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:

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.
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

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

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):

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.

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

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?

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.

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!

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.


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.


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.


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

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?

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.

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!

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

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.

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

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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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

Hugo on Carousel, Paris corner logo-heart (best!
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.

Teddies sbs-s
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.

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.

My Childhood: Coming to Me From My Parents’ Attic

Parents Attic
All Images: Sarah Pinault

Ten years ago, I left home.

College was over, I was getting married and moving three thousand miles away. I left many things behind me: friends, family, and a business apprenticeship with WHSmith. I also left a lot of stuff. Things from my 23 years of life that I had accumulated but didn’t need immediately.

Now, I have two children of my own, and all of that stuff is still in my parent’s attic. My Dad has been sending over pictures of things I had left behind, things they would like to get rid of! It’s like looking at a snapshot of my geek-stages-of-development, I can see how interests have waned or survived.

Picture #1

An obsession with Disney survived all stages of my geek-growth. What began as a four year old watching an incomplete, pirated copy of The Jungle Book, saw me through three trips to Disney World, and into a Bachelors thesis in the representations of foreign cultures in the works of Walt Disney. It is the thesis that led to the vast collection of books about Walt Disney and his works, both pro- and anti-Disney, that linger on bookshelves wherever I live.

An interest in world mythology did not come with me past the necessary reading I did during, and a little bit past, college. It was useful when reading through Percy Jackson and the Olympians a few years back. Looking at these books reminds me of the person I was in college, of the person I thought I would become, and thankfully didn’t.

My love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer is on a downhill slope at the moment. It was an addiction when it first came out. My friend in college would easily shell out ninety British pounds as soon as the DVDs came out, and we would gorge ourselves on everything Sunnydale. I proudly wore my Sunnydale High School T-shirt. Yet these days, I am more a fair-weather fan than anything else. I just sold my DVDs, since the show is now readily available in several digital media I partake in. One thing that did last from this era, more so than the Buffy addiction, was my love of written accounts of television shows. Be it on Wikipedia or through written books such as this one, I love a good synopsis. I still hang on to The Good Life, MASH, and Taxi. Though I have since dispensed with my guide to Friends and The Simpsons.

Picture #2

Much of the geek that I am is owed to my dad. From him, I got my love of classic television, my need for collectibles, and all of the stuff that goes along with a show. These two pictures of the cast of MASH were purchased during the height of my collecting years. One featuring the original cast, and one featuring the final cast. Many an afternoon has been spent with an internal debate raging about the merits of both. Are you an early years fan, or a later years fan? I love Henry in the early years but Charles is one of my favorite characters. I love the dynamic of Trapper and Hawkeye, but Hawkeye and BJ are simply wonderful. Re-watching some MASH recently it occurs to me that I may have actually married BJ, I’m trying not to think about that too much. Though the pictures will not remain in my house, the DVDs do, and at least once a year I have a good sit down with some of my favorite episodes.

My Bumblelion backpack was not purchased in the eighties for a child who loved the show, it was purchased in the late nineties, by a nineteen year old at a collectors fair! I used it once and then never again, but something in me has a hard time getting rid of this. The Wuzzles is one of the cartoons I remember from my childhood, one of my first introductions to Disney on television, and this piece in particular, a reminder of the nineties teenage obsession with backpacks that resemble things. Shaun the Sheep was the fore-runner at my school. I had Fozzie Bear and an Ewok, both of which I still have and use, occasionally. On looking up The Wuzzles recently, I was shocked to learn it was only one season, my childhood remembers a far longer epic than this.

Picture #3

More mythology that did not survive, including an obsession with period paraphernalia from America, and a love of travel books, no doubt attributable to Hugh Grant’s character in Notting Hill.

For a long time I would buy any book that referenced Winnie the Pooh. Even though I only read the original stories when my son was born in 2009, back in the nineties, Britain was going through a wave of Pooh-Mania and I happily hopped on board. I still have my un-read copy of The Tao of Pooh, though I did get rid of Tigger’s Little Book of Bounce.

Sharks of Tropical and Temperate Seas, now this book was devoured several times over in my youth. Before my tenth grade chemistry teacher told me that I would never be able to handle it, I wanted to be a marine biologist. I was obsessed with the larger creatures of our oceans including whales, sharks, and dolphins. I would read everything I could get my hands on. This particular volume was taken with me on my third trip to Disney World. I regaled a travel companion with talk of the sharks we were currently flying over, and how to deal with them if we crashed into the ocean. I carried it with me to a behind the scenes tour at Sea World, where I got to touch a baby tiger shark—highlight of the trip. I no longer read up on the life aquatic, but I do retain my interest, and a membership at the Boston Aquarium.

Erasers.jpgThis week, I am home in England sorting through my old things first hand while my parents attempt to downsize.

This time, I need to actually get rid of things instead of putting them in a “maybe” pile for future years.

Gone are the math workbooks of my childhood, gone are the Sweet Valley High books of my teenage years. Off to a fellow GeekMom are my X-files postcards. Back home with me to Maine will come: my MASH bubblegum cards, my eraser collection, and a few Wuzzles. I’m a hoarder by nature so it is hard to part with some things, but I remember the joy I had in finding them originally. It leads me to hope that there is someone out there just waiting to find a 1994 travel guide to Bruges or an original set of Simpsons trading cards.

What does your attic say about you?

Toucan Box: Activities For Your Kids Delivered Straight to Your Door

Toucan Box © Sophie Brown
Toucan Box © Sophie Brown

I think we can say that 2013 was the year when subscription boxes really took off. No matter your interests—Japanese candy, geeky toys, baby goods, even clothes—there was a box out there for you. Toucan Box is a subscription box service based in the UK that offers activity boxes for kids aged three to eight. They sent my four-year-old son one of their kits to see what he thought of it.

My first impressions when the Toucan Box arrived was how big and bright it was. This was no boring kraft cardboard package being handed over, it was bold with cartoons all over the box and my son’s name printed in huge letters across the front. He was THRILLED. Our box was the “Super” size kit containing four activities and a book. Each activity comes individually packed inside the main box with all the equipment you might need* including paints, brushes, and other materials.

Toucan Boxes are all themed and our box contained music based activities. We received:

  • A kit to make a tambourine
  • A kit to make a pan flute
  • A kit to make a rubber band guitar
  • A kit to make wooden tokens for learning about musical beats
  • A book of Caribbean song and dance stories
  • A wooden recorder (shockingly this went “missing” after a few days…)

Naturally my son wanted to leap in and start making everything at once but I held him off and explained that we would do one activity that afternoon and save the rest for later. Our first activity was the wooden tokens which was also the quickest and easiest one in the box. We stuck the stickers to the tokens and spent the afternoon placing them in different patterns on the glossy numbered sheet that came with it, creating different patterns of claps, stamps and clicks. When we were done the tokens could be packed away inside the little canvas bag that was also included and had been decorated using a stencil and felt pens.

My son painting his rubber band guitar © Sophie Brown
My son painting his rubber band guitar © Sophie Brown

My son’s favorite activity was the rubber band guitar. He spent one afternoon painting it and another putting the rubber bands around it and creating a neck by gluing on the two colored lollipop sticks. Once it was made he spent time playing it and listening to the different sounds he could make by playing the strings in different ways. That guitar is also responsible for George Formby’s “When I’m Cleaning Windows” becoming one of his new favorite songs but that’s a whole other story…

Toucan Boxes are available in three sizes: the Petite box with one activity (£3.95), the Grande with two activities and a book (£9.95), and the Super with four activities and a book (£16.95). With the Grande and Super sized boxes, sibling packs are available at a reduced rate to double the amount of materials included. All the boxes include stickers, which can be collected and exchanged for gifts. The boxes are all available on subscription with taster boxes sent out fortnightly and larger boxes monthly. “Super” boxes can be ordered as one-off individual gifts (at a slightly increased cost) and there’s also a birthday service; this is brilliant if you have lots of nieces, nephews, and grandchildren living far away.

My son loved his Toucan Box and I’m seriously considering ordering some more in the future, both as birthday gifts and for us during the summer break. The activities are all interesting, age appropriate, and fun, along with being educational, and the materials included are of high quality. If you’re also interested in trying out Toucan Box (and live in the UK), then GeekMom has a special code to allow you to try a taster box for free. Simply visit the Toucan Box website and enter the code TOUCAN as the promotional code, then sit back and wait to get crafty.

*Scissors and glue are not included.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes. 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Retro Collection

My son's TMNT toys (left) and my TMNT toys (right). \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
My son’s TMNT toys (left) and my TMNT toys (right). Image: Dakster Sullivan.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hold a very special place in my heart. I received my first Raphael action figure in kindergarten after trading a more “girly” toy to another child during a Christmas gift exchange. My younger brother had all of the Turtles toys and we enjoyed watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. Even my name Dakster has origins in the TMNT universe, taken from my initials Dak and mixed with Baxter Stockman’s name (and we get Dakster).

As my son has started getting into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles world and playing with his generation’s variation of the toys, I’ve started to long for my old Raphael back.

In conjunction with a partnership with Toys “R” Us, Nickelodeon has brought back the classic Turtles in the “Retro Collection” of Turtles toys. I checked out the complete set of four Turtles, Shredder, Master Splinter, the Party Wagon, and Leonardo’s Mech Wrekker (the only toy not from the ’80s line).

As my brother and I pulled each toy out of the box, it was like we were little kids again. I started remembering all of the times I watched the animated series with my brothers and going to see the live-action movies in the theater (the first movie is my favorite). I also started to recall my biggest Turtles regret of passing up a chance to see TMNT Live in Concert because I was scared of performers in costume. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, head over to YouTube. You have no idea what you are missing.

We took our time with each toy. We pulled out and savored the memories of playing with the originals as kids.

The Party Wagon was the first thing we pulled out and it was just like we remembered it, from the accessories to the wheels. It feels like only yesterday that my little brother was playing with his Party Wagon in his room, having his Turtles action figures fight off the Foot Clan.

For me, the biggest prize in this giant cereal box was Raphael. He was just like I remembered him, weapons and all.

Growing up, Raphael was my favorite for his rebellious attitude and his sai weapons. I’d have to say I preferred him over the more “girly” toys, because I liked to pretend I was his sister and we would take on the Foot Clan together. Admittedly, I enjoyed having something that was considered a “boy toy,” but that was all mine and not my brothers’. Even in kindergarten, I was confused at the concept of boys and girls toys (that confusion has yet to go away).

I don’t recall ever playing with my brothers when it came to Turtles, but I remember the love we had for the Turtles was something we had in common. It was probably one of the few things we could relate to each other growing up, and I think my parents are grateful for that.

When it came time to check out Shredder, I started thinking about the latest incarnation of the character. It’s nice to know that my son will get to know a more menacing villain than the goofball I knew as a kid. I mean, let’s face it: Shredder in the ’80s was nothing more than a guy in a not-so-intimidating costume that mostly took orders from the Krang. Unlike the Shredder I grew up with, the Shredder of my son’s generation actually has something hanging between his legs.

Jumping off of memory lane for a moment, check out my video below showing you the quality of the toys, as well as some tips on how to make them safer for smaller Turtles fans.

While I still like the newer Turtles and all they have to offer my son, the ’80s line will always be my favorite (and “Cowabunga” will always reign supreme over “Booyakasha” in my house). If you are a Turtles fan, be it parent or toy collector, and want to take a walk back to your childhood, stop by Toys “R” Us and check out the Retro Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toy line. As an ’80s kid, I can promise that you won’t be disappointed.

A word of advice to parents wanting to buy these for their kids: Be prepared to explain why all of the Turtles look so different than what kids see in the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. My advice would be to show them some of the earlier cartoons or the comic books before purchasing these for them. They’re great toys, but the different look might throw some kids off.

The Retro Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line ranges from $12.99 to $69.99 and is available exclusively at Toys “R” Us stores.

GeekMom received these items for review purposes.

Duplo: The 2×2 Problem

All Images: Sarah Pinault

For the second Christmas in a row, our family received a multipack of Duplo. This time we added farm animals and fencing to the mix, a few new people, and a new car base. The boys are loving the new additions, and an extra box of blocks is always a good bet with my boys. They have no problem playing with these bricks for long stretches of time, making all manner of things. I, however, have issues with symmetry, a need to join blocks in an architecturally sound way, and a 2×2 problem.

You know the 2×2 problem well, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it. For me it is Duplo, for you it might be Lego. The accumulation of multiple sets inevitably leads to a block imbalance: So few 4x2s for construction, so many 2x2s.

The kids have no problem with the 2×2 blocks, but the parents, we’re a little more distracted by the impossible task of building with the smaller blocks. Whenever a construction project is complete, or even in progress, there is always a pile of blocks off to one side with which the parent is expected to produce the Empire State Building. This is always a big pile of 2x2s.

With the expansion of our building materials this year, I was hoping to redress the imbalance. Alas, more 2x2s. I have been trying to come up with some useful ways of using these smaller increments, ways that don’t fall apart instantly, and don’t offend my adult sensibilities!

1. The underwater camera. This is a more peculiar shape than the cameras we generally construct from Duplo, but given the constraints of the 2×2 we decided to go Jacques Cousteau, and design an underwater camera. It even works in the bath tub.


2. The classic pyramid. While the 4×2 enables the construction of a more artistic pyramid, the 2×2 is a mainstay in Egyptian playtime.


3. The 3-D pyramid. Yes, the pyramid is already three dimensional, but what we are looking for  here is depth. You can even go in from underneath and remove superfluous blocks, thus making tombs.


4. The photo frame. Run around the house with this bad boy and take pictures, with an actual camera, of anything you would like to frame. That is, have your child run around the house looking for things they would like to frame, ahem!


5. The robot. Not as sturdy as the multi-brick kind, but a decent robot can be made from simple 2x2s. These are great for robot wars, as they break up easily on impact. Robot wars: a game in which siblings knock each other’s robots together until one breaks. Kind of like the old British game of conkers, but not.


6. Tetris. Okay, this one is not at all fun to play, but it looks kind of cool. It will fill those moments when you are being told not to play with your child’s construction project.


7. The steps. Simple. Classic. Completely boring unless you are a four year old with farm animals that like to play Lemmings.


8. The race track. The piece de resistance. Once constructed, this kept both of my boys occupied for longer than I thought possible. A simple track construction, using a three pronged width for long stretches, and a four pronged turn. Towers and turrets can be added at will. Be warned, siblings will attempt to block their opponent’s car by putting bricks behind their progress, a la turtle shells in Mario Kart.

Duplo Track

So that was a wonderful morning spent learning how to construct minimalist projects with my boys. Any suggestions to add to our repertoire?

Advent of Christmas Past: Our Pirate Christmas Island Adventure

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What happens when Pirate and Christmas Playmobil Advent Calendar lands collide? Well, in the case of the Advent Calendars I found for my kids (Playmobil Forest Winter Wonderland and Pirates Treasure Cove), my husband decided to make a photo story out of the treasures that were opened each day. Come join us as the Christmas and Pirate Playmobil Advent Calendars are opened and hi-jinks follow…

Playmobil is a big hit in our house. Finding these Playmobil Advent Calendars on clearance over the last year made for a really exciting December for the kids. They were able to expand their Playmobil universe, and dad was able to share his quirky sense of humor with our kids and with friends on Facebook. Since he only shared a few days on Facebook, he has gone back through and taken a picture for each day so that I could share the complete collection with you.

MOOV Street Kit: What a Legacy Toy Looks Like

MOOV street kit, berg toys, life size vehicle building set,

I don’t like a house cluttered with toys any more than you do. There are plenty of workarounds for this situation. In my family, we emphasize gifts of experience as well as invest in playthings with lasting value. That means open-ended and clever toys so well crafted that they’re legacy purchases—items that hold their value for resale but are too beloved to sell. When our kids outgrow them, they’re entirely worth saving for eventual grandchildren. Legacy toys in my family include a handmade doll house, architectural blocks, artisan puzzles, and our newest discovery—the Moov Street Kit.

This extraordinary building set is a great hands-on way for kids to learn about machines, levers, physics, and more while having fun. It contains 175 parts including wood building pieces and metal components, yet assembly requires no tools. Kids can can build whatever they’d like. Or they can follow instructions to make a bike, snowscooter, racer, crane, helicopter, scooter, and other vehicles so sturdy that they can hold a rider up to 110 pounds.

The manual is entirely graphic, no reading necessary. Just choose the model, grab parts shown on the chart, and follow the steps. In places where a child may put a piece on incorrectly, there are visuals to demonstrate the potential error. Each model provides a reasonable level of challenge, and best of all, everything can be taken apart to create another vehicle.

The engineer in our family is wildly enthusiastic about the MOOV Street Kit, a toy he deemed better designed and built than any he’d ever seen. He posted pictures on Facebook and wrote:

Stuff this cool and well built didn’t exist when I was a kid. It’s Legos that you can ride, beautiful CNCed wood, pneumatic tires, all made by some awesome people in Holland. To all the engineering parents out there, this is the *best thing.*


toy for tinkerers, MOOV Street Kit,
Grooved bars, color coded and numbered to correspond with length, work with rubber o-rings. Heavy gauge steel components include head tubes, supports, and hand brake. Image: bergtoys-usa.com



Pneumatic wheels with rubber tires. Image: bergtoys-usa.com


This pile of parts…

A pile of possibility. Image: bergtoys-usa.com


…turns into this!

MOOV street kit, berg toys, life size vehicle building set,
Street ready! Image: bergtoys-usa.com

The Moov Street Kit is sustainably manufactured in the Netherlands by Berg. It’s available to buyers via Wayfair.com (a site packed with children’s playthings, home furnishings, and decor) as well as on Amazon.com.

GeekMom received a sample of this product.

Once Upon a Screen? A Look at Disney’s Ultimate Dream Castle

© Mattel / Disney

As big of a fan as my daughter is of staring at video games and apps, her favorite thing in the world is to play is with her Barbies and princess dolls. I’m always on the lookout for ways to spice up our time huddled around the dollhouse to keep both our attentions captured and get the most out of our play time together.

The Ultimate Dream Castle from Disney and Mattel offers a chance to combine the imaginative play of a dollhouse with the technology of an iPhone app to create a magical experience. But with my unending effort to get her away from the screens to make full use of her imagination, is that even an option I want to give her? My daughter and I put the Ultimate Dream Castle and its app through the princess paces to see if screen time and play time can live happily ever after together.

To begin with the obvious, yes, this castle is a lot of pink and purple plastic. Any princess-loving little one would be delighted to find a three-foot tall castle under the Christmas tree this year, so it’s immediately a safe bet to get one if you have ample room in the budget.

The layout of the palatial dollhouse is open and wide, which was nice for getting my comparatively giant hands in there with room to maneuver, an ability we lack in our current dollhouse. On each of the three floors, there are rooms themed to favorite Disney princesses, which are accompanied by accessories like an oven or little friends like Pascal from Tangled.

The biggest hit of the Ultimate Dream Castle was the elevator fashioned out of Rapunzel’s hair, which spins princesses up and down the outside of the castle. My four-year-old spent the most time with that feature, concocting elaborate reasons why a doll might need to travel by hair, and then making the princess promptly throw up from motion sickness. Play-time gold.

Magic Mirror‘s AR in action.

She was so enamored with the elevator and castle, in fact, that she had very little interest in the iPhone/iPad Magic Mirror app made for the castle. I wasn’t particularly saddened by that, as playing with her Barbies and princesses is a fantastic way to engage her imagination, but I wanted to check out the app to make sure we were getting the most out of the castle.

Magic Mirror includes games and activities, as well as effects triggered by the castle’s rooms that can be viewed through the iPhone’s camera. Like most AR apps, there is a struggle with getting the app to respond in just the right spot. It might be because the room didn’t have enough light, but after several frustrating tries of attempting to get the app to recognize an area of the castle, my daughter wandered away and went back to playing with her dolls. The times the app did work, it did little more than give her a smile, and didn’t add much to the overall play experience.

As the games in the app can be played without the castle, and a code to get Magic Mirror free comes with the toy, it’s not a complete lost cause, but our time with the Ultimate Dream Castle showed us that she prefers to keep her dollhouse play time and screen time separate. Even if the app worked 100% reliably each time, nothing can trump her limitless imagination and the adventures with (dizzy) princesses it creates.

The Ultimate Dream Castle comes with more than enough “real life” accessories and play time possibilities that the interactive app shouldn’t be the main reason to pick this castle over any other dollhouse. The Magic Mirror app would work well as a pause between playing sessions or when the family is out and about, but the Ultimate Dream Castle stands on its own as a dream-come-true dollhouse for any lucky kid who loves to play with dolls.

GeekMom 2013 Holiday Gift Guide: TOYS!

Toys that push, toys that inspire art, toys that look like famous geeky characters, and more! Toys aren’t just for kids, and this bunch promises fun for geek kids and geek parents alike.

ArtSeeStudio - Photo courtesy of Wowwee
ArtSeeStudio. Image: Wowwee

ArtSee Studio Wowwee’s drawing kit for iPads has some fantastic features to really make your child’s screen time interactive. Stamps, customizable activities, and even animation and sound tools, make this a big-deal toy for 2013. The ArtSee app is free to download and can be used with or without the Studio kit. Recommended age is 3+, but younger children can still go to town drawing and coloring; the Studio tools will grow with them and provide years of activities. $39.99

Battroborg - Photo courtesy of TOMY, used with permission
Battroborg. Image: TOMY, used with permission

Battroborg Tomy’s Battroborg is like a cool update of Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots. The robots are R/C motion-controlled, and you can buy new robots separately (but they are pricey). There’s a bit of a learning curve to get the robots moving the way you want, but with some practice it’s pretty satisfying. Recommended for kids ages 6+, or you can get a set for the grownup robot fan in your life. It’s a pretty great office toy. $79.99

Crayola Create 2 Destroy Fortress Invasion. Image: Amazon.com
Crayola Create 2 Destroy Fortress Invasion. Image: Crayola

Crayola Create 2 Destroy Fortress Invasion Ultimate Destruction Playset For the child who likes to build and destroy, check out the Crayola Create 2 Destroy sets. Set your family loose with the no mess materials and let them have fun creating and destroying each others creations. $18.95

DocMcStuffinsCheckupCenter_JustPlay - Photo courtesy Ren Beanie PR
Doc McStuffins CheckupCenter. Image: Courtesy Ren Beanie PR

Doc McStuffins Checkup Center Just Play’s Doc McStuffins playset has made pretty much every single top toy list for 2013, including the coveted Most Wanted List from TimetoPlayMag.com. We are just as wild about it here at GeekMom and so excited to see something other than a play kitchen out there. It’s ages 3+, but at least one GeekMom has it stashed away for her almost-two-year-old to enjoy this December. $79.99

BatmanFlyingHero_TheBridgeDirect - Photo courtesy Ren Beanie PR
Batman Flying Hero. Image: Courtesy Ren Beanie PR

Flying Heroes Bridge Direct’s Flying Hero is the kind of stocking-stuffer/small toy that could outshine all the expensive stuff this holiday season. The quick-pull launcher is so satisfying, and your favorite superheroes will soar nice and high. You can choose Superman, Spider-Man, or Batman, but we believe that when given a choice you should always be Batman. Ages 4+. $14.99

Hape Wonder Walker. Image: Amazon.com
Hape Wonder Walker. Image: Hape

Hape Wonder Walker Sturdy wooden push cart helps babies walk and also fosters creative toddler play. Onboard activities include knobs and gears. Rubber trimmed wheels protect floors. Ages 12 months to 3 years. $75.97

Hexbug Aquabot. Image: Hexbug

HexBug Aquabot Bath time is about to get way more interesting, because Hexbugs have learned how to swim! $13

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Max Steel Interactive Steel with Turbo Sword. Image: Mattel

Max Steel Interactive Sword The Max Steel Interactive Sword is the kind of thing that will draw huge gasps when it comes out of the box, and knock down the Christmas tree a minute later! It talks, it makes noises similar to a lightsaber, and it goes perfectly in the dress up box for a superhero, ninja, pirate, or fairy princess. No sharp edges on this fake sword, and it holds up well to extensive play time. $22-30

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Melissa & Doug Shopping Cart. Image: Melissa & Doug

Melissa and Doug Shopping Cart Durable child-sized shopping cart looks just like those in real stores. Sturdy metal construction includes pivoting front wheels and a folding doll seat. Ages 36 months to 7 years.  $49.95

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Metal Earth 3D Laser Cut Model. Image: Metal Earth

Metal Earth Models You know how teens are hard to shop for? How they’re too old, really, for toys, but would still like to unwrap something fun? Meant for kids age 14 and up, Metal Earth models come in a flat package—perfect for slipping into a holiday card. Punch out the sturdy metal pieces to build model airplanes, a Ferris wheel, trains, ships, the Eiffel Tower, and more. These are the perfect gift to bridge that wide gap between child and adult. $5-10

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Minecraft Fan Bundle. Image: Thinkgeek.com

Minecraft Fan Bundle from ThinkGeek For the ultimate MineCraft fan, pick up the Minecraft Fan Bundle from ThinkGeek. The bundle includes a foam sword and pickax, torch, and light-up redstone ore. $80

MonsterFactoryKyle - Photo courtesy Monster Factory
Monster Factory Kyle. Image: Courtesy Monster Factory

Monster Factory Mini Monsters Why get a teddy bear when you could have a monster? Canadian collectible toy company Monster Factory is moving their business into the States and into stores with a collection of twelve mini dolls. Showcased at this year’s New York Comic Con, each doll has a distinct and hilarious personality. The dolls are so well made and just adorable. $12.95

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Nerf Rebelle Heartbreaker Bow. Image: Nerf

Nerf Rebelle Series The Nerf Rebelle series, designed for ages 8-years-old and up, is full of awesome for boys and girls, with two different styles to choose from including a cross bow style. If your child is not a pink kid, pick up some spray paint and give it a personalized paint job to make it their own. Word of advice, make sure your child wears long sleeves while playing to protect their arms from the string snapping back. $29.95

The Nerf Zombie Strike line of dart blasters. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The Nerf Zombie Strike line of dart blasters. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

Nerf Zombie Strike Foam Dart Blaster Series The Sledgefire and Hammershot are fun Nerf blasters that are painted in a zombie apocalypse motif and can take special fluorescent green darts. Of the 10+ Nerf blasters we own, the smaller Hammershot is the farthest-firing one I’ve ever seen. These Zombie Strike series blasters are a Target exclusive this holiday season and will hit the market nationwide in 2014. $14.99 & $27.99

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Puff, The Magic Dragon: Jack in the Box. Image: Kids Preferred

Puff, The Magic Dragon: Jack in the Box Non-threatening, adorable jack-in-the-box that plays the first few bars of the famous song. Ages 6 months to 3 years. $24.49

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Pygmy Puff. Image: universalorlando.com

Pygmy Puffs Plush Pygmy Puffs ala the Harry Potter series. I love that you can order directly from the theme park to get something not offered elsewhere. Comes in pink and purple and both my little Potter-heads should love these stocking stuffers. (Got myself one, too.)  $14.95

My oldest son looks just like a bowler with how he throws his disc. Even though the disc looks airborne in this picture, he was truly trying to roll it. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
My oldest son looks just like a bowler with how he throws his disc. Even though the disc looks airborne in this picture, he was truly trying to roll it. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Rollors Lawn Game Combining the outdoor fun of bocce, bowling, and horseshoes, Rollors is a unique game invented by a deployed Air Force officer who enjoyed classic lawn games and discovered a way to combine all his favorites. The game includes all the playing pieces you need, instructions, and a nylon carrying case. It makes a great gift for kids ages 4 and up. $39.99

SkyViperQuadCopter_SkyrocketToys - Photo courtesy Ren Beanie PR
Sky Viper QuadCopter. Image: Courtesy Ren Beanie PR

Sky Viper QuadCoptor Any R/C fan in your family will love this substantial quadcoptor from Skyrocket Toys. It has different fittings for indoor and outdoor use, and you can amp up the level of difficulty with three different modes. The Sky Viper can do flips and barrels, and it’s refreshingly sturdy. And so much fun. Ages 12+. $79.99

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Splinter TMNT Figure. Image: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Action Figures If your kids love to play with action figures and love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the latest batch of figures will appeal to them. High quality construction and a lot of included accessories means that their play time will feel as realistic as possible. Great for any TMNT fan on your shopping list. $8-10

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Ninja Control Shellraiser RC Vehicle. Image: Nickelodeon

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Ninja Control Shellraiser RC Vehicle Have some kick butt fun with the newest TMNT mobile arsenal, the RC Shellraiser Vehicle. Even though the remote control is a little awkward, the handling is great and it doesn’t take long to get the hang of its movements. Pets on the floor should beware of the remote firing sewer cover canon that shoots 10 disks continuously with the push of a button. An added bonus is the ability for the standard size TMNT action figures to ride along on the inside of the Shellraiser or they can hang off the sides! $59.99

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Thomas the Train: All Around Sodor. Image: Fisher-Price

Thomas the Train: All Around Sodor The All Around Sodor set is just fantastic. Now the youngest Thomas fans (18 months and up) can have their own train set with features like a talking Thomas and location buttons that will make him go straight to that spot on track. He even works off the track, because you know toddlers are all about doing things outside the lines. We have seen young children mesmerized by this set. $39.99

ThomasUpDownCoaster - Photo copyright The Step2 Company
Thomas The Train Up and Down Coaster Ride On. Image: Step2 Company

Thomas the Train Up and Down Coaster Ride On The Step2 Company has made a very cool addition to Thomas the Train merchandise. An actual indoor/outdoor train with more than nine feet up sloping track for kids to ride. We saw this at a holiday preview a while back, and kids could not get enough of it. Ages 2+, maximum weight 50 lbs. $169.99

Tom Kidd Dunne Estates Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle Image httpwww.artifactpuzzles.com
Tom Kidd Dunne Estates Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle. Image: artifactpuzzles.com

Tom Kidd Dunne Estates Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle Beautifully detailed steampunk art on laser-cut 423 piece wooden puzzle, made in the USA. Get back to family time spend making puzzles together with this pass-down-to-next-generation item. Ages 7 and up. $100

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Tool Belt with Accessories. Image: forsmallhands.com

Tool Belt with Accessories For Small Hands offers hard-to-find, child-size tools so they build confidence and independence. Yard, kitchen, sewing, kitchen, and other useful implements. This is a great resource. We particularly like their tool belt with hammer and safety glasses for kids 3 to 8. $30.95

Toolbox Jewelry. Image: Klutz

Toolbox Jewelry One of the best Klutz kits we’ve seen, Toolbox Jewelry not only gives you everything you need to make some beautiful jewelry, but it teaches you skills that you can apply to any hardware you find around the house. Great for girls who have the Maker spirit. $21.99

Rescue Bots. Image: Hasbro.com
Rescue Bots. Image: Hasbro.com

Transformers Rescue Bots Though they are not a new product this year, Rescue Bots are a very popular toy in the Post house. These toys use one fluid motion to transform from robot to vehicle. This well designed sturdy toy series are a great addition to any house that longs for the toys from their youth for their kids, without the frustration of complicated instructions and pieces falling off. $9 and up

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VW Camper Van Child’s Pop up Play Tent. Image: The Monster Factory

VW Bus Pop Up Kids Tent Adorable pop up tent for kids, that looks just like a VW Camper Bus. $60

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Zoetrope Animation Toy. Image: American Science & Surplus

Zoetrope Animation Toy An old fashioned toy made new. An optical illusion toy $12.99

11th Annual Chicago Toy and Game Fair 2013: Play is Magical

11th Annual Chicago Toy and Game Fair at Navy Pier
11th Annual Chicago Toy and Game Fair at Navy Pier – November 23, 2013

“Wow! That’s so cool!”
“Can we take this home?”
“So much better than last year!”

Words I heard most during my first visit to the Chicago Toy and Game Fair (ChiTAG) at Chicago’s Navy Pier on Saturday, November 23. ChiTAG is over two days—15 hours of magical play including demonstrations, board games, card games, outdoor and indoor toys, lovable plushies, puzzles, game tournaments, building events, and even characters walking around. Maybe you’re a veteran to toy and game fairs, but talk about overwhelming and sensory overload! Everywhere you turn there is something to see, touch, play, and learn.

Illinois State Yo-yo contest at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair at Navy Pier
Illinois State Yo-yo contest at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair at Navy Pier
Ben's Bubble Show at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair at Navy Pier
Ben’s Bubble Show at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair at Navy Pier

While my high-school teacher husband attended the Games for Educators Conference, my children and I walked over 120 booths checking out familiar companies, new inventors, and fun products. With toys and games for every age, it was hard to figure out where to even start walking. There were some seriously excited and passionate first-timers sharing their dreams, and professionals from around the world.

Plush toys at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair at Navy Pier
Brobo, Planet Sock Monkey, and a giant “Zero” (@NumbersAlive) plush

Tenkai Knights by Ionix was a big hit with my son. Lego-compatible, they are the transformers of the building block world and geared towards ages 8+. We tried out board games, too.


Games at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair at Navy Pier
Wordsearch by Goliath, Daytrader, Schmovie, Fastrack by Blue Orange, Settlers of Catan, King of Tokyo, Indigo by Ravensburger, and Spontuneous

Plenty of outdoor toys, too. Like Ring Swings, Crazy Cart by Razor, and NEOS by Playworld Systems.


I wish we had a chance to ride the Crazy Cart.

Building toys are always popular, whether they light up or end up demolished in a heap of sticks.

Building toys at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair at Navy Pier

Building toys at Chicago Toy and Game Fair at Navy Pier
Building toys like Laser Pegs, TomTecT by Kapla, Ogo Bild (http://bits.ogosport.com/), and Stick Storm are always popular

And here’s Stick Storm in motion

One game, Karoman, incorporated assembling the character with which you play. After you build your collectible character from dense paper board, you use it in battle against other characters. Karoman is making its way from Indonesia to the United States.

Karoman at Chicago Toy and Game Fair
Karoman Revelation 2 collectible characters

The best part of the whole experience wasn’t so much being able to play with toys, but meeting Young Inventors with their games. There were over 100 participants in the Young Inventors Challenge this year… the twinkling eyes and jumpy, excited kids, so much fun!

Young Inventors Challenge at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair 2013
Young Inventors Challenge at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair 2013

I wasn’t able to attend the second day of ChiTAG. It would have been interesting to participate in the World’s Largest Playdate and the Worldwide Champion USA Pre-qualifier for Settlers of Catan. (No doubt I am way out of my league with those players.) I admit I’ve underestimated the importance of playing games—there’s discovery, strategy-building, and social benefits. It comes down to this: Toys and games are for every age. It’s magical.

I can’t wait to share my follow-up reviews and even introduce some newcomers to the field of toys and games. The Chicago Toy and Game Fair is a must-visit next fall.

GoldieBlox: An Interview with Debbie Sterling and a GeekMom’s Take On Girls and STEM

After I interviewed the founder of GoldieBlox, events unfolded that made it seem prudent to hold off  posting until the dust had settled. I have so much to express about this topic and waiting in terms of Internet time (which has been proven to move faster) poses the danger of being behind the current events. But the topics I want to address reach beyond this current media explosion, and the decisions GoldieBlox are making exemplify my points.

I spoke with Debbie Sterling, founder of GoldieBlox, right after she launched her new video, and a new product, for her line of toys meant to draw girls into engineering. Her experience both as a child herself and as a female engineer led her to research and observe what attracts girls and how she could support encouraging more girls into the engineering field.  This is how GoldieBlox was born: Take the attractive allure of a character and a storyline, and role model engineering to create a comfortable context in which girls will become interested in engineering.

For those who don’t know, GoldieBlox is a set of parts that come with a storybook. In the course of the story, kids build what the main character is building, resulting in a finished product that matches the story and has imparted an engineering concept or skill. The books also contain ideas and plans for other things you can build.

Sterling says that all of her research has resulted in this product that is resonating with her target audience by integrating experiences girls may be familiar with and that her main message through her characters is, “Take risks, don’t give up, failure is OK.”

Sterling is proud of her product and what it has done for the girls she is trying to inspire. She recalled one of her favorite stories about two daughters whose mother wrote to Sterling, saying her girls were obsessed with Goldieblox. They played with it non-stop, singing songs about engineering, and the characters in the story. That kind of enthusiasm and integration of engineering into play was exactly what Sterling was hoping for.

Her motto, “more than just a princess,” not only guides her product line, but also inspired her to launch two videos. The first, a parody of “We are the Champions” features a bunch of girls taking over the toy store aisles, apparently to demand more choice in what is offered to girls. The second, just launched, featured a wicked Rube Goldberg machine and was a parody of the Beastie Boys song “Girls.” Sterling says the intention of the video was to take a misogynistic song and reclaim it, sending a message that girls deserve more options. She says she is not trying to bash or shame princesses but that girls need more role models and experiences that are alternatives to the current marketing trend.

Since I have spoken with her, there has been a conflict with the Beastie Boys who questioned her use of their song, especially in light of the late Adam Yauch last wishes that none of his songs be used for advertisements. Goldieblox was heavily criticized for their immediate legal actions in trying to secure their right to use the song, and have now apparently backed down and changed the song to an instrumental “Princess Machine.”

photo courtesy of GoldieBlox
© GoldieBlox

I am less interested in whether or not this was a well devised marketing ploy (after all, even their name is a parody), or the fumbling of a very young and inexperienced entrepreneur. I’ll leave the writing about fair use and parody to others. It seems pretty clear that they should have done more research around their song choice and considered whether this move was worth the backlash.

I am more interested in dissecting the value of the product itself. I am a girl, I have a daughter. We are a family who is heavily invested in education and the advancement of STEAM concepts and skills for children (I like STEAM over STEM- the integration of art is essential, in my opinion.) We are exactly her target audience. Unfortunately, we are also less than enthusiastic.

I was upfront with Sterling that my daughter found the toy kind of boring and not very open-ended. This could be because it did not connect with my daughter (it happens), or it could be that my daughter has access to a lot of building materials already. Sterling acknowledged that they were working on this by increasing the number of building suggestions in the book that accompanies the toy, and that they have launched a new part of their website dedicated to Goldieblox fan inventions. It is her hope this will help extend the play and increase the opportunities for inventing beyond the storylines in the books.

Here’s the thing: I think Goldieblox is coming from a genuine place, wanting to help close the gender gap in the STEM fields and provide more options in the toy spectrum. I think they are excellent at marketing. I also think they are a young company and a bit confused about their participation in the “girls need to be this now” trend which is, in my opinion, just as bad as the market telling girls they must be princesses swathed in purple and pink. Is this a different option when the colors are still pastels (primarily purple), the characters are attractive, and the storyline includes a princess pageant?

Sterling told me they chose that storyline for their second product because most girls would have experience with a talent show, but that is not what they called it. They called it a “princess pageant” and clearly two of the female characters want the title. The message feels a little like, “We know you like princesses so we are going to cater to that but it’s not good enough. You have to be more.” They are certainly not the only ones. The desire to inspire and empower girls is growing, as is the opportunity to convince parents of the need. That is the real issue.

I was not particularly into dolls and dressing up when I was young, but my daughter is. Raised after two brothers in a very gender neutral household, my daughter chose pink and purple and sparkle as soon as she could say the words. While it’s true that she often has a sword tucked into her fairy wings, the fact is she is everything this movement says is wrong. I think we have to be very careful about vilifying that which our girls value. Not every girl needs or wants to be “more than just a princess, ” that a princess is more than we are giving them credit for.

In our house a princess is kind and just, knows her international relations, speaks many languages, or has many skills in order to assist in running a kingdom. Princesses are like figures in mythology; for little girls they represent all of the qualities of being human that they are trying on as they figure out who they are. All princesses are unique, just like all girls are.

Sterling disagreed with me on my concern about the message that girls have to be good at everything. She says that her characters are not geniuses nor perfect, but in fact messy, quirky, and willing to make mistakes. While I have not seen much evidence of that yet, I am more concerned with the battle cry at the expense of everything else, particularly the attraction to fancy and the exploration of what beauty means to each individual girl. Those things are always used as an excuse as to why girls don’t ‘x,y, or z.’ That simply isn’t the case. It is by being supported in our interests, whatever they may be, that allows us to be open to new possibilities.

Finally, I questioned Sterling about focusing on girls. She insists that it is necessary in order to close the STEM gender gap. Even so, many boys like the product as well. She feels it is generally gender neutral and that her products will become more so with the introduction of a boy character next year. I know she has done a lot of research about what engages girls, and if this product gets even one girl interested in engineering, then bravo!

I would suggest however, that catering to girls like this is not the only way to achieve a more balanced range of options. Despite the current trend in the Maker/STEM movement, to promise a development of passion with purchase, I think many girls and their families are getting tired of all the marketing targeted at them, telling them who they should be, particularly in relationship to their gender. It is just as effective to buy your girl a bunch of building materials and invest your time introducing them to engineering skills and concepts. You want to make an engineer out of your daughter? Build with her. Make and hack things instead of buying them. Take her to appropriate community events and introduce her to female mentors who serve as role models.

It is not the lack of options or opportunities right now that is keeping girls from seeking STEM careers, it is what happens when they get there. The reality is that many fields of science and medical graduate students are more than half women, but eventually the women leave. Not because they played with Barbie or princesses two decades ago, but because they opted to have a family and found the workplace culture and long mandatory work hours to be completely incompatible. As a former scientist I know said to me, “Even if we raise a generation of girls to want to be engineers, will we give them maternity leave in twenty years?”

Look, I think the product itself is slickly designed and fun for many girls, and I encourage you to take a look if you think it might interest your daughter. For me, though, it introduced an intense scrutiny of what we are buying. Those girls in the video didn’t set up that “princess machine,” it was a piece of excellent marketing designed by adults to sell a product. Even if it was meant to empower and inspire, (and perhaps for many it did) it is still a message that is telling my daughter through words and images what she should be, what she should like (or not).

So until we get to a place where we can honestly and earnestly support boys and girls in their own visions, I am going to continue to question any attempt to change the world through a product. It is relationships and experiences that create new generations of innovators, not products, and if we want those innovators (boys and girls) to be engaged and satisfied in STEM careers then we need to focus on the real issues of culture and policy to see that change.