Family Fitness: Strike a Pose and Get Ready to Sweat

We all know how great exercise is for us—it’s been shown to have positive effects in almost every area of our life, whether that’s reducing disease risks, combatting depression, or just improving overall wellbeing. But exercising together as a family has some additional benefits. Of course, there’s the bonding part. But besides that, family exercise provides some built-in motivation, encouragement, and can add an element of (hopefully) friendly competition. If you and/or your family are relatively new to exercise, here are a few ways to help you take those first steps towards lifelong fitness. But please, before you start any kind of exercise routine—especially if you haven’t worked out in a while—check with your healthcare provider to make sure it’s appropriate for you and your unique circumstances.

lazy lizards yoga mat and dvdLazy Lizards Yoga mat and DVD (Lazy Lizards)
If one or more of your kids is wiggly and impatient, yoga is a great way to redirect some of that surplus energy. A tremendous amount of research has been done on kids and yoga and there are many documented benefits, including increased strength and flexibility, better ability to manage stress, lower obesity risk, improved balance and agility, fewer sports injuries, and better on-field performance. Some studies even suggest that yoga may encourage creativity, improve memory, and boost academic performance. Yoga, of course, can be done alone, but it’s also a wonderful family activity. The Lazy Lizards yoga mat is the perfect size for children, and has 12 kid-friendly poses printed right on it. There’s even an empty space where kids can draw their own pose. These mats are eco-friendly (meaning they’re made from phthalate-free materials and are recyclable) and come in four colors. Kids can do their own yoga practice by following the illustrations on the mat, or you can pick up the Lazy Lizards yoga DVD, which includes a more structured workout, which includes the little-known pizza pose. The mat is $32, the DVD is $17.95, or you can get a combo for $44.95, all at http://www.lazylizardsyoga.com/ and other retailers.

doyogawithmeDoYogaWithMe
If you’ve got older kids, DoYogaWithMe is a great resource. The website has dozens of free yoga videos that range from 15 minutes to more than an hour. There are three levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced) and 17 styles to choose from. The instructors are uniformly excellent and the workouts are just as good as you’d find at your local yoga studio. http://www.doyogawithme.com/

sears fitstudioSears FitStudio (Sears)
Sears’s newly re-launched FitStudio is a free, one-stop site that offers a variety of workouts (complete with short video demos of each exercise), a large library of articles on fitness and nutrition, and reviews of dozens of fitness-related products. Once you register (it’s quick and free) FitStudio helps keep you motivated by giving you rewards for incorporating movement into your daily life. If you have a fitness tracker or other similar device, you can connect it to your FitStudio account. You can earn points for walking two miles, burning 1,500 calories, or achieving some other fitness goal you’ve established. You can redeem those points for discounts on merchandise from Sears, sears.com, or kmart.com. Find out more at https://www.fitstudio.com/

sportline sync watchSportline Sync Heart Rate Watch
We’ll be reviewing advanced fitness trackers and fitness-enabled smart watches in future columns, but if you’re looking for a good quality, inexpensive tracker with a lot of features, you can’t go wrong with this one. Besides telling time (you’d be amazed at how many fitness trackers don’t), the Sportline Sync Heart Rate Watch measures steps taken, distance traveled, calories burned, and heart rate. About $50 at Sears and other retailers.

Lexus ES300 Hybrid

Lexus ES300h - 2

I’ve never stolen a car—even though the “Fast and Furious” movies and “Gone in 60 Seconds” make grand theft auto seem so glamourous. But after spending a week with the Lexus ES300 hybrid, I was more than a little tempted (yes, Lexus loaned me the car, but that in no way influenced my opinions).

Really and truly, there’s not a whole to say about this car except that it is absolutely amazing. But of course, one wouldn’t expect any less from Lexus. So I’m going to skip over the typical review items and focus on a few lesser-known features.

lexus es300It’s a magnet. As a single guy, I’ve noticed over the years that the amount of attention women pay to me changes depending on the circumstances. When I’m out and about by myself, women often smile at me (despite my fantasies, I’m sure most are just being polite). Going out for a walk with my dog (who’s, admittedly, cuter than I am) doubles the number of smiles. And when my daughters were little, going out with them probably tripled the smiles. I always thought that the combination of me + dog + daughters was the best thing ever. But me + dog + one daughter (the older two are all grown up) + the ES300 was complete insanity. I am, however, still single.

It makes the roads safer for everyone. The ES300 has all the latest and greatest safety features: blind spot sensors, lane change alerts, more air bags than you can count, anti-lock brakes, and on and on. But after testing out the zero-to-70 factor (which was really impressive) a few times and working the suspension by taking a few turns faster than I should have, I found myself actually obeying the speed limit. The reason? Because it’s such a joy to drive that I wanted to make the ride last as long as possible.

lexus es300h clockIt has a clock. Yes, the ES300 is gorgeous to look at (even without my daughters, my dog, or me in the picture), and the interior styling is sleek and stylish. But one of the classiest features of all was the analog clock. For some reason that tiny touch of retro made the whole car seem even more luxurious.

 

lexus es300h interiorIt’s beyond comfortable. As an NPR addict, I often stay in the car after arriving at my destination so I can listen to the end of an interesting segment. With the ES300, I’d frequently take the long way to wherever I was going and, when I arrived, I’d sometimes just sit there, usually with the radio off, reveling in the luxurious interior. My passengers, whether they sat in the front seat or the rear, said very much the same thing. And somehow, driving around looking for parking became a pleasure instead of the trigger for a murderous rage.

Bottom line? At $50,000, it’s a bit out of my price range, so I’m saving my pennies. But it might be cheaper to just hire one of those “Gone in 60 Seconds” guys to do their thing.

You’re Imagining the Whole Thing

Imagination is a wonderful thing. But in an era of “teaching to the test” and laser focus on grades and performance, it’s in short supply. A large body of research shows that children who engage in imaginative play have larger vocabularies, think more flexibly and creatively, and do better in school than less imaginative kids. And as they get older, those children turn into adults who have more empathy for others, work better on teams, are more adaptable, and generally have more fulfilling careers. And it all starts with stories. Here are some of our favorite imagination- and creativity-stimulating toys.

safari figurinesFigurines (Safari LTD)
Safari LTD makes a dizzying variety of figurines that are perfect for imaginative play. Whether your children’s fantasy world takes them to a farm, a faraway land, under the sea, or has them playing with mythological creatures (or maybe a mash up of the above), Safari’s figurines will be at their side for years to come. They’re fun to collect and meticulously detailed and painted, so your first reaction may be to put them on a shelf and admire them. But they’re quite sturdy, meaning they can survive a dog attack, being tossed out a window (not that your child would ever do that), or a washing machine adventure. You’ll find creatures in all shapes and sizes at https://www.safariltd.com/

haba puppetsPuppets (HABA USA)
HABA puppets are great for children of any age (HABA recommends age 1 and up, but as they’re soft and don’t have any loose parts or buttons, they’re okay for younger kids too.) HABA’s puppets easy to manipulate—one finger for the head, thumb for one arm, and middle finger for the other—and their cheery, smiling faces make them irresistible. You can get individual puppets or assemble groups of themed characters such as Red Riding Hood and a royal family for more involved stories. There’s also a whole line of delightful finger puppets. Oh, and they’re machine washable (hang to dry) too. Most are around $15. Visit http://www.habausa.com for choices.

folkmanis puppetsPuppets (Folkmanis)
With their attention to detail and creative designs, Folkmanis puppets are visually stunning. They’re also as plush as high-end stuffed animals. That combination makes mom and dad want to play with them as much as the kids do. The puppets vary in size and articulation, but they’re always wonderfully unique, with wings that flap, heads that spin, tails that uncurl, tongues that stick out, and more. Some of them are easy for small hands, but some require five fingers, and others need two adult-sized hands to operate. These puppets will get everyone’s imagination working. If your dragon breathes fire on imaginary an imaginary villages and kidnaps the LEGO residents, you can send brave knights up to vanquish it. Or maybe the hero is a princess from a neighboring kingdom. There are literally hundreds of puppets. See all the newest ones at http://www.folkmanis.com

yottoy girl scout dollGirl Scouts Friendship Dolls (YOTTOY)
YOTTOY brings fantasy and real life together with its new line of soft Girl Scouts Friendship Dolls. These dolls promote what the Girl Scouts are all about: friendship, diversity, and taking care of the community. They also bring in an element of fun and personal style. One especially nice feature is that they come in several ethnicities, which means that your child can play with characters who look just like her (or close to it) and create her own Girl Scout meetings, go on camping trips, or sell cookies. Friendship Dolls retail for around $17 at YOTTOY, Walmart, and GirlScouts.com. Or visit http://girlscoutsfriendship.yottoy.com/where

To Tech or Not to Tech? How ‘Bout Both?

Although we love toys that don’t have an on/off switch, there’s definitely a time and place for apps. Here are two very clever games that combine tablet and touch, a sleek tablet, and something totally low-tech.

tigglyTiggly
Recent research shows that young children are spending so much time on tablets that they their muscle tone and hand-eye coordination aren’t developing the way they should. That’s where Tiggly comes in. Tiggly develops interactive apps that incorporate object manipulation to help kids build spatial- and fine-motor skills, creativity, and reasoning. Tiggly Counts is an award-winning math-learning game for kids 18 months to 6 years old. To get the correct answers to simple math questions, kids have to physically put the right number of special Tiggly devices in the right place on the screen. Tiggly Shapes brings the same basic technology to shape- and pattern recognition. Each game comes with the appropriate devices and several additional apps. They’re colorful, entertaining, educational, and kids can play by themselves or with mom and dad. For Android and iOS (sorry Windows Phone). $30 on http://get.tiggly.com/counts.

painting luluPainting Lulu
Part coloring book, part app, Painting Lulu is a delightful blend of technology and design. It starts with an actual paper coloring book (remember those?) where kids start their drawings. Then they (or a nearby adult) scan their drawing into a tablet using the free Painting Lulu app. The art shows up on the screen, where those little artist can color, erase, retouch, and change as much as they’d like (using the included digital crayon, of course—wax and screens are not a good combination). When the masterpiece is complete, print it out and send it off to Grandma and Grandpa. For iOS and Android devices. Sells for $9.99 on http://www.paintinglulu.com.

camelio skinCamelio Table (Vivitar)
The Camelio Tablet is great for families that would like everyone to have a tablet but don’t want to spend the dough on each one; hey, those things can get pricey. Camelio features Android 4.1 and can accommodate up to five users using “Personality Packs.” Those packs allow each user to customize wallpaper, camera, widgets, lock screens, games, and, of course include a themed skin for the device. Prices vary. http://www.cameliotablet.com/

burg watchBURG Smartwatches 
There are a lot of smart watches out there, but BURG watches are among the very few stand-alone phones, meaning you can make and receive texts and calls without being connected to any other device (although you can if you want to). BURGs accept SIM cards so you can take them on the road, and you may be able to add yours to your wireless family plan. Features vary widely depending on the model. The BURG 25 has as 2.0MP camera, step- and calorie counters, and GPS. The 16A doesn’t have any of those. But both have MP3/MP4 players, Bluetooth, calendar, calculator, alarm, and can store up to 500 contacts.  Prices vary by model. Aat major retailers and www.burgwearables.com 

silly mcgillySilly McGillly
And just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, and gleefully devoid of technology, comes Silly McGilly, who’s the Irish version of the “Elf on the Shelf” or “Mensch on a Bench”—an impish little elven creature who plays tricks and creates mischief leading up to his favorite holiday. McGilly comes with a book and an adorable little leprechaun that will help you and the kids spend some quality time together between last-minute runs to the grocery store for green food coloring. The little leprechaun doesn’t have a beard and is about as huggable—and as far from scary-looking—as it’s possible to get. The set retails for $29.95 at www.sillymcgilly.com.

2015 Toy Trends to Watch

Every year, hundreds of toy manufacturers flock to New York, in the middle of February, to showcase their latest and greatest. Thousands of buyer s and media folks are close behind, anxious to uncover hidden toy gems for their customers and readers. This year was no exception (except for the fact that it was 20 degrees colder than usual), and your parents@play team was right there on the front lines. Here are some of trends that we think will be hot in 2015.

backpacksBackpacks. Backpacks are no longer simple bags with shoulder straps designed to carry stuff. This year, they’ll be a major fashion statement, too. They’ll be colorful, fanciful, often-customizable, and some will combine form and function, allowing the wearer to dress up as a favorite character.

 

 

owlselephantsOwls and Elephants Are the New Teddy Bears. Of course, we won’t be saying goodbye to teddy bears forever, but there’ll be a lot more hooting and trumpeting in the toy aisles this year. Owls and teddy bears plush toys will also showing up as book illustrations, mini figurines, and, of course, in apps (more on that below).

 

 

talking backTalk amongst Yourselves. Toys that “talk” are nothing new, but as technology evolves, manufacturers are using it in very clever ways. Minions, for example, are pretty chatty and musical. But sometimes, if you put a few of them together, they’ll sing in harmony. Some doctor toys will change what they say depending on which patient is in the exam room. Others will speak differently when their wardrobe or location changes. Dogs and cats may chase each after other, otherwise-peaceful dinosaurs may fight each other in groups, hot dogs will sizzle when you put them on the grill, and so on.

 

 

 

blind packBlind Packs. Many collectible toys, from My Little Pony to The Walking Dead, will be available in small bags that don’t say who or what is inside them (some may give you a hint, though).

 

 

appThere’s an App for That. Technology is a wonderful thing, except when it isn’t. A huge number of physical toys now come with a virtual component. Many times, these apps augment your child’s playtime experience by adding new app/tablet-based dimensions and features. But sometimes, the apps add absolutely nothing—and may even detract.

grossThat’s Disgusting. Last year, we saw molds for making your own “poop” (complete with pieces of “corn” to heighten the effect), fart keyboards, and rainbow-pooping unicorns. Those will still be popular. Plus, we’ll see toys that eat, poop, vomit, and then combine all of those actions in a variety of disgusting ways. And we’ll add a new sense to the mix with fart sprays—some make a noise and produce pleasant odors, while others have a more “natural scent.”

frozenFrozen. We thought the movie was wonderful. But Disney has done such a good job licensing its characters that they’ll be popping up on toys, games, dolls, karaoke, cell-phone cases, apps, and everything else, that we’re predicting that within a few months, you’ll have completely OD’d on building snowmen, and the cold will bother you. A lot.

dino/movieMovie and TV Tie-ins. Speaking of movies, you’ll be seeing a huge number of entertainment-related toys, games, figures, and apps. Of course there are the superheroes from DC and Marvel—including some relatively rare ones like Ant Man—but there are also Minions, dinosaurs, and a variety of new characters who’ll be making the jump from the screen to your playroom.

role playRole Play. Now kids (mostly girls) can do more than just play with their dolls—they can dress up as them with brand-licensed skirts, tops, and footwear.

Screening Entertainment

Our agent is still trying to set up the Parents@Play TV show and action figures. Meanwhile, pretty much everyone else seems to have one (the Kardashians? Really?). Over the next few months we’ll devote occasional columns to toys and games with TV and/or movie tie-ins. This week, we take a look at one character who’s made the transition from small screen to big, and a family of characters who seem perfectly content—for the time being—with being on TV. Keep your eye out for dinosaurs, minions, superheroes, and more.

zhu stunt petAmazing Zhus (Cepia)
After a brief hiatus, Cepia has brought back the much loved Zhu Zhu pets, and they’re cuter, fuzzier, and smarter than ever. Cepia also expanded the Zhu Zhu family by introducing the pets’ cousins, the Amazing Zhus, who will dazzle with you with jaw-dropping feats of magic. There are two types of Amazing Zhus: the hat-wearing magicians—The Great Zhu and Madame Zhu—and the stunt pets Kardini, Dynamo, Picadilly, and Abra. There’s definitely a family resemblance: the Amazing Zhus and the Zhu Zhus are all adorable, they make cute sounds, the electronics and robotics are amazing, and they’ll keep your child (and you) entertained for hours. The main difference is that the Amazing Zhus are hard plastic instead of plush. Both magicians come with a card trick and magic wand and retail for about $30. The stunt pets are sold separately or in multiples, each for about $13. Batteries are included. http://www.cepia.com/

amazing zhu disappearing box2Amazing Zhus Magic Tricks (Cepia)
With the Amazing Zhus Magic Tricks, your child becomes the magician—and those stunt pets start earning their keep. The pets can jump off a high dive into a bucket of water 20 zhu-zhu sized stories below (that’s about three feet for humans), perform a nail-biting, death-defying tightrope walk through a ring of fire, dance and spin on a circus ball, and vanish (and rematerialize) in a magical, disappearing box. The effects are clever and are easy enough for small hands to control. Plus, your preschooler will love the confidence and applause that comes from mystifying audiences. Each trick is sold separately and prices range from about $8 to $18. http://www.cepia.com/

spongebuddySpongeBuddy Squarepants (Nickelodeon)
SpongeBob’s worldwide appeal—like the Kardashains’—still baffles us.  But there’s one area where SpongeBob beats the Squarepants off of the Kardashians: he has his own movie, and a whole line of toys to go with hit. The SpongeBuddy, like the “real” SpongeBob, is squishy to the touch and will get you smiling (and sometimes groaning) no matter how hard you try to avoid it. His eyes and mouth move, he makes all sorts of sound effects, and he tells a variety of G-rated jokes. He’s also wonderfully interactive. If you turn him upside down, he’ll complain, and if you ignore him for more than a few minutes, he’ll make a few sarcastic comments and then go to sleep—complete with snoring. He’s available wherever you buy your toys for about $30.

spongebob krabby patty makerSpongeBob Talking Krabby Patty Maker (Nickelodeon)
Unlike SpongeBuddy, this SpongeBob is made of hard plastic. He’s also not as talkative: most of what he does say is directed at the “tasty, juicy, scrumptious, warm, steamy” Krabby Patties. But he’s still a lot of fun to play with. Besides a wisecracking sense of humor, he comes with 12 accessories, including a fry pan, grill that makes realistic sizzling sounds), a spatula, fries, and ketchup. And, of course, there are the stackable patty pieces which let budding chefs assemble their own Krabby Patties—with or without cheese.  All you need is some salt and a couple of AA batteries (included). Retails for about $25 everywhere.