The Cost of Licensing a Birthday Party

All Images Sarah Pinault

With my eldest son turning five this year, and my youngest having just turned two, we have a decent number of birthday parties under our belts. This weekend was the first time we had a thorougly licensed birthday party though, and it was a little shocking. We opted for Thomas and Friends for my youngest son’s second birthday and didn’t give it a second thought until putting together the decorations last week: Wow that’s a pricey tablecloth.

When we hit the local party shop to pull together our ideas, we got a bit of ticket shock. Somehow we managed to pull ourselves together, away from the $10 balloons, and put together a licensed birthday party that was still over-priced but not too far over budget! Here are some tips on reducing the cost, and stress, of that licensed party.


We opted to use a fifty-fifty approach to decorations. We purchased one Thomas tablecloth, and two plain blue dollar store deals. The Thomas tablecloth provided that extra pizazz for the cake and gifts, and my son was sufficiently enthralled by everything on it. We also stole an idea from a friend’s recent Princess Sofia party. Themed plates are only “necessary” for the children attending. Adults can eat from plain dollar store options. Who knew? The limited number of plates added to the decorations, but didn’t add too much to the cost. At $3 for 12, it was still extortion in my opinion, but again, was well loved by the birthday boy. The main splurge of the day was the Happy (insert date here) Birthday banner, which given a little time could probably have been handmade, but for lack of stress and beauty of banner I give it a ten out of ten. For even cheaper decorations we placed several of his toy trains on the table with the platters of food.

My favorite cheap decoration came from a Pinterest find. Yet even though it was my favorite, it seems no one took a picture of it! Using blue painter’s tape, we laid a train track from the front door to the church hall, where the party was being held. Not only did it provide guests an easy route to the party, it provided endless entertainment for the kids who chuffed along it quite happily. And my fear of having to take 100 ft of tape up at the end of the day? Apparently peeling tape up from the carpet in six inch increments is great fun for kids aged four through nine!


No themed food here. Good old triangle sandwiches and cheese balls for us! For the cake, rather than attempt to pipe icing in the shape of Thomas, we opted for flags and accessories purchased in bulk from Amazon, and added them to simple cupcakes. I also took a leaf out of Bakeat350’s book, literally, and made decorated sugar cookies using the flood and fill technique. Now I know Thomas is the number one engine, but after putting a number two on my son’s first birthday cake (and then fixing it) I had to go with Edward’s number and make color correct #2 cookies. We attempted to cut out the sandwiches using a Train cookie cutter, but it was rather a sad looking train, so we dispensed with that idea very quickly. Other shapes worked quite well, but weren’t in keeping with the theme.


Here perhaps was our biggest win of the licensing game. We inherited quite the collection of wooden track from friends, so rather than splurge on entertainment for our rowdy crowd, my husband and I spent the night before the party setting up our very own Island of Sodor. It was easily 12 by 12 feet, and suffered minimal construction work during the day, even with kids aged between one and nine playing on it for three hours. If you don’t have access to quite this amount of track, but have a tot sufficiently interested in Thomas, it might be a good gift suggestion for the party. Then you can add to the track as guests arrive. Any other Thomas game we had was brought out of the closet and set up around the room. The kids entertained themselves for hours and had an absolutely “chuffing” good time.

A staple at any of our birthday parties is a well stocked coloring table, for this year we had a selection of crayons and coloring pencils, as well as an assortment of Thomas themed stickers and coloring pages. We purchased an enormous pad of stickers and coloring sheets from Sam’s Club and I tore the book apart for individual projects. It was an amazing deal for the quantity and quality we got, not to mention the leftovers that will be getting used up over the next few months.

DSCI6871Goody Bags

When we decided on this theme months ago, I decided not to do goody bags. Then the week of his birthday came around, and my mother’s guilt chip kicked in. Last year we gave out bags of Chips Ahoy with a sticker on them proclaiming, “We’ll eat you up we love you so!” It was a Maurice Sendak birthday. This year we went for a bucket of train whistles; thank you Amazon Prime and the two day delivery! These were fairly inexpensive on Amazon, but be warned, of the 24 we ordered only 12 actually made a whistling sound. A file and some elbow grease will fix them, but alas not in time for the party. Next year I will definitely be checking out the suggestions provided by my fellow GeekMom, Kelly Knox, for goody bag alternatives.

While a licensed birthday party can bring a substantial amount of sticker shock, it can also bring a great deal of joy. I would certainly choo-choo-choose this theme again.

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:
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 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:
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:

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:

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
Tom Kidd Dunne Estates Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle. Image:

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:

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:
Rescue Bots. Image:

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

HIT Entertainment’s 2013 Holiday Preview

Photo: Jackie Reeve

Last week my daughter Hannah and I went to preview HIT Entertainment’s holiday line, and I was really, really impressed. In addition to an extensive showing of Thomas the Tank Engine products, Mike the Knight also has some great offerings this year. The toys covered a nice range of ages and they were accessible to both boys and girls. I loved that.

Mike the Knight has really taken off this year. We speculated at the preview that perhaps this is because the parents are all fans of Game of Thrones? One of the nice things I learned about this series is that Evie is very popular with boys as well. She’s a wizard-in-training. What’s not to like? There is great gender crossover with all the toys and the show itself, which appeals to me for the preschool set. My daughter isn’t quite there yet, but I like to know the options for when she’s old enough.

Mike and Evie are coming to DVD for the first time with Knight in Training, and I also really liked the Transforming Sword. The sword becomes a light, makes swashbuckling sounds, and has a belt clip. As a grownup I think that sounds like fun and I can only imagine this in the hands of preschoolers.

Photo: Jackie Reeve

The big Mike the Knight toy this year is Glendragon Castle which is a playset with sounds and ten separate play pieces and characters. This is for ages two and up.

Photo: Jackie Reeve

The new packaging on the Mega Bloks Thomas sets is so clever. Keep and collect the boxes, then snap them together to make a track for the cars inside. These are for ages three and up.

Photo: Jackie Reeve

My niece and nephew have a small ball pen in their playroom. I have seen what a hit that is when all the kids in the family get together, so I think this Railway Playland (ages two and up) could be a giant hit for the holidays. It isn’t actually train-related, but that’s just semantics to a Thomas fanatic, right?

Photo: Jackie Reeve

This year for the first time ever, a girls’ Thomas the Tank Engine costume will be available for Halloween. The company recognizes that girls also really like Thomas, and this is a step towards including them. Can I just say how much I love that this costume is girly and not pink? I think this is a smart move from HIT.

Photo: Jackie Reeve

Thomas the Train Trackmaster Quest for the Crown is the big train set this year. Released this month, it’s one of several Thomas toys connected with the big September release of Thomas’s latest DVD IMG_0089

Photo: Jackie Reeve

I mean, a mine collapse? A broken track and crashing gate? I’ve never had a train set, but this sounds like a whole lot of fun.

Photo: Jackie Reeve

The Thomas and Friends Up and Down Rollercoaster won’t be available until fall (Angelina Ballerina is not included), but I think this is another big hit. The other kids at the preview could not tear themselves away from it. It comes with ten feet of track and holds up to 50 lbs. of weight, and the kids I saw had no problem pushing the train back up the track to ride it over and over. It’s for ages 2-5 with an MSRP of $129.99 which isn’t cheap, but I stil think it’s just awesome.

Photo and cute baby: Jackie Reeve

My husband grew up with Thomas the Tank Engine in the UK, and my daughter was so taken with this elaborate Thomas and Friends Wooden Railway setup that I instantly knew what to put on her Santa list for the two of them to share.

Photo: Jackie Reeve

I thought the All Around Sodor Interactive Train Set was absolutely fabulous and it was my personal favorite toy of the day. It’s for ages 18+ months, with nice big plastic trains, tracks, and buildings. Thomas has color-coded buttons that correspond to buildings along the railroad. Push the button, and Thomas goes straight to that building for a chat. It was great to see a train set for toddlers, and a really clever one at that. I will be keeping my eyes open for this to go under our tree. It should be available this month.

“Live” Maps of UK Railways to Aid Your Procrastination

Map of London Showing "Live" Positions of Underground Trains © Matthew Somerville
Map of London Showing “Live” Positions of Underground Trains © Matthew Somerville

I’m always looking for the newest thing to help me procrastinate; in fact I’m doing it right now. I also love maps and the application of GPS and other sources of data with them to create interactive experiences fascinates me. Continue reading “Live” Maps of UK Railways to Aid Your Procrastination

App Review: All Aboard the Toca Train

Toca Train screen shot
Whoo-whoo! There goes the train! Image source: screen shot from game.

Toca Boca’s iPad and iPhone apps for children are consistent favorites with my youngest children. My three-year-old son favors Toca Robot, a cheery game in which you assemble a robot from an assortment of parts and then navigate it through a maze of balls and walls, collecting stars on your way. My six-year-old daughter is especially fond of styling the shaggy manes of Toca Hair Salon‘s quirky characters — and it scores points with me for its focus on whimsy and color rather than glamour. My special-needs eight-year-old enjoys a good game of Toca Store, especially the part where he gets to choose which items to sell in his shop. And all three kids adore serving me a big hunk of dragon cake in Toca Birthday Party.

(I see those same apps were big hits with GeekMom Jenny too.)

The newest member of the Toca Boca app family is Toca Train. If you saw my recent review of Lola’s Math Train, you know any train-centric app is off to an advantaged start with my kids. Big, big choo-choo fans here. Add that special Toca Boca charm, and you’ve got a game full of kid appeal. Mom appeal, too: what I love about Toca Boca’s apps are that they aren’t full of flashing lights and raucous noises; they aren’t full of that frenetic, choppy, quick-cut action that dominates so much contemporary children’s media. (It’s worth noting that I receive many, many offers of apps to review, and I write about very few of them. I only post about apps my kids genuinely enjoy and I feel are worthy of their limited portion of screen time.) Toca Boca games have a gentleness about them, a peaceful interactivity that engages a child’s imagination without bombarding him with bling and frenzy.

Continue reading App Review: All Aboard the Toca Train

Are You the Parent of a Train Geek? Throw a Birthday Party at a Tourist Railroad!

Parents can check with their local tourist railroads to see about having birthday parties on-site. We did this in 2006 and it was great! Photo: Maryann Goldman, used with permission.

I almost didn’t post anything for Birthday Week. It wasn’t until GeekMom Kelly posted about banning the goody bags that I remembered a clever goody bag idea… which was in itself part of a wonderful birthday experience for my oldest son.

In 2006, when the family was living in Apex, North Carolina, we had the chance to hold my oldest son’s 4th birthday party at the nearby New Hope Valley Railway, which was about 20 minutes south of our town in New Hill, North Carolina.

The railroad wasn’t operating excursions on the day we held our party, but for only $75 you could rent out a dining car that’s specially outfitted for parties and the party guests could take tours of the stationary locomotive and train equipment.

My son was Thomas the Tank Engine’s biggest fan at the time, so we had a great time “Thomas-ing” things up for him.

The cake was my first-ever hand-decorated cake…I was taking Wilton cake decorating lessons at the time and this was my first star-tip-covered cake. It was quite the workout, putting all those little stars on a cake that feeds 50!

I had a lot to learn about mixing greyshades, but this wasn’t bad for a first-try, was it? Photo: Maryann Goldman, used with permission.

For the goody bags, I purchased 6″ miniature tote bags and printed pictures of Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends on iron-on paper. I hand-ironed pictures on 24 of those bags! Instad of putting items in the bags that might end up in the trash, I filled each bag with a 24-box of Crayola crayons and several Thomas the Tank Engine coloring book pages. I had hoped that these bags could make it into Moms’ tote bags in the future for church, restaurants or shopping trips to keep the preschoolers happy.

The goody bags also doubled as balloon weights for basic latex helium balloons.  Then each guest could take home a balloon too!

I had ironed pictures of Thomas, Percy, James and Lady for the kids. Lady is a purple train that made for great goody bags for the 3-4 girls at the party. Unfortunately, the only picture of these bags between my and my friends’ photo albums was this one of Lady. Photo: Maryann Goldman, used with permission.

Want to take the plunge for the ultimate train geek birthday party experience? All it takes these days is a simple Google search for birthday parties at scenic railroads. This might not be so helpful without knowing what tourist railroads are nearby. There are numerous internet guides to tourist railroads available, with being one that has worldwide tourist railroad information.

Happy Trains!

Spending Time With Walter Wick

“Inside Walter Wick’s Studio-Golden Robot” by Andrea Schwalm

Back in our preschool years of parenting, my family spent a great deal of time with Walter Wick’s books. To be truthful, we spent a great deal of time with a great many books–almost universally those that created anthropomorphized-machine worlds filled with earnest steam engines, recalcitrant backhoes, or steam shovels of derring-do.  Mr. Wick’s I Spy School Days picture-find book was a particular favorite, though. My older son would climb into my lap, dragging the oversized book behind him, sherpa-style, and open always to one glorious track-and-block-filled photo-homage to potential energy: an intricate, Rube-Goldberg-styled “balloon popper.” With w-flavored ‘l’s’ and a slight lisp, he’d start at the top of the page working a chubby finger through a sinuous path of levers, ramps, and pulleys, describing each action, each result, until whole minutes later he would shriek delightedly: “AND THEN, POP!”

Immediately serious, he’d twist around to look me in the eye, and say, “Okay, you do it, mom!” Entire afternoons could be spent in this manner. And were.

That little sherpa towers over me now and articulates with theatric, basso-profundo clarity. There are times when I miss the inseparable-intimacy of those preschool days…but then I am able drink a second cup of coffee uninterrupted or take a shower long enough that I run out of hot water…and I recall that that idyllic sweetness came at a price. Ultimately, I am thankful for the immersive richness of that time and thankful, too, to have moved on…

A set for Walter Wick’s next book. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

College is actually fast-approaching for sherpa-lad–which is probably why I jumped at the opportunity to visit Walter Wick’s studio in Hartford, Connecticut, earlier this month, along with a half-dozen other bloggers, at the behest of Scholastic Publishers. Though my sons seem more than willing, I sense that I am the one not quite prepared to put away our childish things–as long as there are blocks and trains and Lego and picture books lying underfoot, they are still here with me where I can keep them safe–everyone tranquil, nobody aging or changing…

Close-up of castle set, Walter Wick’s studio. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

The day of my visit, the first thing that I learn about Walter Wick is that his work studio was once a firehouse. I can’t help wishing (not for the last time) that I’d figured out a way to bring my boys with me as I tour the space–a decade ago when our family was house-hunting, the two items on the boys’ mutual “must-have” list were an artist’s studio and a bedroom fire pole. They’re still waiting on both…

The main workspace on the second floor of the firehouse is open and sunny, with near-floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides of the room. As the visiting bloggers traverse the periphery, snapping photos of the sets for the next book in the Can You See What I See? series (a fairy tale romance between a time-traveling robot and a princess with moxie), Walter explains that from idea to inception, each book takes about a year to complete–so that production for one title overlaps with promotion for the book most-recently completed.

During lunch and throughout the rest of our day, Walter patiently answers questions from our group as he leads us around the building. Yes, he tends to work with archetypes children find accessible: trains and pirates, robots and princesses. The books are specifically designed to work on a number of levels, however, from simple reader to picture-find adventure that reinforces vocabulary and listening skills to (in the case of Toyland Express) sweet story of old toys that find a second life among new children–all depending on the needs of the reader.

Walter’s tiny friend Seymour is thrilled about the new book. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

When I come home that night, I show the boys my copy of Can You See What I see? Toyland Express.

“Look!” I gush, “The author signed it! And that little yellow bead boy is hidden somewhere on every page. His name is Seymour. And the publisher even sent me home with ‘Toyland Express’ train cookies for the family…”

“Wow!” my older son laughs, leafing through Toyland Express. “This almost makes me wish I was ten years younger again. When I was going through my train-obsession thing I would have loved this book!”

When he gets to the final spread in the book, a scene full of block towers, tinker toy bridges, and rambling train-filled track reminiscent of our old friend, the “balloon popper” page, his eyes widen. Tapping the book with tapered fingers, he tells me, rapid-fire: “You know, Mom: this guy really understands what gets little kids excited!”

“I may have to quote you on that,” I agree.

Want to win a free copy of Can You See What I See? Toyland Express? Dig out your blocks, Lego, trains, and trucks and create your own “toyland” world (click around on Walter Wick’s site for inspiration). Take a picture and upload it to GeekMom’s flickr group anytime before Monday, December 5. One lucky winner will be chosen by a guest judging panel of teens and tweens to receive a copy of the book!

Note: This blogger received a signed copy of Can You See What I See? Toyland Express free for review.

The Rise of the Play Center

Image: Sarah Pinault

In Maine we are housebound for much of January through March because of snow. Often this can include April, and it can also include the restrictive cold weather of December. Last year was my first year with a toddler, so gone were my housebound days of curling up in front of the woodstove with a good book for the weekend. I now had to be an entertainer.

Image: Casey Holt

My good friend introduced me to her local play center. It was a miracle in an abandoned mill. If you are not familiar with the concept, these are places, larger than most homes, full of toys. There might be theme rooms, craft areas and a kitchen for snack time. There might be a rock wall, a climbing frame and a slide. It depends on the location and tolerance level (read insurance policy) of the owner. For a small fee, either per person or family, you can spend the whole day there following your child around, while they play with toys they don’t own, and toys you don’t have to clean. It provides much needed stimulation for the child, a nice change of scenery for the parent.

If I could combine our two local play centers into one I would. There are things I like and loathe about each. I enjoy the center that has a coffee shop so I can have a cappuccino sitting on the counter while corralling Toby, but I also dislike that you cannot bring your own snacks in because of the health and safety requirements of an in-house coffee shop. I enjoy that at the other center, their employees follow you around picking up toys as your children discard them; that seems to me a big pulling point for harassed parents. One of our local centers is based in an old mill, tall ceilings, long rooms, it’s the perfect setup. There is a book room at each center for quieter children to read, or for loud children to sit and collect themselves for a few minutes. It’s a great place to meet up with fellow parents, though don’t expect your children to run in the same direction, expect disjointed conversations.

Image: Casey Holt

It’s also great if you have a tendency to over-shop for your child. I now know that Toby loves train tables, but doesn’t really need one. He can get his fix at the play center. I know that I love the Rody Horse but that Toby quickly tires of it. These are things I would have loved to buy for him but that we don’t have room for in our house. It’s great to know that he can play with them every so often, but that I don’t have to fit them into our daily lives. Through our local play center I discovered that Toby could be trusted on a slide, but not with paint. I discovered that he will run into walls whether they are ten feet apart or thirty.

It’s a great place to explore with your kids if you need to wear them out for a good nap, keep them occupied while dad hangs shelving in their room, or if you just need a break from the monotony. It’s also a great place to send grandparents who have run out of ideas. Pricey? Sometimes, but absolute value for money.

Ode to a Great Geek Dad… and his Geek Hobby

My Dear Husband Dave showing his train layout at a train show in Raleigh, NC, 2007. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

No, he isn’t one of those GeekDads… although he’d certainly fit the bill. After all, he’s getting Brian Greene’s latest book for Father’s Day!

My Dear Husband Dave is a great Air Force professional, husband, and father to our two Geek Spawn sons. He has several other great hobbies, from art to Civil War reenacting. Sadly, those hobbies have had to make room for greater responsibility at work and as a parent.

But one of his hobbies will always have a place in his life, and in our family: model railroading.

Model railroaders exist throughout history and pop culture, such as Rod Stewart, Frank Sinatra, and Roy Neary from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But for the most part model railroaders are quiet, detail-oriented guys with a knack for creativity. They enjoy building a complete world all to themselves.

As the head of a military family, Dave has been challenged with keeping up his hobby while picking up the family and belongings and relocating every 2-3 years. He visits and reads about other model railroaders’ basement-sized layouts with envy, and is always planning “the big one”…the layout that will dominate the basement of our retirement home. Whenever that may be. Wherever that may be.

Dave didn't let parenthood stop him from enjoying his hobby! Here's our oldest son at 5 months old watching Daddy set up his layout at a train show in Melbourne, FL, March 2003. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

For now, Dave keeps current with his hobby with a relatively small layout — two hollow-core doors (yes, you read right: doors!) with table legs affixed to the bottom. Perfecting the scenery is an ongoing process, you can never “finish” this task! In fact, this past spring Dave added model wire to his telegraph poles!

Keeping his layout current with “digital command and control (DCC)” is also an ongoing project. Unlike the simple model train sets of our youth where applying power meant that all trains moved in the same direction with the same amount of power applied, with “DCC”, you use the electrical connections of your track to transmit pulsed coded signals: forward, reverse, change a light signal, turn on a headlight, lower a signal gate, etc. Two trains can now move in opposite directions on the same track!

Dave keeps the world apprised of his current layout with his website as well as through assorted model railroading forums.  The layout is a “dual era” model of the same location – central Pennsylvania, but he can change out locomotives, rolling stock and scenery details such that he can portray either the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1956 or else the Conrail Railroad in 1980.

Dave's dual-era model railroad requires an incredible amount of detail and patience that only a true geek possesses! For example, check out the soot stains over the stall doors behind the locomotives...indicative of the exhaust. Photo: Dave Vollmer, used with permission

This month has been especially awesome for Dave, and we couldn’t be more proud! He was invited to give a talk about maximizing a small model railroad layout at this month’s National N-Scale Convention, and his layout is also being featured in this month’s N-Scale Magazine, which is just coming off the presses and entering subscribers’ mailboxes as I type this.

Let me be the first to admit that I have a love/hate relationship with Dave’s model railroading. This is something he’s been interested in since we were dating and got married, and I knew that going into it.  Most of the time, I’m very proud of Dave’s work of art!  It’s absolutely amazing!

But it doesn’t come without cost, both in terms of the checkbook and time. Emerging new technologies in model railroading (such as the iPhone remote throttle app and the ability to make his tiny N-Scale locomotives produce realistic engine sounds) and Dave’s constant scenery improvements means that model railroading is a consistent part of our family budget.

Our oldest son with his new model railroad, which will represent CSX and Amtrak in Apex, NC, the town we lived in from 2005-2008. Construction started in early 2011 and now is covered in grass and ballast. Photo: Dave Vollmer, used with permission.

Also, Dave can sometimes take a Sunday afternoon and disappear into the “train room” and happily crank out several hours worth of tasks/improvements. Many times, Dave will set forth to do a “simple” task, such as repairing a weak spot on the track, or airbrushing a new boxcar to make it look “weathered” (i.e., worn with use). He’ll try to fit in a small task in between playing baseball with our sons in the backyard and dinnertime.  Sometimes that “simple” one-hour task blossoms into a 3-4 hour extravaganza, because of a problem with the soldering gun, airbrush or he realizes the paint is the wrong color and he attempts to improvise to get the paint color correct.

Since the kids have come along, Dave and our sons participate together with the model railroading.  The boys enjoy model railroading as much as elementary school-aged boys can. On a recent layout extension project in 2009 the boys helped Dave with putting in trees, sprinkling grass, and pouring ballast (the rocks) onto the track. This past winter he started on a smaller layout for our oldest son, which will sit in his bedroom if we can make the space work out.

That is not to say I don’t have hobbies of my own that he has to tolerate, such as when I spread my scrapbooking supplies all over the dining room, or I forget to prepare dinner for the family because I’m engrossed in sewing a Halloween costumes for our sons.

To Dave, the love of my life, my hats off to you for having a safe, family friendly hobby that you can share with our sons and the world!  Okay, so it’s an R2D2 Mickey Mouse ears hat :-)