2016 Travel Accessories

When you’re taking a family vacation, you need to be ready for anything. At the same time, you don’t want to pack everything you own and the kitchen sink. Here are some of our travel must-haves.

Galaxy S7 (Samsung)

samsung galaxy s7A good cell phone is absolutely essential, and at the risk of starting World War III, we prefer Samsung’s over Apple’s. To start with, the camera takes vibrant, sharp photos, and the number of available apps is dizzying. The S7 and S7 Edge are also water resistant, which makes them much more durable. And in our experience, Samsung phones age well—they last longer than other brands we’ve tested, and are less likely to get “glitchy” or slow down or freeze. Sprint, the network that Samantha uses, also pairs really well with the new Galaxy line and has some really awesome offers right now for both new and existing customers, making it the perfect time to upgrade. Options and prices vary, visit your Sprint store for details.


HERO4 Session (GoPro)

GoPro HERO SessionWhile your phone will likely double as your main camera for basic photography, most of us don’t want to risk losing or destroying it by taking it jet skiing, skydiving, snow tubing, into the ocean, or on a ziplining marathon. The HERO4 Session is the smallest, lightest addition to the GoPro family. It has a free app that connects it to your phone so you can see your photos and videos right away. You can hold it, mount it, and wear it, and it’s waterproof, so it’s up for any and all adventures. The HERO4 takes sharp, high-resolution, professional-looking video and retails for a reasonable $200. Smart remote sold separately. https://gopro.com/

Sara (NAOT)

sara - naotWhen you’re on the road, a good pair of shoes is critical and the Sara by NAOT is a great option. These gladiator-inspired sandals are not only super cute, but also super comfortable, and you can dress them up or down. They have an anatomic cork and latex footbed which is wrapped in oh-so-soft suede. And yes, they can get wet and still look and function just fine. The heel and back panels have additional lining and padding that’s remarkably effective in eliminating blisters and those weird “ow” spots from rubbing. That said, we still recommend that you break them in before going on a long hike. About $150. http://naot.com

Nosilife Apparel (Craghoppers)

craghoppers nat geo chimaHere’s a great way to stay warm and to keep away those dreaded bugs (especially the ones who might transmit the Zika virus) at the same time. NosiLife Apparel has both sun protection and Insect Shield insect repellent woven right into the fabric. The jackets are cute, comfortable, and perfect for summer weather excursions and cooler nights. For the kids, check out the new Nat Geo NosiLife Chima jacket, which is soft and lightweight, has front pockets, a zip front, and a hood. It’s also nearly impossible to wrinkle. For mom, we like the NosiLife Astrid Cardigan, which has neither pockets nor hood, but it’s soft, lightweight, hard to wrinkle, and easy to dress up or down, making it perfect for trips where you can’t pack too much. Prices vary. http://www.us.craghoppers.com/


RFID-blocking vest (SCOTTeVEST)

cottevest_womens_26_pocket_vest2This vest is perfect for when you don’t want to or can’t carry a giant bag, but still need to pack lightweight things like your camera, binoculars, phone, granola bars, wallet, maps, and so on. With 18 pockets, this vest can handle it all. Plus, SCOTTeVEST has somehow designed it so you won’t look like a marshmallow when it’s fully loaded. The vest has a special RFID blocking pocket to keep your passport and credit cards hidden from identity thieves. Pockets are on the inside, so your stuff is also safer from wandering hands. Comes in several colors and in men’s and women’s styles and sizes. About $135. http://www.scottevest.com/

Superhero Movie Figures

If you’re a fan of superhero movies, life is pretty good right now. Between reboots of existing hero stories (Batman, Spiderman, and X-Men, for example), sequels (Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Fantastic Four 2, Thor, etc.), first-time-on-screen heroes (Deadpool, Antman, Jessica Jones), and heroes who had cameos in current films but will be getting their own movies soon (Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Aquaman), you’re going to be spending a lot of time in dark theaters. This week, we take a look at some fun toys to keep you connected to your favorite heroes—and villains—during those long spells between movie releases.

Big Figs (Jakks Pacific)

 jakks wonder womanThese 19-inch figures, ripped straight from the new Warner Bros film, “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” are stunning. If you’re a collector, you’ll probably put these big figs on a high shelf somewhere and never touch them, which would be too bad, because they’re really fun to play with. We had a chance to review Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and the opportunities for imaginative play are endless. Act out scenes from the movie by pitting that buff alien from Krypton against the equally buff vigilante from Gotham City. Or have that buff warrior princess from the Amazons take on both of the boys. Each of these figures is highly detailed and has seven points of articulation and a cloth cape (in the case of Superman and Batman). They’re for ages 3+ and retail for about $35 each. http://www.jakks.com/


Justice League figures (Schleich)

schleich batman v harley quinnThe Justice League is DC’s answer to Marvel’s Avengers, and while they’ve been a little slower getting to the big and small screens, they’re catching up quickly. Schleich, which makes gorgeously detailed animal figurines (including dragons and other mythical beasts) has created a line of just-as-gorgeously detailed Justice League characters. They’re available individually or in pretty much any combination. One set of small figures features Batman and Harley Quinn (who, if you don’t already know, is Joker’s girlfriend and one of Batman’s adversaries. She’s been in the comic books and animated series, but will be making her first live-action appearance in the forthcoming “Suicide Squad” film). Another set comes with seven of the founding members of the League: Aquaman, Batman, Cyborg, The Flash, Green Lantern, Superman, and Wonder Woman. All of the figures are beautifully rendered, solidly crafted, and great to play with. For ages 4+. Prices vary widely.  http://www.schleich-s.com/en/US/


Marvel Avengers RC Rollover Rumbler (Jakks Pacific)

jakks avengers rollover rumblerIf you’ve seen “Captain America: Civil War,” you may be feeling the need to side with the Cap or Iron Man. But with this two-sided remote-controlled vehicle, there’s no need to choose. Each side is decorated with images and colors from either Team Red or Team Blue. Start off as Iron Man, and when you get tired of his sarcasm and inflated ego, flip it over and continue as Captain America. And when you’re sick of Steve Rogers’ brooding and pouting, flip back to the billionaire. The multi-function 2.4 GHz remote lets you barrel straight ahead, flip, roll, jump, or do 360-degree spins indoors or out and on almost any non-smooth surface. It’s a real blast for parents or kids and will keep you busy and entertained for hours. The only downside is that it you’ll need 10 AA batteries, which aren’t included. The Rumbler is for ages 4+ and retails for under $48. http://www.jakks.com/

Soaking up the Fun

The hotter it gets—and it seems to be getting hotter by the day in some parts of the country—the more people want to cool off. Running your air conditioning is one way to deal with the heat, but it can be rather pricey. A cheaper—and much more fun—alternative is to go outside and get wet. Here are some of our favorite ways to soak yourself and everyone around you.

Water Warriors water blasters (Buzz Bee Toys)

water blastersBuzz Bee Toys makes more than a dozen different water blasters, all of which are solidly made, reasonably priced, and really fun. The Gargangua uses air pressure and what they call “aggressive soaking technology,” which lets you blast people as far as 40 feet away. And it is, indeed, gargantuan, holding up to 78 ounces of water (more than half a gallon), which means you’ll be able to keep on blasting for a long, long time.  Just fill it up, choose one of three nozzle settings, and start soaking. The Outlaw is a little smaller, but what it lacks in water capacity (it holds up to 48 ounces), it makes up for in distance, outblasting Gargantua by two feet. Both of these blasters are easy to pump, so little kids will be able to hold their own against bigger, older, and stronger opponents. Gargantua is for ages 8 and up, Outlaw for 5 and up. Both are under $20. www.BuzzBeeToys.com


Water sprinklers (Prime Time Toys)

sprinklersRunning through sprinklers on a hot summer day is one of the best parts of summer. Sadly, millions of kids who live in drought-stricken parts of the country missed out for the past few years. Fortunately, reservoirs are almost up to normal levels, so sprinklers are back! The Hydro Swirl Spinning Sprinkler connects directly to a standard garden hose and comes fully assembled, so you’ll be ready to get drenched within seconds after unboxing it. The center fountain of the Swirl spins around, spraying water in all directions, and the squirting “wiggle tubes” ensure that no one escapes dry.  Like the Swirl, the Hydro Twist Pipeline Sprinkler also connects to a standard hose and has wiggle tubes. But this sprinkler also has two fountains. The droughts may be over, but you should still soak responsibly. Both are for ages 4 and up and retail for under $15. www.primetimetoys.com @goprimetimetoys


Bunch O Balloons (ZURU)

bunch o balloonsPreparing for a water balloon fight can take hours, filling them with water and tying them up one at a time.  Bunch O Balloons gives you an incredible advantage. Just attach it to your hose and in less than a minute, you’ve got yourself 100 filled, tied balloons, so you can get down to the serious business of battle while your opponents are still fumbling around. Bunch O Balloons come in a variety of colors. The pack we reviewed also included a scoop-like launcher, which can extend your range. It’s for ages 4 and up, and retails for about $13. http://bunchoballoons.com


Hurricane Water Balls (Prime Time Toys)

water ballsBunch O Balloons may speed things up, but eventually, you’ll run out of ammo. Not so with Hurricane Water Balls, which can be reused up to 1,000 times. The clever design allows you to refill the ball by simply dunking it in a bucket of water for a few seconds. Just like regular balloons, Hurricane Water Balls explode painlessly on contact, leaving your opponent wet but bruise-free. For ages 5 and up and anyone who’s looking for a more environmentally sustainable way to soak each other. They’re about $12 for a package of three. http://hurricanewaterballs.com

Gardening with Kids: One to Grow On

Like cooking, gardening is a great family activity. Growing and caring for plants helps kids learn teamwork, builds problem-solving skills, and encourages responsibility and independence. If you’re growing edible plants, gardening also gives kids (and adults) an important glimpse into where their food comes from. It’s also a great way to get kids to spend time outdoors. However, you don’t need acres of land to plant a garden. This week, we explore several ways to have a fulfilling family gardening experience without leaving your home at all.

TickleMe Plant (TickleMe Plant Company)

tickle me plantOne of the best ways to get kids interested in something is to encourage them to touch it. And plants are no exception. The mimosa has a variety of nicknames, including touch-me-not, shame plant, shy plant, and sleeping grass. But the name that we think little kids will like best is Tickle Me.  When you touch it, the mimosa folds its leaves together to protect itself. Touch it gently and one or two leaves will close. A little stronger and a whole branch might fold up. It’s a great visual lesson on the importance of treating living things gently. Ages 4+. $21.95 for a kit that includes seeds and three small, reusable pots. http://ticklemeplant.com/

Space Plant (DuneCraft)

dunecraft space plantMimosas also react when they’re exposed to heat or cold or are moved suddenly. DuneCraft calls its sensitive mimosas “Space Plants” or “The Amazing Moving Plant” and sells them in “micro terrariums” for $5-$10. http://www.dunecraft.com/

Fairy Triad (DuneCraft)

dunecraft fairy triadDo you have a little one who believes in fairies? If so, this adorable garden is for you. It comes with three magical plants that are used by real fairies (who knew?): Lobelia, to attract the fairies; Thyme, which allows you to see them; and Evening Star, to make special fairy brews. Also included are fairy bells, fairy dust, rainbow gravel, and an “actual” fairy, all of which fits into a clear-domed terrarium. Just be careful what you wish for. Ages 4+. Under $25. http://www.dunecraft.com/

Organic Veggies (DuneCraft)

organic veggiesOrganic vegetables are getting more common, but they still cost a lot more than their non-organic twins. The solution? Grow your own. Everything about these kits is certified organic: the seeds, the soil-less material you plant them in, even the pots. Choose from watermelon, eggplant, green beans, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, kale, and others. Start them off inside—they’re all very easy to sprout. Then, put the entire pot into a larger, outdoor space and, in a month or two, you’ll be dining on delicious, organic veggies. For kids four and up (who will be far more interested in eating vegetables they helped grow than anything you brought home from the market). Under $5 each. http://www.dunecraft.com/

Sprout ‘N Grow Greenhouses (DuneCraft)

sprout n grow strawberriesThese compact greenhouses are designed to fit on a windowsill and come with easy-to-grow seeds, planting mixture, and instructions. Choose from bananas, catnip, coffee, strawberries, sugar baby watermelons, sunflowers, and more. Under $10. http://www.dunecraft.com/

RootVue (HSP Nature Toys)

root vueAll the plants we’ve mentioned so far grow above ground. But there’s a lot of really cool stuff going on under the surface too, and RootVue gives you a worm’s eye view of all of it. It’s kind of like an ant farm, where clear plastic windows lets you watch how ants build tunnels. But with RootVue, you and the kids get a chance to see how root vegetables (carrots, radishes, and onions) grow—leafy tops up, roots down. The 16-page booklet has easy-to-follow instructions for doing a variety of experiments. When you’re done admiring your underground cornucopia, yank ‘em out and cook ‘em up. Ages 4+. About $30. http://www.hspnaturetoys.com/

Now You’re Cooking!

Cooking is a wonderful family activity on so many levels. It help build kids’ confidence and creativity, encourages math skills, teaches about cause and effect, builds hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills, increases the chance that they’ll eat healthier foods (unless all you ever make is dessert), and more, But most of all, it’s just plain fun. Here are some terrific products that will make cooking with your kids, well, a piece of cake.


Kitchen Tools and Utensils (Curious Chef)

curious chef-The brilliant minds at Curious Chef have a huge line of attractive, easy- (and safe-) to use, kid friendly kitchen tools that includes just about everything they (and you) could possibly need to measure, roll, cut, slice, dice, fold, knead, whisk, beat, strain, and otherwise prepare delicious meals. They even have recipes! Everything is designed to fit in little hands and to streamline the cooking process (our favorites are the color coded measuring cups, which all but eliminate measuring mix-ups). Prices vary. http://curiouschef.com/


Kitchen Accessories and More (Totally Bamboo)

cuting board - tree of lifeBamboo has become the go-to material for people looking for beautiful, high-quality, eco-friendly kitchen accessories. And no one does it better than Totally Bamboo. Their flatware is a stylish, reusable alternative to disposable cutlery. And at only $4 per set (fork, spoon, and knife), it’s a bargain. They also make mixing bowls and plates, but we especially loved their Tree of Life laser-etched cutting boards ($60), that feature images of exotic and endangered animals. See their whole collection at http://www.totallybamboo.com/


Fiesta Dinnerware (Fiesta)

fiesta luncheon plateEventually, all that meal prep will be over and it’ll be time to eat. And you’ll have tough time beating Fiesta for serving your edible creations. Fiesta has been around a long time—you may even have inherited a set from your parents or grandparents. And while the range of sizes and colors (which include plum, lapis, scarlet, and lemongrass), the quality remains the same. Everything Fiesta makes is dishwasher-, oven-, microwave- and freezer safe, and has a 5-year warranty against chipping (which won’t happen with normal use). Luncheon plates are $10.99 each. Prices for other items vary. https://www.fiestafactorydirect.com/


Canning and Storage Jars (Ball)

ball - blue-mason-jarBall has been making high-quality canning jars for more than 100 years. Their new Collection Elite honors the originals while introducing a line of never-before-released blue jars in three sizes. Of course, not everyone uses Ball jars for canning. They’re also great for storing dry or liquid ingredients, but getting stuff out of those jars can be a challenge. The new Wide Mouth jars with plastic pouring spouts have solved that problem. And for serious storage, check out their decorative half-gallon and gallon Super-Wide Mouth jars. Prices vary. http://www.freshpreserving.com/


Silicone Baking Molds (Freshware)

baking mold - madeleineFreshware makes a flexible, non-stick mold for just about anything you could possibly want to bake. But we especially love their dessert molds, which help you create cupcakes, cookies, Madeleines, tarts, candies, caramels, and many more deliciously sweet items that pop right out of the silicone and right into your mouth (after they’ve cooled down, of course). Some recipes are included. Freshware products are 100% food grade and oven-, freezer-, and dishwasher safe. Prices vary. http://www.freshware.com/


Savior (Ankomn)

Savior - AnkomnWhat’s a meal without leftovers? But did you know that the average American family throws out hundreds of dollars’ worth of food every year because it spoils? The Savior’s patented vacuum seal technology system (which doesn’t use electricity or batteries) will keep those leftovers fresh up to eight times longer, thereby keeping keep more of your money in your wallet, where it belongs. While it’s great at home, the Savior is also excellent for camping trips or other outdoor activities where you need to keep food from spoiling. It’s easy to clean, freezer- and refrigerator safe, and stackable. $69.99 for 1.5 quart size; $74.99/2.5 quart size. http://www.ankomn.com/

Come on, Kiddo, Time for Bed

Getting kids to go to bed—and stay there—is no easy feat. Many parents dread the nightly routine, starting kids who whine, cry, make increasingly bizarre demands, throw tantrums, and do anything else they can think of to stay up. If you’re looking to make bedtime a little sweeter for everyone, check out our new favorites. You can thank us in the morning.


Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood Snuggle and Glow Plush Toy

daniel tigerThis little guy, who comes with his very own Tigey toy, is great for young fans of the hit TV show, and any child who’s afraid of the dark. Daniel Tiger is dressed for bed in his trolley PJ’s, and has been practicing saying helpful and comforting phrases as well as singing the “Goodnight” song from Mommy Tiger. When you push Daniel’s hand, he’ll talk, sing, or just glow, depending on which “mode” you have him in. Tigey lights up too, and slowly fades as the “Goodnight song” winds down. It’s nice to have a familiar friend with you when you get scared, especially one who glows in the dark. Requires 3 (AAA) batteries (Included). Retails for around $25 at Amazon.

FlipaZoo (FlipaZoo)

flipazooFlipaZoo is a clever, comforting toy that’s great for both home and away. It’s actually two plushes in one and kids will love transforming it from one animal to another. For example, the dragon becomes a unicorn, the husky becomes a polar bear, and the cat becomes a mouse. The transformation is super easy for kids to do (no complicated zippers or buttons)—they just flip the top over and boom, new animal. FlipaZoos are soft, cuddly, and make great pillows for car rides, airplanes, road trips, or just snuggling with while watching a movie with dad and mom. They come in three sizes. $20 for the medium/regular size. http://www.flipazoo.com


The Little Prince and Fox plush toy (YOTTOY)

yottoy little princeBased on the popular book (and soon to be movie), “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, YOTTOY has created a delightful line of soft, cuddly toys that feature the traveling Prince himself and the always philosophical fox. You can choose between a 12” Prince (with fox, of course), or a 4” Prince who comes bundled with a copy of the book. Seeing how quickly your child falls in love with the Prince may inspire you to read (or rediscover) the book. It may also inspire your child to use his new plush friends to act out all mischief the book’s characters get into. The 12” Prince + fox is $29; the smaller set plus the book are $53 at http://www.yottoy.com/


Teddy Bears (Aurora)

aurora teddy bearsIf you’re in a more traditional mood, you can’t go wrong with Aurora’s line of Teddy Bears. They vary from “baby’s first” to the fuzziest furs and most interesting colors that kids will enjoy. Some of the latest are Smiley Buxley (with, of course, a fantastic teddy smile), and the fantastically detailed Horace and Smokey. The faces on these bears are just too sweet (you won’t want to put them down, so you might need to get an extra one for yourself), and your children will be delighted. Secretly slip one of these huggable cuties onto your child’s bed, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly those bedtime protests get derailed by the allure of a new fluffy friend who’s inviting him to come snuggle into sleep. Go ahead, enjoy your evening-you deserve it! Prices vary. You’ll find these bears and lots more at http://www.auroragift.com/aurorababy/


Building Strong Families

Working on a project together is a great way for families to connect and spend quality time together. This week, we review some of our new favorite building sets.

Construction Runner and National Geographic Dinosaurs (Laser Pegs)

laser pegs dinosLaser Pegs kits are compatible with traditional building systems, but they add an element of light (and, in some cases, sound), which makes them unique. The Construction Runner comes with a power base and plenty of pieces to build eight different machines (one at a time), including a front end loader, bulldozer, and a crane. The Dinosaurs kit is a lot bigger, and, in addition to the base, contains enough pieces to build 24 different dinos (again, one at a time), including a few we’d never hear of (Tapejara and Sauropelta, for example). Once you install the batteries (which aren’t included), your creations will flash, blink, and generally astound. Both are for ages 5+. Construction Runner retails for about $23; Dinosaurs for about $45. http://www.laserpegs.com/

Galax-Z Zooboddysey (Alex Brands)

zooboddyseyWith ZOOB, you don’t just build something and put it on a shelf. ZOOB’s unique ball-and-socket-type connectors, let you twist, turn, move, and redesign your creation—activities that help bring your playtime to life. ZOOBOdyssey (a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey”) is one of the stars in the Galax-Z line, a constellation of building kits with, as you might guess, an outer space theme. This kit contains 34 ZOOB pieces, a few important accessories (engine turbines, wing blasters, and more), a ZOOBonaut, and instructions for creating a number of different spacecraft, including a Robo Battle Station that transforms into a Time Warp Traveler and a Planet Observation Tower with an Interstellar Searcher. For ages 6+. $34. http://www.alexbrands.com/

Real Construction Deluxe Workshop (Jakks Pacific)

real constructionIf you’ve ever used real tools—hammers, saws, and so on—around young child children, you know how much they want to help. And you know how much you worry about them hurting themselves or someone (or something) else. With Real Construction kits, those worries are gone. These innovative kits allow your child to safely measure, saw, hammer, nail, screw, and assemble pretty much anything he or she wants. Real Construction Deluxe Workshop comes with a variety of pieces of “Kid Wood” (dense polyethylene foam), plastic tools (saw, hammer, screw driver, square), hardware (screws, nails, hinges), and plans for eight projects. Unfortunately, those plans aren’t nearly as clear as they should be, but there are very detailed instructions on the website. The pride and joy on your child’s face at having built something from scratch is priceless. Ages 6+. Prices vary. http://realconstructiontoys.com/

ICONX 3-D Metal Model Kits Queen Anne’s Revenge (Fascinations)

iconx queen anne's revengeFascinations has created several lines of building kits that are aimed squarely at builders who are looking for a challenge that traditional systems have a tough time providing. You start with several sheets of amazingly detailed, laser-cut metal. And after a few hours of thoroughly satisfying hand-eye- and fine-motor-skills-intensive work, you’ll end up with an even-more-amazingly detailed creation. In this case, it was the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the flagship of the 18th century pirate, Blackbeard. This ship is part of the ICONX line, which are especially advanced and not for the impatient. Other ICONX kits include the Taj Mahal and a stunning motorcycle. If you’re looking for something to warm up on, try their easier-to-build Metal Earth line, which include buildings and cars that are a great introduction to the techniques you’ll use with ICONX. Ages 14 and up. Queen Anne’s Revenge retails for about $16. But prices for other kits vary widely. http://www.fascinations.com/

Seeing and Doing Science

Scientists work in a variety of ways. One is by designing and conducting experiments, essentially saying, “Hey, I wonder what would happen if we did x, y, or z.” Another is to simply watch, as if to say, “Let’s look closely at all those stars and other bright things in the night sky and try to figure out whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa.” This week we honor both approaches: the hands-on science that we do, and the hands-off science that we observe.

Ant Farms (Uncle Milton)

uncle milton ant farmUncle Milton has been making ant farms for decades (in fact, they just celebrated their 60th ANT-iversary!). Over the years, ant-farming technology has changed and so have designs and materials. But what’s stayed remarkably consistent is how fascinating it is to watch these tiny animals dig tunnels, build bridges, and move mountains (little ones). The inhabitants of the original ant farms did their digging in sand. Their descendants can go old school with sand or dig in a nutrient-rich gel that eliminates the need for feeding and watering. Whichever way you go, you and your kids will have a wonderful—and very educational—time observing. And in case you’re worried, all the farms are break resistant and escape-proof. Under $20. For ages six and up. http://unclemilton.com/

Triassic Triops (Toyops)

toyops triopsRemember Sea Monkeys—those tiny creatures that almost miraculously came to life when you dropped their dried out little bodies into water? Well, Triops are similar, in that you reanimate them the same way. But these bad boys could eat your Sea Monkeys for lunch—quite literally. Relatively speaking, they’re enormous—easily reaching 2-3 inches. What’s especially cool about Triops is that the ones you get in your kit are identical to the ones that lived millions of years ago. They thrived and reproduced in wet climates, but went into a state of suspended animation (called “diapause”) when droughts came. Now you can revive them, just like Dr. Frankenstein—just be sure to follow the directions carefully (especially the water you use). Triops look positively pre-historic and are eerily engaging to watch. For ages 8 and up. Prices vary. http://www.toyops.com/

Science X Smartscope (Ravensburger)

ravensburger smartscopeWant to get a closer look at your ants, Sea Monkeys, or Triops? Smart Scope is for you. Just collect your specimen—which could be pretty much anything from water to rocks, feathers to insects, and slip it into the housing. Now here’s where it gets fun: put your smartphone or tablet on top of the housing and it becomes a digital microscope—without using an app (yay!). You can simply observe or, better yet, you can use your device’s camera to capture amazing images. For ages 8 and up. About $45. https://www.ravensburger.com

Ultimate Secret Formula Lab (Smart Lab)

smart lab Secret formulaHydraulics and fluid dynamics are all the rage this year, and this kit makes what could be complicated concepts accessible and fun. It includes a base station, test tubes, valves, plungers, petri dishes, clips, beakers, and enough chemicals to conduct 40 experiments that fizz, change color, disappear, crystalize, and defy gravity (clear, detailed instructions are included too). A delightful way to combine doing and observing. For ages 8 and up (adult supervision definitely recommended). Under $40. http://www.smartlabtoys.com/

MC2 Soda Pop Science Kit (Alex Brands)

Soda pop scienceAfter a long day of doing and observing science, you’re going to be thirsty. Why go out when you and your budding lab rat can whip up your own scientifically delicious fizzy sodas? This kit comes with citric acid, baking soda, some artificial flavoring, a couple of test tubes, and instructions for making lime, fruit punch, and cinnamon drinks. Ages 8 and up (adult supervision suggested). Around $16 at your favorite retailer.

Indoor Fun and Imagination

Summer’s almost here and we’re looking forward to spending plenty of time outside. But as we all know, summer sniffles, rain, or even excessive heat can keep families inside. Here are several great ways to keep busy—and entertained—indoors.

Bing-Bang Bounce (SmartLab)

bing bang bounceWarning: This toy makes learning about physics fun. The object is pretty simple. Set up a Mousetrap-like course where, if everything’s perfect, you use a launcher to fire a ball at a target. If you hit it, it launches a second ball at a new target. If that one hits, the third ball goes flying towards its target, and so on until you get the last ball into the “victory cup.” Along the way, you’ll be learning a lot about action-reaction, momentum, trajectories, angles, and, perhaps most important, persistence, because setting up your course will take a lot of trial and error and experimenting. Bing-Bang Bounce includes an adjustable blast-off launcher, four adjustable target launchers, four targets, and six Bing-Bang balls. About $34.50. For ages 8+. http://www.smartlabtoys.com/

Paw Patrol Create a Story
Despicable Me Big Wall (Colorforms)

colorforms - despicable meColorforms have been around since the early 1950s, so there’s a pretty good chance that you (and maybe even your parents) played with—and loved—them as kids. Over that time, Colorforms have been so popular that Time magazine recently added them to its list of the top 100 toys of all time. The technology is almost exactly the same as it was when you were sticking those pieces of vinyl to every shiny surface in your house.  But the playsets—which started off with Popeye in 1957—have definitely kept up with the times. We recently had a chance to review two new sets, which quickly brought back wonderful memories of childhood. Paw Patrol Create-a-Story ($16) includes 61 Coloforms and four different backgrounds. The Despicable Me Big Wall set ($20) includes a giant (2’ x 3’) play scene and eight giant figures. Both will keep kids 3+ entertained for hours, sticking and resticking, with no mess to clean up. http://www.colorforms.com/

Sew Science (SmartLab)

smartlab sew scienceCombine crafting, DIY electronics, and a little education, and you’ve got Sew Science. Each kit (there’s Cuddly Critters and GloBots) consists of a family of three doll-like figures that light up when they hold hands. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before the lights and handholding, your child will have to sew pre-cut felt-pieces together, fill them with stuffing, and use conductive thread to attach LEDs and snaps in the right places. (Don’t worry: although “conductive thread” sounds a little dangerous, it’s perfectly safe). Fortunately, there are complete instructions. Kits retail for about $20. For ages 8+. http://www.smartlabtoys.com/

Mo Willems Bus Soft Toy (Yottoy)

yottoy pigeon mo willemsThe latest book-based plush toys from YOTTOY look like they jumped off the pages of some of your (and your kids’) favorite children’s stories and right into your lap, which is right where you’ll want to keep them. The bus soft toy is based on Mo Willems’s classic, “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” and features profiles of the main characters (the pigeon and the bus driver). The bus itself is soft and huggable and very well made, with all the details embroidered and not printed or screened. If you’re in the New York area, there’s a wonderful exhibit of Mo Willems’s art at the New York Historical Society (nyhistory.org) that runs through September 25, 2016. Prices vary. For all ages. For information on YOTTOY’s other book-plush combos, including Paddington, Eloise, and The Little Prince, and other related products, such as finger puppets and book ends, visit www.yottoy.com/

New from Nintendo

If you’re looking for some fun, new video games, your search is over. Here’s what we’re playing with right now. All are great picks for kids of all ages and all are available at the Nintendo eShop, http://www.nintendo.com/3ds/eshop

Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon (for Nintendo 3DS)

Pokemon Mystery DungeonIn many Pokémon games, you play as a trainer (a human who trains and cares for the Pokémon). But there’s also an RPG series where you play as Pokémon, exploring, battling, and earning treasure. The most recent game in that series is Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon. Pick your character and a Pokémon friend, and you’re transformed into a young Pokémon who must explore dungeons to help solve a major crisis: Pokémon are being turned into stone. Throughout Mystery Dungeon, you can meet all 720 known Pokémon—even the rare ones. Wonder Mail players can receive special items via QR codes. This game is available now for $39.99 in the e Shop or your favorite retailer.

Fire Emblem Fates

fireemblem FatesHere’s a little something for the dads. Fire Emblem is the long running RPG series (now over 15 games) with tactical movements on a grid environment. Each environment has a variety of obstacles and story elements, from Dragon Veins to deep canyons. The most striking element of this game is the story line, which starts out as many role playing games do, with a lost main character just trying to fit in. Your first decision is whether to stay with the family that raised you, side with your biological family, or choose neither. Each choice triggers a different path, which takes your player on some interesting adventures and situations. Fire Emblem Fates Birthright and Fire Emblem Fates Conquest retail for $39.99 each and the 3-game Special Edition is $79.99.

Mario & Luigi Paper Jam (for Nintendo 3DS)

Mario and Luigi paper jamMario and the crew are back for a brand new adventure that pairs the 3-dimensional Mario with his paper version. The action in this game is played out in role playing style where players take turns attacking with various skills to defeat their enemy. Battles are action-based, rather than having to wait for your next turn. The funny dialogue and silly interactions make this game fun for both younger players and those with more experience. Be warned, though: Once you start playing, you’re not going to want to stop. Paper Jam also supports Amiibos as special power ups that can be used in battle. Each Amiibo can store character cards, and during battles, players can call upon these cards to get powers. Amiibos definitely make the game more interesting, and we highly recommend them because you can use them on multiple current generation Nintendo systems, from the new 3DS XL to the Wii U. Mario and Luigi Paper Jam retails for $39.99 at both the eShop and retail locations.

Mario Tennis Ultra Smash (for Wii U)

Mario ultra smash tennisMario Tennis has been an evolving franchise since the Nintendo 64, and with each iteration, the graphics get slicker and the game play tighter, with plenty of new bells and whistles. The most prominent addition to the Ultra Smash is the Mega Mushroom, which makes your character explode to triple your original size. This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your skill level. A total of 16 characters are available in Ultra Smash, some of which you unlock by completing specific tasks. The game also lets you level-up your Amiibos, improving their stats and giving them new skills. Retails for $49.99 at the eShop or wherever you buy your games.

Nintendo video games in action