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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In a Dinner Rut? Some Quick Fixes

Are you tired of eating – and cooking – the same exact meals night after night, week after week?  Does it feel like you could cook each night with your eyes closed?

Here are some easy solutions:

 (1)  Re-create your restaurant favorites

Let’s face it.  We often eat out because need a break from cooking.  But, we also eat out because we like the food.  Yesterday, I had no idea what to make for dinner and thought about some favorite meals when I go out.  I really enjoy a lot of restaurant salads and decided to re-create Barbecued Chicken Salad, a meal I have ordered at several different restaurants.  It’s always on a base of regular house salad – lettuce, cucumber, tomato, shredded cheese.  Then, there’s usually corn and black beans, so I open up a can of each of those (and rinsed the beans).  Then, I coated 2 chicken breasts with a favorite barbecue sauce and grilled them on the George Foreman grill.  To top it off, I put a little barbecue sauce in to a bowl with ranch dressing.  Voila!  I had barbecue ranch dressing without having to buy an entire specialty bottle.  I also made my version of California Pizza Kitchen’s BLT pizza a couple weeks ago.  It was just as tasty, a ton cheaper, and added some variety to our dinner menu.

Try re-creating some of your favorite restaurant meals at home.  Think about the different toppings you have had on pizzas, the different ways you have seen pasta prepared, and the restaurant sandwiches you really enjoy.  Bring those in to your own kitchen.

(2)  Flip through those cookbooks

If you’re anything like me, you have a huge stack of cookbooks.  Open one of them, and flip through it.   You don’t have to make anything in it, but I find it tends to help me generate a lot of ideas to help mix things up.  I may see 2 ingredients combined in a way I never would have thought of, such as a pork and nectarine stir fry I came across.  Sometimes, I also come across a recipe that will remind me of a dish I used to make, before I entered my current rut.

(3)  Turn on the TV

I can’t watch the Food Network for a half hour without seeing some new technique or cooking method that I have never tried.  I have picked up such ideas as roasting cherry tomatoes to put on salads or pasta and boiling green beans with my pasta (same water at the same time) and then tossing them both with pesto.  (Although mine comes from a jar, not a food processor.  Sorry, Rachael!)

(4)  Take matters in to your own hands

I have a friend who recognized she was in a rut and asked for help.  She sent out a note to several of her mom friends on Facebook and asked us what we have been cooking lately.  She asked us to send her recipes for favorites in our own rotations that she could add to hers.  Not only did we help her out, but we also got to read what everyone else was making to expand our own cooking repertoire.

I also subscribe to daily emails from

These recipes have been posted by home cooks, and many of them are reviewed.  They feature a recipe each day, and at least half of them seem worth trying.  I love having new recipes to try, and I love it even more when they’re tried and true successes.

These methods certainly work for me!  Have your own tips or methods?  Please feel free to share them here! 

Organized Activities Are Cramping My Style

I always swore I wasn’t going to be one of those mothers whose children are in 50,000 different activities a day and who spend all of their time driving their children from place to place. So for a long time, I resisted organized weekly activities for Mouse.

Also, I’m kind of cheap.

We go to the library for storytime every Tuesday (free!) and we also have a swimming lesson (not free) on Tuesday nights. Those used to be our only activities, but then Mouse started exhibiting some speech delays so we had his evaluated and were recommended speech therapy twice a week. And because he was a late walker (17 months), they also recommended a “mommy and me-type gym class” for his “emerging skills.”

So off we went to speech therapy and…

Where I am now known as “Grandma.”

Sheesh.

So now our week is:

Monday: Speech therapy (morning)

Tuesday: Library (morning) and swimming (evening)

Wednesday: Gymboree with Grandma–I mean me (morning)

Thursday: Speech therapy (morning)

I know it doesn’t seem like much to most people, but I am very unused to having 4 mornings taken up right off the bat. Plus it’s been very hard to go to playdates because many of them are at the same time as our above activities.

But mostly it’s just cramping my style. I liked being able to lounge around the house eating bon bons at my leisure. Now we have a schedule to stick to. And it’s only going to get worse from here. *sigh*

Irked

I just returned from a weekend away, just the two of us, to find out that my youngest son, almost 6-month-old Puppet, had a trip to the ER. He is fine, but I’m still irked that the caretakers, my mother and my mother-in-law, did not call us. There is guilt laden all over this. My husband and I feel guilty because we got snowed in and couldn’t return home until a day later than expected. If we had been home as planned, none of this would have happened. The grandmas feel guilty as it happened under their care. I co-sleep with my son, so during our absence my mother-in-law had been taking my place in bed with Puppet. The afternoon of the incident, she had tried in vain to put Puppet down for a nap in the playpen or Scooby’s crib, but he just wasn’t having it. He fell asleep straight away once she put him down in our bed. We have a guardrail on his side of the bed, so she placed a bunch of memory foam pillows along the opposite side without a guardrail. The grandmas apparently forgot we had a video baby monitor, even though the cam was on the nightstand and the monitor on the bar in the kitchen. The grandmas said they were checking in on him from time to time, but low and behold they were startled by screams from the bedroom and Puppet was on the floor.

They said he had a red mark on his forehead about the size of a nickel. He screamed very loud but did eventually stop. They were very panicked, but they did NOT call us. They didn’t want to worry us as we couldn’t get off the mountain then anyway. They feared we would try and possibly kill ourselves in the process.  Now, this really bothers me. He is my child and my husband and I should be making the decisions for our children. We were not incapacitated nor out of reach by phone or even email. They seemed to call everybody else but us his parents. My mother even called the hospital she works for to talk to the ER doctor who was over 90 miles away. They spoke to the on-call nurse for Puppet’s pediatrician and everyone directed them to the local emergency room. My sister was called and my father was called who met my mother-in-law at the ER, while my mother stayed home with Scooby.

The ER doctor examined him and found that Puppet was okay. My father asked for a CT scan and the doctor said that was too much radiation for a baby with no obvious sign of major trauma. The doctor explained that babies are like bouncy balls. My father insisted on an x-ray of his head which they did which came back normal. I’m annoyed that my father was calling the shots when we didn’t even leave him in his care. When Scooby had a bad face plant onto concrete which resulted in a big bump in between his eyes and a nosebleed, we rushed him to urgent care. That doctor concluded that he was fine with no broken bones and that an x-ray was unnecessary. Puppet landed on carpet and had no bump at all. Granted, it was a higher fall than Scooby’s. If we were at least on the phone during the exam, we would not have pushed for an x-ray and would have been happy to hear that he had no other symptoms and wasn’t crying anymore.

We did leave our children in capable hands and they did do what they thought was best for our children. While away, we did have peace of mind knowing that, but we also left explicit instructions that in an emergency such as this we were to be called. I just don’t appreciate being left in the dark because of good intentions. Not wanting to worry us is not a good enough excuse. There was not much we could have done from there, but I would have liked to have called the shots in regards to his care. I’m not happy that he was x-rayed when the doctor didn’t originally order one. I feel bypassed and excluded from the decision making process and even a little disrespected. I feel like our parents felt they knew better and they could handle it on their own. What were they waiting for? What if the news was bad? Were they going to call us when he was dead, when there would be nothing we could do?

The more I think about it, the more annoyed and angry I become. We even have a child protection plan in place and that was completely out the window. What is really blowing my mind right now is why the ER doctor or a hospital representative didn’t contact us by phone. The hospital wanted to know all kinds of information about us that the grandparents just did not have the answers to, but they definitely could have provided them with our phone numbers. We were still available by phone, just not present.

I am thankful that Puppet is healthy and safe, but this is all after the fact. What are your thoughts?

Carnival Traditions in Germany, or Why Bavarians Eat Donuts After the Christmas Season

The German Teacher is here to tell you!

In the United States, if someone mentions either Mardi Gras or Carnival, we’re likely to think of the Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans, Louisiana, or we might think of the carnival festivities in Brazil.  Carnival is celebrated here in Germany and throughout Europe.  In the Rhineland region of Germany, it’s called Karneval.  Particularly famous is the Cologne Carnival, and most small towns in the region have their own festivities.

Here in Bavaria and Swabia, it’s more commonly called Fasching or Fastnacht.  To be honest, I don’t know as much about the customs here in southern German as much as I do about the customs in the Rhine region, but just like Mardi Gras and Carnival, it has to do with preparing for the Lenten season.

Donuts, Bavarian Style

Carnival celebrations start in early November but cease during Advent and the Christmas season.   Then on Three Kings Day, January 6th and the twelfth day of Christmas, carnival celebrations begin again.

Throughout the rest of the winter, there are various parties and celebrations, culminating on the last Tuesday before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.  In southern regions of Germany, Mardi Gras is called Faschingsdienstag, which means the Tuesday before fasting.  Other special days include Weiberfastnacht, a day for women to be in power, and Rosenmontag.  On Weiberfastnacht, among other things, women get to cut men’s ties, symbolic of the women taking charge (men are advised to wear an old, unfashionable necktie).  Rosenmontag is the most important parade day of the Cologne carnival.

One of my friends wryly commented to me that carnival is just an excuse for the young people to go out and party.  As with most holidays here, the festivities are rooted in religious traditions, but likely originate from earlier customs.

When I was an exchange student near Cologne, Karneval was taken very seriously – nearly everybody in my little town participated, and we were given a few days off from school.  Our town had its own parade, and I had the chance to dress up and take part.  I distinctly remember getting to waltz in the streets with pretty much everyone in our group, even though I had never danced the waltz in my life!  We also tossed candy to all the kids who lined up to watch the parade.

Nutella-filled Donut

But what about the donuts?  Why do Bavarians eat donuts before Lent begins?

The answer to this question goes back to the religious meaning behind Mardi Gras and Lent.  The Tuesday before Lent is about getting ready to fast (which is why it is called Fasching or Fastnacht in Bavaria) and to give up meat and fatty foods, for example.  The word carnival itself has to do with “carne” or “meat”, so the meaning is similar; Mardi Gras means “fat Tuesday” in French, also referring to fasting during Lent.  Basically, the period leading up to Mardi Gras or Faschingsdienstag is an excuse to revel in excesses before giving them up.  And that’s where the donuts come in.

In other words, a perfect food to enjoy before going on your Lenten fast would be donuts!  Donuts are, after all, cooked in hot oil.  In this part of Germany, they’re called Krapfen.  Yes, go ahead and giggle – the word sounds funny in English. I must confess, whenever I go to our bakery and look at the donuts and ask for Krapfen, the eight-year-old inside me says, “She said Krapfen, tee hee.”  Being non-natives living in Bavaria, I consider it our duty to try everything.  Krapfen are no exception.

How about a glazed donut filled with… Nutella?

If you think this tastes as good as it looks, you would be right.  Rosebud completely agreed, and this particular donut rapidly disappeared.

Rosebud enjoys her Nutella Krapfen

Who Are You Calling Grandma?

I suppose this is a consequence of delayed motherhood and that it was bound to happen sooner or later, but boy, it was a real shock.

Mouse and I were in Gymboree class and Mouse had wandered off. The following ensued:

Do I LOOK like a grandmother? (the correct answer is no)

Teacher: “Mouse, come on over and sit with Grandma!”

Me: “I’m Mommy.”

Teacher: “Oh, sorry! I always thought you were Grandma.”

WHAT???

I’m only 37 years old. I’ll be 38 in June. And I was 35 when Mouse was born. I scoffed at all of the literature that labeled me “Advanced Maternal Age.” I turned down the offer of an amniocentesis to determine my risk level of Down Syndrome since I’d been bumped into a higher category. And I’ve always been told that I look young for my age.

Okay sure, I don’t get carded anymore and nobody really mistakes me for a college student, but really, mistaking me for someone who pulls in a social security check? REALLY?

And the funny thing is that there are two women there who go by “Grandma” (or at least haven’t corrected the teacher yet), and they both look like your typical image of a grandmother–gray hair, um, well okay, it’s hard to describe what makes someone looking like a grandma other than gray hair. But that’s an excellent place to start, since I actually only have a handful of gray hairs. Might that have been a tipoff?

Also, I wear my fun, hip glasses. Okay sure, I kind of dress a bit frumpy. I go for comfort rather than style and I can’t remember the last time I really bought clothes for myself that weren’t for a special occasion or travel. But shouldn’t my fun, hip glasses compensate for that?

Apparently not.

And the funny thing was, the teacher (whom I would estimate is probably 19 or 20) wasn’t even really embarrassed that she’d made this mistake. I mean, I was more shocked than offended, but she barely paused to reflect upon what she said. It was like “Oops! Sorry about the Grandma thing HEY! Who wants to play with bubbles?!”

But I believe in karma. Someday she will probably be walking around with her kid, and I’ll go out of my way to find her and say something like, “Oh, it’s so nice to see you out with your grandchild. Intergenerational relationships are really being lost in this day and age.”

Ha.