. No one else sees the card. He or she then describes how to build what’s in the photo, and the teams race to the finish. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Each round is different. For example, the Foreman may have to give directions only by pointing and gesturing—no words. Or players are blindfolded so they have to build by touch alone. Or everyone looks at the card for a minute or two and then has to build the structure from memory. Instructures is a huge amount of fun and quite challenging. It’s also great for developing teamwork, cooperation, as well as spatial, memory, and problem-solving skills. Comes with two sets of blocks and three decks of cards (each with a different degree of difficulty). Minimum of four players, ages 8 and up. About $23 at Amazon.  www.poof-slinky.com

amaze 'n' marblesAmaze ’N’ Marbles (Poof Slinky)
Another new-twist building set. Builders create mazes that will get marbles from the top to the bottom using only gravity. The sets include regular wooden blocks and specially designed blocks with holes and channels to help keep the marbles on track. Because the mazes can be as elaborate or as basic as the builder wants, Amaze ‘N’ Marbles is great for kids of all ages. It’s also great for logical thinking (how can you get a marble to change directions or go around a corner) and physics (how fast does a marble have to be going to go up hill unassisted?). Ages 5 and up. $20-$75, depending on how many pieces are in the kit. www.poof-slinky.com

 

color clixColor Clix (Aliquantum)
This is one of the most innovative constructions systems we’ve seen in a long time. The pieces are colorful, sturdy, and come in a number of shapes that snap together in configurations that mimic the structure of atoms, crystals, and DNA molecules. But you definitely don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy Color Clix: You can also use them to build pretty much anything you want. Comes with an “Imagination Guide” with 14 project suggestions to get you going. After that, you’re on your own—and you’ll have a blast. Since the pieces snap together, clean-up is super easy (just pick up your structure and shove the whole thing under the couch). $14.50-$34, depending on the kit (beginner, intermediate, advanced).

No Winter Blues

We just set our clocks back, so you know winter is just around the corner. And if last year was any indication, this one’s going to be a doozy. As the temperature drops, the kids will be spending more and more time indoors, and the last thing you want is a bunch of bored minions to entertain. Here are a few of the latest fun toys that are perfect for quelling cabin fever.

baymax rocket fist1Baymax Rocket Fist and Mask (Bandai)
Baymax Armored Figure (Bandai)
With Disney’s new movie, Big Hero 6 just hitting theaters, the toys can’t be far behind. We saw the movie at a press screening and it was one of the cutest we’ve seen in a long time., albeit a little sad. The young genius, Hiro, will be a big favorite but it’s the silly and huggable—and inflatable—robot, Baymax who steals the show for children.  The mask looks just like the one Hiro makes for Baymax, but it’s not a full helmet, so it’s easy for small hands to get on and off. The Rocket Fist actually works, launching the fist part when the wearer (you know you’re going to try it) pulls the trigger inside. The flying fist is soft, so it won’t hurt anyone, but keep it away from breakables. Ages 4 and up. The Rocket Fist and Mask are about $23 on Amazon.

baymax armored figureThe Baymax (Armored) Figure is a really cool toy that’s sturdy and nicely articulated (meaning you can bend the arms and legs). It also has retractable wings, which makes flying around the house a real breeze. Okay, it doesn’t really fly, but don’t tell your child. Best of all, it looks exactly like Baymax, which is a very big deal for young super-heroes-to-be. 4 and up, $10 at Toys R Us.

 

 

monster high catacombs

Monster High Freaky Fusion Catacombs Playset (Mattel)
Let’s get one thing out of the way up front. Some of the clothing on the Monster High dolls is a bit too risqué and not very appropriate for young kids (it’s certainly not anything you’d let your child wear to school, even on Halloween). But the dolls themselves are innovative and fun, and fit in with our current macabre fascination with zombies and monsters. So if your child is a Monsters High fan and/or saw the recent “Monster High: Freaky Fusion” movie (which featured the Catacombs under the school), this is a great gift. Just grab the dolls before your child gets to them and dress them a little more wholesomely. The dollhouse itself is very different than any other dollhouse your child has ever played with—and that’s a good thing. For ages 6 and up. Retails for about $110 (dolls are not included) at http://www.mattel.com or your favorite retailer.

fisher price battle roverImaginext Battle Rover (Fisher Price)
Part vehicle, part play set, the Battle Rover has it all: projectiles, disk launchers, lights, sound effects, voices, a crane, a pull-out saw and drill, a kid-operated control panel, and plenty more. And let’s not forget about the detachable space shuttle that’s got plenty of features of its own. Wow, that’s a whole lot of play in one toy, and it’s sure to keep your little one entertained for hours at a time. You can add a bit of education to the mix by reading your child some stories about similar, real-life rovers that have explored the moon and Mars. For ages 3 and up. $120 at http://www.fisher-price.com; a little less at retailers like Kmart.

Aww, Shoot

What is it about shooting things that kids (yes, that includes girls) like so much? Does it even matter? We think not. If you and/or the kids are looking for some high-energy activities that build hand-eye coordination, cooperation, and teamwork, you’ll want to check these out.

air storm firetekair storm z-tekAir Storm Firetek Bow (Zing)
Air Storm Z Tek (Zing)
The Firetek is the latest addition to Zing’s exciting Air Storm line of archery toys. The bow and the arrows (actually whistling, screaming foam darts that can fly more than 100 feet) light up, making Firetek just fun at night as it is during the day. The Z-Tek bow-and-arrow sets look similar, but they don’t light up, but they’ll provide hours of entertainment during the day.  The entire Air Storm line is built with safety in mind: the launch mechanism works only with Zing’s foam darts. The Firetek and Z Tek are both for ages 8 and up. Firetek comes in green or red, ships with three screaming darts, and retails for about $29.97. There’s also a pink Air Huntress Firetek Bow for the Hunger Games fans in your house. Z-Tek comes in several colors, ships with three darts, one of which has a suction-cup tip, and sells for about $20.00.

zano bowZano Bow (Zing)
The Zano (Zing-speak for “nano”) is about a third the size of its cousins, Firetek and Z Tek, but it packs just as much entertainment into that smaller package. The Zano fires soft, foam zarts (Zing-speak for “darts”) up to 30 feet, and the suction-cup tips make it perfect for indoor play—as long as you’ve put all of your fine China and Ming vases out of reach. Comes with three zarts and a snazzy wall target. For ages 4 and up. Available for under $10.00 at your favorite retailer.

atomic shield popperAtomic Shield Popper (Hog Wild)
Generally speaking, shooting toys are offensive weapons, and very few people ever consider the need for defense. Well, the folks at Hog Wild have come up with an ingenious way of combining both functions: Load your foam balls into the unique, gravity-fed launch system, pull back the “hammer” and let ‘em rip—right through the shield, which is perfect for protecting you from return fire from the bad guys. Although the balls (six are included) are foam, they move pretty quickly and pack a pretty good punch, so you’ll want to use the Popper outside. For ages 4 and up, retails for under $20.00

idrive sunglassesiDrive sunglasses (iDrive)
One could reasonably argue that sunglasses don’t have all that much to do with shooting. But these iDrive glasses would be the exception. Their polarized lenses all but eliminate glare, which makes it a lot easier to focus on your target. And there’s something about those same lenses (which provide 100% protection against all types of UV rays and reduce eye fatigue) that makes anything you look at pop out. But best of all, these sunglasses just make you look incredibly cool. So even if you’re not hitting your targets as accurately as you’d like, no one will notice.  For ages 5 and up, $69.99, at http://www.izonesunglasses.com

An important, final note. Although these shooting toys are, well, toys, it’s important that your children learn to use them responsibly. In our house, that means absolutely no aiming or firing at pets or at anything above the knees on a human. No exceptions, no warnings, no second chances, and no excuses.

Workouts for the Brain

Game nights are a great way for families to spend quality time together. But every once in a while, you need to shake things up a little, right? Here are three wonderful, mind-expanding activities that mom, dad, 2.5 kids (but not the dog) will enjoy.

Brain Benders puzzlesBrain Bender cubeBrain Benders (Alex Brands)
Brain Benders offer puzzle lovers a very different experience—visually, physical, and intellectually. Brain Benders pieces are made of wood (instead of flat cardboard), and you’ll use them to assemble a sphere, two different cubes, and double-pyramid shape. Besides patience and ingenuity, you’ll need some pretty well-developed spatial- and logical-thinking skills. Don’t have them? No problem. You’ll develop them pretty quickly. Having four puzzles makes it easy for families to spend time together—and compete against each other or the clock. One warning: Even though there are illustrated instructions for how to solve each puzzle, the pieces from three of the puzzles are very similar—and aren’t interchangeable. We put dots on the bottoms to help us keep the pieces organized by puzzle (one dot on all the pieces of one puzzle, two dots on another). For ages 8 and up. Available your favorite retailer for $9-$15 or at www.alexbrands.com

elements 4d blocksElements 4D (DAQRI)
Elements 4D consists of six beautifully designed, white blocks. Each face (a total of 36) is dedicated to a single element from the Periodic Table of Elements (remember that from High School?). Beside the name, there’s the symbol (O for oxygen, H for hydrogen, and so on) and the atomic number (how many protons in one atom of the element). But when you view them through a smartphone or device running the free, augmented-reality app, those blocks go from nice-to-look-at to amazing (or, as my middle schooler put it, “coooooool”). You get a more information and a virtual representation of the element. But wait, there’s more! Put two blocks next to each other, and you’ll see the chemical reaction and the resulting compound. For example, oxygen and hydrogen are both gasses, but together they become water. Similarly, combine sodium (actually a metal) with chlorine (a gas) and you get salt. These visuals upgraded “cool” to “awwwwwwesooooome.” Overall, Elements 4D is a fantastic way to introduce or develop an interest in chemistry and it’s an engaging resource for home or school. There are several small issues. First, the actual blocks are hard to find in stores. But if you go to the manufacturer’s website, you can print out paper versions, which still work with the app. Second, the app is available only on Google Play and iTunes, which leaves out those of us who primarily use Windows phones. Third, only 36 of 118 elements are included. But that could actually be a good thing, driving an interested child to want to learn more. http://daqri.com/elements4D-mobile/

tanglecard instructionstangle cards finishedTangle Cards (Zentangle)
After a long day putting together complex wooden puzzles and experimenting with virtual chemical reactions, your brain could use a break. And Tangle Cards (also called Yoga for Your Brain) are just the ticket. Based on the Zentangle books by Sandy Steen Bartholomew, Tangle Cards guide you through the calming, creativity-stimulating process of drawing beautiful designs. Start with simple lines and curves and gradually add more and more detail. The books have more detailed instructions than the cards and include photos of Bartholomew’s inspiration. But the cards are more portable—and just as meditative. A great parent-child(ren) activity and a smartphone-free way to keep kids occupied. For ages 5 and up. Books cost around $12, cards around $10. http://www.zentangle.com/

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Have you noticed lately that a lot of your favorite toys from the 80s are making a comeback? Some, of course, never completely left—they just moved to less-prominent shelves and were overshadowed by the latest and greatest. But others seem to have suddenly resurfaced, like zombies returning from the grave (except they don’t bite and we’re generally glad to see them). Either way, despite those promises you made to your parents that you’d never be like them, you may find yourself giving your own children the very same toys you played with back in the day.

Care BearCare Bears (Just Play)
Bringing toys out of retirement can be a risky business. In many cases, the new ones are similar, but they sometimes look as though they’ve been run through a funhouse mirror: legs too long, eyes too wide, head too small, etc. Not so with Care Bears. New-generation ultra-plush Bears look very much like the old ones. And their mission hasn’t changed at all: teach kids about responsibility, caring, sharing, empathy, and being a good friend. That’s a pretty big job for a little bear, so it’s a good thing they still have those magic “belly badges,” just in case they need a little help from Care-a-lot. Care Bears come in a variety of sizes and retail for $3 to $25 at places like Target and Amazon.com

Doodle BearDoodle Bear (Just Play)
Doodle Bears are sweet, cuddly bears that you can create your own artwork on. When you need a new look, just toss Doodle in the wash (in a pillowcase or “delicates” bag), hang him out to dry, and you’ve got a brand new canvas. The original Doodle Bear comes in three colors, or you can get the Glow Doodle Bear, where kids do their doodling with light. Each one comes with special, Doodle-Bear-Only markers (Glow comes with a magic light pen and stamps). Available for $20 and up at your favorite retailer.

k'nexK’nex (K’nex)
K’nex have been around for ages, and are one of America’s top building sets. They have unique shapes and snapping pieces, bricks, struts, and big, flat swatches to hold the pieces together. The old sets were pretty free-form: dump the pieces out on the living room carpet and build whatever you want. Today there are all sorts of targeted sets that are based on old classics like Nitendo’s Mario and today’s sensations like Plants vs. Zombies (in this case, it’s a zombie-fied football helmet). But just as it was when you were a kid, your imagination is your only limit. Most sets work with each other, so the more you collect, the more you can connect. You may even be able to combine your old ones with your child’s new ones and take the building-bonding experience to a whole new level. Prices vary greatly, depending on the size of the kit. Available at retailers everywhere or at http://www.knex.com/

movie viewerFisher-Price Classics Movie Viewer (The Bridge Direct)
While not exactly an 80′s toy—the first Movie Viewers were introduced in 1973—the new versions look just like the ones we played with as kids. And despite being very low-tech, they’re just as much fun. Movie Viewers work exactly the way they did when you had yours: slide a cartridge into a slot, and turn a hand crank to play the “movie.” You can go forwards, backwards, fast, or slow.  Comes with two cartridges (one for learning letters, the other for numbers). If you still have your old Snoopy cartridges, they should work too. No batteries required. Available for about $30 at https://www.fatbraintoys.com or http://www.fisher-price.com/

Fly Me to the Moon—Well, Almost…

People have been fascinated with flight ever since the first human set eyes on the first bird. And even if we can’t do the actual flying ourselves, there’s something about launching things into the sky that’s almost as good. This week we had a chance to review three different toys that go up—way, way up—and come back down. One stays airborne for just a few seconds, the other two for at least a few minutes. All three have made it on to our current faves list, and we’re sure they’ll be on yours as well.

strat-o-slam poof slinkyStrato-Slam Rocket Battle Blast (Poof-Slinky)
When it comes to flight, this is about as low-tech as it gets (short of simply throwing something into the air). But the lack of flashing lights and whirring motors does nothing to detract from the high-fun levels. The design is simple: slide a foam rocket onto one end of a flexible hose that’s attached to an adjustable launching dock. The other end of the hose goes into a round chamber that’s a little bigger (and a lot quieter) than a whoopee cushion. Stomp on the chamber, and your rocket takes off. The harder you stomp, the higher it goes—up to 200 feet, according to the manufacturer. Hard to verify, but we can say that our rockets were so high up that we could barely see them. The Strato-Slam comes with six foam rockets and two launching docs, air hoses, and chambers, and is literally a blast. That second chamber more than doubles the fun by adding an element of head-to-head competition. For ages 5 and up. Retails for about $37. http://poof-slinky.com/

hot wheels street hawkStreet Hawk Remote Control Flying Car (Hot Wheels)
Any self-respecting Pixar fan knows that cars can talk, make plans, and fall in love. But can they fly? If you ask Hot Wheels, the answer is a solid Yes, much to the joy of all those little (and grown up) boys and girls who can’t get enough of those miniature race cars. Made of light-yet-very-durable foam, the Street Hawk handles well on the road—as long as there isn’t much wind. When you and the kids get tired of gravity, switch to flight mode and you can fly your car as high as 200 feet. The lightweight construction makes doing airborne tricks easy. But it’s a little hard to control in the wind, and soft landings take a lot of practice. Fortunately, it’s such a great way to spend time with the kids that you won’t mind those minor inconveniences. Ages 8+. Retails for as low as $55. http://shop.mattel.com/

sky viperSky Viper Camera Drone (Skyrocket Toys)
The bad news about Sky Viper is that if you want to master its four blades and six-axis gyroscope, you’ll have to put in some serious practice time. The good news is that it’s so engaging and entertaining that you (and the kids, if you let them near it) will be tempted to call in sick to play with it. The control unit has everything you need to do flips, barrel rolls, and other stunts (some are pre-programmed, others you’ll figure out on your own) and take video (up to 30 minutes) or stills (more than 1,000). Either way, it’s amazing what you can see from up there. The included data cable makes transferring images to your computer or YouTube a snap. The control unit requires 4 AAA batteries (not included) and the drone itself charges very quickly. It also comes with a very handy set of replacement blades. Ages 12 and up. Retails for around $80. http://www.skyrockettoys.com/

Little Hands-on Play

That old expression about idle hands is absolutely true: when those little paws aren’t kept busy, they get into trouble. Here are some great ways to keep hands—and the associated minds and bodies—occupied, stimulated, and active.

Mini Golf Set (Alex Toys)
This new mini golf set from Alex Toys is great for even the smallest kids and is easy to set up and play. It comes with four balls, two clubs, six different circus-themed “holes,” and a handy carry bag so you’ll at least have a chance of keeping the pieces from ending up all over your house. And speaking of the house, this golf set can be used inside or out. Armin’s a big fan of swinging things around indoors, but Sam sees indoor sports as an accident waiting to happen—even if the balls are foam. The choice is yours. Either way, the clubs are easy to swing and perfectly sized, which is excellent for hand-eye coordination. For ages 3 and up. Available for $37 at http://www.alextoys.com/product/mini-golf-set/

Barbie Fashion Design Maker Doll (Mattel)
Does your little miss think she’s the next Donna Karan? If so, let her get her fashionista on and knock herself out by designing and creating cool clothes that her doll can actually wear (and yes, Barbie herself is included). This kit comes with Barbie, shoes, a necklace, eight sheets of printable fabric (we’ll get to that in a second), glitter trims and accessories, fabric ruffles, and a portfolio to store her creations like real designers do. What’s especially fun is that your little designer can design just about anything she can imagine using the proprietary app- or web-based software, print out her visions on the printable fabric, peel off the back like a sticker, and dress Barbie to the nines. The whole idea is very clever. For ages 6 and up. Retails for about $50 on mattel.com or at your favorite retailer. Refill packs are available.

First Builders Fast Tracks Raceway (Mega Bloks)
While your little miss is busy designing her Barbie, your little mister can build a racetrack. This fun kit from Mega Bloks comes with two racecars, a total of 50 pieces and a whole bunch of stickers so you and the kids (of either sex, of course), can customize to your hearts’ content. And since it’s completely compatible with all other Mega Bloks sets, why limit yourselves to a race track? Build an entire racing village—or a scene from the movie Cars. For ages 1-5. Sells for about $20 at http://www.megabloks.com or stores near you.

Z-Line Ninjas Playset (Playmates Toys)
This kit is not for the faint of heart—you’ll need a lot of space, a lot of patience, and plenty of adult supervision. But it’s well worth the trouble. The basic playset comes with a gargoyle launcher (where the zip adventure begins. Launchers attach easily to your wall—and can be removed just as easily with no damage), zip lines, c-turns for going around corners, a New York City backdrop (which also sticks to your walls) and more. Just set up the lines and send most of your Turtle action figures (sold separately, unless you already own some) flying all over your house, hot on the trail of Kraang and Shredder. The bigger sets (Water Tower Washout and Billboard Breakout) include more line and more options, but require more space. Prices range from $20-$30  at Toys R Us and other stores near you.

The STEAM Train Rides Again

There’s a growing recognition that STEAM—Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math—skills are key to our children’s future success. And we’re big believers that kids should start learning these skills as young as possible. This week, we had a chance to explore a number of science-based kits, several of which are aimed at kids as young as four. We had a lot of fun experimenting, and so will you. But please remember that even though kids are the target, you’ll need to be there to supervise.

groovy lab in a boxGroovy Lab in a Box (Groovy Lab in a Box)
There are a lot of science kits on the market (many of which we’ve reviewed here), but Groovy Lab in a Box kits are the only ones that come with absolutely everything your child (under your watchful eye) will need to do the experiments. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, but a few missing ingredients could mean that the kit goes back on the shelf and never gets used. That won’t be a problem here. You can buy individual boxes or do a monthly subscription. We reviewed the Here Comes the Sun kit, which takes you through the process of building a solar balloon, a solar oven, and more. The ingredients are easy to use and the results are fully functional. But in some ways, the Lab Notebook is the best part, introducing the scientific process and explaining the concepts behind the experiments in a fun, engaging way that will leave the kids (and you too) wanting to do more. There’s also a website with activities and interactive videos that take the young scientist deeper in each specific kit’s subject matter. Single kits cost around $36, but if you do a year subscription, the price goes down significantly. http://www.groovylabinabox.com/

my first chemistry kitmy first science kitmy first electrified labMy First Chemistry Kit
My First Science Kit
My First Electrified Energy Lab (all from Scientific Explorer)
These kits are a blast and do exactly what they’re supposed to do: taking the scary out of science and make it cool. The Chemistry Kit is a great instruction to science for kids as young as 4. With your help, they’ll learn to make powders appear and disappear, turn liquids to solids, and a lot more. Also aimed at the youngest future scientists, My First Science Kit has a rainbow theme with eight different experiments that teach about colors, what happens when you mix them in different ways, and how to capture a rainbow in a tube. The Electrified Energy Lab is for slightly older kids—8 and up—and it packs in enough science to do 28 different experiments, including a building a battery tester, burglar alarm, and egg-cooking solar oven.  All these kits (and many others in the line) are based on the Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS) program which was developed at UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science. Prices range from $17-$30. http://poof-slinky.com/

crazy aaron's thinking puttyCrazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty (Putty World)
Not your father’s Silly Putty. You can tear it, smash it, stretch it, pound it, roll it, leave it under the couch, and it never dries out. Use it as a stress-reliever, draw on it with a black light pen, or use it to illustrate a whole host of science-based concepts, including measuring the speed of light, capturing shadows, defeating fingerprint scanners, and a lot more. If you run out of ideas, there are all sorts of fun, educational tricks and experiments on the website. Comes in dozens of colors priced at $9-$12. http://www.puttyworld.com/

Build Me a Hero

With great toys comes great fun—especially when you combine two childhood favorites: building and super heroes.

guardians knowhereguardians starblasterMarvel Superheroes Knowhere Escape Mission (Lego)
Marvel Superheroes Galaxy Starblaster Showdown (Lego)
Both of these great kits from Lego star characters from Guardians of the Galaxy. The Knowhere Escape Mission is a pretty large set, great for bigger kids or collectors. It has 433 pieces, and comes with 3 mini-figures (Rocket Raccoon, Nebula, and Sakaaran) plus a comparatively giant Groot who’s poseable. There are all sorts of cool features that will keep kids (and parents) entertained for hours—even if they aren’t terribly familiar with the movie or the comic books. There’s a tower with a trap door, spring-loaded bazookas, a catapult, Rocket’s custom spaceblaster, a sword for those less-technically inclined, and the all-important orb. The Galaxy Starblaster Showdown is less than half the size, with 196 pieces, but it’s just as much fun. This one has three figures, including Star-Lord himself. The Starblaster and Necrocraft spaceships can battle each other head to head. Each has adjustable wings and a cockpit that opens. And to help the good guys catch the bad guys (or vice versa) there are plenty of weapons (including blasters and missiles), a pair of boot thrusters, and even a set of handcuffs, something you don’t often find in Lego kits. Both sets are for ages 6 and up and retail for about $40 and $20 respectively. http://shop.lego.com/

sprukits batmansprukits achillesSpruKits Batman Arkham City (Bandai)
SpruKits LBX Achilles (Bandai)
Just introduced at Toy Fair in February of this year, SpruKits have a great future ahead of them. They’re a wonderful combination of poseable action figure, and assemble-it-yourself model. SpruKits claim that their figures snap together without glue, scissors, or paint, and they’re absolutely right. And when you’re done snapping, you’ve got a sharp, very detailed, well-articulated, five-inch figure. The kits come in three building-skill levels, clearly marked on the front of the package. The two we had a chance to review were both Level 2. Batman, with 95 pieces, took a little less than an hour to put together and stood up to quite a bit of knocking around. The LBX (Little Battlers Experience) Achilles has 102 pieces and took a bit more than an hour to complete. He was just as detailed and great looking. But our testers had trouble keeping the pieces together, so he was more of a show piece, which was a bit frustrating. That’s a problem that we’re sure the manufacturer is rectifying right now. For ages 8+. The price point is terrific: about $10.00 for Level 1, under $20 for Level 2, and $60 for Level 3 at your favorite retailer.

yomen star wars yodayomen star wars trooperClone Trooper YoMen Yoyo (Yomega)
Yoda YoMen Yoyo (Yomega)
If you’re a yoyo fan, the new YoMen will make your head spin. Well, not yours, but Yoda’s and a Clone Trooper’s, which is more fun and less dangerous. If you’re not a yoyo fan, you really should be. While they don’t exactly fit this column’s theme of building and superheroes, the YoMen yoyos do require a bit of assembly (the head is the yoyo and it fits nicely on to the body/stand). And who’s to say that there won’t be an epic superhero battle between Yoda and Batman or Star-Lord and a Clone Trooper one of these days? But until then, you’ve got yourself an elite-level yoyo, which should keep you busy and entertained. For ages 8 and up. Retails for about $17 on line, in stores, or at http://yomega.com/