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

Advertisements

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.

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

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.

'Tis the Season To Be Sick

‘Twas the night before Thanksgiving and all through the day, I’d been achin’ and chillin’ with no appetite.  I called up my hubby and asked him to please, bring home some Oscillo as fast as can be.  After taking as directed, third time the charm, Thanksgiving morning I was raring to go.

Now, I truly felt like the flu was upon me that day and I’m ever so thankful to have heard about Oscillococcinum while attending a vaccine workshop at Belly Sprout by Dr. Lauren Feder, a homeopathic M.D. Our Thanksgiving dinner may have turned into take-out otherwise. I took the Oscillo just as instructed, at the first sign of flu symptoms, and followed up with one dose every 6 hours. By the third dose (after a good night’s rest), I was in good shape and able to cook all day.  I was worried that it may taste funky but not at all. It was quite sweet actually. What I really like is that when my son turns 2 he will be able to take the same Oscillo dose. No need to purchase the children’s type. It works for the whole family which helps the pocketbook and storage space. I love how homeopathy helps my body do what it needs to do when I couple it with rest.

A week later, So Cal was bathed in heavy winds which seem to be the culprit of my family’s “sniffles” lately. God only knows what’s flying around in the air out there. I knew I was fighting something off when my throat came up sore. As this is the first line of defense, I took immediate action by gargling with full-strength Alkalol, a natural antiseptic and mucus solvent. I then got out my trusty Neti Pot and filled it with a mixture of equal parts Alkalol and lukewarm filtered (previously boiled) water, and flushed my nasal passages. My new drink of choice became tea with honey and I donned a scarf around my neck at all times. I broke out with the generic Emergen-C to help boost my immune system.  It is effervescent which I learned from a pharmacology seminar was the fastest way oral medication would reach your bloodstream; hence, why I like many homeopathic remedies as they are dissolved in the mouth under the tongue.

What's in your medicine cabinet?

When my throat would worsen (usually at night which is an indicator to rest), I would gargle with Alkalol again and eat a teaspoon of honey and let it coat my throat. My yoga instructor uses turmeric with raw honey but, I have yet to try this and I don’t know the measurements. I stay away from citrus as it dries the throat. Being a singer, you learn many hard lessons while singing and performing, so I’ve learned what works best for me. Tea shouldn’t be too hot either, you’re just trying to soothe it, not inflame it. The same goes for soup. Chicken soup is always a winner, but I changed it up this time with some albondigas (meatball soup) with an organic chicken stock base and lots of fresh veggies.

After a couple days of contending with my throat, the rest of this bug reared its head with sinus pressure, headache and cough. I continued with the above remedies and ran to Henry’s for some back-up. There, I found that Boiron, the makers of Oscillo, had a few other remedies in their arsenal, on sale to boot. I picked up some Chestal syrup for my cough (another product my son can take when he turns 2—KA-ching!) and Sinusalia for my sinus pain. Also in my shopping cart was Ricola sugar-free cherry drops to keep in my purse for cough attacks and ginger-peppermint tea for my sinuses.

If I had the luxury of an hour of alone time (remember I’m a mother of two children under the age of 2), I would steep a pot of this ginger-peppermint tea and run a hot bath with sea salts and essential oils. I tried this when I was single, and it really helped sweat out a sinus infection.  This time around, I would just have to settle for dressing warmly and lots of tea with honey. Oh, I almost forgot another key remedy in my bag of tricks, Save The Baby. It’s an old family favorite and hard to find. It’s like Vicks rub. We apply it at night to our chest, throat and upper lip. The vapors help soothe the cough, throat, and nasal passages.  During the day, I would take a whiff of some pungent aloe gel. This can be used similarly if Save The Baby is unavailable to you.

This might seem like a lot to you, but this is my drug-free way of letting my body work its magic and avoid the doctor’s office.

What’s in your medicine cabinet?

DISCLAIMER:  I received no compensation for any of the above products/entities mentioned. I am a consumer and the above statements were based purely on own my personal experiences and are no substitute for medical care. Keep in mind that I’m not a doctor and don’t let me dissuade you from seeking medical attention if and when necessary.

You Can Have Upholstered Chairs and Little Kids, Too

Protect your chairs with SmartSeat

I love the look and feel of upholstered chairs. Unfortunately, when it came time to choose a dining room set for our new place, I had to consider the fact that I had a 3-year-old who I feared would ruin the fabric on my beautiful chairs in no time. My husband and I ultimately decided to upholster just two of our set, at least he and I could enjoy them while our little one would remain on the much easier to wipe wood chairs. If only Becky Rabson had come up with her idea for an elegant protective seat cover sooner. Perhaps it isn’t too late to have the remaining chairs upholstered now that she offers an affordable product to combat the messes my now 5-year-old might make. If you are worried about combining your family’s upholstered chairs with a toddler, this is a product for you.

Becky was a stay-at-home mom grappling with the same issue I had about how to keep fabric chairs neat and attractive with little ones at home. Ugly vinyl just doesn’t cut it. She and her husband decided to combat the problem themselves and founded their company, PB&J Discoveries, along with a family friend. The SmartSeat chair protector they invented is a waterproof, stain resistant, and machine washable cover made from soft-to-the-touch, toxin-free fabric. It adjusts to fit most chairs ranging from 18″ to 25″ wide and comes in three basic colors. She sent me a blue one to try on my chair and I have to say it is pretty inconspicuous. I kept it on my chair over the holidays and no one even asked about it. My child sat in it over a few meals and, sure enough, down came the apple sauce and the milk. It all came right off. I also liked that there was no bulk in the material. It didn’t wrinkle and stayed in place.

Does your mom or other relative have those expensive cloth chairs you worry your child will spill juice all over? Take the seat covers with you when you travel. Find out more about Becky’s seat covers at http://www.smartseatdiningchaircovers.com/.

SmartSeat fits many types of chairs.

Disclosure: The Librarian was given a sample SmartSeat chair protector in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Shutterfly Holiday Cards

I’m a paper snob. You name it–books, stationery, cards–nothing gets my heart going like a stationery store. Letterpress? Be still my beating heart! So when holiday time comes around I’m a staunch traditionalist for paper cards. And perhaps as a result of having an uncommon name growing up, personalizing cards is a must for me. Of course, photos are always nice, so for the past several years we’ve been buying the cards that you slide your own photo into, which is quite tedious as well as difficult when it comes to taking or finding just the right picture that won’t be obscured by the card design or, as we made the mistake one year, oriented in the wrong direction (yep, we had like 100 horizontal cards for our vertical picture *sigh*).

But I steadfastly refuse to go the photocard route–you know, the ones printed on photo paper that are basically one big picture. I like a card I can sign. The dogs sign them too, because they’re special like that. Still–they are tempting. No stuffing, no sticking, no aligning, just send in a photo and they all come back nice and personalized. It’s hard to get easier than that. But no! Paper! PAPER!!!!!

Christmas 2005, bad lighting, one dog in motion

Thank God Train Guy is so willing to indulge my neurosis. Plus he has a thing for paper too. We’re a match made in paper heaven.

When Shutterfly offered us 50 free holiday cards in exchange for a blog entry about their collection, I thought I would take a look. I figured if I didn’t like what I saw, I would just pass on the offer. But once I was there, I found the Nirvana of paper-loving-photo-loving-holiday-card-sending bliss: photo cards printed on cardstock! Actual paper cards with photos I don’t have to stuff or stick! Have I died and gone to holiday card heaven? Quite possibly.

Since the Moms have a policy of not reviewing any product we haven’t, you know, actually seen or used, I thought I’d try out a Shutterfly card. I had a coupon code for a free 5×7 card (oh, that’s another thing I like about Shutterfly–they’ve always got great coupons and deals going on). But then, once I started making my holiday card, I realized that things got even better!

To back up a second, another problem I always have with holiday pictures is getting everyone (or more specifically, everything) in the picture looking in the same direction and standing still. It’s hard enough with people, but try throwing a dog in the mix. And then throw another dog in the mix. And a baby. And I know it’s a lot to ask, but could we all smile at the same time too? Anyone who has ever tried to take a group picture can relate.

So you know what’s even better than a photo card printed on real paper? A photo card printed on real paper with multiple pictures!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Shutterfly has answered my holiday card prayers.

Mouse!

They offer three options for cards: 5×7 folded greeting cards, flat stationery cards (5×7 or 5×5 depending on design), or if you don’t mind the regular flat photo cards, they have those too. And if you have the “everyone looking anywhere but at the camera” problem, there are many flat photo cards with multiple pictures too.

I headed straight to the 5×7 folded cards and found a couple more exciting things there too, like pictures inside. INSIDE! Some of the cards are “story” style, which includes a template for multiple pictures and text boxes for captions or even your whole holiday card letter (unless you’re me and your letter cannot be constrained by mere card text space). There are over 200 cards to choose from including designs that benefit charities like Heifer International and the American Lung Association.

I selected the Joy Sage Story card and uploaded my photos. Dragging and dropping was easy as pie, as was adding captions. The design had six additional pictures inside, so I added three pictures of Mouse by himself (January, July, and October), one of Mouse and Train Guy, one of Mouse and me, and one of the hounds. Each family member got to be represented in a flattering picture, not just settling for one that is the least worst even though the lighting is bad and the dogs aren’t sitting still. The most difficult thing about the whole process was selecting which design I wanted. I was thrilled when the card arrived a few days later. The cardstock was high quality and my pictures looked fantastic. And now this year I can take pictures of each family member individually and let them shine rather than just settling for having the person in the shot no matter what condition they’re in. I really think these are going to be the best cards we’ve ever sent.

Disclosure: I received 50 holiday cards in exchange for this review. Bloggers can receive 50 free holiday cards from Shutterfly by signing up here.