Toys to Engage Your Little Learner

Last month Rocky was recruited to be a toy reviewer for a California-based company called Educational Insights. This company has been around for 50 years, creating and selling wonderful toys that are both fun and educational. He was elated when we received a big box containing several age appropriate products for him to try. This is the first post of a two part review of the toys we received.

GeoSafari Talking Microscope

GeoSafari Talking Microscope

The first item we tried was a talking microscope built just for young children. It brought back memories of when I was a kid and I sold magazines to earn the “prize” of my choosing, a cheaply built and disappointing child’s microscope. What a difference between the one I had and this new version. I’m jealous. This toy includes 12 slides of such interesting animals as the black widow and the scorpion.  Attach the slides to the scope to view a bug and hit a button to hear some facts about it. There is another button you press to take a quiz about what you just heard. I was impressed at how it tested Rocky’s listening skills and how eager he was to answer. Before long, my boy was absorbing all the facts and telling them back to me. “Mom,” he said. “Did you know the jumping spider can jump as far as half an inch?” That is great as long as it isn’t jumping in my house!

Here’s the lowdown.

The good:

If you have a young science buff like mine who loves the idea of a microscope but might not be ready the real thing (very expensive and fragile!), this is a perfect introduction. It is made of plastic and pretty durable. It operates using buttons (what kid doesn’t love pushing buttons?). It has a nice sturdy eye hole and magnifies 5x. Considering the number of loud, annoying toys in his arsenal, I also appreciated the fact that this toy has a volume button.

The bad:

The cost is about $40 which seems a little high, especially since it needs three batteries which aren’t included. Watch for coupons and discounts, it is a real gem on sale. Eductational Insights has many vendors, including Amazon.com and Target which might sell it for less.

We hope the company will consider adding more slides to the collection, Rocky would’ve loved to keep going. I would also suggest a compartment within the microscope to store the slides so they won’t get separated and lost. Perhaps a place to plug in headphones.

Conclusion:

This toy has won numerous awards and there is a reason why. It is a wonderful learning tool for kids in the 4-7 range. The slides are great but you can also use as a regular microscope and view anything you find around the house or garden. A nice starting place for discussion about observation.

Design & Drill Take-Along Toolkit

Design and Drill Take-Along Toolkit

Next out of the box came this adorable, portable toolkit. Unlike other toy toolkits we’ve used, this one came with a functioning power drill that could be used to screw the bolts onto the board provided. The drill also reverses to unscrew the bolts and has interchangeable drill bits (they all work with the bolts). Use the patterns provided or create your own. Rocky got right to work. It kept him busy for quite some time, always a plus in my book.

The good:

Rocky is 5 but I could see preschool-aged kids really digging this toolkit as well. It is very entertaining. It folds up into a carrying case and is great for taking to Grandma’s house or keeping kids busy at a hotel.  Add to a kid tool table or break it out to keep your child busy while you are making dinner.

The bad:

Retails at $29.99. As with toy above, look for sales.

Not enough bolts of a particular color were given to complete some of the patterns. Rocky had to substitute colors which was a little frustrating. He wanted it to look just like the picture!

When all the bolts were screwed in, there was not enough space to store the drill. We had to undo the pattern in order to put away. Not a big deal but perhaps a little more depth would take care of this issue.

Batteries not included.

Conclusion:

Any kid who loves tool and/or loves to build will enjoy this toy. It is great for eye/hand coordination and it is just plain fun to do. Easy to store.  For $10 more you can upgrade to the full on Activity Kit that comes with a fun looking combination wrench, a bigger board and more accessories.

These are just a small sampling of the many great products offered by Educational Insights. They make toys for all age levels. Perhaps you’ve even heard of some of the brands they carry like Hot Dots, GeoVision and Smencils.  Check out their web site to find out more. Find out what local stores sell these toys and go see them for yourself!

Click here to read part two of our review.

Disclosure: The Librarian was given toy samples in exchange for fair and honest reviews.

***The Gen X Moms are no longer writing as a group (too many scheduling conflicts) but you can continue reading about my adventures with Rocky on my new blog at:

http://www.jedismama.com

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A Board Game That's a Real "Hoot"

I come from a family of serious board game players.  My grandparents met playing Monopoly, and my brother used a Scrabble board to propose to his fiancée.  So, it is no great surprise that The Big Cheese is a big fan of board games at the ripe old age of 3.

When Peaceable Kingdom contacted us at Gen X Moms Blog to see if any of us would try out and review a new board game for kids, I jumped at the chance.  I must admit, however, that I was skeptical.  The game they wanted reviewed is a cooperative game, where everyone plays together, and everyone either wins or loses together.  The Big Cheese gets in to her game playing, often jumping up and dancing when she wins, singing, “I won. I won. I won.”  A cooperative game for this girl?

No reading required, and it helps your kids learn their colors.

They sent me Hoot Owl Hoot!, a game for ages 4+.  I admittedly worried about a January game review.  After the deluge of new Christmas games and toys, I wondered how some game The Big Cheese had never seen in the store would stack up.  I want to go on the record as saying this:  none of Santa’s gifts came close to stacking up against this game.  We played Hoot Owl Hoot! for seven straight days – at The Big Cheese’s request.  She is 100% in love with this game, and Dear Hubby and I have not tired of it, either.

Let me give some examples of how much The Big Cheese loves this game.  First, she gave it a nickname. Around here, Hoot Owl Hoot! is affectionately known as “The Owl Game.”  On Day 4, at 5:00 in the evening, she declared “We haven’t played The Owl Game, yet.”  This is how it has been every day since we started playing Hoot Owl Hoot!

The concept of Hoot Owl Hoot! is very simple.  The playing pieces are owls, and they all need to make it to their nest before the sun rises.  On each turn, you have a combination of color cards and sun cards.  When you draw a sun card, you have to play it on your next turn.  When you play the sun card, you move the sun along its path in the sky. While you play, you keep your cards face up in front of you, so you can strategize with the other players on what cards to play when.

The key to winning the game is that 2 owls cannot occupy the same space, so if an owl is on an orange space, and you play an orange card, you get to skip over that space and go to the next orange.  Teaching a 3-year-old this strategy has been an adventure.  She follows our strategic suggestions about half the time.  But, as a typical preschooler, she often does what she wants.  She completely understands that the point is to get the owls in to the nest and that it needs to happen before the sun rises.  But, she does not always play the most advantageous owl or play the correct color at the right time.  All of that said, we all love playing this game together.

Last week, our 30-year-old friend (who is not a parent) came over, and The Big Cheese wanted her to play The Owl Game with her.  So, Dear Hubby, Friend, and The Big Cheese played away.  At the end of the first game, Friend uttered, “I don’t even know why this game is so fun!”  That is exactly how Dear Hubby and I feel.  We have played this game so many times I cannot even count, but we still enjoy playing it.  In fact, Dear Hubby gets so in to the strategy that I am actually waiting for the day I “catch” him playing it by himself.

The other thing that makes this game stand out is that The Big Cheese can play it three or four times in a row without losing interest.  With other board games, even by the second time through, she tends to lose focus.  Not with Hoot Owl Hoot!

You can also play the game at different levels by playing with different numbers of owls from 3 to 6; the more owls you play, the harder the game.  We started at the beginner level with 3 owls and have moved up to 6 already.  When Bugster gets a little older, maybe two-and-a-half, we’ll introduce it to her with just 3 owls.  She already watches closely and chants “No Sun, No Sun, No Sun” with the rest of us when we’re drawing cards late in the game and are afraid of a Sun victory.

The negatives to this game are very minor.  The biggest one is that Sun piece is very, very small.  I am quite sure, that at some point, this Sun will get lost.  Then, I will have to replace it with something that is not a sun and not nearly as cute.  The board and playing pieces are rather vibrant and colorful, but the coloring of the owls is actually not distinct enough from the board, causing an owl to sometimes get a little lost on the board.

Bottom line: Hoot Owl Hoot! is fun for kids and adults alike.  And, The Big Cheese is learning about teamwork and developing strategy at a young age and in a really fun way.

GIVEAWAY: Peaceable Kingdom wants to spread the joy and is giving away a copy of Hoot Owl Hoot! to one of our lucky readers.  Entering is easy.

There are three ways to enter:

1) Like Peaceable Kingdom on Facebook and leave us a comment here.

2) Like GenXMomsBlog on Facebook and leave us a comment. If you’re already a fan, let us know!

3) Tweet the following sentence exactly: Have you entered the board game #giveaway at #GenXMomsBlog? http://ow.ly/3OAIu

All entries must be received by 12:00 midnight PST on Monday, February 7, 2011.

If you aren’t the lucky winner, you can purchase the game on Amazon.  Peaceable Kingdom’s full catalog of cooperative games is available at: www.peaceablekingdom.com.

Disclosure: The Legal Eagle was given a sample of Hoot Owl Hoot! in exchange for a fair and honest review.

A Target Debit Card = Money in Your Pocket

If you’re anything like me, you may think of Target as your mothership.  I am there all the time, and I buy basically everything at Target.  This means I spend serious money there.  If you’re a Target regular like I am, you know there are regular offers to sign up for a Target REDcard.  I have always said “no,” because a credit limit at Target would be oh so very dangerous for me. 

Then, one morning, right before Christmas, this angel in red spoke to me from behind the cash register.  She told me about the Target Debit Card (also a Target REDcard).  It is not a credit card, requires no credit application, and takes money directly out of your checking account.  And, it comes with a 5% reward.  Every time you use the Target debit card, you save 5% off your purchase – instantly.  You can also register your Target debit card in the Take Charge of Education program, and Target will donate 1% of your purchase to the school of your choice. 

I got my card a few weeks ago, and the savings are racking up.  5% off every purchase is awesome!  And, enrolling is super easy, too.  I only had to give the cashier a blank check and answer a few questions while standing in line with my purchases. 

The Target Debit Card is reason #1,200,001 why I love Target.

For more information on the Target Debit Card, see https://redcard.target.com/redcard/content/rcw_benefits_tgt_rewards.

Retailer Impressions

Rocky's lost Santa gift

Now that the holiday shopping season is winding down, were there any standout retailers, good or bad, in your experience? I shopped plenty of different venues, everywhere from Amazon.com to my local Target. Here were some of my impressions.

First let’s get the bad stuff over with. Just a minor offense by our local Golfsmith store but they allegedly ran out of gift boxes in the first week of December, no doubt due to the swarms of golfers who hit the store so soon before Christmas. Really? You couldn’t estimate better than that? Old Navy lost points in my book because they were charging for their boxes. Even at Christmas time? Here’s the worst of it. Disneystore.com lost my child’s Santa gift before it even got to UPS. It was a Mickey Mouse bean bag chair I know he would like (were any of you lucky enough to get this one?), I ordered it a month before Christmas (just to be safe) and they still botched it up. Worse, they stayed in denial throughout all of my communications with them until it finally came down to the wire and then they had no choice but to fess up. By then the item was out of stock and too bad for me. Grrrrr. But wait, the customer service department, who annoyingly told me they wanted me to have a “magical experience” every time I corresponded with them could only muster enough magic to present me with a $10 voucher on Dec. 21 to be used towards shipping of another item. Do I really want to put myself through this again? I think not, the voucher didn’t even cover the cost of the 2 day shipping I would need. Upon further presenting my case, one sole rep decided I should get more for my trouble. My ears perked at the sound of this, I’ve been sick this week and didn’t particularly want to go out in the rain looking for that last minute item, I was hoping for a Disney pass or at least a decent gift card. I got a $12 plush Mickey to arrive on Christmas Eve. I’m not holding my breath on that one. I also found a couple of other friends who have had bad experiences with the online Disney store so scratch this vendor off my list.

Now the good. The JC Penney store, which, like many stores now, had to do away with their gift wrap department (so sad to see this service go) came through on the boxes, I even got extras just for the asking, no hassles. They put out some great coupons like $10 off anything (yes, you could actually get a $10 item for free) and had decent markdowns and lines that were tolerable. Macy’s had some super sales and huge discounts, boxes included as well. Nordstrom tends to be pricier and the sales less impressive but the customer service is usually right on and everything is so nicely folded in tissue and placed in great sturdy bags. Online stores Sears.com and BarnesandNoble.com came through with my orders in a timely manner, everything packaged nicely and bonus points/special offers were received. Sears has a club that’s free to join and Barnes and Noble has a free kid’s club that allowed us some extra discounts. Free shipping was a plus as well as the ability to return gifts at their local stores.

That’s a wrap for me. Happy Holidays!

Random Tuesday Thoughts

The first full lunar eclipse on a winter solstice since the 17th century, and Southern California, the place of eternal sunshine, is in the middle of an unending rainstorm.  Hopefully some of you were able to enjoy it.

I am looking forward to the big royal wedding. Hopefully, this marriage actually lasts more than a few years . . .

The Big Cheese is rather obsessed with The Grinch.  She’s really afraid he’s going to steal her toys on Christmas.  She asks us several times a day if we’re “really sure the Grinch isn’t real.” She loves the movies, the book, and stuffed Grinches, and she is a huge fan of the song. But some part of her just can’t give up on the fact that the Grinch might steal her Christmas presents.

My little bro is getting married in June, and The Big Cheese is gearing up to be the flower girl.  I am taking her dress shopping this week, and I am so excited to see her try on the “princess” dresses and tiaras.  She’s going to be gorgeous!

It’s easy to get caught up in the craziness of the holidays, but I want to take a second to make a little public service announcement.  Remember that the extra time off right now is a chance to spend time together as a family, doing things you don’t normally do.  Take a morning and head to Chuck E. Cheese, and leave your cell phones in the car.  Go to a theme park or museum you’ve been meaning to hit and just haven’t gotten around to it.  Also, call up friends you don’t see very often and make a point to get together. 

I tried Kraft’s new Homestyle Macaroni and Cheese tonight.  It requires that you make a cheese sauce, add crumb topping, and throw in some shredded cheese.  Dear Hubby and I thought it was some of the best mac and cheese we’ve actually ever had, but the kids weren’t such big fans.  Bugster really didn’t like the visible herbs on her pasta, and The Big Cheese also wasn’t a fan of the green stuff.  I personally thought it was scrumptious!

OK, Gleeks. What do you think about Sam?  I just don’t think he’s hot enough to be with Quinn, and I really think he’s pretty mousy.  His voice is just O.K.  I just can’t jump on the Sam train.  What am I missing?

Totally scarred The Bugster.  We visited Santa over Thanksgiving weekend, and I went up to him with the girls.  The Big Cheese wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the whole thing, but she was O.K. since I was up there, too.  The Bugster started screaming and asking for Daddy, but we stuck it out.  The Santa picture is priceless, with her bawling at the top of her lungs.  Now, whenever Santa is mentioned, seen, or even comes in to her thoughts, The Bugster says, “No Santa bup.” (Bup = Bugster-speak for sit.)  We have assured her repeatedly that she doesn’t have to sit on his lap at all this, but I don’t think she believes us.  Dear Hubby is convinced she’ll forget by next Christmas.  I’m not so sure . . .

Oh, and I need to tell you about my Christmas present to myself, because I think you, our readers, will actually appreciate it, unlike some of my “friends.”  I bought a ticket to see the New Kids on The Block in concert in July.  They’re performing with The Backstreet Boys, but NKOTB is all I really care about.  I have wanted to see them since I was about 12, so I am having a lot of trouble containing my excitement!

Have you heard our new tagline?  Gen X Moms Blog: For when you don’t get carded anymore

Meet the Mama Behind Mamabargains.com!

There are plenty of good deals available on the Internet, but often those deals come at the expense of customer service, reasonable shipping times and rates, and just plain reliability. And that’s really lame.  It can be so difficult to find an etailer that has it all, so let me tell you about one of my very favorite deal websites: Mamabargains.com.

If you haven’t been there yet, Mambargains.com is a “One Deal At A Time” store. Each day, between 2 and 10 items are featured one at a time, all at drastically reduced prices over retail–often over 50% off! But you have to be quick, because once an item sells out, the next item comes up. Some items sure do go quickly, and then you’re left thinking, “OMG, I totally shouldn’t have hesitated on those shoes (the ones where the phrase ‘Mouse’s favorite shoes’ utterly fails to convey the degree to which he loves them) because now they’re sold out and Mouse is going to go completely shoe-less until Mamabargains.com offers shoes again!”

And there’s nothing sadder than a toddler who refuses to wear any other pair of shoes even though his heels are sticking out over the back of the sandal. And then people look at me like, “Um, I don’t know if you noticed, but your kid’s shoes don’t fit,” and I’m like, “I know!!! But I got them from this totally awesome website called Mamabargains.com and they were such a great deal it would be idiotic to buy them anywhere else, so instead I obsessively keep track of the deals on Mamabargains waiting for them to come up again!”

There’s a reason why their tagline “Get Hooked” is so apropos.

Also, I’m really excited that I just got to use the word “apropos.”

But the best thing of all is their AMAZING customer service, and if you choose USPS Priority mail, their shipping is so fast I’m pretty sure they send the box out about 5 seconds after you complete your purchase. Which is perfect for a completely impatient person like myself.

I recently had the opportunity to ask Jessica, the Mama behind Mamabargains.com, a few questions and got some pretty cool answers:

Every successful business starts with a great idea. In your case, the idea came courtesy of a sleep-deprived dream. Did you ever dream that MamaBargains.com would become the site that it is today?

Naturally, I had very, very big ideas for what our little website could become and always knew in my heart that we would find many successes. However, I had no idea that MamaBargains.com would catapult to this level in less than three years. We have nearly 60,000 Facebook fans and fill countless orders daily….it is humbling! It is amazing to think that it was just March 2008 when we “pulled the trigger,” so to speak, and purchased 500 Timi & Leslie diaper bags (which we stored in our residential garage in the early pre-warehouse days). It seems forever ago that Stan and I were spending our evenings, after the babies were in bed, fulfilling orders for the day. In reality, it is just a short time later that we are fully-staffed (with an incredible team, I might add) and though we often are  still helping with order fulfillment (and every other aspect of the day-to-day activities), we have many, many more hands helping.

You offer products from well over 300 companies, many of whom work exclusively with MamaBargains.com. What have been some of your favorite products or deals?
There have been so many incredible offerings; this is a hard choice. There is little more exciting than the arrival of a new product in our warehouse…the unpacking, organizing, photographing, feature verbiage drafting…we are all like kids in a candy store here when first-time features. I always love new strollers, as I know this is a necessity for all moms, and one where you certainly could spend some serious money. In recent months we have featured the Easy Walker QTRO and DUO, both at more than half off, which is a crazy incredible deal. Our moms love getting the luxury of a high-end stroller for a fraction of the cost. I also love working with vendors that design exclusives for MamaBargains.com such as Taylor Joelle and Baby Star. We also worked this year with Itzy Ritzy to feature their Snack Happened bags for the World Food Programme Charity, which was different and unique. We realize how fortunate we are to have healthy, well-fed children and so it was a pleasure to partner with an incredible brand, an incredible charity and our incredible customers to make an incredible impact on the growing epidemic of hungry children.
What have been some of your favorite moments over the last two years?
Again, there are so many to name. The past few months have been nothing short of euphoric, starting with the partnership with Procter & Gamble brand Luvs in the summer. Our national recognition with this partnership grew incredibly….we have more and more vendors looking to work exclusively withMamaBargains.com, in large part because of the integrity in which we operate. In addition, we have many brands wanting to be a part of our “mom community” realizing our incredible base of loyal customers. We’ve also been recognized this year as the Number Four Leading Moms in Business by Startup Nation, won acclaim as the Fastest Growing Company of the Year from the prestigious Stevie Awards for Women in Business and recently found out we will be featured inUtah Business as one of their “Forty Under 40” leaders in Utah. All of this while our sales continue to grow at exponential levels. Wow! Somebody pinch me please….it is with incredible gratitude that we look back on 2010, and we look forward to all 2011 will bring with great expectations.
With an average of 1.8 million page views per month, what is your secret to success?
Customer engagement…without a doubt. There are many days and nights you will find me personally responding to nearly 60,000 Facebook fans requests and discussions. I embrace the opportunity to share my experiences as a mom and business owner with all of our customers. I recognize these people are spending precious time away from their families to make educated, valued purchases, and so I do everything in my ability to make it a great experience all around. We also have a long list of Facebook moderators and incredible customer service technicians that are available and willing to chat and provide insight/advice. The community MamaBargains.com has created with our Facebook fans is amazing.
What can we look forward to in the future?
New deals, new vendors, incredible features and more amazing sales!
Oh, and by the way–Mouse’s favorite shoes came up again, so I snagged two pairs. I would have purchased three pairs, but one of the styles was sold out before I got it in my diaper bag (aka shopping cart). Guess I’ll just have to keep watching Mamabargains! Conveniently, I’m totally hooked.

A Can't Miss Toy for Toddlers AND Preschoolers

I have to review this toy because both of my kids love it.  And, while it comes with 27 pieces, it’s never strewn across the living room floor.  Also, even though it plays music, it isn’t annoying.  Oh, yeah, and it’s gender neutral. Do I have your interest, yet?

It’s Leap Frog’s Fridge Phonics Magnetic Alphabet Set. It is a full set of letter magnets and a musical magnetic holder.  The letter magnets fit, one at a time, inside the doghouse. When they’re engaged, a song plays, introducing your child to that letter’s sounds. For example, when you put in “A,” you’ll hear this song:  “A.  A says A and A says ah.  Every letter makes a sound. A says A.  And ah.”  And, that same simplistic song is what you’ll hear for every letter.  I like that it’s so simplistic. The kids can focus on the differences in the verses, which is merely the sound(s) associated with that letter. The vowels are a different color from the other magnets, so, even early on, kids can associate that they go together and are somehow different from the other letters. There’s also a button they can push that plays the Alphabet Song.  Bugster is only 20 months old, and she can mumble her way through The Alphabet Song pretty well because of all the times she has pushed this very button.

Leap Frog’s suggested age for this toy is 2-5 years.  Both of my kids started playing with that earlier than that, and The Big Cheese, at 3 1/2, is still enjoying it. 

The letters are a little large, so if you’re super neat and like a blank fridge, this isn’t for you.  But, I have found it really holds my kids’ interest. I have used it more times than I can count to distract them while i’m in the middle of cooking  a somewhat involved meal. 

It’s a little pricey, at $20, but I really think it is worth every penny.  The Big Cheese hasn’t had any other toy for 2 years that has gotten as much use as this one.