Tag Archives: parents at play

Ready, Set, Christmas!

Now that Black Friday and Cyber Monday are distant nightmares, we can start focusing on great gifts for the season instead of how much we’ll save if we stand in line all night. Here are a few of our current favorites.

North Pole Communicator Microphone
north pole communicatorGet the family together, dial up the North Pole, and have “real” back-and-forth conversations with the “big man,” elves, and others. The communicator is fun for the kids and will amuse adults as well. It’s a really fun way to get the family engaged in a nightly activity. hallmark.com


Hallmark’s Keepsake Ornaments
hallmark wizard of oz ornamentGiving and collecting ornaments is an important part of Christmas for many families, and Hallmark’s Keepsake Ornaments are often part of that tradition. There’s a huge variety, so finding the perfect gift for your child or loved one is easy. Some celebrate milestones and nurture memories, others capture scenes from your favorite movies, TV shows, or cartoons. Our favorite this year is “Lions and Tigers and Bears,” a Wizard of Oz ornament where the characters move and speak lines from the movie. http://www.hallmark.com


Santa and the Christmas Eve Flight
hallmark - santa flightThis interactive storybook is adorable and a great way to spend some quality reading time with your kids. As you read key words and phrases, Santa responds with questions or choices. Your child’s responses actually shape the story, which means it could change every time you read it. There are more than 30 responses from Santa, which makes for a pretty diverse range of possible storylines. http://www.hallmark.com


Holiday Specs
holiday specsWhen you look at any light source (such as Christmas tree lights or candles) these holographic glasses, turn it into a snowflake, reindeer, snowman, Santa, or about a dozen other possibilities, depending on which one you get. Holiday Specs come in paper (think movie 3D glasses) or plastic (think brightly colored, silly opera glasses) and are cheap and a whole lot of fun. We plan to hand these out to everyone before we open gifts on Christmas Eve. Sure, the Specs are silly, but adults get a kick out of them too. They’re also greet for long winter car rides. Have the kids turn off their electronics and stare out the window. They’ll literally be able to see Santa everywhere. Please don’t wear them while you’re driving. http://www.holidayspecs.com


Build a Bear
build a bearA visit to Build a Bear is a great holiday activity for the whole family. We recently went to the new workshop at FAO Schwarz, and the kids loved every second of our visit. There were a huge number of many holiday (and non-holiday, of course) choices, including Santa, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, mice, polar bears, and some delightful “small fry” elves. But we ended up torn between torn between Frosty the Snowman and Santa. There’s also a wide variety of clothes, accessories, and costumes for the stuffed toys. Our son loved choosing his toy, stuffing it, giving it a personality and a sound (it sings when you squeeze its hand), and dressing it for Christmas. He built a new holiday friend, and we had a really nice afternoon together as well. Back home, you and the kids can have some virtual playtime as well, on the secure online experience of “Bearville” which is protected and one of the safest websites in the USA. And yes, of course there’s an app for that—do you really have to ask?) Visit http://www.buildabear.com/ to find a workshop near you.

Surviving Fitness

Health experts recommend that adults 18 – 64 get at least 30 minutes of “moderate intensity aerobic exercise”—meaning walking or jogging quickly enough to break a sweat—five days a week, plus strength training twice a week. Kids 6-17 should get 60 minutes—mostly aerobic—every day. Unfortunately, most people don’t come anywhere close. Fortunately, you don’t have to do all of your daily minutes in one session. Instead, you can divide them into more manageable chunks—10 minutes or so—and spread them throughout the day. This week, we begin an occasional series on family fitness with three products than can start you and your kids on the right track.
Activity Trackers: Fitbug Orb and Fitbit Zip
An easy way to tell whether you’re getting enough exercise is to track the number of steps you take. Shoot for 10,000 every day. These two trackers do that—and a whole lot more—and are great for people just starting a fitness program or getting back into one after a long break.
fitbitThe Fitbug Orb and the Fitbit Zip are very similar—in more than just the company name (not surprisingly, there’s a lawsuit pending). Both are attractive, lightweight, come in a variety of colors, and can run 4-6 months on easy-to-find, replaceable watch batteries. Both track calories burned, distance covered, and total number of steps, including high-energy steps, which Fitbit calls “very active” and Fitbug calls “aerobic.” Both wirelessly sync data to a smartphone or PC, but Android compatibility is limited. Best of all, they’re both cheap enough that you and the kids can each have your own, which can add a bit of friendly competition—and incentive—to your family’s fitness plan.
There are, however, a few important differences. The Fitbit Zip has a display so you can track your progress, but the device is available only as a clip on and can’t track your sleep. It’s compatible with more popular third-party apps such as MapMyFitness, and you can enter your food consumption through the mobile app. The Zip is also easier and more intuitive to set up. $59.95. www.fitbit.com
fitbug orbThe Fitbug Orb eases you into fitness by helping you set reasonable, gradually increasing goals, and electronically nudges you if you’re not hitting your targets. You can wear your Orb on a lanyard, a wristband, or clipped to your clothes or underwear. Online, you can manually enter workouts like cycling, martial arts, yoga, and weight training. The Orb also can track your sleep and shows you (on the website) how well—and how long—you’re sleeping. Unfortunately, the Orb doesn’t have a display, which is inconvenient if you want to check your progress but aren’t within Bluetooth shot of your iPhone or iPad. $49.95. www.fitbug.com
Gorilla Gym
gorilla gymWe’re no strangers to home workouts, so Gorilla Gym’s claim that it’s the “the world’s most versatile home gym,” raised a few eyebrows around here. But after living with it for a few weeks, we have to agree. And we’d add that it must also be the world’s most solidly built piece of home exercise equipment.
gorilla gym1The basic gym weighs just 8 pounds and takes about a minute to install into any standard-size doorway, where it’s certified to hold up to 300 pounds—without holes or sheetrock-cracking pressure mounts. What makes the Gorilla Gym so unique are all the plug-and-play attachments, like air straps, indoor swing, rings, and ladders. As the weather gets colder, having a Gorilla Gym means you’ll no longer have any excuse for not exercising—or not having fun. $59.95 for the core unit. http://gorilla-gym.com/

Getting Kids Thinking and Exploring

We all know that keeping our children entertained can be a tough task, especially when you’re running out of new ideas. They’re always full of energy and raring to go. Unless you have one of the Rainbow Play Systems of Colorado in your backyard, which keeps the kids entertained for hours, you may need a few tips on how to keep the children occupied. One of our favorite brands for educational-yet-still-truly-fun toys is Educational Insights. As parents, we marvel at how creative and well-thought-out EI’s products are-and we enjoy all the “ah-ha” and teachable moments they elicit. But we also love how engaged they keep the kids, and how much fun the youngsters are having when they’re playing (and we’re especially happy when at least some of that play time is spent with us!). We’ve reviewed some of EI’s products in previous columns, but this week we want to focus on their Nancy B’s Science Club line, which we first saw at this year’s Toy Fair, where they became fast favorites.

nancy b science journalsNancy B’s Science Club kits were created by Nancy Balter, a former science teacher and all-around science enthusiast. The idea was to inspire girls to become interested in and learn more about science (even the colors are especially appealing to girls, but aren’t so girly that they’ll alienate boys). The Club has also partnered with female scientists from around the world who provide content and contribute their knowledge. Each product comes with a journal where budding scientists can keep notes and track their progress, as well as an “exclusive membership” in Nancy B’s online Science Club.

binocularsThe Binoculars kit is a great way to spend some time with your kids getting to know the birds, plants, and critters in your own backyard. Before you start this it’s important to make sure you backyard is safe first, especially if you haven’t spent much time there before; there are always a surprising number of potential dangers. ChammyIRL has a handy guide on how to go about doing this. Once that’s done, the Wildlife Activity Journal includes all sorts of activities, including bird watching, animal observation, and ecosystem challenges that will encourage your child to get up and do some learning outside. This is a great first step into science. The binoculars let you bring the world four times closer and there’s a built in compass so you can learn a little about navigation without running the risk of getting too lost. If you’re not sure which binoculars to buy, check out this guide from Andrew Jackson to learn more.

nancy b aquascopeThe AquaScope kit introduces children to a world that’s a little tougher to have access to: underwater life. Whether you’re at a beach, lake, river, or even a puddle after a rainy weekend, the AquaScope lets you explore what’s going on beneath the surface. It magnifies 5x and the built-in LED light can illuminate the murkiest of waters. There’s also a built-in thermometer and ruler. The Underwater Wonders Activity Journal includes tons of activities that involve observing, measuring, and recording discoveries. Theoretically, you and your budding Marie Curie could do all this without getting wet, but where’s the fun in that?

Okay, so now that you and your child have explored the earth and the oceans, how ‘bout the stars? Stargazing may be one of the oldest parent-child activities. Nancy B’s Science Club’s MoonScope is a basic telescope that, at 90x magnification, is powerful enough to see mountains on the moon and Saturn’s rings. Besides learning about astronomy (including lunar phases, planetary movement, meteors, and comets), you can also introduce your kids (and perhaps yourself) to mythology and science fiction. You and your child can have a ton of fun exploring the night sky on your own, or you can take some suggestions from the info-packed StarGazer’s Activity Journal.

nancy b science club kitsOther kits in the Nancy B line include the Microscope and Activity Journal and the Crime Solver and Forensic Activity Journal. All are solidly built and, at prices ranging from about $14 to $40, they won’t break the bank. You can find out more about all of them at http://www.educationalinsights.com

If you’d like to introduce your children to proper scientific hardware early on, you could look at the microscopes available from Edmund Optics.

The Paper Chase

What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you think about making something out of paper—Origami? Paper airplanes? Papier-mache? For most of us, those were activities we did in Kindergarten or in an after-school crafts program. But creating things from paper is definitely not just for kids. This week, the Parents@Play team had a chance to try out two books that made us look at paper—and what you can make out of it—in a whole new way. We produced some very cool projects. Better yet, we discovered an amazing new way for kids and parents to spend some fun, creative, entertaining—and electronics-free—time together. And we’re confident you’ll be able to do the same with your family.

Paper Made! 101 Exceptional Projects to Make Out of Everyday Paper, by Kayte Terry (Workman Publishing)
paper craftsWarning: if you read this book, you may never throw away another newspaper, magazine, empty cardboard box, bag, piece of torn wrapping paper, napkin, or candy wrapper as long as you live.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: Kayte Terry is a genius. The things she creates from stuff that otherwise would have ended up in landfill or a recycling bin, are absolutely amazing. And if you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll learn how to make equally amazing things by folding, cutting, gluing, painting, molding, weaving, twisting, braiding, shredding, crumpling, and even sewing ordinary pieces of paper and cardboard.
more paper crafts parents@play
Projects include a fruit bowl from braided newspaper, a place mat from woven strips of lottery tickets, a book bag made out of an actual book, a lampshade made from decks of cards, jewelry, picture frames, tables, photo albums, and a lot more. Any or all of these can be done by one person alone. But they’re a lot more fun to do with someone else—or a group of someone elses.

The New World Champion Paper Airplane Book, by John M. Collins (Ten Speed Press)

paper airplanes parents@playUnless you’re an aeronautical engineer, forget everything you ever learned about making and flying paper airplanes and let John Collins show you the way. As the proud owner of the Guinness World Record for the longest distance traveled by a paper airplane (226 feet, 10 inches), Collins really knows what he’s talking about.

detailed instructions for paper airplanes parents@playHe starts the book with a kind of flight-school, explaining the physics behind flight, how different shapes and types of wings affect lift, what rudders and flaps do, and even how to throw for the best effect. He then gets into folding 101, starting with the most basic folds and working up to complex ones that may take quite a few attempts to master. You could skip all this and dive right into the airplane making, but your aircraft won’t be nearly as good.

Once you’re ready, you’ll find step-by-step, illustrated instructions for how to build the most amazing paper airplanes ever. We’re not talking about basic airplanes that you make in less than a minute and toss across the room. The planes you’ll learn about in this book might take half an hour or more of very detailed work to make. But instead of having a craft that stays airborne for a few seconds and then crashes, you may be able to build one that will float around for minutes at a time (at least that’s what Collins says. Some of his “follow foils” stayed up for that long. The longest we could manage was about 30 seconds).
All in all, a perfect activity for very patient parent-child teams ages 10 and up.

Saying No to the Summer Brain Drain

From a family-togetherness perspective, summer is a fantastic thing: family trips, camping, and, if you’re lucky, a vacation. Families often use summer as a chance to bond as a family but also to unwind. This is why camping vacations to places like Iceland are so in demand. If you are interested in visiting Iceland yourself, you can look here for more information. This gives these families time in the great outdoors and a chance to just hang out. Some families also look for local, kid-friendly places to keep their children active and having fun, as well as try to spend time together as a family (See – best ranked family entertainment near me for more information). But from the school perspective, summer is a disaster. Most education experts say that kids lose about three months of knowledge over the summer and teachers have to spend the first two months of the new school year catching up. Fortunately, there are ways-most of them painless-to keep what your kids learned last year firmly inside their head. This week, we review three books that, besides offering a great way to stay connected with your kids, will help you brush up on a few subjects you probably haven’t used in a decade. All three authors were guests on Armin Brott’s “Positive Parenting” radio show. You can listen to those interviews at mrdad.com/radio, then search for the author’s name.

Summer Bridge Activities (Carson-Dellosa Publishing, Greensboro, NC)
summer bridge activitiesThis book (it’s actually part of a series, one for the summer between each year of elementary school-1-2, 2-3, 3-4, etc.) is pretty traditional, meaning it has worksheets, graphs, maps, and even some flashcards. But it manages to keep kids and parents engaged while reviewing last year’s learning and getting a head start on next year’s. Besides math, reading, writing, and other academic subjects, the books also include physical fitness (actually doing it, not just reading about it) and suggestions for family field trips.

Bedtime Math: A Fun Excuse to Stay up Late, by Laura Overdeck (Feiwel and Friends, New York)
bedtime mathBedtime stories are a wonderful way for families to spend time together-and to get kids to learn to love books. But have you ever wondered why we don’t do math with our kids before they go to bed? Sadly, math gets dumped into the category of things that most people do only because they have to, not because they want to. The goal of Bedtime Math is to change all that and to make math a fun, engaging part of our kids’ lives, to make it as beloved as the bedtime story. Each section (there are more than 30) starts with fun piece of trivia about such topics as flamingos, bungee jumping, exploding food, and team mascots. Then, there’s an equally fun math problem that uses what you just read as “props.” Actually, there are three problems on the same topic: one that involves mostly simple addition and subtraction, one that might require some basic multiplication, and one that incorporates logic along with the other math functions. It’s all such fun that you’ll find yourself reading the book long after the kiddies have fallen asleep.

Potentially Catastrophic Science: 50 Experiments for Daring Young Scientists, by Sean Connolly (Workman, New York)
catastrophic scienceDespite the name, the experiments in this book aren’t really all that dangerous-as long as you and the kids follow the directions. The book is like an archeological dig through 34 of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in human history. We start with Stone Age choppers and the discovery of fire more than a million years ago, and go all the way through rocket launches, lasers, and DNA. Each experiment includes a brief explanation of what made the invention so special, what it does, and where the potential for catastrophe was. Those overviews are so entertaining (and educational) that you could, theoretically, quit right there. But why would you when you’ve got step-by-step instructions for how to actually replicate what you’ve just read about? You’ll have a blast-especially in the chapter that talks about gunpowder.

The Art of Parenting

Sometimes looking at a blank piece of paper and being told that you can create anything you want to, just makes you freeze up. The options are limitless, but somehow you can’t think of anything to do. This week we take a look at several art kits that can help parents and kids overcome even the most stubborn case of artist’s block.”

Gelarti Scene Creator (Moose Toys)
gelarti parents@playGelarti Comes with three paint pens, a large scene sticker, and a number of smaller stickers. Customize the stickers with the paint, let your creation dry overnight, and the next morning you’re ready to start decorating any smooth surface you can find. The stickers themselves are a little bit limiting: each shape, whether it’s a bird, puppy, bone, heart, or house is already pre-cut, so it’s not easy to make your own designs. It would be wonderful to have a similar Gelarti kit that came with blank sicker sheets so young artists and their parents could fully unleash their creative juices. That said, Gelarti is still plenty fun for parents and kids. Plus, Gelarti stickers are easily peeled off and can be moved and re-stuck over and over. Anyone who’s had to scrape stickers off of hardwood floors, windows, and refrigerator doors will appreciate that. Ages 5 and up. http://gelartistickers.com/ (don’t leave out the “I” before “stickers”)

Artzooka! (Wooky Entertainment)
artzooka kits parents@playArtzooka! has solved the artist’s block problem by making more than two dozen kits that are focused enough to give you a starting point, yet open-ended enough to encourage nearly unlimited creativity. We had a chance to try out four, and we loved them all.

  • Pop Stick Photo Frames comes with 40 popsicle sticks in a variety of colors and sizes, stickers, and glue. That’s pretty much it. Theoretically, you’re “supposed” to use all those ingredients to make picture frames—and you’ve got enough to make several really spectacular ones. But no one’s going to call the art police if you decide to create something else.
  • artzooka clips n' caps

  • Clip N’ Cap includes 16 bottle caps and can tabs, more than 35 stickers, string, and more. The pictures on the box show necklaces, but that’s just a suggestion.
  • Cupcake Creations was the simplest and, in some ways, the most fun. You basically get 20 colored cupcake liners, glue and stickers and some basic directions for creating delightful animals. But it’s easy as cupcake to go far beyond.
  • With nearly 300 pieces, Button Mosaics is one of Artzooka!’s biggest kits. Besides the sticky buttons, each kit includes several pre-drawn mosaic blanks. Younger kids may want to use them, but older kids and parents will want to make their own.

artzooka caps and tabsA few years ago Pepperidge Farms had a cookie that they advertised as looking just like homemade. Apparently they meant that the cookies—even though they were made by machines–weren’t all exactly the same (which explains why people refer to things that look identical as “cookie cutter”). Artzooka! does something similar with their bottlecaps, buttons, cupcake liners, and soda can tabs. Instead of using real ones from actual bottles and cans—a kind of artistic recycling that parents and art teachers have been doing forever—Artzooka! has made their own, in a variety of colors, often with pre-drilled holes for stringing up. Scavenging for bottle tops and buttons and decorating them yourself adds a layer of creativity. However, using the ones Artzooka! provides doesn’t detract in the slightest from how enormously fun Artzooka !kits are—and how great they are for parents and kids to do together. Ages 5 and up. http://artzooka.com/

Fun You Can Count On

Numbers are all around us and we use them every day. What’s the time difference between the east and west coasts? How many miles per gallon does your car get? What percentage of your income are you paying to the IRS? Which of two similar items in a grocery store is the better deal? How much do we tip a server or taxi driver? What does a 20% discount mean in actual dollars? What’s your favorite player’s batting average and your team’s win-loss percentage? Sadly, too many of us have trouble with basic calculations, partly because we decided as kids that math was either irrelevant (not true) or not fun (often true). This week we take a look at a line of games that will help you and the kids brush up on your math skills—and, perhaps more importantly, are a great fun for everyone.

mathable game parents@playThink Scrabble, but with numbers and mathematical equations instead of letters. Each player starts with seven tiles and plays as many as he or she can, combining them with the tiles that are already on the board to create number problems. Like Scrabble, there are blanks and double- and triple-value squares. A few interesting things are going on here. First, you’re using all four basic math functions: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. For advanced players, there’s no reason why you can’t add square roots, trigonometry, or more. Second, because the equations on the board are go up, down, and even backwards, you’ll start thinking about numbers in a very different way. Third, while calculations are essential, if you want to win, you’ll also need to employ logic and strategy. Ages 9 and up. $17.95

Mathable Junior
mathable junior parents@playThis variation on the classic is aimed at kids 5 and up. The tiles are larger and colorful, which makes them easier to handle and more fun for little hands to play with. The board has two sides, one designed for those just getting used to using numbers, the other for those who’re pretty good but aren’t quite ready to move up to the big-kid/grown-up version. $18.95

Mathable Quattro
mathable quattro parents@payWith a nod to the current Texas Hold ‘Em poker craze, Quattro uses a deck of 106 numbered cards instead of tiles. Players get dealt a hand and then four additional cards go face up in the middle. Players then create math equations by combining the numbers in their hand with those on the table. The one who uses the most cards wins. Again, the rules say only addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, but it’s fine with us if you want to add more advanced skills. Ages 9 and up. $6.69

Mathable Domino
mathable domino parents@playWhile the basic theme of creating equations is the same, this game adds a degree of difficulty by using domino-like tiles that have different numbers on each end. You score points by strategically placing your tiles on the board, building off of the ones that are already there. Ages 9 and up. $9.97

Mathable Booklet
mathable booklet parents@playMathable games are great for road trips. But with so many small pieces, you’re bound to lose some. The Mathable booklet solves that problem by cleverly creating versions of Domino, Quattro, and several other games that you can do on paper. All you’ll need is a pencil. And a big eraser. Ages 9 and up. $5.95

Many of the Mathable games are also available as free phone- and tablet apps, which you can download at either wookyentertainment.com or mathablegame.com

Piecing Together Memories

Puzzles are a battle-tested, fun, and often educational way for families to spend time together. This week we review a series of traditional puzzles, one that combines elements of a puzzle and a Rubik’s Cube, and one that tells a story as it’s put together. While they’re all very different, they share a trait that’s an essential part of the Parents@Play mission: They’re a wonderful way for dads and moms to spend time with their kids—boys and girls. Oh, and did we mention that they’re fun?

Pieces of History Puzzles (Find It Games)
Pieces of history puzzle from Find It GamesIf you haven’t seen them, we recommend that you check out some Find-It games, an assortment of transparent canisters containing objects hidden in a sea of plastic pellets (they’re a lot cooler than they sound). Now, the folks at Find It have gone old-school and introduced the “Pieces of History” series of traditional puzzles, which include Pharaoh’s Egypt, Parade of Animals, and Dry Ground. Each has 300 pieces, and within the final image you can search for “hidden” objects that are also found in the border of the puzzle. In Pharaoh’s Egypt, for example, you’ll discover a leopard in a tree, a blue hippo in a market basket, and 38 more hidden objects and animals. Played together, these puzzles can spark wonderful conversations about history, geography, and discovery. Ages 6+. www.finditgames.com

Codee Scorpion (Techno Source)
codee scorpion from techno sourceOkay, take a look at the scorpion. Pretty hard to believe that it’s made from a single strand of 64 small blocks. But it is. Every Codee kit (in addition to the scorpion, there’s a penguin, pig, flamingo, gator, and others) comes with detailed instructions on how to twist, cajole, rotate, and prod the blocks into submission. Assembling it takes a lot of hand-eye coordination and even more patience, since each block has to be turned in exactly the right way. But it’s a ton of fun. The one drawback is that Codee isn’t really something you can do with a child–except to help with the explanations (although when I was giving it a try on my own, my 9-year old stood over my shoulder correcting my every move). The solution is to get two of them and race or build something unique. You can also connect two or more Codees to create bigger and more complicated works. Ages 8 and up. www.technosourceusa.com

The City of New York time puzzle (4D Cityscape)
New York puzzle from 4D CityscapeThis is an absolutely masterful puzzle. You start off by putting together the 500+ piece 2D puzzle of the island of Manhattan. Once that’s done–it’s going to take a while–you add the 3D element by inserting over 100 plastic models of actual New York buildings into the 2D puzzle (which, by the way, features glow-in-the-dark streets). Now the 4D part comes in. The buildings range from ones that would have dominated the skyline as far back as 1812 and move forward through time all the way to 2013, when the Freedom Tower (which will replace the World Trade Centers) will be completed. The box itself includes a poster with a brief history of the city peppered with fascinating trivia. An online education feature adds even more education—and entertainment—to the mix. Thirteen other 4D puzzles include London, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Paris, Chicago, and the entire US. An absolute blast for patient dads and kids 9 and up. www.4dcityscape.com