Building a Childhood

Kids and building go hand in hand: Make it bigger, higher, better, greener—whatever strikes their fancy that particular day. Not only are building toys a good time, but they‘re also great for parent-child bonding, and have been shown to improve motor skills, hand-eye coordination, social skills, cooperation, creativity, spatial skills, and more. No wonder we love ‘em so much!

play doh minionsPlay-Doh Disguise Lab Featuring Despicable Me Minions (Hasbro)
Sometimes we all feel like minions. But what do minions do when they want to feel like someone else? Enter Play-Dough Disguise Lab. Just put your minion into the hair styling chair (one purple minion, one yellow minion, and chair are included) and give him as many silly and crazy hairstyles as you’d like. Your child will have so much fun with this, and you will too. You can trim their hair, choose different colors, and even make things that Minions love like ba-na-nas. The kit also comes with scissors (not sharp), a comb for styling, and four cans of Play-Doh. With the Minion movie coming out this summer, this Play Doh kit will be even more popular. About $18 at Toys R Us and other retailers.

 

lego batman penguin3 LEGO DC Comics Batman: The Penguin Face off
LEGO, of course, are great building toys. With a dizzying number of sets and sizes to choose from, there’s something for every kid (and every parent) to play with. “LEGO DC Comics Batman: The Penguin Face” off lets kids recreate and act out their favorite superhero moments. In this kit, the goal is to help Scuba Batman bring justice to that diamond-stealing, umbrella-wielding waddler, Penguin and his minions (no, not the yellow ones—this villain’s minions are robot penguins). The kit comes with Batman and Penguin (and two minions) mini-figs, the “diamond,” a ton of weapons—including Penguin’s umbrella, and all the ingredients to build Batman’s scuba vehicle and Penguin’s duck boat. Penguin and the duck boat appeared in the recent movie “LEGO DC Comics Super Heroes: Justice League vs. Bizarro League.” The title is quite a mouthful, but it was pretty funny, and a good flick for the whole family (especially all those LEGO and/or Superheroes fans). If your child isn’t into superheroes and prefers something a little more “real,” take a look at the Swamp Police Starter Set, which comes with four mini-figs, an alligator, boat, raft, “hideout” spot, and quite a few accessories, including a spider, snake, handcuffs, walkie talkies, a shovel, and more. Ages 5-12. Batman is about $13, Swamp is about $10. http://shop.lego.com.

bun bunBun Bun! (The Bridge Direct)
If you think that all building toys have to be blocks or bricks and have hard edges, you need to meet Bun Bun. These cute, cuddly (and collectible, of course) animals were created to be stacked and piled up. Stacking plush toys have already created a splash in Japan and other countries, and they’re just now hitting the US markets. Bun Bun combines two things kids love: building and animals which is great. Better yet, both boys and girls we tested Bun Bun with loved them and couldn’t get enough. The first wave of characters includes Kit Kit (Cat), Moo Moo (Cow), Pup Pup (Dog), Shu Shu (Monkey), Bit Bit (Mouse), Pip Pip (Pig), Bai Bai (Polar Bear), and Bon Bon (Rabbit), and they come in four sizes: mini (4”) small (7”) medium (10”) jumbo (16”). But regardless of the color, size, or animal, Bun Bun encourages kids to be creative and get their engineering on. For all ages. Prices range from $5 to $20. http://www.bunbuntoys.com/

You’re Outa Here

Spring is in the air, so let’s get outside and start having fun!

backyard adventures base camp shelterBase Camp Shelter (Backyard Safari Outfitters)
Journeys—whether they’re a thousand miles or just out to the backyard—start with a single step. But before you start stepping, you need to plan out where you’re going to rest along the way. The Base Camp Shelter is a 3-sided tent, which means you won’t want to use it in the rain. However, it’s perfect for fair-weather overnights, rest stops, shade at the beach, or as a place to observe birds, bugs, and other natural wonders. It has a zippered rear window, moisture-proof floor lining, mesh storage pouches that you can fill with healthy snacks for your weary adventurers, and D rings for hanging lanterns and other gear. It’s also light, extremely compact, easy to carry, and sets up in minutes., thereby removing many of the obstacles that keep kids from enjoying being outside and encouraging them to get out and start having adventures. Ages 5+. About $49. http://www.backyardsafari.com/

Star Wars Science Jedi telescopeStar Wars Jedi telescope (Uncle Milton)
Star gazing is a classic parent-child activity, one that can spark an interest in ancient mythology and/or science. There’s plenty to see with the naked eye, but a telescope can make the whole experience a lot more fun—and educational—for everyone.  The Jedi telescope works like a real telescope, allowing a closer look at the moon, stars, planets, and other celestial objects. When you and your child get tired of seeing things the way they are, you can always explore that famous galaxy far, far away. The Jedi telescope has 10 Star Wars-related images built in, including planets such as Tatooine, Dagobah, and Kamino, and even the Death Star. Ages 5+. $22.00 http://unclemilton.com/star_wars_science/

backyard adventures walkie talkieWalkie Talkies (Backyard Safari Outfitters)
Communicating with basecamp is an important part of any outdoor adventure. And with its two-mile range, you can give the kids some freedom to explore without losing contact. These walkies come two in a pack and include basic instructions and an adventure guide, but not the 8 AAA batteries you’ll need. They’re easy to use and the sounds quality is good—as long as you’re in an open area where there’s not too much to interfere with the signal. Perhaps the nicest thing about these walkies is that they allow you to communicate with your child the old fashioned way: using words. No texts, no apps, no data plan required. $30. Ages 6+. http://www.backyardsafari.com/

little scholar school zone tabletLittle Scholar tablet (School Zone)
When the adventure is over, it’s time to get back to the real world. And the Little Scholar tablet can help with that transition. Made by School Zone, which has been manufacturing educational materials and products for more than 35 years, the Little Scholar comes preloaded with 150 apps, e-books, songs, and videos, all of which are ready to use right out of the box. The apps are the full versions, which means there’s nothing to download and none of those annoying in-app upsells that we’ve seen in some other tablets. The apps cover a wide range of subjects, including math, spelling, and reading in a playful, creative way. Popular titles include the “Start to Read!” E-book series and the “Charlie and Company” video series. The password-protected A+ app is designed for parents, and lets us pick the apps our kids have access to and monitor their progress. Little Scholar runs on Google Android 4.2.2 and has an 8-inch screen with 1024×768 resolution. For kids 3-7 (anyone older than that will want a more adult tablet). $169.99 at online retailers and www.buylittlescholar.com .

No More Bedtime Battles

Getting the kids to go to bed—and actually stay there—can be of the most challenging parts of any parent’s day. The best solution is to have (and keep) a good bedtime routine. But what’s a harried mom or dad to do when the routine doesn’t work? Sometimes, having the right helper is just what the Sandman ordered. Check out some of these fun and innovative new products for bedtime and beyond.

melody mates blanketMelody Mates (Melody Mates)
Most kids (and most grownups too) want a soft, snuggly blanket to cuddle up with. And what could be better than one with a gently glowing, soothing animal face on it? Melody Mates actually goes one step further, pairing the blanket with a matching (and washable, yeah!) pillow. Push a button and calming lullabies play and the LED lights glow—just enough to be friendly and put an end to those bedtime battles, but not nearly bright enough to interrupt sleep (that would be evil, wouldn’t it?). Soft, plush Melody Mates come in six flavors, including cow, duck, frog, and monkey. For ages 12 months and up. About $30. Unfortunately, batteries aren’t included. www.MyMelodyMates.com

broboBrobo (Brobo)
If you haven’t met Brobo and his friends, we’re glad to introduce you. These fun, adorable, cuddly buddies first hit the market in 2012 but were pretty hard to find until now. There’s Brobo himself, Pep, Mumu, Trex, and Dog. All of them have a futuristic, robot feel and a glowing center that looks like Iron Man’s Arc Reactor. They’re great company for your little one, and they’ll definitely help scare away the darkness when it’s time for lights-out. The glowing center has a very bright “flashlight” mode and a much-less-bright nightlight mode. Just swipe a hand (or tail) over the lights to activate. Both shut off automatically after five minutes. $35 at www.brobo.com

 

ok to wake clockOK to Wake! Clock (Patch Products)
If you’ve got a child who gets up at 5am when you were looking forward to sleeping in, the OK To Wake! clock will be your new BFF. The clock will let you child know—even if he or she can’t tell time—when it’s okay to get out of bed and demand breakfast or cartoon time. Just set the desired time and the faceplate will light up. And for those weekday mornings when the kids would like to sleep ‘til noon instead of going to school, the OK to Wake! just switch to alarm clock mode. You can also use it as a night light. Batteries required. $33 at http://www.patchproducts.com

dino petDino Pet (BioPop)
Although Dino Pets are shaped like dinosaurs, they don’t really have very much to do with those prehistoric reptiles. The Pet’s name comes from dinoflagellates, which are the bioluminescent phytopankton that live inside its clear, plastic body. (Yes, we know that dinoflagellates sounds like a dinosaur that has gas or is being whipped.) Like most other pets, Dino Pets are alive and are fun to play with. Unlike other pets, you don’t have to take them for walks or clean up after them. You will have to feed them with the provided Dino Food, though, but only once every few months. During the day, the algae soaks up energy from the sun or low-wattage lightbulb. But at night, they put on an amazing light show—all you have to do is touch the dino’s body or gently shake it. Part night light and part science project, Dino Pets are absolutely fascinating. $59.95. Additional dino food is $14.95, and if your colony suddenly goes extinct, you can order refills for $49.95. http://biopop.com/products/dino-pet

Making Spring Clean and Colorful

When Daylight Savings begins, you know that Spring can’t be far behind—and neither are Easter, Passover, and Spring cleaning. This week, we review some Easter bunnies, outdoor art adventures, and a decluttering marvel.

3d sidewalk chalk3D Sidewalk Chalk (Thames & Kosmos).
The folks at Thames & Kosmos can’t help themselves: they include a really fun, educational component in everything they make. Their new 3D Sidewalk Chalk is no exception.  The kit comes with plaster power, dye, mixing cups, molds, and 3D glasses. The fun starts by making your own chalk by mixing the plaster powder, dye, and water (not included). Then, pour the slurry into the molds. When it hardens, you’re ready to start creating art. Here’s where the science comes in: when you put on the 3D glasses, your drawings seem to jump off the sidewalk. The instruction manual explains how and why that happens and includes directions for making rainbow chalk, and more chalk science experiments. Ages 8 and up. About $15. http://www.thamesandkosmos.com/

crayola sidewalk chalkSidewalk Chalk Mega Pack (Crayola)
Crayola’s sidewalk chalk doesn’t have much science behind it, which means it can focus on what Crayola does best: giving kids tools to make colorful art. The Mega Pack includes 12 large chalk pieces: 3 neon, 3 glitter, 3 tie dye, and 3 basic bold colors. No instructions required. The chalk itself is especially easy to clean up—just hose it off—a big plus if your neighbors are persnickety about their sidewalks. Unlike most other sidewalk chalks, these pieces aren’t cylindrical, which means they won’t go rolling down your driveway into the street—with your child running after it. Ages 6 and up. http://www.crayola.com/

 


alex washable bunnyColor & Cuddle Washable Bunny (Alex Toys)

How many times has your child “decorated” a favorite stuffed animal with a Sharpie? If that sounds familiar, you’ll love Alex Toys’ Color and Cuddle line. The idea is pretty simple: make a toy that’s snuggly, let kids draw on it, and allow them to change their mind whenever they want. And that’s exactly what happens: color, wash, repeat—as many times as you’d like. The only rule is that your young artist needs to use the included markers. The Washable Bunny is perfect for Easter. Other options include a bear, a doll, and a pony. Ages 3 and up. All are about $21. http://www.alextoys.com/

 

funshine easter bearFunshine Easter Bear (JustPlay)
This 16-inch, soft, cuddly, plush gets your child’s best Care Bear ready for Easter too. Cleverly disguised as a bunny—complete with Easter Bunny ears—Funshine is a great addition to any Holiday basket. $24.95 at Amazon and elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

fujitsu ix500 scannerScanSnap iX500 Scanner (Fujitsu)
When we think of “spring cleaning” the images that come to mind usually have to do with sweeping and mopping and maybe reorganizing the garage. But what about all that stuff in your file cabinets? Worse yet, what about all the stuff—including those boxes of old photos—that should be in file cabinets but is sitting around in piles? The ScanSnap iX500 can help. It’s incredibly easy to install and even easier to operate. Drop in a stack of documents, press the button (there really is only one), and in seconds all that paper is transformed into pdfs or Jpegs. Then you can save it to your computer or upload directly to Dropbox and other cloud services. The ScanSnap handles everything you can throw at it, from business cards to long (up to 34 inches)  documents. Put it in crooked? No problem. ScanSnap straightens is out. Upside down? It’s rotated automatically. A great way to keep those important family documents and memories organized. $499.  http://www.fujitsu.com/us/products/computing/peripheral/scanners/scansnap/

Family Fitness: Strike a Pose and Get Ready to Sweat

We all know how great exercise is for us—it’s been shown to have positive effects in almost every area of our life, whether that’s reducing disease risks, combatting depression, or just improving overall wellbeing. But exercising together as a family has some additional benefits. Of course, there’s the bonding part. But besides that, family exercise provides some built-in motivation, encouragement, and can add an element of (hopefully) friendly competition. If you and/or your family are relatively new to exercise, here are a few ways to help you take those first steps towards lifelong fitness. But please, before you start any kind of exercise routine—especially if you haven’t worked out in a while—check with your healthcare provider to make sure it’s appropriate for you and your unique circumstances.

lazy lizards yoga mat and dvdLazy Lizards Yoga mat and DVD (Lazy Lizards)
If one or more of your kids is wiggly and impatient, yoga is a great way to redirect some of that surplus energy. A tremendous amount of research has been done on kids and yoga and there are many documented benefits, including increased strength and flexibility, better ability to manage stress, lower obesity risk, improved balance and agility, fewer sports injuries, and better on-field performance. Some studies even suggest that yoga may encourage creativity, improve memory, and boost academic performance. Yoga, of course, can be done alone, but it’s also a wonderful family activity. The Lazy Lizards yoga mat is the perfect size for children, and has 12 kid-friendly poses printed right on it. There’s even an empty space where kids can draw their own pose. These mats are eco-friendly (meaning they’re made from phthalate-free materials and are recyclable) and come in four colors. Kids can do their own yoga practice by following the illustrations on the mat, or you can pick up the Lazy Lizards yoga DVD, which includes a more structured workout, which includes the little-known pizza pose. The mat is $32, the DVD is $17.95, or you can get a combo for $44.95, all at http://www.lazylizardsyoga.com/ and other retailers.

doyogawithmeDoYogaWithMe
If you’ve got older kids, DoYogaWithMe is a great resource. The website has dozens of free yoga videos that range from 15 minutes to more than an hour. There are three levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced) and 17 styles to choose from. The instructors are uniformly excellent and the workouts are just as good as you’d find at your local yoga studio. http://www.doyogawithme.com/

sears fitstudioSears FitStudio (Sears)
Sears’s newly re-launched FitStudio is a free, one-stop site that offers a variety of workouts (complete with short video demos of each exercise), a large library of articles on fitness and nutrition, and reviews of dozens of fitness-related products. Once you register (it’s quick and free) FitStudio helps keep you motivated by giving you rewards for incorporating movement into your daily life. If you have a fitness tracker or other similar device, you can connect it to your FitStudio account. You can earn points for walking two miles, burning 1,500 calories, or achieving some other fitness goal you’ve established. You can redeem those points for discounts on merchandise from Sears, sears.com, or kmart.com. Find out more at https://www.fitstudio.com/

sportline sync watchSportline Sync Heart Rate Watch
We’ll be reviewing advanced fitness trackers and fitness-enabled smart watches in future columns, but if you’re looking for a good quality, inexpensive tracker with a lot of features, you can’t go wrong with this one. Besides telling time (you’d be amazed at how many fitness trackers don’t), the Sportline Sync Heart Rate Watch measures steps taken, distance traveled, calories burned, and heart rate. About $50 at Sears and other retailers.

You’re Imagining the Whole Thing

Imagination is a wonderful thing. But in an era of “teaching to the test” and laser focus on grades and performance, it’s in short supply. A large body of research shows that children who engage in imaginative play have larger vocabularies, think more flexibly and creatively, and do better in school than less imaginative kids. And as they get older, those children turn into adults who have more empathy for others, work better on teams, are more adaptable, and generally have more fulfilling careers. And it all starts with stories. Here are some of our favorite imagination- and creativity-stimulating toys.

safari figurinesFigurines (Safari LTD)
Safari LTD makes a dizzying variety of figurines that are perfect for imaginative play. Whether your children’s fantasy world takes them to a farm, a faraway land, under the sea, or has them playing with mythological creatures (or maybe a mash up of the above), Safari’s figurines will be at their side for years to come. They’re fun to collect and meticulously detailed and painted, so your first reaction may be to put them on a shelf and admire them. But they’re quite sturdy, meaning they can survive a dog attack, being tossed out a window (not that your child would ever do that), or a washing machine adventure. You’ll find creatures in all shapes and sizes at https://www.safariltd.com/

haba puppetsPuppets (HABA USA)
HABA puppets are great for children of any age (HABA recommends age 1 and up, but as they’re soft and don’t have any loose parts or buttons, they’re okay for younger kids too.) HABA’s puppets easy to manipulate—one finger for the head, thumb for one arm, and middle finger for the other—and their cheery, smiling faces make them irresistible. You can get individual puppets or assemble groups of themed characters such as Red Riding Hood and a royal family for more involved stories. There’s also a whole line of delightful finger puppets. Oh, and they’re machine washable (hang to dry) too. Most are around $15. Visit http://www.habausa.com for choices.

folkmanis puppetsPuppets (Folkmanis)
With their attention to detail and creative designs, Folkmanis puppets are visually stunning. They’re also as plush as high-end stuffed animals. That combination makes mom and dad want to play with them as much as the kids do. The puppets vary in size and articulation, but they’re always wonderfully unique, with wings that flap, heads that spin, tails that uncurl, tongues that stick out, and more. Some of them are easy for small hands, but some require five fingers, and others need two adult-sized hands to operate. These puppets will get everyone’s imagination working. If your dragon breathes fire on imaginary an imaginary villages and kidnaps the LEGO residents, you can send brave knights up to vanquish it. Or maybe the hero is a princess from a neighboring kingdom. There are literally hundreds of puppets. See all the newest ones at http://www.folkmanis.com

yottoy girl scout dollGirl Scouts Friendship Dolls (YOTTOY)
YOTTOY brings fantasy and real life together with its new line of soft Girl Scouts Friendship Dolls. These dolls promote what the Girl Scouts are all about: friendship, diversity, and taking care of the community. They also bring in an element of fun and personal style. One especially nice feature is that they come in several ethnicities, which means that your child can play with characters who look just like her (or close to it) and create her own Girl Scout meetings, go on camping trips, or sell cookies. Friendship Dolls retail for around $17 at YOTTOY, Walmart, and GirlScouts.com. Or visit http://girlscoutsfriendship.yottoy.com/where

To Tech or Not to Tech? How ‘Bout Both?

Although we love toys that don’t have an on/off switch, there’s definitely a time and place for apps. Here are two very clever games that combine tablet and touch, a sleek tablet, and something totally low-tech.

tigglyTiggly
Recent research shows that young children are spending so much time on tablets that they their muscle tone and hand-eye coordination aren’t developing the way they should. That’s where Tiggly comes in. Tiggly develops interactive apps that incorporate object manipulation to help kids build spatial- and fine-motor skills, creativity, and reasoning. Tiggly Counts is an award-winning math-learning game for kids 18 months to 6 years old. To get the correct answers to simple math questions, kids have to physically put the right number of special Tiggly devices in the right place on the screen. Tiggly Shapes brings the same basic technology to shape- and pattern recognition. Each game comes with the appropriate devices and several additional apps. They’re colorful, entertaining, educational, and kids can play by themselves or with mom and dad. For Android and iOS (sorry Windows Phone). $30 on http://get.tiggly.com/counts.

painting luluPainting Lulu
Part coloring book, part app, Painting Lulu is a delightful blend of technology and design. It starts with an actual paper coloring book (remember those?) where kids start their drawings. Then they (or a nearby adult) scan their drawing into a tablet using the free Painting Lulu app. The art shows up on the screen, where those little artist can color, erase, retouch, and change as much as they’d like (using the included digital crayon, of course—wax and screens are not a good combination). When the masterpiece is complete, print it out and send it off to Grandma and Grandpa. For iOS and Android devices. Sells for $9.99 on http://www.paintinglulu.com.

camelio skinCamelio Table (Vivitar)
The Camelio Tablet is great for families that would like everyone to have a tablet but don’t want to spend the dough on each one; hey, those things can get pricey. Camelio features Android 4.1 and can accommodate up to five users using “Personality Packs.” Those packs allow each user to customize wallpaper, camera, widgets, lock screens, games, and, of course include a themed skin for the device. Prices vary. http://www.cameliotablet.com/

burg watchBURG Smartwatches 
There are a lot of smart watches out there, but BURG watches are among the very few stand-alone phones, meaning you can make and receive texts and calls without being connected to any other device (although you can if you want to). BURGs accept SIM cards so you can take them on the road, and you may be able to add yours to your wireless family plan. Features vary widely depending on the model. The BURG 25 has as 2.0MP camera, step- and calorie counters, and GPS. The 16A doesn’t have any of those. But both have MP3/MP4 players, Bluetooth, calendar, calculator, alarm, and can store up to 500 contacts.  Prices vary by model. Aat major retailers and www.burgwearables.com 

silly mcgillySilly McGillly
And just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, and gleefully devoid of technology, comes Silly McGilly, who’s the Irish version of the “Elf on the Shelf” or “Mensch on a Bench”—an impish little elven creature who plays tricks and creates mischief leading up to his favorite holiday. McGilly comes with a book and an adorable little leprechaun that will help you and the kids spend some quality time together between last-minute runs to the grocery store for green food coloring. The little leprechaun doesn’t have a beard and is about as huggable—and as far from scary-looking—as it’s possible to get. The set retails for $29.95 at www.sillymcgilly.com.

Screening Entertainment

Our agent is still trying to set up the Parents@Play TV show and action figures. Meanwhile, pretty much everyone else seems to have one (the Kardashians? Really?). Over the next few months we’ll devote occasional columns to toys and games with TV and/or movie tie-ins. This week, we take a look at one character who’s made the transition from small screen to big, and a family of characters who seem perfectly content—for the time being—with being on TV. Keep your eye out for dinosaurs, minions, superheroes, and more.

zhu stunt petAmazing Zhus (Cepia)
After a brief hiatus, Cepia has brought back the much loved Zhu Zhu pets, and they’re cuter, fuzzier, and smarter than ever. Cepia also expanded the Zhu Zhu family by introducing the pets’ cousins, the Amazing Zhus, who will dazzle with you with jaw-dropping feats of magic. There are two types of Amazing Zhus: the hat-wearing magicians—The Great Zhu and Madame Zhu—and the stunt pets Kardini, Dynamo, Picadilly, and Abra. There’s definitely a family resemblance: the Amazing Zhus and the Zhu Zhus are all adorable, they make cute sounds, the electronics and robotics are amazing, and they’ll keep your child (and you) entertained for hours. The main difference is that the Amazing Zhus are hard plastic instead of plush. Both magicians come with a card trick and magic wand and retail for about $30. The stunt pets are sold separately or in multiples, each for about $13. Batteries are included. http://www.cepia.com/

amazing zhu disappearing box2Amazing Zhus Magic Tricks (Cepia)
With the Amazing Zhus Magic Tricks, your child becomes the magician—and those stunt pets start earning their keep. The pets can jump off a high dive into a bucket of water 20 zhu-zhu sized stories below (that’s about three feet for humans), perform a nail-biting, death-defying tightrope walk through a ring of fire, dance and spin on a circus ball, and vanish (and rematerialize) in a magical, disappearing box. The effects are clever and are easy enough for small hands to control. Plus, your preschooler will love the confidence and applause that comes from mystifying audiences. Each trick is sold separately and prices range from about $8 to $18. http://www.cepia.com/

spongebuddySpongeBuddy Squarepants (Nickelodeon)
SpongeBob’s worldwide appeal—like the Kardashains’—still baffles us.  But there’s one area where SpongeBob beats the Squarepants off of the Kardashians: he has his own movie, and a whole line of toys to go with hit. The SpongeBuddy, like the “real” SpongeBob, is squishy to the touch and will get you smiling (and sometimes groaning) no matter how hard you try to avoid it. His eyes and mouth move, he makes all sorts of sound effects, and he tells a variety of G-rated jokes. He’s also wonderfully interactive. If you turn him upside down, he’ll complain, and if you ignore him for more than a few minutes, he’ll make a few sarcastic comments and then go to sleep—complete with snoring. He’s available wherever you buy your toys for about $30.

spongebob krabby patty makerSpongeBob Talking Krabby Patty Maker (Nickelodeon)
Unlike SpongeBuddy, this SpongeBob is made of hard plastic. He’s also not as talkative: most of what he does say is directed at the “tasty, juicy, scrumptious, warm, steamy” Krabby Patties. But he’s still a lot of fun to play with. Besides a wisecracking sense of humor, he comes with 12 accessories, including a fry pan, grill that makes realistic sizzling sounds), a spatula, fries, and ketchup. And, of course, there are the stackable patty pieces which let budding chefs assemble their own Krabby Patties—with or without cheese.  All you need is some salt and a couple of AA batteries (included). Retails for about $25 everywhere.

Baby, It’s Still Cold Outside

If your family is one of the millions that have been affected by the recent Polar Vortex-induced weather craziness and you’re spending more time inside than usual, we’ve got some great ideas for fun, imaginative, affordable indoor play.

fashion doll coupeFashion Doll Coupe (American Plastic Toys)
You won’t be driving a real convertible for at least another few months, but there’s no reason why your child’s dolls and stuffed animals should suffer. This is a basic, no-frills, open-top roadster built for two. That means no batteries, and no remote control. It’s powered by plain, old fashioned imagination (and your child’s hands, of course). The plastic “tires” don’t leave those annoying black marks on your floors like rubber tires do. Made in the USA, the Coupe costs only $5.00 (really!) and is available wherever you buy your toys.

Fashion Doll Delightful DollhouseFashion Doll Delightful Dollhouse (American Plastic Toys)
If your little one has been hankering for a dollhouse, this is a great time to get her one (assuming you can find your car under all the snow). This dollhouse is huge—three entire floors—so big, in fact, that several kids (or parents) can play at the same time. It comes with plenty of furnishings and other accessories: several beds, a couch, ottomans, a bathtub, tables and chairs, lamps, a washer/dryer set, pillows, and more. And there’s enough room left over to accommodate anything you’d want to add. If you’re buying online, one particularly nice feature (for you, not the UPS driver) is that the dollhouse comes partially assembled, so you and the kids can be playing within minutes. The Delightful Dollhouse costs around $100 and is widely available. For $50, there’s also a smaller version, the Fashion Doll Cozy Cottage, which also comes with plenty of accessories.

hexbug tony hawk skateboardTony Hawk Circuit Board (Hexbug)
If you’re into fingerboarding, it would be hard to imagine a more fun way to play than this. The large kit we reviewed comes with pretty much everything you’ll need to build your own skate park: an inner bowl, an outer bowl, two quarter pipes, a roll-up ramp, a rail, and, of course, a skateboard. We’ve always loved Hexbug’s attention to detail and well-built products, and the Circuit Board doesn’t disappoint. All of the park components snap firmly together and have a realistic look and feel. The board itself feels quite real too, complete with grip tape and sticky-ish wheels. If your fingers get tired, you also get a Power Axle, a remote control unit, a tiny screwdriver, and even-tinier screws that you’ll use to attach the axle. The controls are a little odd—push the right stick and you go left, push the left to go right. But once you’ve mastered them, you’ll be ready to start grinding rails. $49.99. Hexbug.com

hexbug shark tankAquabot 2.0 Shark Tank (Hexbug)
You and the kids can have plenty fun with your robotic Angel Fish—at least until the shark decides to turn him into a meal (that part’s fun too). The kit comes with one Angel Fish, several pieces of decorative “coral,” a sturdy hexagonal tank, and a shark who’s attached to a ramp that snaps onto the side of the tank. When you push the shark down, his mouth opens; pull back and the jaws of death close. If you’re lucky, he’ll have a mouth full. You can increase your chances by dropping in a few more fish. Hexbug’s technology keeps getting better and better: This generation of fish are water-ready and go to sleep after five minutes of inactivity. You can wake them up, though, by tapping on the glass. $29.99. Hexbug.com

2015 Toy Trends to Watch

Every year, hundreds of toy manufacturers flock to New York, in the middle of February, to showcase their latest and greatest. Thousands of buyer s and media folks are close behind, anxious to uncover hidden toy gems for their customers and readers. This year was no exception (except for the fact that it was 20 degrees colder than usual), and your parents@play team was right there on the front lines. Here are some of trends that we think will be hot in 2015.

backpacksBackpacks. Backpacks are no longer simple bags with shoulder straps designed to carry stuff. This year, they’ll be a major fashion statement, too. They’ll be colorful, fanciful, often-customizable, and some will combine form and function, allowing the wearer to dress up as a favorite character.

 

 

owlselephantsOwls and Elephants Are the New Teddy Bears. Of course, we won’t be saying goodbye to teddy bears forever, but there’ll be a lot more hooting and trumpeting in the toy aisles this year. Owls and teddy bears plush toys will also showing up as book illustrations, mini figurines, and, of course, in apps (more on that below).

 

 

talking backTalk amongst Yourselves. Toys that “talk” are nothing new, but as technology evolves, manufacturers are using it in very clever ways. Minions, for example, are pretty chatty and musical. But sometimes, if you put a few of them together, they’ll sing in harmony. Some doctor toys will change what they say depending on which patient is in the exam room. Others will speak differently when their wardrobe or location changes. Dogs and cats may chase each after other, otherwise-peaceful dinosaurs may fight each other in groups, hot dogs will sizzle when you put them on the grill, and so on.

 

 

 

blind packBlind Packs. Many collectible toys, from My Little Pony to The Walking Dead, will be available in small bags that don’t say who or what is inside them (some may give you a hint, though).

 

 

appThere’s an App for That. Technology is a wonderful thing, except when it isn’t. A huge number of physical toys now come with a virtual component. Many times, these apps augment your child’s playtime experience by adding new app/tablet-based dimensions and features. But sometimes, the apps add absolutely nothing—and may even detract.

grossThat’s Disgusting. Last year, we saw molds for making your own “poop” (complete with pieces of “corn” to heighten the effect), fart keyboards, and rainbow-pooping unicorns. Those will still be popular. Plus, we’ll see toys that eat, poop, vomit, and then combine all of those actions in a variety of disgusting ways. And we’ll add a new sense to the mix with fart sprays—some make a noise and produce pleasant odors, while others have a more “natural scent.”

frozenFrozen. We thought the movie was wonderful. But Disney has done such a good job licensing its characters that they’ll be popping up on toys, games, dolls, karaoke, cell-phone cases, apps, and everything else, that we’re predicting that within a few months, you’ll have completely OD’d on building snowmen, and the cold will bother you. A lot.

dino/movieMovie and TV Tie-ins. Speaking of movies, you’ll be seeing a huge number of entertainment-related toys, games, figures, and apps. Of course there are the superheroes from DC and Marvel—including some relatively rare ones like Ant Man—but there are also Minions, dinosaurs, and a variety of new characters who’ll be making the jump from the screen to your playroom.

role playRole Play. Now kids (mostly girls) can do more than just play with their dolls—they can dress up as them with brand-licensed skirts, tops, and footwear.