Are We There Yet? Almost…

Those last few days of holiday shopping can be incredibly stressful. Not to worry: we’re here to help. These items are widely available, won’t break the bank, and are pretty much guaranteed to make your kids light up like a Christmas tree or Menorah. And don’t forget to check out the latest winners of the Mr. Dad Seal of Approval.

tummy stuffersTummy Stuffers Wild Ones! (Jay at Play)
Jay at Play is making some pretty awesome stuff, including the new Tummy Stuffers, which accomplish something many parents struggle with: getting their kids to clean up after playtime. Children absolutely love stuffing their toys into the Tummy Stuffer’s mouth—you’ll be amazed how much fits in there. Tummy Stuffers come in six animal styles, all in wild, funky colors that the kids will adore.  $20 (buy a big one, and you get a little one free).  https://www.buytummystuffers.com/.

janimalsJ-Animals (Jay at Play)
J-Animals are the first “wearable stuffed animals”—part costume, part PJs, all fun. They come in three sizes, (small, medium, and large, of course), which will accommodate everyone from the smallest kids to medium-sized adults. You can be a cat, zebra, dog, giraffe, or unicorn. They’re soft as fleece, and  when you finally (and reluctantly) take them off, they roll up into a little ball that looks like a pillow or stuffed animal. $29.99 at https://www.buyjanimals.com

bright eyes blanketBright Eyes Blanket
These guys are perfect for naptime, bedtime, and especially travel. Every blanket has an animal face and paws (choose from Playful Puppy, Kool Kitten, Darling Duck, and Precious Panda). Besides being cute, soft, and highly snuggly, their glow-in-the-dark eyes make a perfect nightlight. $19.99 on www.brighteyesblanket.com or your favorite retailer.

power rangers morpherPower Rangers Super Megaforce Deluxe Legendary Morpher (Bandai)
Power Rangers are hot right now (aren’t the always?), so if you’re shopping for a boy under 11, your search for the perfect gift is over. Morphers are souped up cell phones that let the kids call up any of the powers and zords that have appeared on the show over the last 20 years. Use any Ranger Key (two are included) to unlock special lights and sounds.  $29.99 at retailers everywhere.

q rex megazordQ Rex Megazord (Bandai)
For those of you who don’t speak Power Ranger, Megazords are the big ones, the ones that let you mix and match powers and features from each individual Ranger’s zord to create, well, a mega zord.  Use the included Ranger Key to unlock Q Rex’s spinning drill arm. Q also works with other zords you might have in your collection (go ahead and admit it, you sometimes play with Power Rangers after the kids go to sleep).  $35 on http://www.bandai.com.

lego furry creatureCREATOR Furry Creatures (LEGO)
It’s really hard to go wrong with LEGO, and whether your little builder is a boy or a girl—or you want something the whole family can enjoy together—Creator sets are a guaranteed hit. This set comes with all the pieces you need to build a cat, a mouse, even a little piece of cheese.  Better yet, you can take your cat apart and rebuild it into a puppy or a rabbit. Also available in Forest Animals, Rainforest Animals, and others. Around $20 at http://shop.lego.com

lego laketownAttack on Lake-town (LEGO)
Got a little fan of “The Hobbit” or “Lord of the Rings”? Or maybe you’re the fan and you’ve decided that it’s time to introduce them to your children. Either way, the new Attack on Lake-town set includes everything—and everyone—you need to help Tauriel and her Elven warriors defend their land from those awful Orcs. Includes five mini-figures (Bain son of Bard, Bard the Bowman, Tauriel, and two Orcs ) and some very useful weapons—a lot of stuff for $30. At http://shop.lego.com and retailers everywhere.

Are We There Yet? Patience Patience…

The relentless holiday frenzy that started just after Halloween is almost done. But plenty of us haven’t finished our holiday shopping. Here are some great, almost-last-minute gifts that you and the pre-tweens, actual tweens, and teens in your life will love doing together.

bouce off mattelBounce-Off (Mattel)
Bounce-Off’s playing field is a 6×6 grid; you and your opponent bounce colored ping pong balls into that grid, trying to match the design one of nine challenge cards. It’s simple—but not easy. It’ll probably remind you of one of those carnival games at the county fair where you spend $50 trying to bounce a ping pong ball into the mouth of bottle so you can win a giant panda that you don’t really want (and could have bought for $25) and is too big to fit into your car anyway. But it’s a lot cheaper and a lot more fun. For 2-4 players ages 5+. $17.99 at places like Target. http://www.mattel.com/

future car revensburgerScience X Fueling Future Cars (Ravensburger)
Sure, everyone talks about solar power and fuel cells, but does anyone know exactly how they work? By the time you’re done putting together this very cool model, you and your child certainly will. Start with the guide, which explains what an electric car is and what the components are. Then the real work starts. The kit comes with almost all the switches, solar cells, magnets, and other stuff you need to conduct nine separate propulsion-related activities (you supply the battery). You and your child will have a great time discovering the future of automotive technology. And the cars you build actually work. Ages 8+. $44.99. http://www.ravensburger.com/us

girlmazing jeep jadaGirlmazing (Jada Toys)
This is a line of remote controlled cars aimed at girls. You can get a Chevy Camaro, Ford Mustang, Lamborghini Murcielago, and a Jeep. All are 1/16 scale and customizable (each one comes with lots of colorful stickers). And speaking of colors, they’re pink. I honestly don’t understand why so many products for girls have to be pink—as the dad of three daughters, I can assure you that girls are interested in other colors as well. But pink or not, they’re a great way for parents (especially dads) to connect with their daughter. The Jeep is $24.95, all the rest are $19.99. At your favorite retailer. http://www.jadatoysinc.com/

hyper charger rc jadaHyperCharger R/C vehicles (Jada Toys)
Bye-bye batteries! The vehicles in this new line come with a built-in, rechargeable battery—just plug in to almost any device with a USB port. Choose from a Bentley Continental, Camaro, Mustang, Dodge Challenger, Scion, Chevy Silverado, and Ford F-150. Great fun for the R/C enthusiast and his or her children (yes, that means you have to share). Ages 6+. Cars are $19.99, trucks are $24.99. Available at Walmart and Amazon. http://www.jadatoysinc.com/

skinz studio roseartGraphic Skinz Design Studio (RoseArt)
A really unique, fun toy that tweens and teens will want to use over and over. The concept is similar to those rub-on tattoos, but it’s a lot cooler. It starts with a battery-operated suction chamber. Then, grab any object that will fit in that chamber, pick one of the full-color skinz, and let ‘er rip. Chambers are around $29.99 and the kits (each includes a snap-together-and-apart model and six skinz) run $12 – $20. Available at retailers everywhere. http://www.roseart.com/

mrdad seal of aproval And Finally…
If you’re looking for gifts especially for the dad who’d rather spend time with the kids than get another tie, check out the winners of the Mr. Dad Seal of Approval for the 2014 Holidays. More than 30 great

Staying Connected With the Family Gift Guide

girl who saved christmasThe Girl Who Saved Christmas (by William Thomas Thach, illustrated by Richard Bernal)
Imagine what Santa would do if all the world’s children were bad—except one? Santa decides to deliver lumps of coal to all the bad kids, and offers to shower Molly, the lone—and lonely—nice kid, with anything she could possibly want. But Molly reminds Santa of the importance of forgiveness. A sweet story that captures the essence of the Christmas Spirit. $24 at amazon.com or mollychristmas.com

gracie's nightGracie’s Night: A Hanukkah Story (by Lynn Taylor Gordon, illustrated by Laura Brown)
Gracie and her dad don’t have much money, but on her way home with sweaters, snow boots, mittens, and warm socks for pops, she sees a homeless man with holes in his shoes, wearing a threadbare coat, huddling in a cardboard box. Gracie knows exactly what to do, and comes home with empty hands and a full heart. A charming story about a different type of Hanukkah miracle. $8.50 at amazon.com



sing and swing olaf


Disney Frozen Sing and Swing Olaf
Your young one’s heart will melt when Olaf starts belting out his famous song, “In Summer,” from the hit movie, Frozen. Wearing his trademark hat and cane, Olaf also dances to the beat. Requires 3 AAA batteries (included). About $36.50 at Toys R Us, Walmart, and others.

frozen karaoke disneyDisney Frozen Flashing Lights Karaoke Machine
An easy-to-set-up, easier-to-use karaoke machine that lets you sing along with the hits from Frozen, complete with flashing lights. You can also connect your own device or use the built-in CD player to perform all of your other favorites—even some that, gasp, aren’t from Disney movies. Comes with one hand-held mic and two inputs so duets are a definite possibility. $50-80 at retailers everywhere.

renny home hubRenny HOME Smartphone Hub and Loud Wireless Ringer for Cell Phone (Olens Technology)
Never miss a phone call at home again, even if your phone is on silent, vibrate, upstairs, or in the car in your garage.  It has audible caller ID and allows you to either answer or ignore calls hands-free. Streams music from your smartphone too. $139.99 at many retailers. www.olenstechnology.com



justin power pack


Justin Power Bank (Innovative Technology)
We all know how incredibly frustrating it is when your phone or tablet dies and there’s no place to recharge it. With Justin’s power banks and power sticks, those frustrations will be a thing of the past. The one we tested had 10,000mAh, which means it’s got enough juice to completely charge a smart phone five times. It also has two outgoing ports which allow it to charge two devices at the same time, all using standard- and micro USB. Great for the family on the go. Prices vary depending on capacity.

d-link range extenderD-Link DAP-1320 Wireless Range Extender (D-Link)
Plug this sleek device into a regular outlet within range of your router, and with one click, you’ve just extend the range of your home network—even to those hard-to-reach areas like basements, upstairs bedrooms, or outdoor areas. This way, you’ll be able to web-surf, play games, watch movies, or text the kids who are all the way on the other side of the house (or room).  About $25 at retailers everywhere. us.dlink.com/

cell phone jailCell Phone Jail
This is more of a metaphor than an actual product. We urge you to join with Foresters (a financial services company) to take the Tech Timeout challenge and give your family a daily one-hour break from all things electronic. After all, what better gift could you give to your family (and yourself) than some undivided attention. Download the pledge form at techtimeout.com/#anchor_pledgewall

Gentlemen—and Ladies—Start Your Consoles…

For many kids (and tweens, and teens, and—let’s face it—adults, too), gaming is a part of life. It can be a great way to unwind by yourself or (better yet) to log some major parent-child bonding time. As you put the finishing touches on this year’s Holiday lists, you may want to include a few of the following for your favorite gamers (or gamer wannabes).

wii deluxe bundleWii U Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Set Bundle (Nintendo)
Do you own a Wii U yet? If not, you won’t find a better way to start than with the Wii U Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Set Bundle, which includes the Mario Kart 8 and Nintendo Land games, an MK8 steering wheel, and, of course, the deluxe 32GB Wii U console, complete with a Mario-themed red Wii remote (or Wii-mote).
The Wii U is Nintendo’s sleek, new console, which has next-generation graphics that are comparable to the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Images and textures are sharp, the sound is clear, and the characters look like they’re about ready to hop right off the screen to join you on the couch.

Speaking of screens, the Wii U GamePad controller, with its 6.2-inch touchscreen, is the star of the show. The GamePad has dual analog sticks, the usual buttons (A, B, X, Y, Home, Select, and more), as well as left- and right trigger buttons. Use it to control action on the TV screen or to access additional features such as in-game maps. Oh, and you can even use it as a TV remote control. If you’re just getting started, this bundle is a very good deal at $299.99. You’ll find it at your local retailer or http://happyholidays.nintendo.com

super smash bros.Super Smash Bros (Nintendo)
If you’re not ready for the Wii U or you just prefer to play on the 3DS, Super Smash Bros. is the way to go. This fighting game has a host of Nintendo and non-Nintendo characters who face off in multi-person, last-man-standing battles. Each character has different weapons, different speeds, different heights and weights, and different ways of attacking. That should make it pretty easy to decide who your favorite is—and who your arch-enemy is too. What’s especially nice about Smash Bros. is that there are just a few buttons, which makes it easy for players—even complete novices—to master their character fairly quickly. Super Smash Bros. for 3DS is available now for $39.99 from all major retailers and the 3DS e-store.

pokemon art academyPokémon Art Academy (Nintendo)
For a somewhat less enervating gaming experience, take a look at Pokémon Art Academy, a Pokémon-themed version of Nintendo’s highly successful Art Academy. This one includes 40 lessons that will have anyone and everyone painting, sketching, and drawing the Pokémon characters you know and love. It starts with a stylus on the 3DS. But the Academy introduces kids (and their parents) to an incredible variety of media (including paint, pastel, pen, pencil, and a few others that don’t start with P), and teaches them skills and techniques that they’ll be able to use in real life and that go far beyond Pokémon. Pokémon Art Academy costs $30, and you can download it digitally or buy a hard copy at your favorite retailer or on the Art Academy website at http://artacademy.nintendo.com/pokemon/

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/