Build Me a Story

Play is supposed to be fun, right? But these days, there are a lot of toys and games that take away some (or most) of the fun by having so many elaborate rules that any hope of creativity is stifled. At the same time, having no rules at all can be so overwhelming that it’s impossible to start. The best games—the ones you want to play over and over—include some basic rules but also give the players plenty of space to improvise. This week we take a look at several family games that do exactly that: give you some guidelines but then get out of the way and let you do things your own way.

how to tell a storyHow to Tell a Story (book by Daniel Nayeri)
The best stories are the ones that have a basic structure and some familiar elements, such as action, conflict, and the characters’ motivation. But putting those elements together isn’t always easy. How to Tell a Story is like a creative writing workshop in a box. The 140+-page book includes some excellent insights into how to write (or just tell) a story. But the best part is the 20 story blocks, which have unique illustrations on each side. They fall into six color-coded categories: red (people or animals), blue (things), orange (places), yellow (descriptions or emotions), green (actions), and purple (relationships). The idea is to roll the blocks like dice and use what’s on each face to create your stories. You can make up your own or follow some of the prompts the author provides (“I found it,” said the [person or animal], lifting the [thing] into the air.) An absolutely wonderful way to stimulate creativity while learning how to be a better storyteller. Ages 3 and up.

magicademyDisney Imagicademy (Wonderforge)
Another clever way to make learning fun. Imagicademy Animals takes kids on a tour of the animal kingdom, learning about what each species eats, where they live, how they protect themselves, and what we as humans can do to protect them and their environment. Kids and parents will love the huge variety of clever-yet-educational activities and games, such as word scrambles, crossword puzzles, animal bingo, matching games, drawing challenges, and vocabulary (did you know that a group of mice is called a “mischief”?). Imagicademy Science brings a similar approach to the world of science. Guided by the beloved characters from the movie Frozen, kids will learn about weather, physics, color, light, our five senses, and more. Both kits come with a 60-page activity book, colored pencils, stickers, a storage pouch, and more. Ages 4 and up. Only at Target

dohdlesDohdles (Kosmos)
Like most board games, the goal of Dohdles is for players to be the first to move their pawn from a starting space to an ending space. And like many board games, players can move their own pawn forward or do something to keep their opponents from advancing. Unlike most other board games, though, players don’t have to roll dice or pick cards or answer questions to move. Instead, they use modeling dough to create a small sculpture that other players will have to identify (the word doghdle, by the way, combines the words dough and riddle). The trick is to make your dohdles hard—but not impossible—to guess. The sculptor (called Dohdle Master) can score points when opponents guess correctly. Comes with plenty of modeling dough that doesn’t dry out, stain, or smear. Takes about 40 minutes to play. For 3-6 players 10 and up.

Childhood in Motion

As anyone who’s ever spent time with little kids can attest, children are geniuses at play and can quite literally make something out of almost nothing. Salt and pepper shakers and bags of artificial sweetener on a restaurant table become Dad, Mom, and the rest of the family. Cardboard boxes become rocket ships, and sticks become swords. What’s especially nice about imaginative play is that everyone—regardless of age—can get involved. This week we take a look at several simple toys that run on imagination (and, in two cases, batteries).


speed boat green toysSpeed Boat (Green Toys)

Children don’t usually care where a toy is manufactured from or what it’s made of. If it’s fun, they’re all in. Green Toys consistently delivers, with their line of simple, low- or no-tech toys that encourage imaginative play. Parents, however, are often looking for something more meaningful than just fun—and Green Toys delivers here as well. Their toys are manufactured in the US from 100% recycled materials and are dishwasher safe. The packaging (also made of recycled materials) delivers some subtle messages to Mom and Dad about sustainability, saving energy, and minimizing our carbon footprint. For ages 2 and up. $11.99.


paw patroller spinmasterPaw Patroller (Spin Master)

If your kids like Paw Patrol, they’ll love this multi-level vehicle transporter and command center. The Patroller can carry three Paw Patrol vehicles inside—just drive ‘em in, close the door, and you’re off to help those altruistic pups on their next rescue mission. The pups themselves ride in the cab up front. There are a few buttons that play sounds that the kids (and you, if you’ve ever watched the TV show) will recognize. And there’s a kid-powered elevator to move the vehicles up and down between levels. Comes with one Ryder figure and his ATV. For ages 3+, $59.99 at your favorite retailer.


zoomer kittyZoomer Kitty (Spin Master)

If your child has been asking for a pet but you’re not quite ready to make the commitment to a real, live animal, you may want to adopt Zoomer Kitty instead. With touch sensors on her head and elsewhere, Zoomer Kitty loves to be petted, leans in for more, and even purrs contentedly. The “True Vision Technology” allows her to follow your movements. She stretches, pounces, plays with her kitty toy, naps, kneads the ground, and occasionally hisses—pretty much everything a real cat does except scratch you and fill the litter box. For ages 5 and up. $99.99 only at Kmart.


submarineSubmarine and Jungle Jams Drum (PBS KIDS and Whole Foods Market)

jungle jams drumLike Green Toys, PBS KIDS and Whole Foods Market care about how the things our kids play with impact the earth we live on. So all of their toys are made from responsibly sourced materials. Plus, 100% of PBS KIDS’ net proceeds go to the organization’s non-profit work with kids, and Whole Foods is donating a portion of their proceeds to their foundation. The adorable submarine—complete with rear propeller—comes with its very own diver, and both float in water. And the drum, nicely decorated with cute animals, comes with a rubber-headed drumstick so your little ones can play to the beat of their own drummers without driving you cray with the noise. The submarine ($14.99) is for kids 12 months, and the Jungle Jams Drum ($24.99) is for ages 19 months and up. These and the rest of the toys in this line (including boats, puzzles, musical instruments and even a golf set) are available exclusively at Whole Foods Markets nationwide in their Whole Body section.

Time to Bring It on In

As the days grow shorter and chillier, you and the family are going to be spending more time indoors. This week, we look at some games that will keep kids and kids-at-heart entertained at home or on the road.

chibi robo zip lashChibi Robo Zip Lash (Nintendo)
Aliens have invaded and stolen all the snacks. As Chibi Robo, your job is to move through the game, using your cord and plug to take out enemies (ouch) and obstacles. Plug that cord in and you can power up to Fire Chibi-Robo and Ice Chibi-Robo, both of whom add some really fun elements to the game. For the most part, game play is of the 2D-platforming variety. But Chibi also has amiibo support. Just tap Chibi on your console and you can unlock Super Chibi Robo, collect in-game figurines, and open bonus levels. Available by itself ($29.99) or in a game bundle ($39.99).

animal crossoing happy home designerAnimal Crossing Happy Home Designer
In the latest incarnation of Animal Crossing, players help design their very own town, including exteriors, interiors, and gardens. In the process, they’ll be helping the sometimes-design-impaired locals of Animal Town with their artistic challenges. Each of those challenges is different and players need to use their own personal style to accommodate the clients’ requests. Finish one challenges and you’re on to the next one. With hundreds of clients to work with, the game can be as long or as short as you’d like. Happy Home Designer also supports the new amiibo cards (similar to the amiibo figurines, but not actual toys), which unlock special characters who serve up even more design challenges. This is a great intro to gaming for young kids or for adults who’ve been waiting for something easy. Available everywhere either as a stand-alone or part of a bundle that includes a specially designed 3DS XL.

skylanders superchargersSkylanders SuperChargers (Skylanders)
How do you put a new fresh face onto a game that’s already been updated four times? Easy: SuperCharge it! Skyland is in trouble (what a surprise) and Kaos is at it again (really?) This time, your Skylanders can get off their feet and into a vehicle. Then, you’re off, following race tracks or flying through the air, trying to defeat Kaos’s Doom Station of Ultimate Doomstruction. There are plenty of obstacles along the way, as well as a new currency, Gearbits, which allows you to buy supercool upgrades for your vehicle. In addition to other new characters, there are Donkey and Bowser figurines that you can use in Skyland or as amiibos in other games. It’s like getting two toys in one. Available everywhere for Wii U, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One for about $75.

super mario maker nintendoSuper Mario Maker (Nintendo)
If you’ve ever been playing a Super Mario game and thought, “I could do better than that,” now’s your chance to show your stuff. In this game, players actually create new levels that they can share with friends or other players around the world. It’s fun and simple, but beware: creating the perfect level is definitely not easy. We suggest that you try one of your own, then spend some time exploring what other players have created. You’ll be amazed at the variety, from easy or super hard to plain or beautiful. Super Mario Maker is amiibo compatible, so if you put your Sonic the Hedgehog figure on the controller, Mario changes to Sonic and the background music changes accordingly. For Wii U. $59.99 at retail stores or the Nintendo eShop.

What Do We Do As a Family?

family fun

family funDear Mr. Dad: I hear people talking about how important it is to spend “quality time” with the family. I’ve got a couple of teenagers and a precocious 12-year old and it’s practically impossible to find an activity that everyone in the family will enjoy. Plus, with two adults and three children all on different schedules, it’s even more impossible to find a time when we’re all in the same place at the same time. Do you have any suggestions?

One of the great ironies of modern life is that smartphones and other devices that are supposed to save us time and effort and keep us connected, actually eat up even more time and disconnect us from each other. The fact that you’re craving quality time with your family is great, and we’ll get to what that looks like in a minute. However, you first need to get the rest of your family on board. With your hectic schedules, having a leisurely family dinner every night isn’t in the cards. But there are 168 hours in a week, and making a family commitment to spend even one or two of them together is really important. Here are some ideas.
[Read more…]

Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain

Daniel Siegel, author of Brainstorm.
The power and purpose of the teenage brain.
Issues: Popular myths about teenage behavior; why teens are driven to seek out novelty and take more risks; how the brain undergoes rapid changes even through the early 20s; how and why adolescence is really a “golden age” of innovation and creativity; and much more.