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.

Let the Kisses Fly

Valentine’s Day is no longer just for lovers and romantically significant others—today, people give Valentine’s gifts to their parents, close friends, and (of course) their children. And the children give us gifts too (we all wear our glitter-pasta necklaces with pride, don’t we?). If you’re still looking for the perfect gift for your little prince or princess, here are some nice ways to say “I love you” (in addition to the actual words).

skylanders love potionLove Potion Pop Fizz
If you’ve got a game enthusiast in the family, check out Skylander’s new Love Potion Pop Fizz.  Despite his name, this little guy is anything but mushy and sweet; instead of shooting Cupid’s arrows, he throws vials of strange substances. Still, he’ll be a cherished addition to your gamer’s Skylanders collection. Because he’s a seasonal limited edition, he’ll eventually be hard to find—but right now you can still get him at Amazon, Game Stop, or your favorite retailer for about $10.

cloud b cuddlesGlow Cuddles Bear
Dreamz to Go Groovy Globes
Cosmic UFO (Cloud b)
A well-rested child is a well-behaved child, and Cloud b encourages and facilitates sleep with a sweet line of creative nightlights and bedtime toys. One of our favorites is the adorable,  soft Glow Cuddles Bear.  Cuddles has a light hidden inside his chest and when he gets a hug, the light glows soothingly. There’s also a gentle, calming heartbeat sound that helps lull little ones to sleep.  Cuddles has two sleep timer options: 10 or 23 minutes. Because his facial features are sewn on, he’s perfectly safe for infants and toddlers. The only exception are the three AA batteries (not included), but those are encased in a parent-only-accessible hatch. Retails for $35.95 on http://cloudb.com.

If you’re considering a teddy bear for your child, you’ll want to stay far away from the 50 Shades of Grey Bear from the Vermont Teddy Bear Company, which comes with a variety of accessories, including blindfolds and handcuffs.  Definitely rated R.

For older children who still like to fall asleep with a nightlight, Cloud b has a couple of great options.  Dreamz To Go Groovy Globes have graphics of hearts, flowers, and peace signs etched into the globe. When you turn on the bulb, the light shines from inside and projects those groovy images onto your walls and ceiling. It’s a great way to move your little Valentine towards sleep. The Globes are available in pink or aqua, and require 3 AAA batteries (included). Retail is $25.95 on http://cloudb.com.

The Cosmic UFO is a fun addition to any child’s room.  Shaped (as you would imagine) like a UFO, it projects images of the Northern Lights and makes “intergalactic” sounds that make your child’s space look and feel like the great outdoors. The UFO’s brightness setting are adjustable and there’s a 23-mnute auto shutoff timer. Batteries are included. Retails for $44.95 on http://cloudb.com.

love popperLove Poppers (Hog Wild)
Adding a whole new dimension to the phrase “blowing kisses,” Love Poppers are fun, silly animals that shoot soft “kisses” (foam balls with lips on them) at their target (great for reaching your sweetheart from across the room). Pop the balls into the animal’s mouth, squeeze the belly, and watch the kisses fly and the laughter ensue.  The kisses are soft, but we recommend that you do your shooting outdoors, just to be safe. Poppers come in four flavors:  monkey, pig, squirrel, and cow, and each comes with six balls and retails for $10.95. Refills are sold separately in stores or at http://www.hogwildtoys.com

Winter Indoors

According to Punxsutawney Phil, that famous, four-legged weather prognosticator, we’re in for at least another month of winter. And if the overtime is anything like the first part, we ‘re going to be spending a lot of time indoors. Not to worry, we’ve got you covered with some great indoors activities.

nintendo e-shopNintendo eShop (Nintendo)
Craving a new video game but don’t want to actually go out to get it? At the Nintendo eShop, you can order the latest games and have them shipped, or download them directly to your Wii U or 3DS/2DS. There’s also plenty of exclusive, digital-only content. One especially nice feature is the ability to demo selected games before you buy. The eShop gives you access to all of Nintendo’s well-known franchises as well as some new, indie gems. Whether you’re buying for a seasoned gaming pro or a novice, old or young, adventurous or timid, there’s something fun for everyone. Prices vary widely. http://www.nintendo.com/eshop

kidz gear headset and splitterHeadset for Kids (Kidz Gear)
Kids have an amazing capacity to do the same thing over and over and over, whether that’s playing a game, watching a movie, or listening to music. Adults, however, sometimes need a break from the repetition—especially when we’re trapped in the house. When that happens, break out these headphones. The over-the-ear pads are a lot more comfortable than in-ear buds, and they’re really easy to adjust. They have a 3.5mm (1/8”) plug, meaning they’ll work in pretty much any phone, tablet, computer or MP3 player. Unlike most headphones, Kidz Gear headphones have “KidzControl Volume Limit Technology” which, as you might guess from the name, keeps the volume well below danger levels. This particular Kidz Gear model comes with a boom mic, making it perfect for interactive games or just talking on the phone. Kidz Gear also makes a nice headphone splitter cable which lets you plug two headphones into one jack so you and your child can snuggle up and watch or listen to something together. Headphones and splitters are available at retailers everywhere for $29.99 and $5.99, respectively. https://www.gearforkidz.com/

kidfit trackerKidFit Tracker (X-Doria)
Getting exercise when you’re snowed in can be tough. But KidFit can help. It’s a simple, attractive wristband that measures your children’s activity throughout the day. It also lets you use Bluetooth and a free iOS or Android app to establish fitness goals and set rewards for meeting them. The app can support multiple trackers for multiple kids (or adults if you get one too). Besides activity, the KidFit also tracks your child’s sleep, which is extremely important (and just as extremely underrated). KidFit is splash proof—a feature that sets it apart from some competitors. Our only complaint is that there’s no display—if you want to see how close you’re getting to your goal, you need to connect to the app. Available at Amazon and other retailers for $39-49.

zoku ice creamZoku Ice Cream Maker (Zoku)
Ice cream cravings can hit anytime—even when it’s 20 below zero outside. When that happens, all you need is Zoku’s new Ice Cream Maker, which lets you create individual portions of ice cream, custard, frozen yogurt, gelato, sorbet, or sherbet in as little as 10 minutes. Comes with great-tasting recipes, but you can make your own too. $25.99. http://www.zokuhome.com
 

 

 

alex sno-markersMini Sno-Markers (Alex Brands)
Snow or not, sometimes you just have to get outside. And with Sno-Markers, you can brighten those dreary days with a splash of color. Just add water to the colored powder, shake, and you’re ready to create. The set comes with five markers but 10 color packs so you’ll be able to illustrate all winter long.. $14.99 at www.alexbrands.com and www.poof-slinky.com.