Adventures in Photography: The Toddler Years

All Images: Master Tobias Pinault

Having a large family that live mostly three thousand miles away, has meant that we take more pictures and capture more video than I would have thought possible. It’s a blessing in disguise, both cumbersome in storage and wonderful in experience, as we have such a large record of the lives of my children.

As my eldest grew he began to develop a fascination with the devices we used, so we got him his own camera. We’ve been excitedly watching ever since to see what develops.

First, the choice of the camera. There are several pre-school cameras on the market and it is easy to get lost in your child’s needs vs. the cmaera specifications. I did what any self respecting frazzled mom would do. I went to Target and bought the one that they stock!

Thus we ended up with the VTech – Kidizoom Digital Camera. For somewhat of an impulse purchase, it has been pretty impressive. It came with batteries that last long enough for your child to turn it on, take a few pictures, and freak out when the batteries die. Due credit, they do warn you on the packaging that the batteries have a VERY limited lifespan. Seeing as this was for a three year old we went top of the line on batteries and stocked up at the dollar store. There came my first pleasant surprise. The dollar store batteries lasted three weeks with my son clicking fairly consistently on a daily basis. This camera doesn’t suck up too much juice when in use. Even now he is older and has begun using it to make movies, the batteries hold up pretty well.

My second pleasant surprise, which shows how much attention I was paying in Target (bad GeekMom, bad!), was that the camera came with three games. One of these is a photo based game, the other two have photo options, which means your child can include their own pictures in the games they play. At the time we were trying to wean our son off his Ipad games, and so this proved a very useful distraction. Now that his brother is old enough to play along with him, they both enjoy making up new games on the camera with the pictures they take. It has become something they do together, and quite well. They can usually spend ten minutes or so sharing the camera before we run into brotherly discord.

For a shaky hand, both of my sons are able to take a lot of pictures, and have a decent percentage come out clear, pretty much all I ask for in a camera aimed at his age group. The specifications of the camera, which I rarely pay attention to in my own device, seem to be decent:

  • 1.3 megapixels with 4x digital zoom
  • 128 MB internal memory (up to 1000 photos)
  • Optional photo effects, meaning frames, mustaches and such
  • Video recording with sound
  • Takes 4 AA Batteries – device turns off after three minutes of idle time to preserve battery life.
HTML CHEAT!!!
There are a couple of downsides with this device. While the case is exceptionally sturdy, the battery covers come off with ridiculous ease for little fingers. My son had it cracked within 24 hours, although due credit, he very soon lost interest in removing the batteries. This provided me with ample time to teach him about the correct way of inserting batteries, which he was fascinated with. Also, the camera comes with a port to attach to your computer but doesn’t come with a USB cable. Luckily my husband is a hoarder and so we had the appropriate cable.
A Pre-schooler’s impression of JoAnn Fabrics. Prompted by a frustrated mom asking a bored pre-schooler to “take pictures of the things you see honey.”

I have found that my son responds well to being given tasks with his camera. If we don’t provide tasks, he inevitably starts to film the ceiling until the camera turns off.

Here are some options for fun photo projects with your toddler:

  1. Find like things. While running errands, have them find a group of certain things. In the grocery store, have them find their favorite foods. In the craft store have them find their favorite colors.
  2. Designated Family Photographer. Bring it to family gatherings and prompt them to take a picture of everyone they know. In photobook form, this will also make a great gift for grandparents.
  3. Nature Photography. Take a walk in the woods and have them photograph all the animals/plants/flowers/birds they can find.  Add variety to this based on what seems to take their interest that day – follow your child’s lead.
  4. My favorite things. To help adjust them to a new baby in the house, have them take pictures of all their favorite things to show the baby.
  5. Make your own blog. Teach them how to blog! At each stage of construction in a brio/playdoh/lego/blanket-fort project have them detail what they do. Help them write up the instructions.
  6. Map your world. Take a tip from the GeekMom book and make a map of your neighborhood, have your child take pictures and create a pictorial guide to where they live.
  7. My favorite things (the most wanted list).Make a photographic Christmas list. Take them to Toys’R’us and let them roam free with their camera. Make sure you have had plenty of caffeine and repeat after me “No, you can’t have it. No, you already have one. No, you already broke that.”
  8. Quite time book. After following tip #7 have your child photograph pretty things in your garden to help calm you down after your nervous breakdown, tell them to create a “Quiet time book” for mommy and see what they think will soothe you.
  9. Storyboards. Have them photograph each of their action figures/dolls/action dolls, print out the images and help them create storyboards of adventures involving their toys.
  10. On the move. Give them the camera in the car and play an updated version of I-spy. The resolution of the camera may not cope with high speed pictures, but it should prove entertaining on road trips.
  11. Snowed in. Since many of us appear to be snowed in right now, use the camera as a defense against cabin fever. Use the above indoor projects or suit up and go outside to document snowflakes, snow formations, and icicles. Then look at the pictures over hot cocoa.
Share your kids pictures on the GeekMom Facebook page, we’d love to see what your geeklings come up with!

Get Even More Hands-On With the iPad With Osmo! (Giveaway!)

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

Have you ever wished your kids would use the iPad camera for something other than selfies? Osmo might be just what you’re looking for. With three educational apps designed with both style and substance, Osmo is an accessory for the iPad that will transform your kids’ usual screen time into a play experience that’s actually engaging.

Osmo comes with a camera attachment, a stand for the iPad, and accessories for playing the free apps aimed at ages 6 and up. There is very little initial setup; with an iPad Mini, we did have to make a quick adjustment to the stand to hold it properly. A reflector slides on top of the iPad camera and then you’re all ready to get playing.

Tangram for Osmo is a fun twist on the tangram puzzle. The seven pieces are manipulated in front of the iPad, and reflected on the screen as pieces are moved into place. The app, like the other two Osmo apps, doesn’t come with irritating music or blaring cartoon characters, but with a simple interface and soothing sounds as pieces make the shape on the screen. With a great selection of puzzles and varying degrees of difficulty, this game isn’t just for kids—I enjoyed grabbing the pieces and taking on a puzzle myself.

My daughter is a new reader, so I was most excited for her to get her hands on Words for Osmo.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

Clear, colorful photos give my daughter a hint for the word she needs to spell, and she uses the letter tiles that come with Osmo to complete the word. The “Junior Reader” setting helps her, as she is just getting started with reading and spelling, which frees her up from any frustration she might have felt trying to put the more advanced words together.

For even more bang for your buck, you can upload your own photos and words for unending play possibilities. Words for Osmo can also be played against a friend, adding a social dimension to the game.

Newton for Osmo is a one-of-a-kind game that takes your drawing and puts it on screen as soon as you put it on paper. The goal is to draw a shape that bounces a ball into the targets. You can draw any shape or thing you can think of, adding a fun, creative element to the app—and kids love seeing what they draw appear instantly on screen.

Normally I would balk at the price ($79.99) for an iPad accessory, but the Osmo is such an interactive and fresh play experience that it doesn’t feel overpriced. New apps are already in development, giving the Osmo a long shelf life with many intriguing possibilities for play.

Win your own Osmo!

This is your chance to win your own Osmo! To enter our giveaway, just log in to the Rafflecopter widget below with your Facebook account or email address (use a valid email so we can let you know if you win). You can then like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for up to two entries! If you already like/follow us, it will still enter you in the giveaway.

A winner will be chosen at random at the end of the contest and displayed below. You must reply to the email notification within two days in order to be considered a winner.

U.S. entries only. Contest ends January 31, 2015.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

GeekMom received a promotional item for review purposes.

Watch the Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer in Lego

Star Wars Screen Shot
Image: Screen Shot

The first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens has only just made its debut but already people are having their way with the video. YouTuber Snooperking wasted no time putting together a Lego version of the trailer that includes everything from the trisaber to the Millennium Falcon’s triumphant return.

Don’t miss the subtitles that were not in the original trailer and add a nice dose of humor. Also, be prepared to worry over whether or not you remembered to turn off the oven.

(via NerdApproved)

GeoToys: Smart Playtime Plus a 20% Discount for GeekMom Readers

geography blocks, GeoBlocks,
Blocks with purpose. (geotoystore.com)

Although we have more access to information than ever before, it appears most of us suffer from geographical illiteracy. A Roper poll showed half of young adults in the U.S. are unable to locate New York on a map and only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq. A more recent survey found only one in six Americans could correctly identify Ukraine. Facts like this spur us to do something about it.

That’s what motivated Bob Galinsky, an inveterate traveler who wanted to help his kids learn about geography by making it fun. Back in 2005 he used a map and scissors to create a puzzle of Europe with pieces shaped like individual countries. Next he cut maps of Africa, Asia, and the Americas into puzzles. Paper maps became real puzzles when he launched Geotoys. Now, award-winning GeoPuzzles are available worldwide and have been translated into a dozen languages. In addition to puzzles, Geotoys offers geography games and gifts.

Now our readers can get 20% off all Geotoys items from December 1st to December 31st . Just use the code GEEKMOM20 at geotoystore.com.

Try GeoBlocks, a set of 20 blocks made from sustainably harvested wood. Perfect for a two-year-old to stack, even more interesting for an older child.

Build the world. (geotoystore.com)
Build the world. (geotoystore.com)

Check the selection of inflatables including globes, dinosaurs, and wild animals.

Toss the planet around. (geotoystore.com)
Toss the planet around. (geotoystore.com)

Choose from all sorts of puzzles including different areas of the world, foreign languages, animals, dinosaurs, solar system, and history.

All sorts of puzzles. (geotoystore.com)
All sorts of puzzles. (geotoystore.com)

And browse through a selection of 14 card games such as Medieval History Go Fish, GeoCards Europe, Constitution Go Fish,  and Flag Frenzy.

Smart play. (geotoystore.com)
Smart play. (geotoystore.com)

 

That deal again? Get 20% off all Geotoys items from December 1st to December 31st . Just use the code GEEKMOM20 at geotoystore.com.

Tiggly Counts Adds a New Dimension to iPad Apps

© Tiggly
All images © Tiggly

Tiggly gives a whole new meaning to “hands-on learning” with their new Tiggly Counts toys, designed to interact with their three educational math-based apps for the iPhone and iPad. The Tiggly Counts counting toys get kids aged 3 and up engaged in a unique way with the screen by counting, adding, and playing with friendly characters.

Tiggly Counts comes with five colorful counting toys that are placed on the iPad screen to supplement learning math and number concepts. The toys, inspired by Cuisenaire rods used in Montessori, encourage hand-eye coordination and quick thinking. Three free companion apps, Tiggly Cardtoons, Tiggly Chef, and Tiggly Addventure, use fun characters and bright colors to get kids interested and engaged.

Tiggly ChefWe had a lot of trouble with using the toys with the iPad Mini, resulting in some frustration from my five-year-old, but when we switched to the full-sized iPad, things went much more smoothly. The toys must be pressed on the screen firmly to get it to work consistently with the app. My daughter enjoyed the apps so much, though, that she often plays both modes, with and without the counting toys.

Tiggly Chef is her clear favorite of the three games. With a title character full of personality and wacky concoctions in the kitchen, my five-year-old giggles every time a new creation is unveiled. The math concepts are age-appropriate, and she even learned to recognize a new food or two. (Apparently she never knew what garlic looked like unpeeled.) It’s the finished meals that keep her playing, though. “I wonder what he’s making!” she exclaims every time she starts cooking.

Tiggly Cardtoons, while adorably creative, seems better suited to younger kids who are practicing their early counting skills. Tiggly Addventure is probably best for kids 4 and up, with the challenge of completing number lines in the correct sequence. Both apps are fun, but Tiggly Chef keeps my five-year-old going back for seconds.

Tiggly Counts are a great set of toys for adding a new dimension to your typical iPad educational games. Priced at $29.95, it’s not a cheap stocking stuffer, but is a unique option this holiday season for young kids who would enjoy a new way to play with the iPad.

GeekMom received a promotional item for review purposes.

GeekMom’s 2014 Gift Guide of STEM Toys and More!

Toys
Image: Cathe Post

I get excited about toys. They are mostly marketed to kids, but as an adult I find myself putting many of the things recommended by other writers on my own wishlist.

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Image: unclegoose.com

Elemental Building Blocks A full periodic table in wooden block form, painted with bright, non-toxic ink. Great for all ages! $36

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Image: Lottie Dolls

Robot Girl Lottie doll  Are you looking for an alternative to Barbie for a special kiddo on your list? Go for the Lottie Dolls. My favorite is Robot Girl Lottie (partially inspired by a former GeekMom writer) and her buddy Busy Lizzie the Robot. These dolls are appropriate for young kids and encourage exploration into science and engineering. $19.95

gears
Image: learningresources.com

Gears! Gears! Gears! Gears! Gears! Gears! Get little engineers building with this 95-piece set. Gears, cranks, connectors, and interlocking base plates provide open-ended construction possibilities. The pieces snap together to create moving action and are compatible with other Learning Resource building sets so you can add on over time. Ages 3 to 7. $23.99

bboptm
Image: hearthsong.com

BBOPTM Ball Kids can bounce, roll, even climb inside HearthSong’s BBOPTM Ball. It fits kids ages 6 and up. Sold separately, get two for double the fun. $39.98

Mezco-Pinkman
Image: Mezco Toyz

Breaking Bad Action Figures Yeah, action figures, bitch! Toys R Us may not like them, but we’re guessing there are a few people on your list that would appreciate having a Breaking Bad action figure displayed prominently. Mezco currently has several incarnations of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, as well as season two’s creepy pink teddy bear. Each one is a limited piece, making it even more coveted than a batch of Blue Sky. $13.95 and up

geoblocks
Image: geotoystore.com

GeoBlocks Effortlessly learn while playing with classic blocks made from sustainable wood. Each of these 20 blocks provides information about different countries. Stack them to make a map! $31

Image: Patricia Vollmer
Image: Patricia Vollmer

Groovy Lab in a Box This is a unique subscription box experience in that it’s providing themed STEM activities to older elementary school students, ages 8-12, or grades 3-5. I am in love with the concept and potential of this program. The program is available through the company’s website. Prices range from $36.95 for a single box (plus shipping) down to $23.95 per box for a 12 month subscription, with >1 month subscriptions including free shipping. $25

landofnodcanopy
Image: landofnod.com

Land of Nod Play Canopy and Cushion Land of Nod has loads of gorgeous play tents, but the ceiling-suspended canopies with giant cushions are a small child’s dream. Windows for peeking out, lovely designs on the canopies themselves, and a safe space to get lost in thoughts make them a great gift for exploring the imagination.  $199

klipklopstable
Image: fisher-price.com

Little People Disney Klip Klop Stable These Little People horses and riders are almost hypnotically fun for toddlers. Hinged back legs let the horses “walk” down the track with the most satisfying clickety clack. Other princesses and their horses are sold separately. Ages 18 months to five years. $45

Littlest Pet Shop Style Set
Image: Hasbro

Littlest Pet Shop Style Set A cute little salon that comes with three exclusive pets: Minka Mark, Kitery Banter, and Sunil Nevla. Kids can decorate the pets and the salon, which comes with a reversible backdrop and customizable wall panels to change the look. Lots of neat little accessories make this a fun set. Ages 6 and up. $39.99

Loopdeloom
Image: Amazon.com

Loopdeloom I love the Loopdeloom because it’s simple and quick to learn how to weave. The instructions are easy to follow and I had my first project done in about an hour. It looks like it’s marketed to children, but adults who want a relaxing and portable craft will enjoy it as well. $29.99

Guardians of the Galaxy Big Blastin'Rocket Raccoon
Image: Hasbro

Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy Big Blastin’ Rocket Raccoon This version of Rocket is nice and tall at 10″, and he comes ready in his battle stance. His blaster spins, lights up, and plays sound effects while he yells, “It’s Rocket time!” Ages 4 and up. $29.99

1-Mythicals
Image: Monster Factory

Monster Factory Mythicals Monster Factory’s adorable collectible plush Mythicals line is set to start shipping mid-November (you can pre-order now). Choose from six mythical creatures that stand almost 11″ high. They’re great quality and so much fun. $45

My sons were chomping at the bit to open up our sample Nerf blasters. I had to make them wait until I had a camera available first. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
Image: Patricia Vollmer

Nerf Zombie Strike Blasters Fight Zombies with Nerf’s latest offering of blasters! The Crossfire Blaster is visually appealing with a design that was first seen in last year’s Nerf Rebelle Guardian Crossbow. With a range of over 80 feet, it can hold up to four fluorescent green Zombie Strike darts, easily loaded up front, for quick succession firing. The Fusefire is a disc-launcher blaster, and comes with five glow-in-the-dark discs, which can easily be stored in the front of the blaster. You can purchase additional discs separately. $16.06

TMNT Blimp
Image: Amazon.com

Playmates TMNT Blimp In the words of my son, the TMNT blimp is “fragile, but still fun.” It inflates to 30″ long and can carry all four turtles + a pilot. $25.99

Playskool Heroes Marvel Super Hero Adventures Spider-Man Crane Capture Track Set
Image: Hasbro

Playskool Heroes Marvel Spider-Man Crane Capture Track Set Spider-Man defeats Electro in this preschool set featuring a Spider-Man figure on a motorcycle, a flat plastic Electro figure, and a playset with a crane. It works together with other Playskool Heroes Action Figure Racing launchers and vehicles. Ages 3-7. $19.99

treehouse
Image: amazon.com

Plush Treehouse with Animals This is an adorable playset. Five beanbag forest animals fit into a plush carrying-case 12″ treehouse. Great imaginative play for ages 3 and up, perfect to take as an on-the-go toy. $24.99

Image: Gamewright
Image: Gamewright

Rory’s Story Cubes MAX If you enjoy regular Rory’s Story Cubes, check out the MAX version. These larger cubes are great for large groups or for those with poor eyesight or coordination. Roll the Cubes and begin your story, working each image into the tale. Or use them for brainstorming, creative writing, problem solving, or foreign language learning. The uses are limitless. $19.99

slackline
Image: hearthsong.com

Slackline Slacklining is a great way for kids to build strength, confidence, and balancing skills while having fun. The two-inch-wide nylon webbing extends up to 50 feet; an extra training line to hold on to makes it ideal for slackliners of varying skill levels. Ratchet tensioning is simple to use and to set up. Includes protective tree pads, instruction manual, and carrying bag. For up to 800 lbs. total weight. $69.98

spru
Image: sprukits.bandai.com

SpruKits Build your own poseable action figures with SpruKits. There are Sprukits for all ability levels. Some take 15 minutes to build and some take 2-3 hours. Everything necessary is right in the kit. No cutting, gluing, or painting is necessary. Characters available in SpruKits include DC Comics characters, Halo Universe characters, and Nicktoons LBX characters. $9.59-34.99

2012-tegu-pocket-pouch-jungle-big-1_1
Image: Tegu

Tegu Magnetic Wood Blocks Sustainably sourced and made from FSC-certified Honduran hardwoods, these magnetic wooden blocks will delight your teen and your baby alike. With magnets completely encased in the wood, stick these babies together in any combination to make your own delightful sculptures. Ranging from very simple sets to more complex systems, there’s something for every taste and price range. Price Varies

Electricity & Magnetism. Photo credit: Thames & Kosmos
Electricity & Magnetism. Photo credit: Thames & Kosmos

Thames & Kosmos Electricity & Magnetism Electricity & Magnetism is an experiment kit with block-like circuitry bits you can snap together. A booklet provides sample circuits that teaches the basic principles of electricity and magnetism, of course. After that—or before, if you’re not the type of read instructions manuals—you are free to play and create your own circuit designs. $44.99

Robo-Beetle. Photo credit: Thomas & Kosmos.
Robo-Beetle. Photo credit: Thomas & Kosmos

Thames & Kosmos Remote-Control Machines DLX The Remote-Control Machines DLX is a set of building blocks to construct remote-controlled robots. While there is a certain charm to having building sets of only one type—say, Lego—so that all your sets are interchangeable, I was surprised by how much I appreciated the change of scenery. It was a whole new experience thinking in terms of the pegs and holes design of Thames & Kosmos versus the interlocking bricks design of Lego. $113.48

GGSW Ultimate Amazement Park Playset
Image: VTech

VTech Go! Go! Smart Wheels Amazement Park Engage in all kinds of great racing play with this extra large playset from VTech. It has three different course options, sound effects, and lots of different vehicles (sold separately). This is a nice, big playset for any little car lovers. Ages 18 months to five years. $59.99

vtechsmartwatch
Image: VTech

VTech Kidizoom Smartwatch An oversized smartwatch for kids that holds up to 800 photos and 6 minutes of video. The watch comes in several colors and has a voice recorder and some built-in games, but the basic camera is the real draw here. Age 4+, but great for preschool children. $59.99

MiPbyWowWee
Image: WowWee

WowWee Toys MiP Robot MiP is an awesome little robot that uses GestureSense technology for precise control with hand movements. You can also control MiP from your smartphone, and its two-wheel design is so well-balanced and smooth that it’s stunning to watch in action. MiP has several different modes for play. It’s ages eight and up, and this is one adults will love, too. So. Much. Win. $99.99

dino
Image: amazon.com

Zoomer Dino Zoomer Dino is a next generation interactive toy. This creature responds to motion. He can get angry, chomp his jaws, roar, and chase. His eye color changes with his mood. Pull his tail and he’ll rampage! You can tame this touch-sensitive Dino, teach him to perform tricks, follow you, even dance. He balances perfectly. Charges with a USB cable. $105

GeekMom’s 2014 Lego Bricks Gift Guide

Lego Guide
GeekMom’s 2014 Lego Brick Gift Guide. Collage: Cathe Post

If your geeky house is anything like mine, Lego sets and accessories have been added to a majority of the family wish lists. Here are some recommendations from the writers at GeekMom to you:

IMG_6160
Lego Superheroes Knowhere Escape Mission Building Set. Image: Cathe Post

Lego Superheroes Knowhere Escape Mission Building Set Instead of buying an advent calendar this year, GeekMom Cathe bought a couple of Lego sets and divided them up (a page of instructions a day) to cover the days and left the minifigures for last. This set features Rocket Raccoon and Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy along with some other standard and unique bricks. $36.97

IMG_6162
Lego Movie Cloud Cuckoo Palace. Image: Cathe Post

Lego Movie Cloud Cuckoo Palace One of the most imaginative Lego worlds comes in an affordable set with one of the more popular characters—Unikitty! $19.97

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Lego Building Bricks and Minifigure Molds. Image: Amazon.com

Lego Building Bricks and Minifigure Molds For the Lego brick lover in your life: Make candy, soap, crayons, ice cubes, bath fizzers—the possibilities are endless! $12.35

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 9.35.08 AM
The Lego Movie. Image: ShopLego.com

The Lego Movie If you have a Lego fan on your list who doesn’t own this movie, it is a must have. There is something for everyone, young and old. A geek favorite. $17.73

lego
Lego Friends Jungle Tree Sanctuary. Image: shoplego.com

Lego Friends Jungle Tree Sanctuary Lego Friends Jungle Tree Sanctuary includes a Mia mini-figure, plus lion cub, parrot, turtle, and monkey. Accessories include walkie-talkie, microscope, computer, binoculars, backpack, camera, and much more. Build a three-floor set with birdhouse, bedroom, laboratory, and paddock with pond. Ages 7 and up. $40.93

DUPLO Creative Picnic
Lego Duplo Creative Picnic Set. Image: Lego.com

Lego Duplo Creative Picnic Set If you have a toddler or preschooler who loves kitchen and food play, this is a great set to add to your Duplo collection. It’s also a great introduction to Duplo, with real-world items that inspire representational play and work on those fine motor skills. Ages 18 months to five years. $24.99

LegoJuniorsRacing
Lego Juniors Race Car Rally. Image: Lego.com

 

Lego Juniors Race Car Rally This set is great for a young car lover. The Lego Juniors line, for that transitional stage from Duplo to regular Lego, has some nice sets available. But, this racing set kept one GeekMom editor’s toddler busy for quite some time. It’s a 350-piece set that comes with two minifigures. Ages 4-7. $29.99

Scholastic
Lego DC Super Heroes: Phonics Boxed Set. Image: Scholastic

Lego DC Super Heroes: Phonics Boxed Set Your youngster can learn their vowel sounds in this book series featuring heroes from the DC universe. Books in the series focus on a sound per book and have the Lego cartoon art we know and love. $11.10

Giveaway: Win a $100 Mega Bloks Hot Wheels Prize Package!

MegaBlox-HotWheelsBundle
A peek at the $100 prize package. Prizing and samples courtesy of Mega Bloks.

Who doesn’t love Hot Wheels? I have fond memories of Hot Wheels being around the house when I was a kid. I even remember countless friends and relatives playing with Hot Wheels. Now, my own son has quite a collection brewing.

Is it possible to perfect something as timeless as Hot Wheels? Instead of wondering, check out the new Mega Bloks Hot Wheels™ Super Race Set 8-in-1. This new package combines the thrill of Hot Wheels with the construction and creativity of Mega Bloks.

Mega Bloks recently sent me one of these things to test out—and my 8-year-old was pretty much frothing at the mouth about that. It sat in the corner for about two days, unopened. While there, he was constantly eyeballing it, studying the box, and asking, “Is today the day?”

When that day came, I can’t say that I was 100-percent excited at first. Typically, when I see a box that has “289 pcs” emblazoned across the front, I picture myself wincing with foot pain in the middle of the night. Even worse, I think about all of those pieces that end up whenever the extra sock goes—and how the set usually just sits after those few pieces have gone missing.

Well, that’s one of the great things about this package. Designed for ages 5 and up, the set does include instructions on how to build eight different cars. However, there are plenty of pieces, allowing kids to create something that they can truly call their own. My son had a blast sitting on the floor, spreading all of the pieces out (keeping each of the numbered bags in respective piles, of course), and building away. Then came the tweaking. Oh, there was so much tweaking! It’s a lot of fun and seeing that mind and those hands working away is definitely worth getting a few lodged in between my toes here and there.

MegaBlox-HotWheels8
Mega Bloks Hot Wheels Super Race Set 8-in-1. Photo: Mega Bloks.

Could you see your little one getting revved up about this set? Well, Mega Bloks has offered to send one of these sets out to one GeekMom reader, along with plenty of other goodies. The entire prize package includes the following:

Wheelie Racer
Roger Dodger
Bad to the Blade
24 OURS
Fast Fish
Dune it Up
Super Race Set 8-in-1
Speed Racer Pit Stop

This is a $100 prize package, people!

To enter this race, you NEED to log into the Rafflecopter widget below, using your Facebook account or email address. This is not negotiable. We need that email, so we can let you know if you win! Then, go to the comments section below and answer the question: What was your first car? (That’s for fun.) You can like us on Facebook and/or follow us on Twitter for up to two additional entries. (A total of three.) If you already like/follow us, it will still enter you in the giveaway. Our winner will be chosen at random, when the contest ends at 11:59 p.m. on Friday, November 7, 2014. The winner’s name will then be posted in the Rafflecopter widget, so you can check back to see who won.

Good luck!

Prizing & samples courtesy of Mega Bloks. Giveaway open to U.S. addresses only.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

GoldieBlox and the Movie Machine Puts a Playful Spin on Movie-Making

© GoldieBlox
© GoldieBlox

GoldieBlox and the Movie Machine is one of the latest GoldieBlox construction kits to hit toy store shelves, and the only one that makes great use of a free companion app. Wary of criticism that GoldieBox toys don’t offer much incentive to play more than once, I’ve never picked up one of the kits before, but my five-year-old got a kick out of the app—and it piqued her curiosity to explore the concept of movie-making. I was happy to see the construction kit have the same effect. GoldieBlox and the Movie Machine is a fun kit for girls (and boys) that encourages the development of building skills and inspires creativity for unending play.

© GoldieBlox
© GoldieBlox

If your little builder is reluctant to give the kit a try, I highly recommend starting with the opening cinematic in the GoldieBlox and the Movie Machine app. Not only did my daughter watch it three times in a row before we even got the kit, she insisted on watching it again before we got started building for “ideas.” The high-quality animation, full of personality and energy, gets kids genuinely excited to start building.

The kit’s storybook and colorful pieces caught my five-year-old’s interest immediately. Instructions for building are clear and concise, with diagrams she could easily follow as a pre-reader. The kit is aimed at kids ages 6 and up, but preschoolers can have just as much fun with a parent’s help and supervision. I only had to step in with the building when she wasn’t able to push in an axle or other piece hard enough to get it to stay in place.

Once the zoetrope is constructed, the fun doesn’t end there, to my relief. The kit comes with several different card sets for different movies, and the booklet includes quite a few “DIY” how-tos for even more ways to make one-of-a-kind movies with paper and pencils. And you can make even more with the companion app.

The GoldieBlox and the Movie Machine app walks kids through making an animated 12 frame movie, with tutorials voiced by GeekMom/Mythbusters alum Kari Byron. The app offers the option to AirPrint any movie your child creates, which can then be placed into the zoetrope for more movie fun without a screen. Unfortunately, it took some jerry-rigging to get this to work with our printer; an option to save and email a PDF version of the cards would be a lot more convenient.

GoldieBlox and the Movie Machine is a fantastic starter kit for giving a little girl the confidence to build something all by herself.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

The zoetrope (my daughter’s favorite new word) inspires creativity with one-second movies that can be played without end. While the kit pieces can’t be used to build much of anything else than the zoetrope, they can be combined with parts from other kits to build original creations or those found on the new BloxTown.com web site. All in all, the kit comes with enough pieces and ideas that it put my fears about a one-time toy to rest.

GoldieBlox and the Movie Machine is now available on Amazon.com and Toys R Us for a suggested retail price of $29.99.

GeekMom received a promotional copy for review purposes.

15 Toys Your Toddler Will Love

15 Toddler Toys
Photo collage by Jackie Reeve. Product photos from company websites and Amazon.com.

When my now two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Hannah first transitioned into that stage when she was too old for her baby toys but not quite ready for the whole magical world of preschool toys, her dad and I were a little stumped. What do toddlers play with other than anything that’s dangerous or valuable to their parents?

We experimented a lot, especially since my daughter has some sensory and motor planning issues. We’d stuck somewhat closely to the age recommendations on toys, until her speech therapist told us to challenge her. Then we found wonderful toys that skewed older but were fine if introduced with adult supervision, toys that were right on target for her age, and toys that were more like whole experiences that will grow with her.

There are so many great toys out there, but here are the things our daughter plays with incessantly (I’ve listed the retail prices, but almost all of them are available on Amazon for less):

Tolo Teatime Shape Sorter: An instant hit. It’s strangely pricey for a teapot, but it’s absolutely indestructible. First Hannah used it as a shape and color sorter, then it evolved into her first tea set. Now she serves us imaginary drinks daily, usually out of the same designated cup for each of us. $35.99

Little People Disney Princess Klip Klop Stable: A second birthday present from a classmate, we weren’t sure about this one. Disney Princesses hadn’t made an appearance yet at our house, and we were completely okay with that. But the Little People horses and riders are almost hypnotically fun. We bought all of the extra princesses, and the little ramps they came with made the princesses into great bathroom toys while potty training, too. $39.99

Fisher-Price Barnyard Bingo: Our speech therapist introduced us to this one. It’s meant as a multiplayer version of Bingo, but we found that it’s great for vocabulary practice. Hannah is obsessed with farm animals and this is a nice, portable toy for matching colors and animals. $20.99

Melissa and Doug Shopping CartWe learned the hard way how loud this can be on wood floors, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We’ve shopped out of the kitchen cupboards with this, Hannah has transported her prized possessions around in it, and sometimes she just likes to race around the kitchen pushing it. Such great quality, and I love that it’s metal instead of plastic. $69.99

Crayola Color Wonder Travel Tote: My mom and I took a road trip with my daughter this summer and stopped at the Crayola Experience. I stocked up at the gift shop and bought this travel clipboard set so Hannah could color in the car and not make a mess. We don’t leave the house without it now. A lifesaver on car trips and in restaurants. $13.99

VTech Go! Go! Smart Animals Zoo Explorer: This set is fun and substantial. It lives in my sewing studio, so my daughter can hang out and play while I work. I wish all of these big playsets came with more than one figure or car in the box. We bought extra animals for $7.99 each, and that felt like more of a sting than usual for extras. But it can keep a two-year-old busy for quite a while. $39.99

Symphony in B: I remember seeing this on a best toy list a few years ago, and then the music teacher at my old school had it to use with students. I loved it immediately, and now at home we have classical dance parties with it. It also turned into a great fine motor skill tool, as my daughter learned how to line up all the instruments in their slots. $99.99 (I’ve never actually seen it for this much; it’s usually significantly lower.)

Land of Nod Home Sweet Home Play Canopy: We loved the idea of a tent as a second birthday present, and this ceiling-suspended version is covered with stars and kind of magical. Hannah spends lots of good kid time in it. I wish I had one in an adult size. $199 with cushion

Melissa and Doug Deluxe Latches PuzzleAll Melissa & Doug wood puzzles wear like iron and feel so great in the hand. This lock puzzle is my daughter’s favorite, and I’ve given it as a gift to other toddlers. They all love it. If you need a few minutes to grab a shower or catch up on email, give this to your toddler to occupy their time. $24.99

Doc McStuffins Get Better Checkup CenterLast summer, I started singing the praises of this play vet’s office after seeing it at a toy preview and didn’t stop telling people about it until New Year’s. Almost a year later, Hannah still plays with this Christmas present every day. It was her first real non-baby toy, and it’s been one of the most successful things we’ve ever given her. $99.99

LeapFrog Shapes and Sharing Picnic BasketI’ve lost track of how many picnics we’ve had on our living room floor with this set. It was one of those toys we picked up as a treat one day at Target and for nearly a year now, it has regularly seen action. $21.99

Playmobil My Secret Playbox Horse StableThis was a recent acquisition that made me nervous at first. There are so many small pieces, but after playing it together with Hannah a few times, we realized she had no interest in trying to eat them. This is one of those know-your-child toys. If they’re still putting everything in their mouths, skip this one. If not, it’s a really sweet little horse stable with tons of little tools for grooming and feeding. It’s another one that gives a surprising amount of language practice, and the best part is that the whole thing (with all of those little pieces) folds up into a lockable box for storage. $27.99

Crayola 24 Count Sidewalk ChalkSidewalk chalk is always great for a sunny, not-too-cold day. But the Crayola colors are incredibly vibrant. And the shape of each chalk stick is like a rectangular crayon, so the pieces won’t roll all over your driveway. Sometimes nothing beats an afternoon on the ground outside making chalk scribbles. $7.29

Scrambled Eggs Shape Sorting FunThis turned out to be another great travel toy. You will spend some time looking under seats for the occasional missing egg half, but we’ve taken this in the car, on the plane, in restaurants, everywhere. It fits in a purse or bag and is a really nice, distracting activity to get those fine motor skills going. $12.74

Little Partners Learning TowerThis isn’t a toy, but it has provided loads of quality play time together in the kitchen. A year ago, we added this to our kitchen and it’s the best piece of equipment in it. Now my daughter can stand on a step stool without falling off, but she still wants to be in her tower whenever we have kitchen time. The adjustable height means she can always be perfectly positioned to play with her little pots and pans and felt food, or to help me roll out pie dough or make a cake. $199.99

What toys do your little ones love?

Disclaimer: GeekMom received some items for review purposes.

A New Remote-Controlled Robot Kit From Thames & Kosmos

I was shopping Amazon’s back to school specials a couple of months ago and found a good deal on Thames & Kosmos Electricity & Magnetism, an experiment kit with block-like circuitry bits you can snap together. It looked like fun so I bought it, not really knowing exactly how interested my 4-year-old would be. The daughter of nerds loved it, shocker. She was so ridiculously excited about building her very own circuit and we were amazed at the amount of focus and effort she put into this toy—a rare occurrence, believe you me. So I was pretty excited to see if we could repeat the same success with one of Thames & Kosmos’ newest items, the Remote-Control Machines DLX.

Robo-Beetle. Photo credit: Thomas & Kosmos.
Robo-Beetle. Photo credit: Thomas & Kosmos.

The Remote-Control Machines DLX is a set of building blocks to construct remote-controlled robots. Included in the box are one IR remote control, one battery box with receiver, three motors, and a variety of frames, rods, gears, wheels, connectors, and other odds and ends for a total of 212 pieces. Also included is a thick manual which contains the instructions to build 20 different models, split into these categories:

The Robotic Arm—Model to make a robotic arm.

Can Robots Push and Crawl?—Five models, from bulldozer for pushing to animal-inspired crawlers.

Robots for Transport—Think of transport in terms of weight lifting rather than distance on this one. Five models for moving loads, such as a fork lift and elevator.

Driving Robots—Here are the distance transportation vehicles. Four models consisting on variations of cars and trucks.

Goooooal!—One model to stage a robotic soccer game.

A Look into the Future—Four models which explore air and space.

The DLX kit is a revamped version of their popular Remote-Control Machines kit which was well received, judging by the Amazon reviews. The previous model consisted of 182 pieces and the instructions on how to build ten models, whereas the DLX version contains 212 pieces and the instructions to build 20 models.

So was it a success? Did it win my 4-year-old’s fleeting attention span? I’d say yes. She is definitively too young to sit through an entire model build, so I started off by building one of the models by myself at night. The next morning, she was excited to find our new robot. The remote control was a great draw, compared to other robotics kit we’ve tried that only used an on-off switch. After the fun of controlling the robots started to wane, she started to explore how she could modify it. After a few iterations, she painstakingly pulled it apart back into its bare pieces. I thought was interesting that she stopped playing with it, not when it stopped working as a remote-controlled toy but when she could see every piece laid down on the ground. Pretty cool.

I should also emphasize that my daughter is half the age of the suggested age group, the set is labeled as 8+. I think an older child would get more play time out of the toy, being able to follow instructions and build the models from scratch themselves, but it doesn’t preclude smaller kids from enjoying it as well, with adequate safety precautions taken to avoid choking on the pieces of course.

The obvious question is how it compares against Legos. We have a big box of Lego bricks at home and it’s definitively a different building experience. It is interesting to think in terms of the pegs and holes design of Thames & Kosmos versus the interlocking bricks design of Lego. I wouldn’t say one design is better or worse from a casual user perspective, but the variety has been fun just to get that extra challenge of spatially planning things a little differently.

While the Thames & Kosmos building sets are obviously not compatible with your existing Lego brick collection, the Thames & Kosmos sets are compatible with each other. This includes construction kits, physics kits, the wind power kit, and the hydropower kit. The Thames & Kosmos Remote-Control Machines DLX is currently priced at $110.47 on Amazon.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Introducing the Lego Store Flatiron District in New York City

All photos by Jackie Reeve.
All photos by Jackie Reeve.

New York is no stranger to Lego stores or Lego culture, but today a brand-new flagship storefront is opening on 5th Avenue. This will be the 76th Lego store in the United States, and it is impressive.

Last week I took a tour of the construction site while everyone involved was working to get the store ready for today’s soft opening. Construction on the store began in June, and the signature Lego sculptures were just being installed the morning I was there. The brick art was built by Lego Master Builders in the Czech Republic and shipped to New York as 38 pallets. The shipment just arrived last Monday.

Brick sculptures are one of the best things about the Lego shopping experience, and this store has some great New York-themed art. The Statue of Liberty arm stands eight feet tall, with minifigures at the base and in the torch. It took four union guys to lift and piece together that arm.

Lego Flatiron Liberty Arm
All photos by Jackie Reeve.

It’s a great photo op in the store.

Lego Flatiron torch closeup
All photos by Jackie Reeve.

The front windows feature the coolest New York culture- and street art-inspired brick murals. During my tour the mosaics were not yet installed in the windows, so I had to wiggle into a tight space to see them.

Lego Flatiron mosaic 1
All photos by Jackie Reeve.

I adore the mosaics. A life-size Brickley the Dragon Lego sculpture weaves around the shop’s walls as well.

The shop will feature the first ever Lego Lounge, a space with oversized couches, books, and charging stations so families can stay and play. At the heart of the lounge is a Lego replica of the entire Flatiron neighborhood, including the Lego store itself, for kids to build and play with. The lounge also includes a Duplo building area for toddlers and preschoolers.

A selection of almost 500 Lego sets and Lego-inspired items will be available for sale, which is insane when I think of the inventory at other Lego stores I’ve seen. Lego Store Flatiron District will be hosting a Monthly Mini Model Build for kids ages six to fourteen on the first Tuesday of every month. Kids can learn to build a new mini model each month and then take it home for free.

The store’s soft opening is today, but there will be a very cool grand opening celebration in Madison Square Park (just across the street from the store) throughout Columbus Day Weekend. Visitors can help Lego Master Builders with a 20-foot-tall, full Lego brick version of the Statue of Liberty and get a certificate for participating. It’s totally free, and the whole family is welcome. The celebration hours are Friday, October 10th from 4pm-6pm, and Saturday, October 11th through Monday, October 13th, 11am-6pm.

The store itself will have a different grand opening special for each day of the weekend.

Friday: Free Collectible LEGO T-Shirt with a $50 purchase
Saturday: Free Limited-Edition LEGO Store Set with a $75 purchase
Sunday: Free Exclusive LEGO Minifigure Set with a $50 purchase
Monday: Free mini Statue of Liberty Set with a $35 purchase

Lego Flatiron mosaic 2
All photos by Jackie Reeve.

If you’re in New York City this fall, the new Lego flagship is definitely worth checking out. If you’re in town before Columbus Day Weekend, you might get ahead of the almost-guaranteed crowds, too.

Product Review: Cuddle Clones Custom Stuffed Animals

Cuddle Clones make great gifts for those who miss their pets, whether due to the pets moving on to the Rainbow Bridge, or if the owners are having to spend extended periods away from their loved ones. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
My sons with their “Howies.” Cuddle Clones make great gifts for those who miss their pets, whether due to the pets moving on to the Rainbow Bridge, or if the owners are having to spend extended periods away from their loved ones. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Earlier this year, our family lost our beloved pet, Howie. You can read more about him on my website. During our mourning, we learned of a company called Cuddle Clones. My husband and I thought this would be a great gift for our 11- and 9-year-old sons to help them remember Howie.

The company was founded in 2009, when Jennifer Graham lost her own beloved pet, Rufus. While she had been mulling the idea while her pet was still alive, it wasn’t until his death that she decided to go forward in starting up a company that specialized in completely customized stuffed pets.

Pay a visit to the Cuddle Clones website. You will instantly be greeted with a slideshow of incredibly cute stuffed pets, with the photos of the real pets alongside the replicas. You will see the accuracy and quality right away. In addition to the stuffed animals, Cuddle Clones offers cast resin figurines and ornaments. It also offers gifts and supplies for your living pets, such as shirts, beds, and collars.

The website is easy to navigate, and in just a couple of clicks, you can start designing a custom pet replica of your very own.

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 10.42.42 AM
The Cuddle Clones website makes it easy to upload photos of your favorite pet and design a “clone” for you or your loved ones. Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.

For the classic stuffed Cuddle Clone, you will go through a step-by-step process that includes uploading numerous photos of your pet. The more photos you have available, the better. Howie had a distinctive curly, fluffy tail (he was part Chow Chow), so I made a point to let the company know on the order form to make sure the tail is right.

Cuddle Clones aren’t inexpensive. Expect to invest $199 for a dog or cat, or $129 for smaller pets such as guinea pigs and rabbits. Don’t forget tax and shipping, which is approximately $10 per pet. I assure you, based on what we’ve seen with our own new pets, the attention to detail is worth every penny.

Also, Cuddle Clones take a while to make. Each pet is individually handcrafted, and that takes time. As of this writing, expect to wait 8 to 10 weeks for your completed replica. Ours took about 9 weeks.

Cuddle Clones will arrive in custom boxes wrapped in tissue paper. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Cuddle Clones will arrive in a custom box wrapped in tissue paper. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

When the replicas arrive, prepare to be dazzled. I was certainly shocked at how big the clones actually are. Each one was about 12 to 14 inches long, and about 10 inches tall. A tag with your pet’s name is sewn onto the back of the animal.

Check out these comparison photos and see for yourself:

IMG_0045
The left side is Howie from 2006. I thought they had amazing detail in Howie’s face, from the pink in the ears to the grey around his mouth. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
IMG_0044
The top photo is from fall 2007. They did a fine job with capturing Howie’s curly, fluffy tail. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Our sons absolutely loved them…at first. The boys toted them all over the house, had their “Howies” ride in the car with us, and slept with them at night. However, our oldest son began to have dreams about Howie again and that worried us. So he (for now, he insists) has put Howie away for a little bit. Our youngest son continues to love his “Howie.” Based on their cost, however, we’ve discussed whether the clone should be placed in a nice location just for viewing, or if we should just let the kids hug and love them to death the way they do their other favorite stuffed animals.

I have to admit, we were worried about whether such an accurate likeness would creep out our sons. We decided to go forward, but some families might not be comfortable with it. You know your kids well; consider their reactions to a gift such as this.

While having the replica as a memory of a passed-on pet is a great way to enjoy a Cuddle Clone, consider other ways to make them great gifts. How about a gift for your son/daughter going away to college? Is your favorite military member taking a deployment and might miss his/her pet? Consider Cuddle Clones.

Join the company’s mailing list for coupon codes, such as $30 off a clone.

GeekMom received a discount on this product for review purposes.

Modular Robotics Makes Building Robots Simple and Fun With MOSS

After an extremely successful Kickstarter campaign, this month marked the official retail launch of MOSS. This block-based robot building kit produced by Modular Robotics reached its $100,000 goal in 12 hours last winter and ended more than tripling their financial objective, not that they needed the money—Modular Robotics had already received enough to get them started the old fashioned venture financing way. What they needed was exposure, and they sure received it! It was well deserved, with a smart product and American-based manufacturing.

MOSS Zombonitron Kit. Photo credit: Modular Robotics
MOSS Zombonitron Kit. Photo credit: Modular Robotics

MOSS is a system of blocks and spheres that can be connected magnetically to create robots right out of the box, no knowledge of electronics and programming necessary. Note that the magnets are inside of the cubes and the spheres are simply steel—no Bucky Balls here. Different types of blocks do different jobs, such as a light sensor block and a motor block. The faces of the blocks are color coded to represent their function. A green face routes power, brown routes data in, red routes data out, and blue is a neutral “pass-through” which can route data or power, but not both at once.

For example, let’s say you wanted to make a robot that followed a light source. You can connect a red face (data out) of a light sensor block to the brown face (data in) of a motor block, that will send the light sensor block’s data (light present, light absent) to the motor block which will turn in one direction or the other depending on that Boolean value it receives. Both of the blocks will need to have a green face (power) connected to a green face on the battery block. The robot can be made more complicated by adding more sensors and pass-through blocks to create fun behaviors and looks.

I had the chance to ask Eric Schweikardt, CEO of Modular Robotics, about his company and products. I asked Schweikardt how he got into the business of making Cubelets, the company’s first robotics kit.

“Cubelets were my PhD project at Carnegie Mellon, and they were inspired by complex systems like environments or financial markets or social networks. I think people have a really really hard time thinking about complex systems where there are lots of little elements all interacting with each other and creating some sort of emergent behavior like ‘climate change’ or ‘a bad economy.’ Complexity science is crazy and abstract, but I think that for a lot of people who learn well by building things, that building and manipulating little complex systems like a Cubelets robot can be a really effective way to gain intuitions about the natural world, about how patterns emerge, and about how the world is a complex place that often requires thoughtful analysis and not simple good/bad, black/white, red/blue solutions. Oh, and, er, tiny robots are just fun.”

I agree, tiny robots are just fun!

The MOSS comes in two packaged kits, the Zombonitron 1600 and the Exofabulotronixx 5200. The former contains 16 blocks, include light sensor block and a proximity sensor block for input, two motor blocks, and a hodgepodge of other less exciting but still useful blocks. The latter contains, you guessed it, 52 blocks, including two light sensor blocks, two proximity sensor blocks, a microphone sensor block, two motor blocks, two pivot blocks, two flashlight blocks,  and again completed with the miscellaneous array of blocks that play a supporting role. If you’re going to want to write your own programs, you’ll want the Exofabulotronixx because that’s the package with the ever-so-important “brain block.” That’s the block containing the Bluetooth connector that can be used to link your robot to your computer for programming (using MOSS Scratch or MOSS C, to your preference) or to your mobile device for remote robot control and monitoring.

I had the chance to play with the Zombonitron kit. The experience was mostly positive. Because our kids are still way too small for this toy, my husband and I waited until they were in bed to break into the box. Getting started was incredibly easy. You don’t even need instructions to figure out how the blocks can connect together using the metallic spheres, and can get going snapping blocks and spheres together right out of the box. You might want to read the manual though, if you want to be able to make a robot that behave as you were expecting! The short manual explains how the blocks work and gives the steps for constructing three different robots. A quick read through and we were good to start building. It’s possible that our two postgraduate degrees in Computer Science have somewhat skewed our opinion of the ease with which one can plan in terms of input and output and data transfer through blocks. Nevertheless, the beauty of this system is that even someone who experiences difficulty thinking in these terms can learn do to so through simple trial-and-error. After all, that’s the goal! You can’t possibly fail. Just keep playing with it until you get more comfortable with how the pieces work individually and together.

My only negative criticism is that I did experience some frustration with the blocks falling apart during construction. Here’s the full picture: I connected my blocks together and everything was sticking together well. I turned on my robot to test it and realized I put one of the motors in backwards, so I needed to remove the motor block and put it back the other way. That’s when, with a little bit of pressure, not only my erroneously-placed motor block but all the blocks break apart and little steel balls go rolling off in all directions. It’s an unfortunate reality of the design. It sticks together well if you’re building up, it sticks together well while the robots is moving around, but it’s a little harder to modify a robot. It’s definitively a trade-off because, while this aspect may be frustrating, it doesn’t render the toy unusable and you gain the capability of hinges in return.

I asked Schweikardt about this issue, to which he replied, “I’d like for the magnet strength to be a little greater, though, since it can be frustrating. Unfortunately, we’re using the highest strength neodymium magnets available, but we’re playing with a few other approaches. Soon we’ll be launching a much larger variety of BRACE pieces that can reinforce a wider variety of constructions. We’re also exploring using hollow steel spheres instead of solid. These work great, and since the spheres make up most of the weight of a MOSS construction, super-light spheres allow you to extend cantilevers much longer and create robots that are more robust during construction.”

I suppose there is one more negative point: the cost. The Zombonitron 1600 retails at $149.95 and the Exofabulotronixx 5200 at $479.95. I was sticker-shocked at first, but then again, electronics kits rarely come cheap. Compare MOSS to, say, the littleBits kits that start around $100 for a handful of modules, and MOSS isn’t out of left field. On the plus side, Modular Robotics’ kits are manufactured in the US.

After a trip to China in early 2013 to inspect the manufactories where the Modular Robotics parts were made, Schweikardt made a big decision. “On the long flight home, I convinced myself that we could build our own factory, right here in Boulder, to make our tiny robots. I convinced myself that on a certain level, it’s pretty much insane to build products all of the way around the world just because the people there are poorer. I convinced myself that it would be fun, interesting, and a generally good thing to do for the world. I convinced myself to make a really unlikely decision.” Schweikardt’s kooky idea was received with some skepticism, but in the end it was one his team and board of directors were proud to support. And one I personally find refreshing.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Kickstarter Update: Monster Factory Is Adding Pegasus

pegasus
Photo: Monster Factory, used with permission.

Last week we announced Monster Factory’s Kickstarter for their new collectible toy line The Mythicals. Funding for the dragon, unicorn, and Cthulhu was reached in six days! So now the Canadian company wants to keep the party going and raise enough funds to add another Mythical to the toy line.

Keeping with the tradition of this crowdsourced toy line, Monster Factory will be having a naming party for Pegasus on their Facebook page today. And there is still plenty of time to donate to their Kickstarter. Even if you have already pledged to receive a Mythical, you will be able to choose Pegasus once the Kickstarter ends.

And don’t forget, GeekMom readers get a 10% off coupon code for anything in Monster Factory’s online store. The code is MONSTER10GM.

Transformers: Age of Extinction Toys “Roll Out” To A Store Near You

The most awesome press kit I've ever received. \ Images: Dakster Sullivan and Hasbro
This is the most AWESOME press kit I’ve ever received. \ Images: Dakster Sullivan and Hasbro

When a new Transformers movie comes out, there’s one thing in my household that gets critiqued more than the movie itself…the toy-line.

My husband has been an avid collector of Transformers since he can remember. With that in mind, you can imagine the look on his face when a box with Transformers written all over it arrived at our house unexpectedly. The box itself was a work of art, and I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it (which is why it now holds two of my costumes).

Inside of the box was a humble sampling of what is to come with the toy-line, from the new one-step-changers to the more complicated pieces.

My son was crazy excited over the simplicity and ease of transforming the new one-step-changers and was quick to claim every toy in in the box for himself. My husband and I didn’t buck him on that because when we took one of the one-step-changers out of the box, we were more critical of it than a comic book fan on Reddit.

The difference between my husband and son is that my husband enjoys the beauty in the details and the complicated steps for the transformation. My son doesn’t look at a Transformer and see a piece of art; he sees a toy that he wants to play with, and he doesn’t want to look at instructions in order to do it.

As a parent who has no clue how to transform these things, the old line frustrated me because I couldn’t help my son when he needed it. As bad as it sounds, I’d have to wait for my husband to come home to pull out the instructions and do it himself.

Regardless of my own reservations regarding the new line’s design, I’m happy that Hasbro has finally come out with a line of Transformers that can be transformed by the ages they specify on the packaging.

While playing with the Flip and Change Grimlock, I thought about my 9-year-old nephew who has a disability with one of his hands that makes it difficult for him to play with certain action figures. He could never play with the old toy lines because of how difficult it was for him to do the transformations with his bad hand. The new one-step-changers, on the other hand, are something he can play with and work out his hand at the same time.

From the toy collector side of things, this new line lacks the details of the older lines. Arms and legs are clearly visible when in vehicle mode and the movement capability in robot mode is ridiculously restricted.

From the view of a child, the new line is awesome and just what Optimus ordered.

When it comes to our favorites, my husband and I both agreed that Dinobot “Slug” (previously known as “Slag”) was the best of the bunch. Our son, on the other hand, loves his Flip and Change Grimlock, especially since he’s big enough to play the part of a destructive dinosaur in his home made Lego movies.

My new office pet -- "baby" Grimlock.
My new office pet — “baby” Grimlock.

My second favorite Transformer in the box was the one-step-changer Grimlock. He was too cute not to love. My son wasn’t that interested in him because he’s really small, so I was able to take him to my office with little argument. I posted a picture of him on my desk on Instagram and laughed when a friend of mine asked if I got him at Burger King or McDonald’s.

In addition to the Transformers, my family also had the chance to play with two Kreo sets and the Hexbug battle arena.

For kids who like to build, Kreo sets are a fun alternative to Lego bricks. I’d buy stock in them if they were softer on your feet (which they are not…). On the upside, they work with Lego sets so you don’t have to worry about them getting mixed up when it comes to clean up time.

The battle arena is a fun activity for kids who are into the Hexbug line of toys. I can see the added accessories being a problem, though, because they are itty-bitty in size. Neither of the bugs looks like their cartoon counterpart with exception of the paint job, but they are still fun to watch (for about five minutes…).

In the end, I’ve decided that this line was designed with the younger fans in mind. For many children, this will give them a new sense of  independence when they want their Transformers to “roll out” or “transform.” Collectors who appreciate the complex transformations and hidden details, should probably skip this line for now, but keep their eyes open for more complex Transformer toys to come.

Toy prices range from $2.99 for Kreo figures to $49.99 for the larger and more complicated Transformer models.

GeekMom received these items for review purposes.

Introducing The Mythicals From Monster Factory

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The Mythicals. Photo: Monster Factory, used with permission.

Canadian toy company Monster Factory is launching a Kickstarter campaign today to bring The Mythicals to life, and to celebrate we’ve got a special coupon code for their online store.

This is the same Toronto-based company behind the mini monsters I’m in love with. After some heated voting on their Facebook page, Monster Factory’s Kickstarter will focus on producing a dragon, a unicorn, and Cthulhu as the first Mythicals in its new line. These are fantastic full-size monsters, about 10 inches tall.

I had the chance to preview Cthulhu, and my daughter has been walking around the house with him for weeks. She loved the mini monsters and now loves the full-size Cthulhu. They are collectible toys, but if you’re wondering—since it is impossible to keep things away from small hands—they are also toddler-proof.

There was also a Facebook campaign to name the monsters (or in Cthulhu’s case, nickname him):

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The Mythicals. Photo: Monster Factory, used with permission.

The company has everything lined up to put The Mythical into production and get them shipped to backers this fall. They are hoping to raise $12,000 for this special “Studio Edition” series (and hopefully there will be more Mythicals down the line). If funding is met, the line will be launched exclusively with Kickstarter, complete with special Kickstarter labels on The Mythicals. Creative director Alan Dunn thinks Kickstarter is ideal for this new line:

“At Monster Factory, we have always valued our close relationship with our fans. Whether in person or online, we look for new ways to engage them in our creative process, so Kickstarter is a perfect platform for our new line of monsters, the Mythicals. On this project, we will be able to involve our fans in every step of the process—from choosing and naming the characters, to working through the production and fulfillment sides of things. With our fans’ help, we are extremely excited to bring this new line of mythical creatures to life!”

So if you want to get your hands on one of them, pledge at the Monster Factory Kickstarter page for The Mythicals. If you’d like to order another monster from their online store, use coupon code MONSTER10GM for 10% off your purchase.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

The Latest from Nerf’s Zombie Strike: Review & Giveaway!

My sons were chomping at the bit to open up our sample Nerf blasters. I had to make them wait until I had a camera available first. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
My 11- and 9-year-old sons, excited to try out Nerf’s newest Zombie Strike Blasters. They were chomping at the bit for a couple days to open them up. I had to make them wait until I had a camera available first. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

As we all know, zombies are still a very real threat. After all, check out the buzz counting down to the season premiere of The Walking Dead this October.

Like they did last summer, my sons had the chance to check out the latest offerings in Nerf’s Zombie Strike line of blaster toys: the Crossfire and Fusefire. My sons were absolutely going crazy waiting for me to have the time to get some good photographs before they tore into the packages. Read on to learn more about the blasters, and make sure you read all the way through for a chance to win a Nerf Zombie Strike Blaster for you or your geeklings!

Nerf Zombie Strike Crossfire

Let loose your inner Daryl with the Nerf Crossfire blaster. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Let your inner Daryl loose with the Nerf Crossfire Blaster. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

The Crossfire Blaster is visually appealing with a design that was first seen in last year’s Nerf Rebelle Guardian Crossbow. It can hold up to four fluorescent green Zombie Strike darts, easily loaded up front, for quick succession firing. This blaster will also work with the blue and orange-tipped N-Strike darts. My youngest son tested the range by standing at one end of our backyard and firing towards the other end. It could easily hit the opposing fence 80 feet away!

The perpendicular piece can be dismounted and rotated parallel to the main blaster for easy storage.

My youngest son, age 9, said that the grip is comfortable and the darts were easy to load.

Nerf Zombie Strike Fusefire

My nearly-12-year-old-son had some pretty strong opinions about the Fusefire. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
My nearly-12-year-old son had some pretty strong opinions about the Fusefire. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

The Fusefire is a disc-launcher blaster; the first one our family had a chance to check out. The Fusefire comes with five glow-in-the-dark discs, which can easily be stored in the front of the blaster. You can purchase additional discs separately.

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The Fusefire can take three AAA batteries to illuminate the top railing and help the discs glow in the dark. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Users can load up to five of the discs into the back of the blaster, and then quickly prime the blaster and fire in quick succession. My son was pleased with the range and accuracy. The first disc coming out of the blaster sailed up and over our back fence, traveling about 50 feet.

The blaster has a battery compartment that holds three AAA batteries for a light along the top railing. While the packaging will say “Requires 3 x AAA batteries,” the blaster works perfectly well without the batteries or light. Just the same, the light is quite cool, and it will help the discs glow in the dark better if you are playing in low-light conditions.

The chief complaint about the Fusefire is the disc storage on the front of the blaster. It’s very easy to mis-align a disc when sliding it into the storage area; the edges of the discs can get a bit warped, and that will impact its range and accuracy.

The storage on the front of the blaster can be tricky: the discs might get a bit mangled if you aren't careful, and that could impact the discs' range and accuracy. Image: Hasbro.com.
The storage on the front of the blaster can be tricky. The discs might get a bit mangled if you attempt to load them too forcefully, possibly impacting their range and accuracy. Image: Hasbro.com.

The Nerf Zombie Strike Crossfire and Fusefire blasters can be found at major toy retailers, such as Toys R Us, Target, and Amazon. Each of the blasters retails for $19.99, and refill darts for the Crossfire retail for $9.99 for 30 darts. Refill discs for the Fusefire are available for $11.99 for 20 discs. The blasters are for ages 8 and up.

GeekMom is proud to partner with Hasbro to offer a giveaway to win both of these Nerf Zombie Strike Blasters! Just perform one—or all—of the tasks below for your chance to be entered in the drawing. You must submit a valid email address to be considered. The winner will be notified on July 21st. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

You Can Now Rent Your Favorite Lego Sets

lego Rental
Image: Pley

There are lots of Lego sets, but your pockets are only so deep and your house has only so much space. What to do? Now you can rent your favorite Lego sets so your kids have new ways to explore and create all the time.

It’s sort of like Netflix, but with Lego sets and it’s a brilliant idea. Pley has hundreds of different sets from which you can choose. You simply put the sets you want in a queue, and when you send back one set, then the next goes out to you and should arrive in just 2-3 business days.

Once you sign up for the service, you get a one month free trial before your monthly subscription starts. The subscription costs are broken down into sets that are small ($15), medium($25), or large($39). The really cool part is that there’s no limit to how long you keep a set. If your kid hates it, then send it right back. If they like it, then keep it for long as you choose. If your child absolutely falls in love with a set, you can even purchase it at a discount.

They’ve already got a couple of issues covered, things I’m sure that popped into your mind right away. Each set is completely sanitized before it goes out so you’re not getting a germ-filled toy, and if you lose a piece (up to 15 pieces actually), there’s no need to panic as it’s covered.

Unfortunately, they haven’t figured out how to avoid impaling your foot on a Lego brick in the middle of the night. If that happens, then you’re on your own.

(via NerdApproved)

Summer + Nerf = A Blasting Good Time!

Ohh boys! Who wants to play. \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Oh boys! Who wants to play. \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

The latest addition to my family’s Nerf arsenal are the Nerf N-Strike Mega Magnus and N-Strike Elite Centurion blaster. The Centurion is almost as tall as my 8-year old son, while the Magnus reminds me a lot of Starlord’s gun in Guardians of the Galaxy.

What makes these guns really special are the darts and their shooting range.

The darts are twice the size of a regular Nerf dart and whistle when shot. Both blasters bring the heat with an impressive shooting distance of 100 feet and 85 feet respectively. The downside to both the size of the dart and the shooting range is the sting that happens when you get hit at close range. My husband and son learned the hard way that shooting each other at point-blank range wasn’t the brightest idea they’ve had all year. I’ve actually had to make a rule (that is rarely followed) that players must be a minimum of 6-feet from their intended target.

Watch out daddy! We are armed and ready. \ Image: Dakster Sulliva
Watch out daddy! We are armed and ready. \ Image: Dakster Sulliva

The sniper-like N-Strike Elite Centurion measures in at a whopping 39-inches in length and packs six darts in a clip. Since my son is only around 54-inches, you could say it’s a little difficult for him to cock a dart into position. Despite the problems he has holding the blaster and loading it, he still has a lot of fun when playing with it. My husband, who stands at 5-foot 8-inches, can handle it with ease and has no problem taking advantage of our son’s lag time when reloading his blaster.

As a cosplayer, I appreciate the Centurion for its sleek design. I’ve already been told more than once that it would go great with my 501st Legion Clone Trooper costume and with some bondo and black paint, I think they’re right.

The Nerf N-Strike Mega Magnus blasters are a bit easier to carry, load, and cock after each shot. This blaster holds up to three darts at a time and sounds really cool when you lock and load. It took my son a few practice games to cock this one right, but he’s since mastered the pullback action it takes to prep it for shooting.

The Magnus blaster is my favorite of the two, because it’s easier to handle than the larger Centurion blaster. I wish it held more than three darts at a time, but oh well. I stuff extra darts in my pockets for reloading.

While the darts are a plus for their size, the design is a bit flimsy. I suggest you purchase a backup set of darts for more fun when you wear out the darts that come with the blasters.

Of all the toys in our house right now, I have to say that the Nerf N-Strike Centurion and Mega Magnus blasters are my favorites because of the fun I’ve had watching my husband and son play with them. I’ve jumped in to a few games, too (and played double agent a few times). They never know whose side I’m really on until it’s to late for them.

Uncle Doug takes his aim at poor Pikachu at the end of the hall. \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Uncle Doug takes his aim at poor Pikachu at the end of the hall. \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

If your family is looking to add a new Nerf blaster to your arsenal, make sure you check out the Nwef N-Strike Elite Centurion an Magnus blasters. Both blasters are available at your local toy retailer and on Amazon for $49.99 (Centurion) and $15.99 (Magnus).

For safety reasons, I encourage all players to wear safety-glasses when playing with any Nerf blaster. Better safe on the battlefield than sorry in the emergency room.

Disclaimer: GeekMom received a review sample. 

Social Planes: Soar Into New Communication Heights

Too often I find myself reaching out to people via the internet. It’s easy, convenient, and when you want to talk about something uncomfortable, it makes it more comfortable. The problem is that I’ve started to miss good old fashioned communication, preferring to write letters rather than type them or email them.

I discovered this great new project: Social Planes, through one of my favorite sites, Gizmodo. I fell in love with it. Social Planes are paper airplanes with a social theme that allow you to connect in the real world with people around you, without using your phone. For those who were born after the year 2000, this might seem a bit archaic, but believe me, it’s as fun as it sounds.

All you have to do is download the planes via Social Planes website, cut them out, and start having fun. Since I have a Facebook and Twitter account, I downloaded the corresponding planes and took them for a test ride. My first question when I saw the video online was “how well do they really fly?” I made the mistake of testing my first plane in my office at work. Why was this a mistake? Because it flew a little to well and thankfully hit a wall before my boss realized I was playing with a paper airplane.

As an introvert, this gives me a way to interact in good old fashioned writing and still keep a distance from the person I’m communicating with. For kids, this will be a great way to remind them that written communication is still a great tool and can be fun.

Domo/Ghostbusters Mash-Up Invades Stores This Fall

DomoGB
Domo meets Ghostbusters in a limited-release product line coming this fall. Image courtesy of Big Tent Entertainment.

Thirty years after Ghostbusters became the top-selling comedy of all time, the franchise is still going strong with everything from costumes to IDW’s New Ghostbusters comic series.

Soon, the paranormal extinguishers will “cross streams” with Japan’s most famous social media mascot, as Big Tent Entertainment and Sony Pictures Consumer Products have announced a line of Domo/Ghostbusters crossover items.

Domo. Image copyright Big Tent Entertainment.
Domo. Image copyright Big Tent Entertainment.

According to Big Tent, this line of products will include plush and collectibles mash-ups of Domo and some of the Ghostbusters world’s favorite characters such as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and Slimer. The exact release date or cost of the products hasn’t been released as yet but they should be available sometime this fall.

Ghostbusters is one of the most influential and instantly recognizable pop-culture icons of all-time,” Big Tent Entertainment President and CEO, Rich Collins, said in the product announcement. “This mash-up bridges the generation gap between pop-culture fandom and blends two franchises that seem to share a common sensibility.”

With more than six million followers on Facebook, Domo, the toothy little “creature that hatched from an egg,” has already been seen in crossovers—both officially licensed and fan-made—from DC Comics to Star Wars to Hello Kitty. It seems only natural the little beast that looks like a brownie with legs get together with the world’s largest marshmallow to create a cute and cuddly s’more of a monster intended to appeal to all ages.

Which Lego Set Is Age Appropriate?

IMG_0685
All Images: Sarah Pinault

For years, my eldest son has happily played with his Duplo bricks. We have whiled away many hours building towers, farms, boats, all manner of things. But a few months ago, he became disgruntled with them. There were several contributing factors. Having a little brother playing with them too, having a little brother destroying them, and quite frankly, they just didn’t do what his imagination wanted them to do.

So we moved on with some small packs aimed at 5-7 year olds. These packs came free with a newspaper that his grandparents buy in the UK. There were little pieces, so the first rule set was that they were only to be played with at the kitchen table, where his brother couldn’t reach them. The rule was agreeable to everyone but the little brother in question.

IMG_0179Turns out that for a young four year old who turns five this coming September, the 5-7 age range worked very well. The first half dozen kits were done with some very hands-on help from his dad, but after that he just went with it.

He finds the instructions easy to follow, only has trouble with some of the more peculiar pieces, and thoroughly enjoys the construction process. The second rule we set was that he has to put the pieces together according to the instructions the first time around, and after that he can do what he wants with the pieces. This rule is also one he follows willingly, so we build everything per the instructions, and then he disassembles the kit to come up with his own ideas. He heavily favors cars and rocket ships in his own designs.

Some of the packets we have are for ages 6-12, but there seems to be no difference in difficulty level between the five and six year starting line. So when he finally got to visit the Lego aisle at Toys R Us, we focused mainly on the small six-year-old packs such as Lego Creator 31014 Power Digger and Lego Creator 31015 Emerald Express. Ultimately he chose Lego Creator 31013 Red Thunder which is a pack of three. And again he had no difficulty.

But, oh, he longed for that display Coast Guard helicopter.

When we took him to the Legoland Discovery Center which recently opened in Boston, we agreed that we were going to let him purchase a bigger pack this time. He had proved his mettle and earned it. But once in the store, I felt intimidated by the size of the packs, and the quantity of pieces. I felt certain that my boy would have the skill set for such a piece, but at four years old would lack the patience required for something bigger. So I steered him towards Lego’s new line of mid range Lego kits.

Intended to bridge the gap between Duplo and the more traditional Lego, the Lego Juniors line had intrigued me for a while, and I wondered if this might be what we were looking for. He zeroed in on a kit larger than his usual size, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles kit*, and back home we went.

The clerk in the store explained that the difference between regular kits and the Juniors was in the instructions. The idea is that Lego Juniors instructions are easier to follow than the instructions provided with kits aimed at an older audience. I found this hard to believe, as my son had been following the instructions for a six year old exceptionally well. Putting together the kit was no problem; in fact it was easier than any of the smaller models he had previously constructed.

It was in the deconstruction and imagination aspect that we found the downside of this well meaning product from Lord Business.

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Traditional pieces on the left, Junior piece (singular) on the right.

What makes Lego Juniors so simple to construct, what makes the instructions so easy to follow, all boils down to the same thing: pre-connected pieces. The base for a car in the Juniors kit is not a collection of pieces; it is one solid piece. There are no angle plates, no bearing elements, there are no rims or tires. For my son, this was and still is extremely frustrating.

Now, when he disassembles the kit to construct from pure imagination, he has less freedom to play. He has fewer pieces, and fewer ways to manipulate his car design. The first time he encountered this problem he tried to bite the wheels off the base, because “they have to come off mommy, they always do.” After a couple of go rounds with this, he gave up trying to take it apart and now simply sighs when encountering that piece. Much like the bulk of his kits, he adapts, but he breathes a heavy sigh as he does so.

IMG_0887Because the pieces are pre-connected, the instructions become intrinsically easier. There are fewer steps, because there are fewer pieces. There are fewer small pieces as they are welded together, so the more minute aspects of the traditional instructions simply don’t exist. There is no difference in style of instruction, as I had thought there would be, but simply the instructions are easier because the pieces are simplified.

In the example pictured here, the instructions on the left are for a basic car, in a kit for ages 5-12. On the right are the Juniors instructions, ages 4-7. You will notice that step one in the Juniors kit is a complete base, while the base is not complete in the 5-12 kit until the wheels are added in step seven (not pictured).

While I still maintain that my son has the skill set but not the patience for a physically larger kit, I do not think the larger kits designed for the Juniors range are challenging enough for him. They do not keep his interest, and they do not stimulate his own creations either.

But that is not to say that the Juniors line does not have a place in the world of Lego. If you are a parent who has no experience or interest in Lego, but you have a young child who does, this would be a great place to start. Perhaps your child has shown no interest in doing anything but making the pre-determined kit; these kits would not hinder that goal. From a safety perspective I am aware that my son is working with kits beyond the manufacturer’s recommended age group, and so if your child is prone to swallowing small pieces, or has a propensity to get frustrated with bits and pieces, this might be preferable to a five and up kit.

However, if you have already begun your Lego journey with regular kits and had success, the Juniors range is not for you. Likewise, if your child likes to see how things are put together, see how they work, then the limitations of the pre-connected pieces might prove too frustrating and a hindrance to the enjoyment of Lego as a whole. If you have an older Lego addict in your family—in ours it is my husband—that has the time and patience to sit and work through the kit, then the regular kits would be a better group activity.

One of the other pieces of information we garnered on our adventure in the Lego store was that since the advent of licensed products, such as the Star Wars kits and The Lord of the Rings kits, the age ranges on the packages have changed. The criteria for aging is not the same as it was when we were kids.

If a kit is based on a movie that is rated 12 and up, then the kit is not designated under age 12. For example, Lego LOTR79006 The Council of Elrond is a relatively simple kit compared to some of the kits we have been doing for five year olds, and yet it is rated 9 and up. The architecture kits contain many similar pieces and are therefore often quite simple to put together. Yet the finished product is not intended to be a toy, and so the age rating is higher. Certainly the number of pieces, complexity, and size still play a part, but they are not the only determining factors you should consider when picking a kit.

For my young four year old, we shall continue with the kits rated for ages five through twelve, with a few six and ups thrown in. As long as the size of the overall construction can fit in my cereal bowl, it is not too big for him too handle without frustration. There are a wide variety of kits for this young age available, and with some assistance from very willing parents, we will not be purchasing anything else from the Lego Juniors range.

*I am assuming that the Lego Juniors Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles kit we purchased is a store exclusive, as it is not available in the online store.

Fund This! Geek Dinnerware, Action Figures for Girls, Build Better Forts, and Compressed Air Rockets!

I have an amazing group of campaigns to close out the month of May! You are going to thank me! Fancy dinnerware for geeks, action figures for girls that are all heroine and no hooters, fort building taken to a new level, and compressed air gliders that rock the atmosphere!

seamonster
Photo courtesy of Calamityware

 

Calamity Dinnerware Plate

This was actually a series of three plates by graphic artist Don Moyer. There will be six plates in the series, but if popular he will go up to 12. If you missed the first two on Kickstarter, you can purchase them at BuyCalamityware.com in limited amounts. This plate, third in the series, is the Sea Monster. Words cannot express how badly I want these plates in my home. I have always been a sucker for the juxtaposition of science fiction and history. New into old. These are subtle yet attractive, and show off my geek without being overtly kitsch or loud. Want. Want. Want.

 

elemental
Photo courtesy of IAmElemental

IAmElemental Action Figures for Girls

First, I want to commend these designers for making it clear they are not anti-doll, nor anti-princess. They are trying to change the female action figure from primarily pleasing adult male collectors to ones that please the interests of girls. I love their first collection, based on the idea of Courage which includes seven figures: Bravery, Energy, Honesty, Industry, Enthusiasm, Persistence, and Fear. By tackling archetypes with healthier body proportions that we can relate to, IAmElemental hopes to expand the stories girls are willing and able to tell. Completely real, completely fierce. I am going to need the whole set, thank you.

 

rocket
Photo courtesy of Air Rocket Works

Launch Something! Air Rocket Toys

This is another great project from my friend and colleague Rick Schertle (and his partner Keith Violette) who have started a new venture: Air Rocket Works. There are actually two products I want to point out in this campaign. The first is a newly designed compressed air launcher. Yes, you could build one yourself (we have made several from scratch) but I have also gotten this kit and it is, frankly, much easier and less time consuming. Their new design looks sleek and simple, perfect for those who need a quick, efficient, and working path to start launching! The second product is their new Air Rocket Glider. It is a combination of the paper rockets and the wooden gliders, so that you launch the glider and air pressure holds the wings in until it reaches maximum height, and then the wings unfold to produce a lengthy and graceful flight. I have used Rick’s designs in our programs at Curiosity Hacked for almost two years, and they never fail to entertain and wow. Currently, I am adapting it to teach about rocketry in space, but we have explored many concepts through the compressed air launcher. There is so much you can do with this project.

 

buildies
Photo courtesy of Buildies

Buildies: Build Better Forts

I don’t like to brag, but I am a master fort builder. My children beg me to build my elaborate forts, usually themed on some story and always assuming the floor is lava. I was sent a message about these, and I really loved the concept. The interlocking system would help with stability and the recycled cardboard makes me feel much better about what happens if, okay, WHEN, some of them get destroyed during a hostile take-over. That happens in everyone’s house, right? Best of all, they are open ended and gender neutral!

Happy Funding!

What to Expect at the New LegoLand Discovery Center Boston

Lego
All Images: Sarah Pinault

LegoLand Discovery Center Boston opens today in Somerville’s new multi-faceted, multi-million-dollar plaza, Assembly Row. Covering 44,000 square feet, if you add up all the Lego bricks of the attractions within, there are over 3 million Lego bricks. Last week, along with some local elementary school classes, my family had a chance to check it out. This has been a highly anticipated opening for my Lego-obsessed family. So did it live up to our expectations?

Lego GiraffeThe adults had been antsy for days about the upcoming visit, so we didn’t tell my four-year-old where we were going. It’s a two-hour drive from Maine, and that is far more “Are we there yet?” than I can tolerate. The first inkling he had of what was happening came with the enormous giraffe made entirely of Duplo. It stands on a corner in Assembly Row, marking the entrance to the LegoLand Discovery Center. To say that he was excited is a significant understatement. And this is where our expectations diverged from his. Looking with a child’s eyes, his every dream was granted from the moment he set foot through the door, and I began to realize why they so specifically emphasize that adults aren’t allowed in without kids. While there are things in here for adults to appreciate, and diehard Lego fans will enjoy adults-only night, this place is all about the kids. And that’s exactly as it should be.

From the movie they show while you are in line, through the factory tour and minifig building of the entryway, to all of the activities inside, everything about this place is tailored for the enjoyment of the kids. So while my husband and I were hoping for Lego building classes, demonstrations maybe, a little more technical stuff, and some hands-on time with some kits, everything that we had actually been promised (and not imagined) went above and beyond our hopes. As it turns out, what we were looking forward to is everything that is provided in an in-house Lego birthday party. So that may be what we do for my husband’s 33rd birthday this year. Ahem.

Lego CheersBy far, the most impressive aspect of the Center was the Miniland depiction of Boston. This is one of the first things you encounter here, and is the largest Miniland in the U.S. If a visit to the Discover Center is part of a grander visit to Boston at large, it might be worth using this list of buildings and going on an architectural treasure hunt, to see what you can see in both real life and Lego. Complete with underground sections where you can view marine life, trains, and in one section, the bar and cast of Cheers, Boston in miniature is a fun place to hang out. The room simulates night and day so that you can experience it fully, and all the age groups in our party enjoyed the interactive features. We played baseball at Fenway Park, went boat racing on the Charles River, and blasted cannons into the water. We had a soft spot for the rendition of Logan Airport, which took up almost an entire wall. My son often joins me in picking up his grandparents at Logan Airport, so he spent a lot of time looking for minifigs of Nanny and Granddad.

Once you exit the initial interactive factory tour and have worked your way around Miniland Boston, you enter the Discovery Center proper. This was not at all what I had expected. It was a completely open plan environment, where I had expected more of a Smithsonian feel, with different “exhibits” in several large cavernous rooms. This was one cavernous room, probably 30,000 square feet of open play rumpus. If your kids are runners, you are coming with slower grandparents, or if you are thinking of bringing multiple children, I advise extreme caution. Part of my issue with this layout was the setup of Duplo Farm. I had anticipated a quieter space where younger siblings could avoid being trampled by their enthusiastic, older counterparts. Though intended for younger children, it was not the oasis of calm from the rest of the Center that I had hoped for. It is completely open and is not roped off from the rest of the attractions in any way. Big kids can run straight through and little kids can run away very easily. The play area itself is pretty great, with life-size versions of several Duplo animals that my son loves, but I’m not sure it accomplishes what many parents would want it to.

Both rides offered within the Center were fun. The Kingdom Quest Laser Ride and Merlin’s Apprentice Ride both resemble old-fashioned carnival rides. Kingdom Quest is a love-boat-style ride where you have to defeat the bad guys, with lasers, in order to rescue the princess. It reminded me of the laser tag matches of my college years. The car keeps score of how many bad guys you shoot down. Shooting the troll gets the most points. Incidentally, the gun does not respond if you try to shoot a good guy. You neither lose nor gain points; the gun just doesn’t respond. Merlin’s Apprentice is a spinning ride wherein you pedal as fast as you can to see how high you can get. The seats are fully adjustable, for kids and adults. Both my four-year-old and I were able to pedal at the same time, though he much preferred it when I did.

Lego RacersWhen it came to the two main construction areas, The Earthquake Table and the Lego Racers: Build & Test zone, we were delighted. My husband has fond memories of his Pinewood Derby years, so we were excited to build and race our own cars. It was challenging, but one of the best sections of the Center. None of the kids we raced with managed to make a car that made it all the way to the bottom of the track, so in this section, a little more hands-on adult interaction would be good. There are two tracks to race down: A straight one for speed, and a steep, curved one, mostly for fun. Be warned, this steep one apparently looks like a slide to many kids. A staff member we chatted with had already been chastised by an overbearing parent/teacher, who didn’t appreciate the staff member pointing out that it wasn’t a slide. Be nice to the Lego staff, folks; they are there for your child’s enjoyment and safety. You have to climb over a block and up onto something that doesn’t have steps in order to use it as a slide, but that won’t stop some kids, apparently. This was the section my husband had the most fun playing with our son in, even though their cars didn’t get very far. The Earthquake Table was initially a disappointment, as it utilizes Duplo bricks instead of Lego bricks, but ultimately proved to be tremendous fun. It’s easy for an adult to build a tower that will last, but the kids got a kick out of making them deliberately fall down.

Lego Friends

The biggest surprise for me was how much my son and I enjoyed the Lego Friends section. I admit, try as I might to leave them behind, I carried prejudiced expectations with me. I wanted to dislike and dismiss the area as sexist, based mainly on my dislike of the Friends minifigs. But this area was easily one of my favorite aspects of the Center. The karaoke area is pretty fun, but there is more Lego in this area than in other areas of the Center, and that was inspiring to all of the kids we witnessed using it. My son had a great time making us a Lego lunch, while we relaxed at one of the diner tables. While we were there, kids of all ages and genders were running in and out making Lego food, and just hanging out. We came back to this section several times. Funnily enough, this section used a fake house facade and so was closed off in the way I had expected the Duplo Farm to be.

The Lego 4D cinema was enjoyed by all. I’m not so sure that I like the foam used as snow, but a new adventure from Clutch Powers is well worth a small sprinkling of rain in my book. If your child isn’t a fan of 3D glasses or of a tactile experience being literally thrown at them, then I would definitely avoid this. Interactive as it is, it’s also a nice place to cool off and chill out for 10 minutes.

If your child has no interest in chilling out, then the Lego City: Play Zone is the place to be. Climbing walls, slides, and a jungle gym will ensure that your child sleeps all the way home. There are even house brick-sized Lego bricks made of sturdy foam, for life-size construction. There is only one access point to this area, so your child isn’t going to sneak out unnoticed, but be warned: It goes all the way to the ceiling and can be hard to keep track of where your small child is. This is not a play zone for the younger ages or for children who might respond badly to being closed into a small space with other raucous children.

Lego EntryUnlike the access point of most children’s museums, you are admitted into the Discovery Center in batches, more like riders at a theme park attraction. After going up to the second floor in the elevator, you line up according to a color group. Then, 24 people at a time are allowed into the control center. Shut into this room, you watch a short video of a factory tour, do a little interactive minifig creation, and the doors then open up to the main Center. It will be understandably frustrating to be waiting on the other side to get in, but the controlled release of visitors is a sensible method that, as the mother of flighty children, I appreciated. The occupancy limit of the building is 700 persons, including staff and parents. So with only 24 people allowed to go through the entryway at one time, there is a system in place for controlling the flow. Though the website says online pre-purchasing of your tickets is optional, the PR group assures me that tickets should be pre-purchased online for specific windows to guarantee admission. This is a bit of a bummer if you happen to just be in the area, but I think we all travel with at least one smartphone per family group these days, for just such a reason as this. The attraction has seen overwhelming demand, and tickets for opening weekend were sold out two weeks ago. 

I was not impressed with the cafeteria for several reasons. The options are limited and the prices are high. Also, much like the Duplo Farm, the cafeteria is not roped off in any way. There is no buffer between your meal and the regular crazy of the attraction.  I would have no luck in keeping either of my children at the lunch table, with all of the things going on around them. I would definitely eat before going in, or upon exiting the center.

Lego StoreThe last thing we visited before leaving was the in-house Lego Store.  While the options seemed just as good as those found in a stand-alone store, the vibe just wasn’t there for us. It had fewer display models than a regular store and less innovation by staff. But fear not, the nearest Lego Store is in the Burlington Mall, a mere 8 miles or 30-minute drive away. If you don’t get what you are looking for at the Center, it’s not that much of  a haul to get to the store. We went at the end of the day and had a great time with the staff in Burlington. It is worth noting that since the LegoLand Discovery Centers are owned by the Merlin Entertainments group and not by Lego, VIP programs and rewards won’t work in the on-site Lego Store.

We were at the LegoLand Discovery Center for about 90 minutes and while we were ready to leave at that point, our son cried when his time was up. The recommended two-to-three hours would definitely be a good time frame for a busier day than we encountered.

Will we return? The price tag and the chaos I expect to be contained within after opening day may deter me. But the love my son bears for the place may be the deciding factor. Every time we ask him what his favorite aspect was, he has a different answer, a different reason for the answer, and something he wants to try next time. Needless to say, it was a hit with him, and if asked, he would be there everyday. If older grandparents or younger children want to go, I would go during one of their quieter times, weekdays or later in the afternoon would be best. If you live nearby and are looking for birthday party options, the package they offer seems well worth it.

GeekMom visited LegoLand Discovery Center Boston on Press Preview Day.

Toys From the Attic: Have You Ever Seen Juri?

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To show you just how tiny Juri toys are, I placed a quarter next to some of my collection. Photo: Rachel Cericola.

Recently, GeekMoms Cathé and Sarah talked up their various attic treasures. I’m always fascinated by these little attic adventures; it’s like your own personal Storage Wars. I’m excited to offer up something similar, but mainly because I need some help.

First, a little back-story: Back in September, my father died. Over Thanksgiving, my sister, brother, and I were together, so we made time to go through some of his things. It was all of 15 minutes.

See, my dad wasn’t much of a saver. He had a few pictures and cards, an old lighter, yearbooks, and a few other mementos. He had some blank stationary paper from when I was a kid, with pictures of animals (mostly monkeys) with funny sayings on them. It wasn’t much, but he was more about experiences than keeping actual, physical stuff.

At one point, we were up in the attic area above the garage, which was mostly packed with my brother’s college junk. However, there was one little box off to the side. Inside, we found eight smaller boxes—and I was instantly whisked back to my childhood.

Each of these teeny boxes isn’t much bigger than a matchbox. However, they are packed with the most wonderful wooden toys, in the shapes of different animals. My collection includes kangaroos, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, polar bears, monkey, tigers, and an actual zoo kit.

These toys are really small, the kind that would most certainly be deemed a choking hazard by today’s standards. I am 98-percent sure that they were sent to me from my aunt, who spent a lot of my childhood in Saudi Arabia. She would send us toys from time to time. Some were ornate and would sit upon the mantle in my room; others were downright frightening and placed in a box. However, these particular toys would be played with, cherished, and some 30-plus years down the line, found in a box in the attic above the garage.

Now, I am trying to find out more about them—and I need your help.

Once I got the toys back to New England, I did what any person would do: I looked them up on the web. I’m not interested in selling them. (I would never do that!) I just want to know more about them. It’s quite the cool find and I remember them well.

After several Google searches, I couldn’t find anything about them or the company that made them, Juri. As mentioned, each box is about the size of a matchbox, with German and English on them. Each one says the name Juri and that they’re made in Western Germany.

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Giraffes and other Juri toys. Photo: Rachel Cericola.

Sadly, my aunt is also now deceased, so I asked two of her daughters if maybe they remembered them. Both initially thought they were from Sweden, until they saw the boxes, which clearly state, “Made in Western Germany.” Next, they told me that the toys were probably sent to me in the late 70s or early 80s. Late 70s probably makes the most sense, because I definitely remember playing with these things. In fact, there was actual proof inside the box.

Besides the toys, there are several slips of paper with evidence that these things were played with and well loved. One note asks, “I’d really appreciate, if you wouldn’t touch my zoo, the things are really easy to knock over. Thanx.” Those “things” were the animals. The other slips of paper show some of the names I came up with. (The “Rinos” are Archie, Veronica, and Betty, while the giraffes are Archie, Edith, and Gloria.)

Next, I turned to a good friend of mine. Her mom is originally from Witten, Germany—and is the only person I know who actually originates from Germany. She said that the toys looked vaguely familiar, but that was it.

My Google search did yield two eBay auctions and an old Etsy sale, so someone else has seen these things at some point. I am looking for anything and everything about these toys, the company, or why they are no longer in existence. Do they look familiar to you? Please sound off in the comments section below!

Lottie Dolls Is Running a Super(hero) Costume Contest!

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Girls can be superheroes, too! Photo credit: @Lottie_Dolls

Here at GeekMom we’ve had some spirited behind-the-scenes debates on whether or not Barbie’s unrealistic dimensions affect a little girl’s self-image. Some, like me, wonder if women’s tendency toward perfectionism isn’t perhaps the result of the barrage of idealized feminine images children receive through their toys and the media. Others at the blog take a softer approach, claiming, “I played with Barbies as a kid and I turned out happy and confident.”

What we have agreed upon, though, is that Arklu’s Lottie Dolls are wonderful toys—many of us have bought them for our children or for friends. Whether you appreciate the fact that Lottie has a “childlike” body (she doesn’t wear makeup, jewelry, or high heels either), or just enjoy her for her hobbies (including robotics, ballet, karate) and accessories (puppies, picnic baskets, pirate queen ensembles), there is no getting around the fact that this is a fun, well-constructed, charmingly-conceived toy. Also: affordable.

And now, as it turns out, your family could win the entire Lottie collection—dolls, accessories, clothing, and animal friends. Lottie Dolls is teaming up with the non-profit organization “Brave Girls Want” to launch a global competition to get kids aged 10 and under to design a superhero outfit—the first “crowdsourced doll outfit design by a child” for the Lottie™  doll.

With the release of a whole slew of superhero movies on the way, we know that there is an acknowledged lack of strong female superheroes out there, so this is why we thought a competition and campaign with the message that girls can be superheroes too is very much needed.

Want to enter the contest? Here are the details…

The prize:

  • One lucky child will see their superhero outfit design manufactured and made commercially available in Autumn 2014.
  • The winning child will see their original artwork design, first name, age, city, and country on the back of the outfit packaging.
  • The winning child will also win the entire range of Lottie dolls, accessories, and outfits.

How to enter:

  • Parents: Go to the Superhero Contest app on the Lottie Facebook page; like the page and download and print out the Superhero Outfit Design template.
  • Kids: Start coloring and create a superhero outfit design for Lottie.
  • Parents: Take a photo of your child’s design and upload it on the Lottie Facebook app, and fill in a form to allow your child to enter.

Terms and Conditions:

  • Competition open to kids aged 10 and under only.
  • Parental permission required to enter the competition.
  • Competition closing date 7th May 2014.
  • A winner will be selected by jury and confidentially notified in May 2014.
  • Multiple entries permitted.

Full terms and conditions available here.

PS: A selection of entries is shown on Pinterest—and if you have ever enjoyed the company of a little person with a vivid imagination you will need to immediately head over there and check out some of the superpowers that the contestants have imagined for Lottie:

  • “She can touch animals wounds and they go away. She shoots bandages over their wounds.”
  • “She can fly into whirlwinds in air and water. She can make rainbows.”
  • “She shoots love hearts from her hands to make sick children better.”
  • “Her cape shoots out [watermelon] seeds to grow for all the children [so that they] never go hungry again. No one will ever die from hunger or thirst again!”
  • “She can fly with her jet pack and protect dinosaurs.”
  • “She shoots rainbow colored hearts from her hands. When she hits a villain it makes them turn nice/good instantly. If she was real there would be no wars.”

This is good stuff; you won’t want to miss it!

Old School Pranks vs. High Tech Tricks With Marvin’s Magic

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Marvin’s Magic kits span the spectrum of tech-centered illusions to retro-style pranks.
Images by Rick Tate

With April Fools’ Day approaching, I thought I would try out a couple of kits from Marvin’s Magic, created by British illusionist Marvin Berglas. This resulted in two generations comparing “high tech” trickery with “old school” pranks. It was which generation was drawn to which kit, however, that surprised us the most.

One of the kits incorporated a high-tech theme to sleight of hand with the Junior Edition of Lights from Anywhere. I won’t reveal its secret, but will say it is deceptively simple. A little fancy sleight of hand practice and the proper room lighting on the part of the user will result in an very impressive little display. When we showed it to family members who weren’t yet “in on the trick,” they were very impressed. You can see a few seconds of my own awkward, unpolished attempt at this Light Illusion. If I can achieve this in a just a short time, imagine what some practice could do for more graceful hands.

I personally found this illusion extremely addictive and spent a good portion of the evening hoarding the trick, practicing “bouncing” the light around, and pretty much pretending to be Loki. This trick is suggested for ages 8 and older, and rightly so, as it would be something a little harder for smaller hands to master. Our 11-year-old daughter found it a little harder to control, but enjoyed it nonetheless.

We also checked out the Fifty Pranks to Freak Your Friends kit after the light show and I admit I was underwhelmed at first, especially after playing with “magic light” for the previous hour. Also, having grown up in the home of a full-time prankster, my dad, I recognized some of my his favorite homemade pranks with new packaging, but my daughter fell immediately in love with all of them.

It was the simplicity of the execution, the mischievous Weasley Twins-style potential and the promise of those unabashed facial expressions surprise from her victims, that really drew her in. She especially loved the “Scary Spider Trap,” and “Freaky Body Parts” in a box. Anyone who remembers the classic “rattle snake eggs” prank or “mummified finger” causing big scares—followed by big laughs—as a kid will be nostalgic with these pranks, as well.

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Taking a cue from the Fifty Pranks to Freak Your Friends, our daughter surprised us with a room covered with neon pink notes.
Image by Lisa Kay Tate

She tried most every item in the box at least once, giggling the entire time. She read the kit’s booklet on how to use each prank in different ways, as well as suggestion for fun pranks that don’t even require the provided props. She plotted out loud which friends and family members—and some good-natured teachers—she wanted to torture with certain pranks.

Finally, booklet in hand, she disappeared from sight for about a half hour before her bedtime. The quiet should have tipped us off that something was amiss, but we were too busy playing with the “pretty lights” to notice. It wasn’t until we entered our own bedroom later that night, and found ourselves victims of the Great Pink Post-It Explosion of 2014. As we stood dumbfounded in our room looking at a small army of pink notes, each naming the item they were stuck to (phone, lamp, pillow, Middle Earth sword, etc.), we heard a blast of laughter coming from across the hall. Apparently, our silent shock was just the reaction our apprentice prankster wanted, and she laughed hysterically for about five straight minutes. For our daughter, this simple prank, well executed and timed, was worth its weight in 100 fancy “high tech” illusions.

Although the light-based magic was a welcome addition to our family time, we learned with every generation everything old is new again, but it never does stop being fun.

Lights From Anywhere, and Fifty Pranks to Freak Your Friends are available at marvinsmagic.com

GeekMom received these items for review purposes.

Toy Fair 2014: The Small Fry Edition

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All photos by Jackie Reeve.

Last month I attended Toy Fair in New York City, and I had my eyes open for great products aimed at babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.

I found quite a few.

I fell in love with the toy pianos from Schoenhut. The brightly lacquered, well-built instruments come in so many colors and patterns that it was just luscious eye candy. And they have the perfect toy piano chime when you play them. Schoenhut also has a slew of other great handheld instruments. I loved the Band in a Box.

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KidKraft‘s spring catalog has some fantastic offerings. I am personally coveting this retro kitchen. I can be a little weird about toy kitchens, largely because they can so often be pink and so clearly aimed at little girls. While I may be the mom to a little girl, and we may spend a lot of time together in the kitchen, I can resent the idea that it is only a pink little girl’s domain.

KidKraft offers so many awesome styles for wannabe chefs that my issue becomes moot. You can match your home decor or your kid’s personality, but either way these are equal opportunity, wonderfully built playroom additions.

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I’ve also been pretty impressed with Wow Toys, a British company that makes these marvelously indestructible vehicles. They are so satisfying to hold, you can feel how sturdy they are. The colors are wonderful and gender neutral, and they have a huge range of vehicles and characters.

These are from the brand-new Mini Wow collection, but the full size toys are equally great (I love this camper van set).

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Melissa and Doug had more toys than you could imagine; their booth was an enormous presence at Toy Fair. But I really, really liked their new soft books for babies and toddlers. The material feels nice and seems like it would be easy to clean, and I love the little interactive touches in each book: soft figures to tuck into pockets throughout the story, or buttons and buckles to touch. These won’t be available until later in the year, and I’ll be keeping my eyes open.

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I also really liked this Melissa and Doug diner set (obviously the tiny short order cook is not included). This is another one that will be arriving later this year, but I like that it comes with play money, a diner menu, and all the trimmings. This greatly appeals to the Jersey girl in me.

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Vivitar had a ton of great new offerings. Everything from noise-control headphones for preschoolers (kind of a great idea, and branded with all their favorite toys) to their full-fledged Android Camelio and XO tablets. A lot of the products, including newer versions of the tablets, will be available later this year.

I really liked these Adventure Kits, also available later this year and again branded with their favorite characters (Disney, Hello Kitty, Marvel, etc.). They are on the high side of the age group I looked at, but I think savvy younger kids could do a lot with them, too. To me this is such a neat gift. Each kit comes with a Vivitar camera, binoculars, a flashlight, a compass, and a few other goodies to encourage outdoor exploration and play.

What I like about this is that the toys included are identical in every package, but kids can still show their individuality (including their pink Disney princess pride). The Disney Princess pack has the same items as the Ninja Turtles pack. No special tools for girls vs. boys, just everything you need to explore. The end use is the same, and I really like that idea.

Touring Teddies Kickstarter: A Traveling Friend

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Photo courtesy of Touring Teddies, used with permission.

Mail is the greatest when you’re a kid, isn’t it? It’s even pretty great when you’re an adult (as long as it’s not bills). There are so many cool products and services out there that build on that excitement of getting a treat from your friendly neighborhood postal worker.

GeekMom has reviewed several, from makeup bags for grownups to monthly subscription boxes for kids. Here’s another one to add to your radar.

Touring Teddies is currently running a Kickstarter campaign through March 6th. The product is a 4-week mail experience that involves a bear traveling through a foreign country (Hugo in France or Bernardo in Italy) and sending correspondence home to your child.

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Photo courtesy of Touring Teddies, used with permission.

Founder Leah Chamish has an infectious enthusiasm about her bears. “It’s been so many years in the making, and to finally see it. It’s like, Agh! Yay!” She has no background in the toy business but says, “I’ve always been creative. I’m a mural artist; that came into play with the little sketches I created (for Touring Teddies).” And she is a mom of four who really wanted her own kids to have the experience of receiving good old-fashioned mail. Now she wants to share that with other families.

Leah says, “The idea came to me between 2003-2004. My daughter Lexi was five at the time, she was the one who was in love with teddy bears. I have four kids, and they’re all about 2 years apart. We were sitting on the floor then with books all around, and she was into this book about a bear who got separated from his owner. He would send back letters from time to time. It just popped into my head. Kids don’t get letters anymore, and wouldn’t it be cute if I just sent her a letter? She was so into the story. I thought the teddy bear could actually come home to her at the end of his travels.”

The idea stayed with Leah for two years before she put it together for her daughter. “I finally actually sat down and did the research. And actually took the time to write the letters. She was about six-and-a-half or seven when I actually did it, and completed it, and sent it to her. When she finally had the bear sitting in her arms, she was like, ‘Does this mean I don’t get any more mail?’” That’s exactly the reaction Leah was hoping for.

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Photo courtesy of Touring Teddies, used with permission.

When you purchase a Touring Teddy for your child you start with a suitcase to fill with all of the goodies that will arrive during the month. Each week a package will come with letters detailing the bear’s adventures, souvenirs, photos, even recipes from that country that you and your kids can make at home. The last week of the month the teddy bear arrives home to stay with your child forever, wearing a t-shirt with the colors of the country’s flag.

Sound a lot like Little Passports? Yes, it does. There are obvious similarities. But you know why I’m so excited about Touring Teddies?

Because you can choose the country.

I think Little Passports is very cool. I love the idea of learning about a variety of places. But I also love choice. I love the possibilities here to focus on one place, and I can’t wait to see what new countries Leah will add. She has plans for more but wants input from her Kickstarter backers before deciding where to go next. “It actually takes a lot of research, I put in months looking into all of the little details,” she says. So she wants to make sure her bears visit places that are meaningful to her supporters.

Leah imagines this is a great gift from a grandparent, or even for a child going off to camp (love that idea). If my daughter were a little older, and I knew we were planning a trip to a new country, I would buy her something like this just to lead up to that trip.

She would have a new travel friend to take with her, she would learn and get excited about where we’re going in a more meaningful way, and we could even try to visit some of the stops to take pictures with her and the bear to match the pictures in the Touring Teddies packages. I like the idea as an experience of one place. I love it as a really fun lead-up to an actual trip.

The price is $99 to receive all four packages at once, and $119 for the 4-week plan (this covers all of the shipping). Packages should be ready to ship out to their new families in June. Check out the Touring Teddies Kickstarter here.