Déjà Vu All Over Again

Have you noticed lately that a lot of your favorite toys from the 80s are making a comeback? Some, of course, never completely left—they just moved to less-prominent shelves and were overshadowed by the latest and greatest. But others seem to have suddenly resurfaced, like zombies returning from the grave (except they don’t bite and we’re generally glad to see them). Either way, despite those promises you made to your parents that you’d never be like them, you may find yourself giving your own children the very same toys you played with back in the day.

Care BearCare Bears (Just Play)
Bringing toys out of retirement can be a risky business. In many cases, the new ones are similar, but they sometimes look as though they’ve been run through a funhouse mirror: legs too long, eyes too wide, head too small, etc. Not so with Care Bears. New-generation ultra-plush Bears look very much like the old ones. And their mission hasn’t changed at all: teach kids about responsibility, caring, sharing, empathy, and being a good friend. That’s a pretty big job for a little bear, so it’s a good thing they still have those magic “belly badges,” just in case they need a little help from Care-a-lot. Care Bears come in a variety of sizes and retail for $3 to $25 at places like Target and Amazon.com

Doodle BearDoodle Bear (Just Play)
Doodle Bears are sweet, cuddly bears that you can create your own artwork on. When you need a new look, just toss Doodle in the wash (in a pillowcase or “delicates” bag), hang him out to dry, and you’ve got a brand new canvas. The original Doodle Bear comes in three colors, or you can get the Glow Doodle Bear, where kids do their doodling with light. Each one comes with special, Doodle-Bear-Only markers (Glow comes with a magic light pen and stamps). Available for $20 and up at your favorite retailer.

k'nexK’nex (K’nex)
K’nex have been around for ages, and are one of America’s top building sets. They have unique shapes and snapping pieces, bricks, struts, and big, flat swatches to hold the pieces together. The old sets were pretty free-form: dump the pieces out on the living room carpet and build whatever you want. Today there are all sorts of targeted sets that are based on old classics like Nitendo’s Mario and today’s sensations like Plants vs. Zombies (in this case, it’s a zombie-fied football helmet). But just as it was when you were a kid, your imagination is your only limit. Most sets work with each other, so the more you collect, the more you can connect. You may even be able to combine your old ones with your child’s new ones and take the building-bonding experience to a whole new level. Prices vary greatly, depending on the size of the kit. Available at retailers everywhere or at http://www.knex.com/

movie viewerFisher-Price Classics Movie Viewer (The Bridge Direct)
While not exactly an 80’s toy—the first Movie Viewers were introduced in 1973—the new versions look just like the ones we played with as kids. And despite being very low-tech, they’re just as much fun. Movie Viewers work exactly the way they did when you had yours: slide a cartridge into a slot, and turn a hand crank to play the “movie.” You can go forwards, backwards, fast, or slow.  Comes with two cartridges (one for learning letters, the other for numbers). If you still have your old Snoopy cartridges, they should work too. No batteries required. Available for about $30 at https://www.fatbraintoys.com or http://www.fisher-price.com/

Chip Off the Old Blocks

Here at Parents@Play, we’ve been reviewing toys and games for a long, long time, and one of our absolute favorite categories is building systems. They’re a great family activity, they appeal to kids of all ages, and they’re wonderful for developing hand-eye coordination, thinking-, and other skills. Some, like Lego and K’Nex, have been around since before we were kids, and we love them. But we also love seeing how some companies have put new spins on old systems, and how others have created new and unique pieces that go together in new and unique ways. Here are three that we know you’ll enjoy as much as we did.

instructuresInstructures (Poof-Slinky)
Instructures (a blending of “instructions” and “structures”) is one of those new-twist-on-old-blocks games. It uses regular, wooden blocks in a variety of shapes (columns, cubes, arches, triangles, and so on) and sizes. The new twist is that building becomes a competitive team sport. Here’s how it works: Players divide into two teams and each one gets a set of blocks. One person is appointed Foreman (it doesn’t matter from which team since there’s a new Foreman for each round). The Foreman takes a card from a deck that has photos of different structures build out of blocks. No one else sees the card. He or she then describes how to build what’s in the photo, and the teams race to the finish. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Each round is different. For example, the Foreman may have to give directions only by pointing and gesturing—no words. Or players are blindfolded so they have to build by touch alone. Or everyone looks at the card for a minute or two and then has to build the structure from memory. Instructures is a huge amount of fun and quite challenging. It’s also great for developing teamwork, cooperation, as well as spatial, memory, and problem-solving skills. Comes with two sets of blocks and three decks of cards (each with a different degree of difficulty). Minimum of four players, ages 8 and up. About $23 at Amazon.  www.poof-slinky.com

amaze 'n' marblesAmaze ’N’ Marbles (Poof Slinky)
Another new-twist building set. Builders create mazes that will get marbles from the top to the bottom using only gravity. The sets include regular wooden blocks and specially designed blocks with holes and channels to help keep the marbles on track. Because the mazes can be as elaborate or as basic as the builder wants, Amaze ‘N’ Marbles is great for kids of all ages. It’s also great for logical thinking (how can you get a marble to change directions or go around a corner) and physics (how fast does a marble have to be going to go up hill unassisted?). Ages 5 and up. $20-$75, depending on how many pieces are in the kit. www.poof-slinky.com

 

color clixColor Clix (Aliquantum)
This is one of the most innovative constructions systems we’ve seen in a long time. The pieces are colorful, sturdy, and come in a number of shapes that snap together in configurations that mimic the structure of atoms, crystals, and DNA molecules. But you definitely don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy Color Clix: You can also use them to build pretty much anything you want. Comes with an “Imagination Guide” with 14 project suggestions to get you going. After that, you’re on your own—and you’ll have a blast. Since the pieces snap together, clean-up is super easy (just pick up your structure and shove the whole thing under the couch). $14.50-$34, depending on the kit (beginner, intermediate, advanced).

Mr. Dad Seal of Approval: Winter Holidays Deadline Extended

Do you know of a great product or service that encourages dads and their children to spend more time together?

If so, the MrDad.com team wants to hear about it!

As one of the leading websites promoting positive parenting for dads, we’re pleased to announce that submissions are still open for the Father’s Day 2014 Mr. Dad Seal of Approval.

But hurry. As you can imagine, we’re already receiving lots of entries, which is why we’ve extended the deadline to November 21, 2014. We’ll announce the winners the week of December 1. You can find out more and submit your products at http://mrdad.com/seal/

Next to “I love you, Daddy,” some of the sweetest words a father can hear are, “Hey Dad, can we play that again?” But it’s not always easy to find toys, games, and activities that have the “play-it-again” factor. That’s why we created the Mr. Dad Seal of Approval: to help dads (and those who love them) identify top-quality, fun products and services that will help them and their children stay connected at every age. Each Seal recipient has been field tested by other dads to ensure that it truly accomplishes that goal.

Putting a Mr. Dad Seal of Approval on your product tells customers that they’re looking at something dads and kids will enjoy together. Past recipients include Lego, Haba USA, The Smithsonian, Nintendo, B. Toys, Ravensburger, Wild Creations, Putumayo, and many more.

The Mr. Dad Seal of Approval is managed by Armin Brott and Samantha Feuss (Have Sippy Will Travel). Seal winners will be promoted on Armin’s and Samantha’s websites as well as through their extensive social media contacts (>20,000 on Facebook, >50,000 on Twitter). Winners may also be featured in “Parents@Play,” the nationally syndicated (by McClatchy) toy-review column Armin and Sam co-write, as well as on the toy review segment on “Positive Parenting,” Armin’s radio show that airs on more than 500 stations.

For more info and to submit your products, visit http://mrdad.com/seal/

No Winter Blues

We just set our clocks back, so you know winter is just around the corner. And if last year was any indication, this one’s going to be a doozy. As the temperature drops, the kids will be spending more and more time indoors, and the last thing you want is a bunch of bored minions to entertain. Here are a few of the latest fun toys that are perfect for quelling cabin fever.

baymax rocket fist1Baymax Rocket Fist and Mask (Bandai)
Baymax Armored Figure (Bandai)
With Disney’s new movie, Big Hero 6 just hitting theaters, the toys can’t be far behind. We saw the movie at a press screening and it was one of the cutest we’ve seen in a long time., albeit a little sad. The young genius, Hiro, will be a big favorite but it’s the silly and huggable—and inflatable—robot, Baymax who steals the show for children.  The mask looks just like the one Hiro makes for Baymax, but it’s not a full helmet, so it’s easy for small hands to get on and off. The Rocket Fist actually works, launching the fist part when the wearer (you know you’re going to try it) pulls the trigger inside. The flying fist is soft, so it won’t hurt anyone, but keep it away from breakables. Ages 4 and up. The Rocket Fist and Mask are about $23 on Amazon.

baymax armored figureThe Baymax (Armored) Figure is a really cool toy that’s sturdy and nicely articulated (meaning you can bend the arms and legs). It also has retractable wings, which makes flying around the house a real breeze. Okay, it doesn’t really fly, but don’t tell your child. Best of all, it looks exactly like Baymax, which is a very big deal for young super-heroes-to-be. 4 and up, $10 at Toys R Us.

 

 

monster high catacombs

Monster High Freaky Fusion Catacombs Playset (Mattel)
Let’s get one thing out of the way up front. Some of the clothing on the Monster High dolls is a bit too risqué and not very appropriate for young kids (it’s certainly not anything you’d let your child wear to school, even on Halloween). But the dolls themselves are innovative and fun, and fit in with our current macabre fascination with zombies and monsters. So if your child is a Monsters High fan and/or saw the recent “Monster High: Freaky Fusion” movie (which featured the Catacombs under the school), this is a great gift. Just grab the dolls before your child gets to them and dress them a little more wholesomely. The dollhouse itself is very different than any other dollhouse your child has ever played with—and that’s a good thing. For ages 6 and up. Retails for about $110 (dolls are not included) at http://www.mattel.com or your favorite retailer.

fisher price battle roverImaginext Battle Rover (Fisher Price)
Part vehicle, part play set, the Battle Rover has it all: projectiles, disk launchers, lights, sound effects, voices, a crane, a pull-out saw and drill, a kid-operated control panel, and plenty more. And let’s not forget about the detachable space shuttle that’s got plenty of features of its own. Wow, that’s a whole lot of play in one toy, and it’s sure to keep your little one entertained for hours at a time. You can add a bit of education to the mix by reading your child some stories about similar, real-life rovers that have explored the moon and Mars. For ages 3 and up. $120 at http://www.fisher-price.com; a little less at retailers like Kmart.

Aww, Shoot

What is it about shooting things that kids (yes, that includes girls) like so much? Does it even matter? We think not. If you and/or the kids are looking for some high-energy activities that build hand-eye coordination, cooperation, and teamwork, you’ll want to check these out.

air storm firetekair storm z-tekAir Storm Firetek Bow (Zing)
Air Storm Z Tek (Zing)
The Firetek is the latest addition to Zing’s exciting Air Storm line of archery toys. The bow and the arrows (actually whistling, screaming foam darts that can fly more than 100 feet) light up, making Firetek just fun at night as it is during the day. The Z-Tek bow-and-arrow sets look similar, but they don’t light up, but they’ll provide hours of entertainment during the day.  The entire Air Storm line is built with safety in mind: the launch mechanism works only with Zing’s foam darts. The Firetek and Z Tek are both for ages 8 and up. Firetek comes in green or red, ships with three screaming darts, and retails for about $29.97. There’s also a pink Air Huntress Firetek Bow for the Hunger Games fans in your house. Z-Tek comes in several colors, ships with three darts, one of which has a suction-cup tip, and sells for about $20.00.

zano bowZano Bow (Zing)
The Zano (Zing-speak for “nano”) is about a third the size of its cousins, Firetek and Z Tek, but it packs just as much entertainment into that smaller package. The Zano fires soft, foam zarts (Zing-speak for “darts”) up to 30 feet, and the suction-cup tips make it perfect for indoor play—as long as you’ve put all of your fine China and Ming vases out of reach. Comes with three zarts and a snazzy wall target. For ages 4 and up. Available for under $10.00 at your favorite retailer.

atomic shield popperAtomic Shield Popper (Hog Wild)
Generally speaking, shooting toys are offensive weapons, and very few people ever consider the need for defense. Well, the folks at Hog Wild have come up with an ingenious way of combining both functions: Load your foam balls into the unique, gravity-fed launch system, pull back the “hammer” and let ‘em rip—right through the shield, which is perfect for protecting you from return fire from the bad guys. Although the balls (six are included) are foam, they move pretty quickly and pack a pretty good punch, so you’ll want to use the Popper outside. For ages 4 and up, retails for under $20.00

idrive sunglassesiDrive sunglasses (iDrive)
One could reasonably argue that sunglasses don’t have all that much to do with shooting. But these iDrive glasses would be the exception. Their polarized lenses all but eliminate glare, which makes it a lot easier to focus on your target. And there’s something about those same lenses (which provide 100% protection against all types of UV rays and reduce eye fatigue) that makes anything you look at pop out. But best of all, these sunglasses just make you look incredibly cool. So even if you’re not hitting your targets as accurately as you’d like, no one will notice.  For ages 5 and up, $69.99, at http://www.izonesunglasses.com

An important, final note. Although these shooting toys are, well, toys, it’s important that your children learn to use them responsibly. In our house, that means absolutely no aiming or firing at pets or at anything above the knees on a human. No exceptions, no warnings, no second chances, and no excuses.

Workouts for the Brain

Game nights are a great way for families to spend quality time together. But every once in a while, you need to shake things up a little, right? Here are three wonderful, mind-expanding activities that mom, dad, 2.5 kids (but not the dog) will enjoy.

Brain Benders puzzlesBrain Bender cubeBrain Benders (Alex Brands)
Brain Benders offer puzzle lovers a very different experience—visually, physical, and intellectually. Brain Benders pieces are made of wood (instead of flat cardboard), and you’ll use them to assemble a sphere, two different cubes, and double-pyramid shape. Besides patience and ingenuity, you’ll need some pretty well-developed spatial- and logical-thinking skills. Don’t have them? No problem. You’ll develop them pretty quickly. Having four puzzles makes it easy for families to spend time together—and compete against each other or the clock. One warning: Even though there are illustrated instructions for how to solve each puzzle, the pieces from three of the puzzles are very similar—and aren’t interchangeable. We put dots on the bottoms to help us keep the pieces organized by puzzle (one dot on all the pieces of one puzzle, two dots on another). For ages 8 and up. Available your favorite retailer for $9-$15 or at www.alexbrands.com

elements 4d blocksElements 4D (DAQRI)
Elements 4D consists of six beautifully designed, white blocks. Each face (a total of 36) is dedicated to a single element from the Periodic Table of Elements (remember that from High School?). Beside the name, there’s the symbol (O for oxygen, H for hydrogen, and so on) and the atomic number (how many protons in one atom of the element). But when you view them through a smartphone or device running the free, augmented-reality app, those blocks go from nice-to-look-at to amazing (or, as my middle schooler put it, “coooooool”). You get a more information and a virtual representation of the element. But wait, there’s more! Put two blocks next to each other, and you’ll see the chemical reaction and the resulting compound. For example, oxygen and hydrogen are both gasses, but together they become water. Similarly, combine sodium (actually a metal) with chlorine (a gas) and you get salt. These visuals upgraded “cool” to “awwwwwwesooooome.” Overall, Elements 4D is a fantastic way to introduce or develop an interest in chemistry and it’s an engaging resource for home or school. There are several small issues. First, the actual blocks are hard to find in stores. But if you go to the manufacturer’s website, you can print out paper versions, which still work with the app. Second, the app is available only on Google Play and iTunes, which leaves out those of us who primarily use Windows phones. Third, only 36 of 118 elements are included. But that could actually be a good thing, driving an interested child to want to learn more. http://daqri.com/elements4D-mobile/

tanglecard instructionstangle cards finishedTangle Cards (Zentangle)
After a long day putting together complex wooden puzzles and experimenting with virtual chemical reactions, your brain could use a break. And Tangle Cards (also called Yoga for Your Brain) are just the ticket. Based on the Zentangle books by Sandy Steen Bartholomew, Tangle Cards guide you through the calming, creativity-stimulating process of drawing beautiful designs. Start with simple lines and curves and gradually add more and more detail. The books have more detailed instructions than the cards and include photos of Bartholomew’s inspiration. But the cards are more portable—and just as meditative. A great parent-child(ren) activity and a smartphone-free way to keep kids occupied. For ages 5 and up. Books cost around $12, cards around $10. http://www.zentangle.com/