Workouts for the Brain

Game nights are a great way for families to spend quality time together. But every once in a while, you need to shake things up a little, right? Here are three wonderful, mind-expanding activities that mom, dad, 2.5 kids (but not the dog) will enjoy.

Brain Benders puzzlesBrain Bender cubeBrain Benders (Alex Brands)
Brain Benders offer puzzle lovers a very different experience—visually, physical, and intellectually. Brain Benders pieces are made of wood (instead of flat cardboard), and you’ll use them to assemble a sphere, two different cubes, and double-pyramid shape. Besides patience and ingenuity, you’ll need some pretty well-developed spatial- and logical-thinking skills. Don’t have them? No problem. You’ll develop them pretty quickly. Having four puzzles makes it easy for families to spend time together—and compete against each other or the clock. One warning: Even though there are illustrated instructions for how to solve each puzzle, the pieces from three of the puzzles are very similar—and aren’t interchangeable. We put dots on the bottoms to help us keep the pieces organized by puzzle (one dot on all the pieces of one puzzle, two dots on another). For ages 8 and up. Available your favorite retailer for $9-$15 or at www.alexbrands.com

elements 4d blocksElements 4D (DAQRI)
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 amazing (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 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. There are several small issues. First, the actual blocks are hard to find in stores. But if you go to the manufacturer’s website, you can print out paper versions, which still work with the app. Second, the app is available only on Google Play and iTunes, which leaves out those of us who primarily use Windows phones. Third, only 36 of 118 elements are included. But that could actually be a good thing, driving an interested child to want to learn more. http://daqri.com/elements4D-mobile/

tanglecard instructionstangle cards finishedTangle Cards (Zentangle)
After a long day putting together complex wooden puzzles and experimenting with virtual chemical reactions, your brain could use a break. And Tangle Cards (also called Yoga for Your Brain) are just the ticket. Based on the Zentangle books by Sandy Steen Bartholomew, Tangle Cards guide you through the calming, creativity-stimulating process of drawing beautiful designs. Start with simple lines and curves and gradually add more and more detail. The books have more detailed instructions than the cards and include photos of Bartholomew’s inspiration. But the cards are more portable—and just as meditative. A great parent-child(ren) activity and a smartphone-free way to keep kids occupied. For ages 5 and up. Books cost around $12, cards around $10. http://www.zentangle.com/

Fly Me to the Moon—Well, Almost…

People have been fascinated with flight ever since the first human set eyes on the first bird. And even if we can’t do the actual flying ourselves, there’s something about launching things into the sky that’s almost as good. This week we had a chance to review three different toys that go up—way, way up—and come back down. One stays airborne for just a few seconds, the other two for at least a few minutes. All three have made it on to our current faves list, and we’re sure they’ll be on yours as well.

strat-o-slam poof slinkyStrato-Slam Rocket Battle Blast (Poof-Slinky)
When it comes to flight, this is about as low-tech as it gets (short of simply throwing something into the air). But the lack of flashing lights and whirring motors does nothing to detract from the high-fun levels. The design is simple: slide a foam rocket onto one end of a flexible hose that’s attached to an adjustable launching dock. The other end of the hose goes into a round chamber that’s a little bigger (and a lot quieter) than a whoopee cushion. Stomp on the chamber, and your rocket takes off. The harder you stomp, the higher it goes—up to 200 feet, according to the manufacturer. Hard to verify, but we can say that our rockets were so high up that we could barely see them. The Strato-Slam comes with six foam rockets and two launching docs, air hoses, and chambers, and is literally a blast. That second chamber more than doubles the fun by adding an element of head-to-head competition. For ages 5 and up. Retails for about $37. http://poof-slinky.com/

hot wheels street hawkStreet Hawk Remote Control Flying Car (Hot Wheels)
Any self-respecting Pixar fan knows that cars can talk, make plans, and fall in love. But can they fly? If you ask Hot Wheels, the answer is a solid Yes, much to the joy of all those little (and grown up) boys and girls who can’t get enough of those miniature race cars. Made of light-yet-very-durable foam, the Street Hawk handles well on the road—as long as there isn’t much wind. When you and the kids get tired of gravity, switch to flight mode and you can fly your car as high as 200 feet. The lightweight construction makes doing airborne tricks easy. But it’s a little hard to control in the wind, and soft landings take a lot of practice. Fortunately, it’s such a great way to spend time with the kids that you won’t mind those minor inconveniences. Ages 8+. Retails for as low as $55. http://shop.mattel.com/

sky viperSky Viper Camera Drone (Skyrocket Toys)
The bad news about Sky Viper is that if you want to master its four blades and six-axis gyroscope, you’ll have to put in some serious practice time. The good news is that it’s so engaging and entertaining that you (and the kids, if you let them near it) will be tempted to call in sick to play with it. The control unit has everything you need to do flips, barrel rolls, and other stunts (some are pre-programmed, others you’ll figure out on your own) and take video (up to 30 minutes) or stills (more than 1,000). Either way, it’s amazing what you can see from up there. The included data cable makes transferring images to your computer or YouTube a snap. The control unit requires 4 AAA batteries (not included) and the drone itself charges very quickly. It also comes with a very handy set of replacement blades. Ages 12 and up. Retails for around $80. http://www.skyrockettoys.com/

Little Hands-on Play

That old expression about idle hands is absolutely true: when those little paws aren’t kept busy, they get into trouble. Here are some great ways to keep hands—and the associated minds and bodies—occupied, stimulated, and active.

Mini Golf Set (Alex Toys)
This new mini golf set from Alex Toys is great for even the smallest kids and is easy to set up and play. It comes with four balls, two clubs, six different circus-themed “holes,” and a handy carry bag so you’ll at least have a chance of keeping the pieces from ending up all over your house. And speaking of the house, this golf set can be used inside or out. Armin’s a big fan of swinging things around indoors, but Sam sees indoor sports as an accident waiting to happen—even if the balls are foam. The choice is yours. Either way, the clubs are easy to swing and perfectly sized, which is excellent for hand-eye coordination. For ages 3 and up. Available for $37 at http://www.alextoys.com/product/mini-golf-set/

Barbie Fashion Design Maker Doll (Mattel)
Does your little miss think she’s the next Donna Karan? If so, let her get her fashionista on and knock herself out by designing and creating cool clothes that her doll can actually wear (and yes, Barbie herself is included). This kit comes with Barbie, shoes, a necklace, eight sheets of printable fabric (we’ll get to that in a second), glitter trims and accessories, fabric ruffles, and a portfolio to store her creations like real designers do. What’s especially fun is that your little designer can design just about anything she can imagine using the proprietary app- or web-based software, print out her visions on the printable fabric, peel off the back like a sticker, and dress Barbie to the nines. The whole idea is very clever. For ages 6 and up. Retails for about $50 on mattel.com or at your favorite retailer. Refill packs are available.

First Builders Fast Tracks Raceway (Mega Bloks)
While your little miss is busy designing her Barbie, your little mister can build a racetrack. This fun kit from Mega Bloks comes with two racecars, a total of 50 pieces and a whole bunch of stickers so you and the kids (of either sex, of course), can customize to your hearts’ content. And since it’s completely compatible with all other Mega Bloks sets, why limit yourselves to a race track? Build an entire racing village—or a scene from the movie Cars. For ages 1-5. Sells for about $20 at http://www.megabloks.com or stores near you.

Z-Line Ninjas Playset (Playmates Toys)
This kit is not for the faint of heart—you’ll need a lot of space, a lot of patience, and plenty of adult supervision. But it’s well worth the trouble. The basic playset comes with a gargoyle launcher (where the zip adventure begins. Launchers attach easily to your wall—and can be removed just as easily with no damage), zip lines, c-turns for going around corners, a New York City backdrop (which also sticks to your walls) and more. Just set up the lines and send most of your Turtle action figures (sold separately, unless you already own some) flying all over your house, hot on the trail of Kraang and Shredder. The bigger sets (Water Tower Washout and Billboard Breakout) include more line and more options, but require more space. Prices range from $20-$30  at Toys R Us and other stores near you.

Build Me a Hero

With great toys comes great fun—especially when you combine two childhood favorites: building and super heroes.

guardians knowhereguardians starblasterMarvel Superheroes Knowhere Escape Mission (Lego)
Marvel Superheroes Galaxy Starblaster Showdown (Lego)
Both of these great kits from Lego star characters from Guardians of the Galaxy. The Knowhere Escape Mission is a pretty large set, great for bigger kids or collectors. It has 433 pieces, and comes with 3 mini-figures (Rocket Raccoon, Nebula, and Sakaaran) plus a comparatively giant Groot who’s poseable. There are all sorts of cool features that will keep kids (and parents) entertained for hours—even if they aren’t terribly familiar with the movie or the comic books. There’s a tower with a trap door, spring-loaded bazookas, a catapult, Rocket’s custom spaceblaster, a sword for those less-technically inclined, and the all-important orb. The Galaxy Starblaster Showdown is less than half the size, with 196 pieces, but it’s just as much fun. This one has three figures, including Star-Lord himself. The Starblaster and Necrocraft spaceships can battle each other head to head. Each has adjustable wings and a cockpit that opens. And to help the good guys catch the bad guys (or vice versa) there are plenty of weapons (including blasters and missiles), a pair of boot thrusters, and even a set of handcuffs, something you don’t often find in Lego kits. Both sets are for ages 6 and up and retail for about $40 and $20 respectively. http://shop.lego.com/

sprukits batmansprukits achillesSpruKits Batman Arkham City (Bandai)
SpruKits LBX Achilles (Bandai)
Just introduced at Toy Fair in February of this year, SpruKits have a great future ahead of them. They’re a wonderful combination of poseable action figure, and assemble-it-yourself model. SpruKits claim that their figures snap together without glue, scissors, or paint, and they’re absolutely right. And when you’re done snapping, you’ve got a sharp, very detailed, well-articulated, five-inch figure. The kits come in three building-skill levels, clearly marked on the front of the package. The two we had a chance to review were both Level 2. Batman, with 95 pieces, took a little less than an hour to put together and stood up to quite a bit of knocking around. The LBX (Little Battlers Experience) Achilles has 102 pieces and took a bit more than an hour to complete. He was just as detailed and great looking. But our testers had trouble keeping the pieces together, so he was more of a show piece, which was a bit frustrating. That’s a problem that we’re sure the manufacturer is rectifying right now. For ages 8+. The price point is terrific: about $10.00 for Level 1, under $20 for Level 2, and $60 for Level 3 at your favorite retailer.

yomen star wars yodayomen star wars trooperClone Trooper YoMen Yoyo (Yomega)
Yoda YoMen Yoyo (Yomega)
If you’re a yoyo fan, the new YoMen will make your head spin. Well, not yours, but Yoda’s and a Clone Trooper’s, which is more fun and less dangerous. If you’re not a yoyo fan, you really should be. While they don’t exactly fit this column’s theme of building and superheroes, the YoMen yoyos do require a bit of assembly (the head is the yoyo and it fits nicely on to the body/stand). And who’s to say that there won’t be an epic superhero battle between Yoda and Batman or Star-Lord and a Clone Trooper one of these days? But until then, you’ve got yourself an elite-level yoyo, which should keep you busy and entertained. For ages 8 and up. Retails for about $17 on line, in stores, or at http://yomega.com/

Bridging the Gap Between Preschool Fun and Learning

The new school year is well underway and, hopefully, the kids are learning a ton of things that will enable them to support us in our old age. In the meantime, though, we want them to have as much fun as they can both in and out of school. For little kids, the key is combining learning and fun, and since we’re the ones with the wallets it’s up to us to give them the tools to do just that. ALEX Toys, one of our favorites, has a number of wonderful products that you can do with your kids and have fun at the same time.

ready set write alexReady, Set, Write, and Wipe (Alex Toys)
A perfect way for little kids to learn and practice their numbers and letters—and for bigger kids to get their handwriting into shape—without wasting an entire tree’s worth of paper. Ready, Set, Write, and Wipe is a 19-page, spiral-bound book. Each page has brightly colored illustrations (G for Goat, for example, or 10 stacked blocks) and a place for kids to trace the number or the first letter of the word. There’s also plenty of space for freehand (non-tracing) practice. Best of all, when the kids are done, just wipe the page and they can do it all again. The one downside is that the marker can stain clothing. For kids 3 and up (but if your kids are that young, you need to keep an eye on them). $19.95 at www.alextoys.com/.

ready set tell time alexReady, Set, Tell Time (ALEX Toys)
We may be living in a digital world, but kids still need to learn how to tell time on a clock with hands (if for no other reason than so they’ll know what the words “clockwise” and “counterclockwise” or the phrase “I’ve got your 6” mean).  Ready, Set, Tell Time gives kids a number of different ways to learn how to tell time. The clock itself, is cheerful and has hands that are easily manipulated by little fingers. The kit also comes with a puzzle (with numbers that punch out and can be placed on the clock) and a lot of cards. The flash cards are what you’d expect, but they add some tactile learning by having the child move the clock’s hands to match what’s on the card. The activity cards do a nice job of making time a little less abstract by getting the child to associate specific times with activities that generally happen at those times (breakfast lunch, and so on). More than just a pretty (clock) face, it sells for $18.95 at www.alextoys.com/.

my first mosaic alexMy First Mosaic (ALEX Toys)
Research shows that children who are exposed to art are more confident and creative than kids who don’t have access to it. They’re also more empathetic, score higher on IQ tests, and do better in school. Unfortunately, more and more schools are cutting out art classes, so it’s up to you to make sure your child gets plenty of art time. My First Mosaic comes with five pictures and a few hundred square- or triangle-shaped stickers in a variety of bright colors. Just like with the old paint-by-numbers kits, kids match the colors and shapes called for in the picture with the corresponding stickers. The sticker-between-the-lines aspect is great for little kids since it lets them create something recognizable that they’ll be proud of. But be sure to give your kids plenty of outside-the-lines time too. For kids 3 and up who won’t put the stickers in their mouth. $11.95 at www.alextoys.com

And Now, Direct from a Screen Near You…

Although parents aren’t always thrilled about it, kids love toys that bring their favorite TV and movie characters to “life.” This week, we review several fun new toys that do exactly that.

paw patrolPaw Patrol (NickJR)
If you have a little one, chances are you’ve seen or heard of Paw Patrol—the hit TV show aimed at Pre-K and kindergarteners. The show revolves around six puppies: Chase, Marshall, Rocky, Zuma, Rubble, and Skye, plus their 10-year old tech-loving human companion named Ryder. They work together as a team, solve problems, and help creatures and the environment while showing kids cooperation skills. Now the pups are available as toys, from plush to action figures and even vehicles (which play a large part in the show). The Racers are a particularly good value because they each come with one vehicle and one pup (they also have working tires). If your child is a fan of the show or of animals in general, these super-pups will be a nice treat for them. Available for $7.99 and up at Amazon, Target, and more.

turtle sub underseaTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Turtle Sub Undersea Chase (LEGO)
This set is just plain awesome, even if you’re not quite sure where you stand on the movie and whether it’s okay to turn a cherished, animated TV show into a live-action Megan Fox movie (Hmm. Does that sound a little biased?). With 684 pieces, including four figures (Donatello Leonardo, and two Kraang) it lets kids (and adults who like to pretend they bought this kit for their kids) recreate scenes from the movie, flicking missiles, firing shooters, and operating mini subs along the way. Or use your imagination and create something totally different. About $60 at your favorite retailer.

tmnt large figuresTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Playmates Toys)
Haven’t had enough of those hard-shelled reptile badboys? Based on the movie characters, these figure are a little grittier than they have been in the past, but kids don’t seem to mind at all. Playmates has all of the main characters (the four Turtles, Shredder, the Foot Clan, and others) in a wide selection of sizes and styles, including wearable ones, which come with cuffs, a sword, and a bandana mask. There’s something here that every TNMT lover, old or new, will want to have. Right now. The large figures are about a foot tall and are more articulated then you might think, and after they’ve knocked each other around for a bit, they make great mentors for the six-inch figures (which are just as fun to play with). Small figures are about $9 at Toys R Us, and the large ones start at $14 on Amazon and other retailers.

how to train your dragon 2How to Train Your Dragon 2 Squirt and Float Dragons (Spin Master)
How to Train Your Dragon 2 Battle Sets (Spin Master)

If your kids loved How to Train Your Dragons 2 as much as our kids (and their parents) did, this is a great opportunity to bring the fun of the big screen direct to your living room—or your bathtub. The Squirt and Float Dragons comes with three figures (Toothless, Meatlug, and Stormfly), all of which can shoot water about four feet—just far enough to make your bathroom floor really slippery, so be careful. There are also three great Battle Sets, “Toothless vs. Dragon Catcher,” “Gronkle vs. Gronkle Cannon,” and “Zippleback vs. Zipplecatcher,” all of which will keep everyone (yes, you too, mom and dad) entertained for hours. $8 and up at stores like Toys R Us and Amazon.