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.

Experiment With Fun in Toca Lab

Art by Jonas Löfgren © Toca Boca

Toca Boca is back with another excellent, entertaining app for the iPhone and iPad, Toca Lab. Toca Lab encourages little scientists to run different experiments on “elements” to discover something new.

© Toca Boca

Like all Toca Boca apps, there’s no text to wade through, so your little one can begin learning about experiments and science before they can even read. The game features 118 elements, each busting with personality. Once an element is selected, testing different lab tools on the element can result in the creation of something new.

The game promotes open exploration without time limits or penalties. Kids simply try the lab tools on every element to their heart’s content. It’s important to note that the game isn’t scientifically accurate—freezing or electrifying an element won’t turn it into something else, for example. It might be better suited to younger kids who don’t know much about science, serving instead to encourage experimentation and highlight the joy of discovery rather than teach chemistry concepts.

There’s also a bit of a learning curve with navigating the app. If the experiment doesn’t result in something new, kids have to press the arrow at the top of the screen to return to the lab. The same arrow selects an element in the periodic table. It took my daughter a few tries before realizing she had to navigate using the arrow, but the frustration has since disappeared.

With 118 elements to discover and a number of experiments to run on each, Toca Lab offers replay value and fun at a low price for an app. The game is available for $2.99 on the App Store for the iPhone and iPad.

How to Play Barbies Without Going Crazy

Photo: Kelly Knox

Not a day goes by that my daughter doesn’t ask me to play Barbies. I have fond memories of playing Barbie as a girl, too, so there’s always something fun about reliving my childhood with her. But once the hair is brushed and the clothes are selected, our playtime typically devolves into an acting performance by yours truly with the most demanding director in the world.

“Mommy. Make them say something. Make her say, ‘Hi, Teresa.’ No, not like that. Okay. Now change her dress.”

To get my daughter more involved—and to keep me from pulling my hair out (and Barbie’s along with it)—I needed to add something more to our doll playtime to capture both our interests. If you’re stuck in the same Barbie boat, here are four ways to play dolls that don’t involve shopping, weddings, or trips to the hair salon.

Haunt the Dreamhouse.

Barbie has to live somewhere, usually in her perfectly decorated pink Dreamhouse or some variation thereof. I was growing tired of the perfect and the pink, so in a sudden flash of inspiration, I suggested turning Barbie’s home into a haunted mansion. My daughter was in before I finished the sentence.

Photo: Kelly Knox

Using basically the same decorating method that we use on our own home for Halloween, we decked out the dollhouse in Kleenex ghosts, cobwebs, and spiders. Just decorating the haunted house took up one rainy afternoon, and the fun continues as we devise different ways to scare the intrepid Barbies making their way through. Playing “hair salon” turns into creative costume making as my preschooler thinks of new ways to use Barbie’s clothes.

It might not be Life in the Dreamhouse, but our spooky house is amusing, if I do say so myself. (Yes, I’ve watched Life in the Dreamhouse. Have I mentioned this kid loves Barbie?)

Invite Barbie to get involved with science experiments.

Barbie has never been one to tie herself down to a single career. She’s been a doctor, veterinarian, politician, and even an astronaut on a mission to Mars. In that same spirit, I’ve incorporated Barbie into many of the science experiments that we do together at home.

With the help of books like Science in Seconds for Kids and articles here on GeekMom like Kristen’s fizzy science fun with baking soda, I’ve found several science-themed activities that are well-suited to both my daughter’s attention span and getting some assistance from Barbie. Typically the doll can act as an observer and “ask” questions about the experiment, but she has gotten hands-on, too. Barbie is particularly good at dumping vinegar into a baking soda volcano.

Go BLARPing.

You guessed it, Barbie Live Action Role Playing.

Inspired by our recent trip to the Great Wolf Lodge to play ShadowQuest, my daughter and I crafted magic wands out of toothpicks for the Barbie Magi. My four-year-old turns herself into a tiny dungeon master, devising a quest and a list of items in our house that the dolls must hunt for. Part pretend play and part scavenger hunt, BLARPing gets my daughter’s wheels turning and adds a new dimension to playing dolls together.

Photo: Kelly Knox

As an added bonus, if I’m feeling a little down and in need of a smile, I just say “BLARPing” out loud. But not in public.

Star in a movie.

Sure, getting Barbie and Ken to go on a date to the movies is a pretty typical way to play. But how about being the movie? Once my daughter and I get the dolls settled in their chairs, we turn on music from our favorite film scores and act out the movies for our captive audience.

You might end up re-enacting scenes from Disney movies or dancing around to the music from the Fresh Beat Band, but you can also take the opportunity to show off the library of fantastic movie and game soundtracks you’ve amassed. As you can imagine, this leads to a countless number of lightsaber duels. My daughter has even watched me pretend to slay dragons from Skyrim (complete with a “FUS ROH DAH!”) as I blasted the main “Dragonborn” theme from my iPhone.


Do you have more suggestions to liven up playtime and beat the doll doldrums? Let us know in the comments below!

App Review: Daniel Tiger’s Day & Night

Daniel Tiger's Day & Night © PBS Kids
Daniel Tiger’s Day & Night © PBS Kids

During the summer both my three-year-old son and GeekMom Sarah’s four-year-old and 18-month old sons fell in love with PBS’ Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Then we got to try out the first app for the brand. Here’s what we thought:

My son has just gone back to school for his second year at preschool. With time ticking slowly toward his starting “proper” school next September, we’re working on building his independence. A big part of that is being able to help get himself ready in the mornings and at bedtime. Daniel Tiger’s Day and Night is a great fit for our family right now. The app is made up of a series of linked activities and mini games in which your child helps Daniel get ready for school or bed. These include setting the table for breakfast, brushing teeth, tying shoelaces, and choosing pajamas. Once tasks are completed, a number of Make Believe games—such as decorating Daniel’s pancakes with different toppings or coloring in a blank set of pajamas—become available.

Riding to School on Trolley © PBS Kids
Riding to School on Trolley © PBS Kids

My son is naturally very independent, so most of the activities on the app are ones he already completes with varying amounts of help. For me, the draw of the app was helping to establish the concept of routines, especially in these weeks of back-to-school when we’re all shaking off the summer break crazies and trying to get back to normality (here in the U.K. school just started last week). Seeing Daniel Tiger following an ordered set of activities gives me something to refer to during these busy, activity-filled times of day; much the same way we often use Daniel’s catchphrases from the TV show to help my son with a new or difficult situation. Just one week into the new school year we were already settled into a routine with my son knowing what’s expected of him each morning; we’re even managing to arrive at school a little earlier than we did last year. For our family the app has been a huge help and I hope it will continue to spur on my son’s independence as he begins taking on more and more tasks for himself.

Over the past few months both of my sons, aged 18 months and four years, have become very enamored of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on PBS Kids. While we like to limit their screen time, Daniel Tiger is a bit of an exception. The messages it brings to kids through song—such as taking turns—have been independently employed by my preschooler with both his brother and his friends. His relationship with his best friend, whom he loves dearly but also fights with regularly, has been greatly improved by Daniel’s words about sharing and controlling your temper. So a Daniel Tiger app, oh yeah, we’re in.

Decorating Pancakes © PBS Kids
Decorating Pancakes © PBS Kids

It has fast become the go–to app in our house and is not merely confined to it’s self–titled nighttime and daytime portions. Frequently my son will wake Daniel up, just as he himself is about to go to bed. He sits and plays through the game, gets family members to sit with him so he can walk them through it, and is always disappointed when it is actually bedtime for him! He especially enjoys the Make Believe sections of the game, where he is given free reign with color, style, and pancake topping.

Honestly, I had hoped the app would help with his behavior patterns as the show did, but this has not been the case thus far. My son has always been very resistant to brushing his teeth and, as this is part of Daniel’s morning and evening routine in the game, I had hoped he would get less angry about it himself. Alas no. While he is happy to brush Daniel’s teeth and sing about brushing teeth, he would still prefer not to actually do it.

The graphics on this game perfectly match the show, which is great because I like the look of the show. In the adult section, I especially like the Daniel Tiger Timer that parents can use to set limits. This app is a great addition to the Daniel Tiger experience.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes. 

The New Season of Sesame Street May Be the Geekiest Yet

Sesame Street is back tomorrow, September 16, for an incredible 44th season. This year the focus is on Cookie Monster and his new segment, “Cookie’s Crumby Pictures,” where he learns about self-regulation, such as practicing self-control and not eating all of the delicious cookies before dinner.

In a web chat this week that I had the pleasure to join in, Cookie said that his secret is practicing patience. “Sometimes when me see cookie, me kind of get a little crazy and lose control. So me try to keep self control. Me take like, deep breaths and calm me body.” The blue monster also shared another tip: Pretend that the cookie is something unappealing. “Maybe a stinky fish,” suggested Cookie Monster. “Then me not eat me cookie. Me just use me imagination.”

Geek god Tom Hiddleston stopped by the Street for a quick lesson along the same theme, talking to Cookie about delayed gratification in a recent preview.

Tom Hiddleston isn’t the only geek icon making an appearance on Sesame Street this year. During the new season, parents will find themselves glued to the TV along with their preschoolers as celebrities near and dear to geek hearts like Star Trek‘s John Cho, Superman Henry Cavill, The Avengers‘ Cobie Smulders, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Michelle Gellar, The Big Bang Theory‘s Kunal Nayyar, and Game of Thrones‘ Lena Heady all stop in for the Word on the Street.

Henry Cavill in the Word on the Street © Sesame Workshop

Another Game of Thrones favorite, Peter Dinklage, stars as Simon (of the game “Simon Says”) to help Telly learn to relax and listen.

The new season of Sesame Street also introduces a new neighbor, Armando, portrayed by Ismael Cruz Córdova. Along with self-regulation, season 44 will focus on Hispanic heritage, as Armando and his friends on Sesame Street sing new songs and teach lessons about the Spanish language and Hispanic culture.

Sesame Street kicks off the new season on Monday. Check your local PBS listings for air times.

Robot Turtles: Programming for Preschoolers

Robot Turtles (Prototype) / Photo: Kelly Knox

Dan Shapiro is not your average board game developer. An entrepreneur and CEO of Google Comparison, Shapiro isn’t in the business of making games. But one day, while on the hunt for something to do with his four-year-old twins, he devised a board game that he and his children could play together—one that teaches the kids programming basics without them even realizing it. He decided to take the game to an audience craving the same type of activity, and Robot Turtles was born.

Robot Turtles is a board game for kids aged 3-8, in which parents play an important role in shaping each game. “I had conversations before I did this with board game manufacturers and folks in the industry and so on,” said Shapiro. “Everybody said, ‘Really, this just doesn’t work, this model of having the parent and the kid working together, because board games are the thing you buy so you can do something else.'” Shapiro wasn’t interested in just occupying his kids’ time — he wanted to play with them in a game where all players stayed engaged and he didn’t have to pretend to lose. “I love spending time with my kids,” he told me. “This was just an exercise to see if I could take that and put it into a box.”

Dot © Robot TurtlesJudging by the enormous response to the Robot Turtles Kickstarter, Shapiro isn’t the only parent who feels this way. Robot Turtles reached funding within five hours of the campaign’s launch, and just broke $225,000 with two weeks to go.

Not only have I backed the fundraising campaign, I’ve been lucky enough to see the game in action. My four-year-old daughter and I recently sat down with Shapiro to learn the basics of the game. Your child chooses a turtle (naturally, my girly girl gravitated to the one with pink) and then it’s the parent’s turn to transform into a Turtle Mover. The Turtle Mover places a Robot Jewel tile on the board; a first-time player simply uses the movement cards to get the Robot Turtle tile to reach the jewel.

When the player selects a card, the Turtle Mover (you) carries out the action. The movement cards go straight, turn left, and turn right. Shapiro used an ingenious method of colors and flowers placed on the card to help the child visualize which way the turtle will turn, rather than simply saying “left” or “right,” which can vex a preschooler. As your child begins to create a series of movement, thinking ahead to their next step, they’re on their way to learning programming basics.

Players can even stop and yell, “Undo!” if they’ve set their turtle on the wrong path as a form of debugging. When my daughter realized she couldn’t lose the game, she relaxed and really started focus on playing out the turtle’s next steps in her head. “For new computer learners, discovering that there’s no cost for being wrong is essential to their growth,” Shapiro wrote in the game’s Kickstarter.

Reaching the Robot Jewel (prototype). The bottom row of cards show the steps my daughter took.

After the young programmer learns movement basics, new tiles are added to the game board in the form of ice walls and stone walls. They can play a laser card to melt the ice, but as the stone walls are unbreakable, they must learn to navigate the turtle around them. Destroying the ice walls resulted in a crashing sound from the genuinely enthusiastic Shapiro; my daughter preferred his energy and passion so much that she asked me to step aside so that she could continue to play with him. (Note to self: practice laser sounds.)

It’s easy to see why Shapiro is so excited about Robot Turtles. The game engages the brains of all players, without taking an inordinate time to play (like, say, Monopoly). Preschoolers and young children love being the boss of parents, and Robot Turtles puts them in control of not just the turtle — as Turtle Mover, the parent becomes the “computer,” following the child’s commands to move the turtle around the board. Bossing me around is one of my daughter’s hobbies, so she was delighted to get the chance to do it in a game.

As for my little programmer-in-training, Robot Turtles definitely left her impressed. “I loved it so much!” she yelled. “I really want to do it again, okay?”

I agreed completely.

Robot Turtles is currently raising funds for mass production on Kickstarter. The campaign ends on September 27.

The Fun on Peg + Cat Adds Up This Fall on PBS Kids

This fall, PBS Kids is premiering a brand-new show aimed at encouraging preschoolers to explore problem-solving skills and basic math concepts. Peg + Cat is the creation of Billy Aronson and Jennifer Oxley, who was also the creative director for Wonder Pets and 3rd and Bird.

The Chicken Problem © Random House

Oxley’s involvement alone was enough to get me interested in the new series, but it wasn’t until my daughter and I picked up The Chicken Problem at the library that we really began to be excited. Written by the show creators, The Chicken Problem is a fantastic introduction to Peg’s world. Peg is a girl who loves solving problems with her friend, Cat, and she has a personality that immediately leaps off the page and promises to translate well to the small screen.

The most striking part of Peg + Cat’s world, though, is the mathematical concepts that make up their world—literally. Flowers are created out of division signs, the clouds drifting in the sky are infinity symbols, and each page hides formulas and numbers. A commenter on the Peg + Cat opening song on YouTube identifies a formula in the background as a partial differential equation of a wave function.

If The Chicken Problem is any indication, Peg + Cat will be a fantastic way to get preschoolers like my daughter excited about solving problems. Three games are already up on the PBS Kids web site, and the pattern recognition activity Chicken Dance really got her wheels turning. According the PBS Kids press release, Peg and Cat’s adventures will take them across the whole wide world and beyond.

Each episode features a story in which Peg and Cat encounter an unexpected challenge that requires them to use math and problem-solving skills in order to save the day. Their adventures take viewers from a farm to a distant planet, from a pirate island to a prehistoric valley, from Romeo and Juliet’s Verona to Cleopatra’s Egypt to New York’s Radio City Music Hall. While teaching specific math lessons, the series displays the value of resilience and perseverance in problem-solving.

Peg + Cat premieres October 7, 2013 on PBS Kids.

Throw Your Money at the Fresh Beat Band Concert – But Don’t Throw Your Kids, Please

The Fresh Beat Band © Nickelodeon
The Fresh Beat Band © Nickelodeon

If you have a preschooler, there’s a good chance you know Nick Jr.’s Fresh Beat Band – and possibly all the words to their songs. The show is silly, simple, and sweet, which makes it ideal for the toddler and preschool set.

After a high-demand concert tour last year, the Fresh Beats are coming back this fall to a city near you for a show certain to get your kids on their feet. With a high energy show tailored to preschoolers, the Fresh Beat Band can be a good introduction to a real rock concert experience – with rock concert prices.

Continue reading Throw Your Money at the Fresh Beat Band Concert – But Don’t Throw Your Kids, Please

Book Review: Robot Zombie Frankenstein!

How many of the following does your preschooler find appealing: robots, zombies, monsters, pirates, superheroes, pie? The more of those you say “Yes” to, the more you should take a look at Robot Zombie Frankenstein! Watch the preview video, which shows you how the first few pages go:

Robot Zombie Frankenstein! is a very simple story of one-upmanship between two robots who have a great costume box. The pictures are made from basic shapes and colors, which give you a little bit more to talk about with a small child. What color is that robot’s eye patch? What shape is his body?

The entire book is a conversation between the robots, which means it can be a lot of fun for you and your pre-schooler (or two of your kids) to each be a robot and take turns reading lines. Because each robot’s line is additive and based on his costume change, after just a few reads, even a younger child who can’t read the words can look at the pictures and participate. Bedtime for my three- and six-year-old now sounds like this:

“Robot ZOMBIE!”
“Robot zombie FRANKENSTEIN!”

You get the idea. And I promise — the robot buddies work things out in the end.

At author Annette Simon’s website, you can download the Robot Zombie Frankenstein! Fun Kit, which includes 16 pages of activities to print. My favorite is the Bot Builder, which lets you cut out all the robot parts to build your own.


Kari Byron, Mythbuster Mom: Preschool Hustle

KariCloseUp-e1308329695929I am writing another $50 check, to another preschool … just for the chance to have my application reviewed.

The more I think about this game, the more it feels like a grift. I show up to a potential preschool along with a dozen other mommies and daddies to compete for a spot that may actually not exist. We’re all trying to look like the most interested, the most invested, and the best candidate — all while our 2-year-olds are running around putting things in their mouths with their finger up their nose.

Is this just an urban problem or modern problem? Is this really the lynchpin for my child’s entire future? If I choose the wrong preschool, am I dooming her to a life of, “Do you want fries with that?”

The stress is overwhelming. It was easier for me to get into college. It was easier for me to get an apartment in San Francisco at the peak of the dot com boom!

I never took rejection as personally, as I do now when it comes to my kid. I got a letter in the mail denying me from a preschool co-op that I applied to when my daughter was a few months old. My husband had to put ME on a “time out.”

The preschool hustle is making me a crazy person.

If I make it to the end of this process without choking out the obligatory suck-up mommy taking pictures of the potty area and asking philosophical questions about their educational structure…My baby may just learn how to make ants on a log and finger paint macaroni art.

Next stop, Harvard.