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.

 

Some Assembly Required

Building systems come in a huge variety of styles, shapes, materials, and levels of difficulty. This week we take a look at several of them—one traditional, one non-traditional, and two that offer a new twist on the classics.

Playmobil zoo & aquariumTake Along Zoo & Aquarium (Playmobil)
Happy 40th birthday to Playmobil! Playmobil sets are always well made, colorful, and fun to play with—what could be better than that?—and this one is no exception. What makes the Zoo & Aquarium especially unique is that it’s great for both indoor and outdoor play. It comes with trees, pools, fences, and quite a few animals (such as zebras, giraffes, lions, fish, walrus), as well as “human” caretakers. That’s a lot of pieces for one set. And there’s room for a few more, just in case your child wants to invite some other animal friends over for a visit.  When you open up the kit, one side is the zoo, the other is the aquarium, which your child can actually fill up with water and let the sea creatures (and the rest of the animals—hey, giraffes swim too) take a dip. When playtime’s over, all the pieces fit easily into the case, which (after you’ve drained and dried it) folds up for storage or easy transport. Retails for $49. http://www.playmobil.us/

nintendo captain toadCaptain Toad: Treasure Hunter (Nintendo)
Nintendo’s Mario games are kind of like Oprah, who made Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz so famous that they got their own show. Similarly, Nintendo has given quite a few Mario stars their own games. These include Yoshi, Luigi, Princess Peach, and now Captain Toad. What’s especially interesting about the Captain is that he has no particular super powers—not even jumping. He just walks, runs, and has a real knack for finding gold coins, turnips that can be used to defeat enemies, and even a blockade-busting pickaxe. He’s also something of a genius when it comes to putting things together to solve puzzles.  Captain Toad is a game for the whole family. Kids will like the simple controls and easy mechanics of the game, and adults will appreciate the puzzles and the challenges required to collect all the treasures. Captain Toad retails for around $40 and is available everywhere video games are sold, from the Wii U eShop, or at http://captaintoad.nintendo.com/

light staxLight Stax (Light Stax)
From a distance, Light Stax look like Duplo (Lego’s jumbo size bricks for preschoolers), but connect at least one Stax block to the power base, and every other block that’s connected—directly or indirectly—will light up. The base, which can run on batteries or a USB cable, has enough juice to light up at least 100 blocks. Stax are compatible with Duplo (but only the Stax blocks illuminate), but our favorite feature is the auto-shutoff, which means your child can build a completely new nightlight every night. Stax come in sets from 12 blocks to more than 100, and prices run from $35 to $250. http://lightstax.com/

 

klutz lego chain reactionLEGO Chain Reactions (Klutz)
If you liked the classic game Mousetrap, you’ll love Klutz’s very clever LEGO Chain Reaction book. The motto is “Teach Your Bricks New Tricks,” and by incorporating ordinary LEGO elements and a few other ingredients, that’s exactly what happens. What’s the point of doing ridiculously simple things like tossing a gum wrapper or bouncing a ball in one step when you can do it in 20 or 30 steps using levers, pulleys, ramps, hammers, string, tires, and funnels? An engaging, entertaining, and educational activity for the whole family. Comes with 30+ Lego elements and instructions for building 10 Rube Goldberg machines. Retails for around $20. http://klutz.com

A Playful Intro to Gaming

Are you looking to add a new layer of fun to your at-home gaming world, or maybe a gentle way to give your little one a taste? If so, you’ll definitely want to check out these toys, which will keep your youngster (okay, and you too) entertained through the rest of the winter and beyond.

nintendo plushPlush Toys from Nintendo
Got a kid who’s not quite ready for actual gaming? These cute, 7.5-inch plush toys from Nintendo are a great way to introduce him or her to popular cultural icons such as Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, Link, Red Pikmin, and Yellow Pikmin. Plus, they’re sturdy, soft, and great for cuddling up with at bedtime (or any other time). They’re about $8 each at your favorite retailer.

 

 

 

 

tmnt hero portalJAKKS Hero Portal
Another one for the novice gamers among us (and for their more experienced, young-at-heart adult caretakers). These are the latest additions to the “Plug It In and Play TV Games” line. Right now, the Portals come in two flavors: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers. The Portals are extremely easy to use, since the games are built right into the controller. Just plug it into pretty much any TV and you’re ready to roll. No need for any additional consoles, attachments, wires, or software. Then, pick your Hero, place him or her on the portal, and start battling your way through each game’s six stages and 18 missions. Available for $40 online and everywhere else. The portals come with two Heroes. Additional Heroes, as well as booster packs, which unlock secret missions and more, are sold separately everywhere.

angry birds telepodAngry Birds Telepods
These guys are a real blast for any Angry Birds fan, which at this point, must be nearly everyone with an Internet connection. Telepods come in a dizzying array of options, characters, and price points, so there’s something for every child and every budget. The newest Telepods are Transformers and Stella (the pink lady bird). Let’s start with Transformers. Yes, the birds are still angry, and yes, they’re still doing battle with the pigs. But now they’re cleverly (although a little obviously) disguised as robots. You play the game in both real life as well as on your tablet, with the figurines and the Telepods base, which transports all the characters right into the Transformers app (included). Place the pigs on perches, launch the birds, and try to make bacon. Being able to touch and manipulate the figurines and accessories bridges the real and virtual worlds and adds a new element to an already-engaging experience. It’s great fun for Angry Birds lovers and Transformers aficionados, and almost too much fun to endure for fans of both! How is it that no one thought of this before?

angry birds stellaWith its playhouses, swings, food playsets, and pinkish hue, Angry Birds Stella is definitely aimed at the girls. But oddly, most boys are perfectly willing to overlook the color scheme, as long as they can still catapult birds and terrorize those little porkers. Joking aside, we think it’s great that this one is pitched at girls; so many companies mistakenly assume that girls aren’t interested in gaming. But our young testers proved otherwise. It’s clear that with Angry Birds as popular as it is, the girls are glad to represent with the lovely Stella.

Games for Two

Here at Parents@Play, we focus on toys and games that parents and kids can do together. But a number of readers have asked for some recommendations for those times when it’s just mom or dad and only one child. Here are a few of our “you-can-play-with-more-but-plenty-of-fun-for-two” games.

doodle diceDoodle Dice (Jax Ltd.)
This game is part Yahtzee and part art project. Each side of each of the six dice has a dot, a line, a squiggle, or a face. And each card in the deck has a drawing (called a “doodle”) made up of anywhere from 1-6 of those elements. Cards are color coded—all the ones with one-die doodles are orange, all the ones with two-dice doddles are red, etc. Players take turns drawing a card and rolling the dice, trying to match the doodle. If you don’t get it on the first try, keep the ones you like and roll the rest again. The object is to make one doodle from each colored card. But you can change the rules any way you want. For example, if you’re playing with a young child, use only the red and orange cards. The older the child, the more complex the doodles. You get the point. Ages 6 and up. 2-6 players. As low as $10.17. http://jaxgames.com/

hit the habitat trailHit the Habitat Trail! (Jax Ltd.)
A game that truly makes education fun. The goal is to collect two cards from each of the earth’s habitats: arctic, desert, forest, grasslands, jungle, mountains, ocean, and wetlands. You get those cards by answering multiple-choice questions—about either a habitat or an animal that lives there—from cards that you pull as you follow a spiral trail around the world. For example, are an animal’s stripes like rings on a tree—telling how old the animal is? (Nope).  Great for playing at home or, if you’re an educator, in the classroom. Ages 8 and up. 2-6 players. As low as $22. http://jaxgames.com/

 

linkeeLinkee (Linkee)
If you like trivia and quiz games, you’ll love LInkee. What makes Linkee different from some others you may have played is that each card contains four trivia questions whose answers all have something in common. For example: “Peter Rabbit” author (Potter), nickname for Australia (Oz), bird whose name rhymes with Berlin (Merlin), and Ian Mackellen’s character in “Lord of the Rings” (Gandalff). And the Linkee is…. Wizards. Linkee will make you think, wince, and laugh—sometimes all at the same time. Ages 14 and up. 2-30 players. $43. http://playlinkee.com/

sequence statesSequence: States & Capitals (Jax, Ltd.)
Got a kid who’s trying to memorize state capitals? This game—a variation on the wildly successful Sequence game—can help. The idea is pretty simple. Players are dealt cards, each with a colored representation of a state, the name of its capital, and a star indicating roughly where that city is within the state. Then each player tries to match the cards in their hand to identical images on the game board, putting a chip on each one. When you get five in a row, you’ve got yourself a Sequence. Two Sequences and you win the game. Use Remove cards to mess up your opponent’s Sequences. Other versions include Cats, Dogs, Bible, and Jewish. Ages 7 and up. 2-12 players. $16. http://jaxgames.com/

word aroundWord A Round (Think Fun)
A fast-paced, really fun game. Just flip over a round card and read the words written in circles. Sounds easy, right?—the words are right there in front of you. But without knowing where the word begins or ends, it’s surprisingly hard. Ages 10 and up. 2-6 players. $10 retail. http://thinkfun.com/

Starting Off the Year with a Bang

Like it or not, kids are fascinated by things that shoot. And while we understand that some parents are completely against anything that looks remotely like a weapon, shooting toys aren’t going away anytime soon. In our view, there’s nothing inherently wrong with firearms (admittedly, my being a Marine Corps vet may influence that philosophy). So the solution is to learn to use them safely. This week we take a look at two amazing blasters and one other toy that stretches the definition of “shoot” a little

rapid madnessBOOMco Rapid Madness (Mattel)
Rapid Madness gives blaster fans two ways to shoot: one dart at a time or 20 in about 5 seconds. Either way, the foam darts can fly up to 50 feet. One of the drawbacks with other dart-shooting blasters is that you never know for sure whether you’ve hit your target. Not so with Rapid Madness. The darts have “Smart Stick” tips that cling to the included target, as well as to some glossy surfaces, which makes competitive shooting and scoring easy. Darts also stick to the pop-up shield that’s part of the blaster so you can seize your opponent’s ammo. Comes with 30 darts, a 20-dart clip, and the target. We generally don’t talk about packaging in our reviews, but the “certified frustration-proof packaging” means you can be up and shooting within minutes instead of running around trying to find a scissors or wire cutter. Ages 6 and up. $25-$40. http://shop.mattel.com/

xploderz mayhem Xploderz Mayhem Firestorm series (Maya Group)
We first saw Xploderz at Toy Fair a few years ago and were impressed with the unique ammo, which starts off as tiny pellets (that can’t be fired) and turns into gel-like marbles (that can be fired) when soaked in water. We also loved that they’re completely non-toxic, don’t stain, require virtually no clean-up, and really and truly don’t hurt. We mention that last bit just in case someone gets hit—we highly recommend that you have your children fire at non-human (or animal) targets, or, if they do fire at other people, they aim no higher than their target’s waist). Mayhem comes with 2,000 rounds and 250-round clip. So while your opponents are busy trying to find their darts under the couch and fumbling around trying to re-load them, you can keep blasting away (at two rounds per second, you’ve got more than two minutes of non-stop firepower). Plus, with an accuracy range of 50 to 80 feet, you’ll be invincible. Ages 8 and up. About $18. http://xploderz.com/

vtech smart shotSmart Shots Sports Center (Vtech)
Okay, this one isn’t a weapon, but it still involves shooting. The target, however, is either a basketball hoop or a soccer net. When your toddler drives in for a layup or shoots a half-court jumper, Sports Center’s LED screen keeps score. And when he or she finds the back of the net, Sports Center applauds, cheers, and shows encouraging animations. It’s a fun, energetic way to expose young kids to both sports. If your little one gets tired of shooting and kicking and wants to relax by brushing up on fine motor skills, there are plenty of buttons and other things to play with that introduce shapes and numbers and make all sorts of fun sounds. Comes with a small basketball, soccer ball, net, and hoop. All you need is batteries, which aren’t included. Ages 12-36 months. About $28.  http://www.vtechkids.com/

Robots and More—Lots More

Robots and game figures were really hot in 2014 and we’re predicting that they’ll be even hotter in 2015. Here are some of our favorites as we move into the New Year.

tipster wowweeTipster (WowWee)
Remember MiP, the terrific robot we reviewed a few months ago? Well, Tipster is MiP’s little brother. Tipster can balance on two wheels like big bro, but because he’s young, he prefers four. Tipster has five different play modes. With Tippy Tunes, Tipster starts playing a tune and your child tries to pile as much stuff on him as possible before the music stops. Then Tipster starts spinning and everything flies around. With Dizzy Builder, Tipster starts spinning first, and the child tries to attach as many objects to him as possible. The other three modes also feature variations on stacking and knocking over—exactly what little kids (and plenty of parents) love. The buttons on Tipster and the remote are big, colorful, and make this robot easy to operate right out of the box. Ages 4 and up. About $50 at your favorite retailer or http://www.wowwee.com/

ozobotOzobot (Ozobot)
These little robots are aimed at a much more sophisticated audience. They’ look pretty simple—like mini R2D2s—and their talent lies in following lines. You can draw your own or download dozens of patterns from the website. Ozobots change their color to match those of the line they’re following. But the real fun starts when you use the ozocodes, combinations of colored dots that tell your ozobot how to move. For example, red+green+blue slows the bot to a snail’s pace, blue+green+blue gives him a turbo boost; you can also change the ozobots’ direction and even make them dance. Our favorite was the brain teasers, which are mazes with missing sections; to get your bot through maze, you need to color in the right codes. Ozobots come two in a pack so they’re perfect for parent-child competition (or cooperation). For ages 8 and up. About $60 at Amazon or http://www.ozobot.com/

nintendo amiiboAmiibo (Nintendo)
What a great way to interact with your favorite Nintendo characters—just touch them to your Wii U GamePad controller and they jump right into your favorite games. No system upgrades and no portals. Whew! That cuts the cost and makes them more accessible to everyone. Buy only the ones you want, customize them in the games, and interact the way you want to. About 39 Amiibo figures are available now, with more on the horizon. Each retails for about $15. Ages 5 and up. http://www.nintendo.com/

hasbro optimus primeEpic Optimus Prime (Hasbro)
Epic Optimus is a really big (22 inches tall) transformer that doesn’t actually transform. But take it from us: your child won’t care. Sounds a little counterintuitive, but his size and the chest compartment that opens to reveal a command center that fits mini-figures (sold separately) will more than make up for the lack of transformer capabilities. Ages 5 and up. About $25.

think fun robot turtlesRobot Turtles (ThinkFun)
Coding for preschoolers? Absolutely. The object is to move your turtle from one of the corner spaces of an 8×8 matrix to a matching colored jewel in the middle of the board. Cards give directions on how to move the turtle: one space forward, turn left, one space forward, turn right, etc. The kids are the programmers—bossing you around like real programmers boss around computers—and you’re the computer, simply following directions. The first round is pretty easy, but once the kids have mastered it, you (the adult) can add obstacles that the players have to navigate around. Best for 2-4 preschoolers plus one adult. Each round gets more complex—and more fun. $24.99 at Amazon. http://thinkfun.com/