Congratulations to these fine products, which were awarded the Mr. Dad Seal of Approval for the 2014 Winter Holidays. The Seal recognizes products that facilitate father-child relationships by getting dads and kids engaged and having fun together.
We’re now accepting submissions for our 2015 Spring and Father’s Day seasons.
My Very Exciting, Sorta Scary, Big Move: A Workbook for Children Moving to a New Home (by Lori Woodring, Ph.D)
Even though about 40 million Americans per year do it, leaving one home and moving to a new one is often a hectic, stressful, anxiety-provoking experience—especially for children. Psychologist Lori Woodring has put together a workbook that takes kids through every step of the moving process. She helps children understand change, and gives them specific strategies for managing their emotions, saying goodbye, making new friends, and a lot more. And for younger children, she offers a way to understand their emotions, even though they may not be able to articulate them. Although the book is meant for children 5-11, it’s also for dad and mom. Going through the exercises and activities together can help parents understand and support their kids, and is a great way to spark conversations about moving. $15.99 on Amazon or at movingwithchildren.com
On the Go and Princess of the Year, personalized books for boys and girls (My Custom Kids Books)
Young children are fairly self-absorbed little creatures—they love mirrors, they love to hear their own name, and they love to see pictures of themselves (one could actually say the same thing about teenagers, too). These personalized books incorporate your child’s image (from a photo you upload) and name in a fun story that they–and their personal readers–will enjoy. On the Go, puts your child behind the controls of more than a dozen vehicles, including a dump truck, car transporter, helicopter, snow plow, and tow truck. Princess of the Year turns your child into a dozen different princess, including tooth fairy princess, flower princess, Halloween princess, and mermaid princess. A great way to get kids interested in reading and to strengthen that all-important dad-child bond. $36.99. mycustomkidsbook.com.
The Principles of Our World (David Esposito)
This is actually a series of short books, each built around a value that we’d like to instill in our children (and plenty of adults too): compassion, courage, honesty, hope, perseverance, teamwork, and sacrifice. The lessons are introduced through real-life stories that put the characters in situations where they have to display the value in question at home, at school, and at work. But the best part of the books are the “What Would You Do?” sections that get kids thinking about the issues. For example, what would you do if you bought something and the clerk gave you too much change? Those questions give dads and kids a wonderful opportunity to talk together about important issues. The books are written by a U.S. Army veteran. $9.95. Available at Amazon.
- Great Asian Castle (Playmobil)
- Large Crane with IR Remote Control (Playmobil)
- Furnished Shopping Mall (Playmobil)
Playmobil toys and sets are tons of fun and they don’t get quickly tossed aside like some so many other gifts. These sets inspire imaginative play, are marvelously low-tech (although some have remote-controlled elements), and since the pieces are interchangeable with other Playmobil sets, the kids can build amazing universes.
One of the nicest things about Playmobil is that many of their sets are equally fun for boys and girls. Zoos are zoos—who really cares what gender the zookeepers are? Some sets, though, seem a little more oriented toward one sex or the other (such as the shopping mall or the construction crane set). Left to their own devices, though, the kids may very well put the two together. Who’s to say that the crane operator won’t pick up lunch at the mall, or that the shopkeepers won’t visit a construction site? These sets are great fun for everyone and provide plenty of opportunity for father-child playtime. Sure, you may have to be a giant panda, but hey, that’s what parenthood is all about. Oh, and if you or your child decide that playtime is somehow not complete without an online element, playmobil.com offers games and downloads that go with their toys. Playmobil sets are available wherever you buy toys. Prices vary greatly, depending on the set.
Star Wars Command Millennium Falcon Set (Hasbro)
What better way to bond with the kids than with toys you played with when you were young? And who didn’t (and doesn’t) love Star Wars? It’s un-American, really. The Star Wars Command Millennium Falcon Set is a lot of fun, and includes everything (and everyone) you need to fight and defeat the Dark Side—or to become one with it, whatever suits your fancy, you devil, you. Maybe you and mom on one side and the kids on the other. This set includes everyone’s favorites like Chewbacca, R2D2, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, as well as AT-AT drivers, pilots, soldiers, and AT-AT walkers. Seven vehicles and 24 action figures in all. And the Millennium Falcon vehicle itself pulls back and releases (blast off!) right into the fight. That’s a whole lot of stuff for $29.99. If you haven’t already introduced your kids to Star Wars, it’s not too late to redeem yourself. Available at your favorite retailer or at Hasbro.com.
Dolls and Puppets
The Mensch on a Bench (MenschOnABench)
Like so many great ideas, this one was born out of frustration. In Neal Hoffman’s case, his son wanted an Elf on a Shelf (a Mr. Dad Seal of Approval winner), but Hoffman wanted a toy that would be more in keeping with his Jewish background. So why not a Mensch on a Bench? The Mensch, like the Elf, watches over children during the holiday. But the Mensch also comes with a story book and eight rules (one for each night of Hanukkah). The rules include naming your Mensch, having him hold the shamash candle (the one used to light the others), and just having fun. But the one that really captures the essence of a true mensch, is Number 7: “… don’t open presents for yourself, instead, buy presents and give them to people in need.” That’s a message that more kids (and parents), Jewish or not, should be incorporating into their holiday traditions. $30. themenschonabench.com.
Education and Science
Helping a child learn at home—whether it’s part of a homeschool program or just some academic reinforcement—is a wonderful way for the two of you to bond with each other. But it’s always a struggle to find activities that both satisfy our natural fatherly desire to educate and guide, and also make learning fun (for the kids and for us). If that sounds familiar and you have one or more kids in the 3-7 set, you’ll definitely want to check out Brainzy. Developed by education.com, Brainzy is mostly a math and reading program, with 300+ games, songs, stories, and activities that we think will get kids excited about learning before they get too jaded. On the math side, games introduce and hone categorizing, sorting, and pattern recognition skills, as well as basic addition and subtraction. On the reading side, games encourage the children to spot rhymes, learn spelling, recognize the difference between upper- and lower-case letters, and a lot more. Brainzy isn’t terribly expensive, but the fact that each account accommodates up to three players, makes it a real bargain if you’ve got more than one 3-7-year old. And if you happen to be a teacher, you can get an account that will cover up to 35 kids. $6.99. education.com/games/info
Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty (Putty World)
Not your father’s Silly Putty. You can tear it, smash it, stretch it, pound it, roll it, leave it under the couch, and it never dries out. Thinking Putty comes in a huge variety of options: glow in the dark, color changing, magnetic, UV reactive, and more. Use it as a stress-reliever, draw on it with a black light pen, or use it to illustrate a whole host of science-based concepts, including measuring the speed of light, capturing shadows, defeating fingerprint scanners, and a lot more. If you run out of ideas, there are all sorts of fun, educational tricks and experiments on the website. Comes in dozens of colors priced at $14.95. puttyworld.com.
Elements 4D (DAQRI)
One of the top toys we’ve seen all year. 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 really interesting (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 greenish 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. We wish the product were a little easier to find in stores and that it were available to those of use who use Windows phones. Right now, only 36 of 118 elements are included. But that could actually be a good thing, driving an interested child (and his or her dad) to want to learn more. elements4d.daqri.com.
GoldieBlox and the Movie Machine (GoldieBlox, Inc.)
Another winner for young girls from GoldieBlox. Kids (boys can enjoy this too, even though, there’s no shortage of pink) and dads can read the story and follow the prompts to build a zoetrope, a device that pre-dates the movie projector. Although you may not recognize the name, you’ve probably seen a zoetrope before—imagine a cylinder around a foot tall and a foot in diameter with slots cut in the sides. You then put a series of images, each slightly different from the next, around the inside of the cylinder, turn a crank, and as you look through the slots, the images blend together and look animated. It’s kind of like a flip book. (The word zoetrope means “wheel of life,” based on the Greek words zoe (life) and trope, meaning turn.) The folks at GoldieBlox have designed this set to build spatial skills, teach engineering principles, and encourage reading. Ages 3-9 or so. $29.99. goldieblox.com.
Groovy Lab in a Box (Groovy Lab in a Box)
There are a lot of science kits on the market (many of which we’ve reviewed), but Groovy Lab in a Box kits—which were created by science educators—are the only ones that come with absolutely everything your child will need to do the experiments (under your watchful eye, of course). Doesn’t sound like a big deal, but a few missing ingredients could mean that the kit goes back on the shelf and never gets used. That won’t be a problem here. We reviewed the Here Comes the Sun kit, which takes you through the process of building a solar balloon, a solar oven, and more. The ingredients are easy to use and the results are fully functional. But in some ways, the Lab Notebook is the best part, introducing the scientific process and explaining the concepts behind the experiments in a fun, engaging way that will leave the kids (and you too) wanting to do–and learn–more. There’s also a website with activities and interactive videos that take the young scientist deeper into each specific kit’s subject matter. Single kits cost around $36, but if you do a year subscription, the price goes down significantly. groovylabinabox.com.
- I SPY Challenger for Windows AIO devices (Scholastic Media)
- The Magic School Bus Field Trip Frenzy for Windows AIO devices (Scholastic Media)
Scholastic has been publishing great children’s books for, well, at least since we were kids. And with all the new technology our kids are into, Scholastic has branched into apps. The two apps we evaluated are definitely educational, but they’re also great fun for dads to play with their kids. Both are for the Windows AIO (All In One) devices, which feature seamless gameplay and knock-your-socks-off beautiful graphcs.
I Spy Challenger is based on the popular I-Spy board games and books, but you don’t have to be familiar with I-Spy to have an absolute blast. The game features the classic “I spy a….. “ riddles, hoop drop item categorization, math games, and some really fast-paced variations. Can be played by one person, but accommodates up to four—and the more people are playing, the more fun you’ll all have. Helps kids and adults improve critical thinking and quick decision making skills, and develops a sharp eye for patterns and differences. Best played on an 18-inch or larger device. I Spy Challenger retails for $5.99 and is available now from the Windows App Store.
The Magic School Bus: Field Trip Frenzy takes players on adventurous multiplayer quests. You’ll explore the human body, fly through outer space, excavate dinosaur bones, and visit many other exotic locales. Best for two or more players using a 10-inch or bigger—preferably waaaay bigger—AIO device. The action happens in a game-show format and is so well done that it’s sure to spark (or further) an interest in science and exploration. Got a big screen tablet or touchscreen device? You owe it to yourself and your kids to grab this game for your little ones. Magic School Bus: Field Trip Frenzy retails on the Windows App Store for $1.49 and is available now.
Fitness and Outdoors
Fitivities (Sandy Spin Slade, Inc.
This game is absolutely terrific. It’s simple, easy to set up, and fun—a lot of fun. That by itself would be reason enough to buy Fitivities. But there are lots of games that fit those criteria, right? What sets Fitivities apart is that it’s physical. There is no way to play the game without working up a sweat. As an obsessive exerciser who’s had trouble motivating his kids to do some kind of workout every day, I found Fitivities to be the perfect antidote. Kids want to play the game—with friends, with family, and sometimes even by themselves. Plus, it’s the kind of thing they can do indoors or out. The only downside is that you need a large area to play. The game board (actually a durable plastic mat) is about 3’x4’ and you need plenty of space where the players (2-24—yes, 24) can jump, shadow box, lunge, and more all at the same time. $39.95. fitivities.com.
KaZAM Balance Bike (KaZAM)
There’s something about teaching your child to ride a bike that just screams, “I’m a dad!” But teaching your little one doesn’t have to involve training wheels or the skinned knees and elbows you got when you fell off the bike your dad was pushing, with you pedaling wildly and holding on to the handlebars for dear life. Although I’ve always considered bruises and skinned knees to be something of a childhood rite of passage, there is a better way to go: the KaZAM balance bike, which is based on the philosophy that balance is the hard part and pedaling is easy. So, KaZAM has done away with pedals altogether (aside from that, it looks like a regular ol’ small bike). The child climbs onto the seat, straddles the frame, and scoots himself along using his feet to stay upright. As confidence builds, she can take her feet off the ground and put them on the footrest. Once she’s completely balanced, you make the transition from KaZAM to big-kid bike. Make sure your child wears a helmet—it’s never too soon to think about safety. $59.95 – $119.95. kazambikes.com.
MightyTykes Infant and Child Weights (MightyTykes)
What a heartwarming story. MightyTykes Infant and Child Weights were designed by Isabella Yosuico after her son Isaac was born with Down syndrome and diagnosed with an associated condition called hypotonia, or poor muscle tone. Yosuico had some help from physical and occupational therapists who—along with many parents—use MightyTykes to help with children’s strength, balance, vision, and sensory issues. They’re latex- and lead-free, and are made in the U.S. Best of all, they give dads of special needs kids a wonderful way to engage and interact with their child, as well as the confidence that comes from knowing they’re doing something that may truly improve their child’s life. Of course, you should consult your child’s doctor before starting any workout routine. But once you get the green light, visit the MightyTykes site for some great ideas on how to use them. MightyTykes come two at a time in three sizes ($19.95-$22.95) as well as a complete set ($59.95). mightytykes.com.
Battle Sheep (Blue Orange Games)
Simple to learn, fun to play, but a new challenge every time. Players start off with four tiles (there are a total of 16, so up to four can play), which they take turns laying out until the playing board is complete. Each tile contains four “pastures.” Then, each player takes his or her herd (a stack of 16 color-matched sheep tokens) and places it on one of the pastures along the edge of the board. The goal is to put your sheep on the most pastures. On your turn, move as many of your sheep as you’d like—but you have to leave at least one behind, and you can only move in a straight line. Seems simple enough, but if you’re not paying attention to your opponents and plotting out your own moves a few in advance, some of your flock could get penned in. A really fun strategy game that kids will want to play and that dads will enjoy playing too. For 2-4 players, ages 7 to adult. $24.99. blueorangegames.com.
Frozen Spot it! Alphabet (Blue Orange Games)
A much-appreciated break from all things electronic, this Spot it! game is simple, easy to play, and incorporates Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Olaf, and many other iconic people and objects from the hit movie Frozen, along with all the letters in the alphabet. Each of the 55 round cards has a variety of images, and there’s always at least one thing that matches between any two cards (you wouldn’t think that would be mathematically possible, but somehow it is). Young children will enjoy making the basic matches. Slightly older kids will have fun playing the other games (instructions included, of course). And dads will enjoy it too. Ages 3 and up. blueorangegames.com.
Grill Party (Simply Fun)
Imagine you invite everyone over to your house for a little backyard b-b-q. Then imagine that all the guests bring their own grills—and their own ideas about what they want to cook. That’s kind of what Simply Fun’s Grill Party is like. Except there’s a lot less to clean up. In this game, players place food cards on their grill and try to match situations depicted on the Grill cards. Be the first to match ‘em all and you’re the Grill Master. For 2-5 players ages 8 and up. Takes only 20-30 minutes to play. $30.00. simplyfun.com.
Pack It (Simply Fun)
Everyone ready? We’re all going on a hike, so you’d better start loading up your backpack. Players are dealt several Item cards (compass, tent, frying pan, map, and so on, each of which includes a value in miles) that they use to stock their backpack. The goal is to put together a pack with the greatest number of miles. Once your pack is full, you’re ready to hit the trail—which is the only way to earn points. During the hike, players take turns drawing cards and try to match them with the items in their pack. If you match, you’re okay, no match and you risk losing valuable supplies. And watch out for the Hazard cards (Bear, Skunk, Blister). If you draw the Blister and have socks in your pack, you’re okay. But if you don’t have socks, you lose your highest value card. Draw the Skunk and you’re really in trouble. Great for improving logical and strategic thinking skills. 20-30 minutes play time. For 2-5 players, ages 8 and up. $24.50 at simplyfun.com.
The M.O.M. Method
We all want our kids to grow up and be self-sufficient, right? Maybe self-sufficient enough that they’ll be able to support us in our old age. Well, the M.O.M. (Manage Organize Myself) Method can help. It’s a slick, new Web-based parenting tool that empowers kids to become more independent and responsible so that dads (and moms) can stop playing the role of task-master (reminding, nagging, bargaining, bribing, yelling, etc.). What’s especially important is that the Method is not about dad and mom pulling out yet another chore calendar and laying down the law. Instead, the goal is for parents and kids to work together to give kids the time-management, planning, and decision-making skills they’ll need as they get older. The M.O.M. Method makes those goals easier to accomplish in a way that everyone in the family will actually enjoy. They’re in beta right now, so it’s free for the time being. mommethod.com.
Pick-Ease (Pick-Ease LLC)
The feeding utensil category hasn’t seen a whole lot of innovation in the past hundred years. There’s the spoon, fork, knife, maybe a spork or a runcible spoon (if you’re an “Owl and the Pussycat” fan), chopsticks, and, of course, fingers. Now there’s one more in the mix: Pick-Ease, which was designed to give picky eaters a more fun way to feed themselves. Pick-Ease has an easy-to-grip, chunky handle and it can be used to skewer just about anything—sandwiches, veggies, meat, fruit, probably everything except peas (now there’s a million-dollar idea for you…). With 12 original cartoon characters on the handle, there’s a pretty good chance that your little picky eater will find something to love. And when the kids are well-fed and happy, dad and mom are happy too. $8.99. https://pick-ease.com.
Sushi Roll Gift Sets (Satsuma Designs)
If your kids have already passed through the drooling, spitting, teething, and slobbering years (say between five and 24 months), you’ve probably forgotten how many wash cloths you went through on a daily basis. And you’ve probably forgotten how many t-shirts, long sleeves, and pant legs you wiped your hands on after you discovered that all those wash cloths were in the dirty clothes hamper. You could go down to Home Depot and pick up a bundle of cheap shop rags, which would do the job pretty well. But for not all that much money, why not wipe up in style? Satsuma Designs new Sushi Roll Gift Sets feature five or six ultra-soft, 8-inch-square, absorbent, organic cotton and bamboo rayon flannel washcloths tied in green ribbon (which really does make them look like an order of California rolls). Hey, if it gets dad more involved in basic baby handling, we’re all for it. $20.00. satsumadesigns.com.
SwaggerTag Identifiction Tags (SwaggerTag)
SwaggerTags are a fun way to identify your luggage, school bags, strollers, or anything else you feel the need to mark as your own. Let’s face it, kids lose things and SwaggerTags can help you keep track of your stuff while adding your own personal flair—and may improve the chances that those lost items will get returned. Include as much personal information as you feel comfortable disclosing, then add your own photo, logo, or favorite image, and you’re done. The tags come in six colors, and are water- and impact resistant (important for those airport carousels and school hallways). $3.99. swaggertag.com.
Just Plain Fun
This tiny, hands-free camera is specially designed to take time-lapse photos. Just set the interval—one shot every second, minute, hour, day, or longer—and you’re ready to go. Blynk then puts all those photos into a single movie (or saves them as individual JPEGs). Now you can condense a week-long adventure into a few minutes, create your very own 30-second video of flowers blooming, or marvel at how quickly your baby (or your puppy) is growing up. Available in pink, blue, and black. $129 on lyfeshot.com.
Zoku Ice Cream Maker (Zoku)
Another quality, fun-for-the-family product from our chilly friends at Zoku. Their new Ice Cream Maker lets you create individual portions of ice cream, custard, frozen yogurt, gelato, sorbet, or sherbet in as little as 10 minutes. This product is fun and simple to use even for the youngest children and newest Dads (and Grandpas). Comes with great-tasting recipes for peach, vanilla, and lemon sorbet, but you can make your own out of pretty much anything you want. The only advance prep you need to do is to freeze the bowl over night. $25.99. http://www.zokuhome.com
Music and Language Learning
Beamz Home Edition and App (Beamz Interactive)
Let’s get something straight up front: Beamz is a toy—a really cool looking one that’s fun for kids as well as adults. But it’s still a toy. It looks kind of like a futuristic harp, but with four lasers instead of strings, and you create sounds by breaking the laser beam. Using the Beamz app, you can make each “string” sound pretty much any way you’d like, whether that’s a steel guitar, a violin section, drums, dijeridoo, a DJ scratch, barking dogs, or any of a hundred other effects. Beamz essentially lets you improvise along to music by a wide variety of artists, from Disney to Debussy, in an even wider variety of genres. And the way it’s programmed, the effects you produce are always in the right key so they fit in perfectly with what you’re playing along with. If your family isn’t particularly well musically educated, you’ll have an absolute blast with Beamz. But if you’re a musician, you may be frustrated at its limitations (you can’t, for example, control the pitch or the tempo of the notes you “play”). So as long as you keep your expectations in line, your family will enjoy hours of music-filled time together. $249.95. thebeamz.myshopify.com/
“Daycare Dance Party” music CD by Preschool Popstars (Charm School Records)
I find a lot of music aimed at young children to be very frustrating. If we want them to actually enjoy music, shouldn’t we have them listen to something that isn’t dumbed down? In my family, whenever the kids were given a choice between “real’ music and “kids” music, they went for the real McCoy every time. So when I popped Daycare Dance Party into my computer, I was ready to hate it. But from the first notes, it was clear that it’s anything but dumbed down. The songs are well-written, catchy, and performed by excellent musicians (although the fictional band members, Hailey, Bailey, and Jasmine tell us that they’re only four years old). And there’s also a nice mix of styles: pop, hip-hop, and country. This is a great CD (or mp3) to have in the car—it’ll make those long drives a lot less painful. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself singing along—and enjoying it. $12.99. Available on Amazon.
- ¡Sabor! Spanish Learning Songs CD (Whistlefritz)
- On Va Jouer French learning DVD (Whistlefritz)
Whistlefritz has created some really fun ways to introduce your kids to Spanish or French, or to supplement the language education they might be getting at school. Created by a mom to help her own kids learn Spanish, Whistlefritz is available in both CD and DVD formats. What’s important is that you do not have to speak anything other than your native tongue to give your child the well-documented benefits of learning a second language, which include larger vocabularies, better problem-solving skills, greater cultural sensitivity, sharper memory, more self-control, and more efficient ability to communicate (along with a whole lot more people to be able to communicate with). The list goes on and on.
The two programs we evaluated, ¡Sabor!, (Spanish Learning Songs CD) and On Va Jouer (French learning DVD), are engaging and age appropriate. However, while childhood is the best time to learn new languages, if you’re just starting out yourself, there’s plenty here for adults as well. ¡Sabor! is $14.99, Jouer is $19.99. whistlefritz.com