All Work and No Play? Naaaah

Yes, the new school year is almost (or, in some places, already) under way. And yes, the kids are going to start coming home with backpacks full of homework. But that doesn’t mean no more fun. Here are two great activities that will help you make the summer last a little longer, and three that will keep a smile on your face as the weather gets colder.

poo doughPoo Dough (Skyrocket Toys)
One of our favorite fads has been gross toys—things that poop, blow snot, pass gas, and more. If your children are into this (most are), they’ll definitely enjoy Poo Dough, which is completely disgusting, but in a really fun way. You get realistic, pooh-shaped molds and the dough itself (which comes in a lovely shade of yellow and two equally lovely shades of brown). But wait, there’s more. You also get special molds for “corn” and “peanuts.” Yep, the kids (and plenty of fully grown adults) are all set for hours of giggly, eeeew-inducing entertainment. About $8 in stores like Toys R Us, Amazon, and Walmart.  http://www.skyrockettoys.com/

fart pianoFart Piano (Skyrocket Toys)
If the look and feel of poo dough isn’t enough, you can always add sound effects with the Fart Piano. Far more versatile than its name would indicate, this piano can also cough, belch, and sneeze. Just press a key and you’re on your way. It even comes with sheet music so you can entertain out-of-town guests and dignitaries. About $20 on Amazon and Toys R Us.

fuze water blasterCyclone Water Blaster (FUZE/Skyrocket)
What a great way to get the kids involved in doing something physical outside. The Cyclone Water Blaster is essentially a motorized (using 4 AA batteries), handle-bar mounted squirt gun that enables kids (or the kid in any adult) to soak someone up to 25 feet away and pedal off before the victim can return fire. The nozzle has a 180-degree radius and riders can adjust it on the fly. Get two Blasters and you can turn your bikes into horses and water joust. Grab some towels and let the games begin. About $25 at your favorite retailer, including http://www.walmart.com

bike bubblerBike Bubbler (FUZE/Skyrocket)
This one manages to bridge the gap between exercise and gross-ness. All you do is mount this motorized gizmo underneath your bicycle seat, and you can spray out a stream of bubbles as you zip around the neighborhood. In the words of one of our child-testers, “it looks like it’s pooping bubbles.” Well, at least this time it’s clean, right? The Bubbler comes with one 4-ounce bottle of bubble solution, and you can make your own when you run out. For kids who aren’t riding yet (or adults who are exhausted), the Bubbler works just fine without a bike. About $15 at www.SkyrocketToys.com or www.FuzeBikeFX.com

view masterView Master (Fisher Price)
Remember View Masters from when you were a kid—those goggle-like viewers with their circular cardboard story reels that simulated 3D? They’ve been on toy store shelves since the 1940s (it’s their 75th anniversary this year!), and who would have thought that something so low-tech could possibly entertain today’s tech-crazy kids. Go figure. The new View Masters are pretty much the same as the old ones—put the reel in the viewer and push a lever to move through the story. The only real differences are that the images are brighter and the viewers themselves come in a variety of styles, including Hello Kitty and those Despicable Me minions. Gift sets include a View Master, three story reels, and a handy-don’t-lose-them storage case. Available in stores and online for about $15. http://www.fisher-price.com/

Gear Up!

Most of us—adults and kids—are walking around with hundreds of dollars of portable electronics. This week we review a number of items that are designed to help you get the most use out of your gadgets, and to protect them—and your ears.

Knivo wireless headphonesKinivo BTH240 Wireless Bluetooth Headphones (Kinivo)
Wires, wires, everywhere, and no one knows where they go or how to untangle them. The solution? Go wireless. With these Knivo Bluetooth headphones—which work on almost any device—there’ll be no more accidentally dragging your music player off the table or having someone trip over your wires and yank your ear buds out. And for kids watching a movie or playing a game, no more wires to fiddle with or gnaw on. But be warned. Once you go wireless, you’ll never go back. $35 on www.Pure-Gear.com




DualTek Extreme Shock CaseDualTek Extreme Shock Case for Samsung Galaxy S5 (PureGear)
If you’ve got a Samsung Galaxy S5, chances it you paid plenty for it (or made a long, long commitment to your cell carrier). So it’s worth investing a bit more to protect it from the daily bumping and scratching you put it through—and from the drops and dings your kids inflict on it. The new DualTek case fits like a glove, doesn’t get in the way of taking pics or making calls, and takes a real beating. The corners—the weak spot on most phone cases—are specially designed to absorb impact and vibration. Available in yellow, white, and black. $35 at http://www.pure-gear.com


PureTek Rollon screen protectorPureGear Roll on Screen Shield Kit (PureGear)
Even the best cases have trouble keeping the screen from getting scratched. If you’ve got any iPhone 5 or a Galaxy S5, the PureGear Screen Shield kit is for you. The patented roll-on applicator makes applying the screen protector a breeze, and completely eliminates those annoying bubbles. The protector itself reduces glare and besides resisting scratches, it keeps your screen safe from the dirt, grime, and fingerprints from little hands. $25 at www.Pure-Gear.com


BlynkBlynk (Lyfeshot)
This tiny, hands-free camera is specially designed to take time-lapse photos. Just set the interval—one shot every second, minute, hour, day, or longer—and you’re ready to go. Blynk then puts all those photos into a single movie (or saves them as individual JPEGs). Now you can condense a week-long adventure into a few minutes, create your very own 30-second video of flowers blooming, or marvel at how quickly your baby (or your puppy) is growing up. Available in pink, blue, and black. $129 on http://www.lyfeshot.com


Paick SleekPaick Power Bank (Paick)
There’s nothing worse than being out with the family, seeing something amazing, and discovering that your battery is at 5 percent. You can solve that problem with a Paick Power Bank. Charge it up before you leave your house or hotel and you’ve got a sleek, portable power source that will help you squeeze a few more hours out of your phone, tablet, or other device. Power Banks come in a variety of capacities. The one we tested was 6000mAh, which essentially doubled the available talk time. $59 and up at www.Paick.com


Sun Power solar chargerSun Power 6000 Charger (Secur)
But what if your plans take you someplace where there’s no electricity at all? If you’ve got a little sunshine, all you’ll need is the Secur Sun Power 6000. The fold-up solar panel charges your phone, tablet, or other device no matter where you are. It’s durable, light, easy-to-use, and water resistant, which makes it a must-have for beach- or camping trips. Dual USB ports let you charge two phones or devices at once. $129 at http://securproducts.com

The Most Delicious Camp Ever

paulding & company desserts camp recipe

When it comes to summer activities, I generally try to engage my kids in the process and send them to camps that interest them. This year, for example, tech camp, lifeguard camp, and a family performing arts camp took up most of the summer. But every once in a while, I pick something for somewhat self-centered reasons, which is how my 11-year old daughter ended up at a week-long cooking camp at Paulding & Company.

paulding & company desserts camp 1That’s not to say that she wasn’t interested—she’s always liked puttering around in the kitchen. But how could any parent (except maybe one with a diabetic child) possibly pass up a camp that promised to “seek out the best desserts from around the world” and “indulge ourselves in the sugary wonders of the world”? To deprive my daughter of a week-long sugar rush—and myself of tasty treats–seemed almost cruel. (A momentary flash of guilt was relieved by the fact that the camp would also provide “a full and balanced lunch” every day.)

Fortunately (was there any doubt?), my daughter was completely on board. And, boy, did Paulding & Company deliver.
[Read more...]

Sometimes, You’ve Just Gotta Get Away

So you’re taking a trip with the kids. Whether you’re going by car, plane, or some other way, you’ll need to keep them safe, occupied, and relatively quiet. Here are some fun, new musts-have travel take­­-alongs.

delsey heliumHelium (Delsey)
If you’re like most parents, part of your job on family trips is to be a pack mule, dragging luggage, laptops, and lovies all over creation. Bags in Delsey’s Helium line are durable (on one trip, ours were loaded onto 16 planes, nine boats, and nearly 20 trains and still look great) and lightweight (making them easy on the back and minimizing those evil airline baggage charges). Available in three sizes and your choice of standard or bright colors. All are equipped with a TSA-approved lock and retail for $160 and up. http://shop.delsey.us

eagle creek sight-seeing tablet courierDay Traveler (Eagle Creek)
We’ve been big fans of Day Traveler bags for a long time. Our new favorite is the Site-Seeing Tablet Courier. Like the other bags in the line, this one is durable, lightweight, and accommodates a surprising amount of stuff (the split-book design makes packing a breeze). It’s also water resistant (so no worries about spilled drinks or rainstorms), has a host of pockets in various sizes (perfect for phones, glasses, wallets, laptops/tablets, and more), and comes with RFID-blocking technology (which keeps your personal information safe), Retails for $45 at http://shop.eaglecreek.com

eagle creek weekenderAdventure Weekender (Eagle Creek)
If you’re going on a quick trip, this one is perfect. It’s got plenty of room for a computer, a change of clothes, those just-in-case-we-get-stranded-overnight necessities, and is still small enough that the flight attendants won’t try to make you gate check it. You can lock the zipper pockets, and the Adventure Weekender is easy to stack on larger bags. If you’re looking for durability and versatility, this one’s for you. $150 on http://shop.eaglecreek.com

vinci tabletVINCI Tab III M 5” Learning Tablet (VINCI)
If you have a little one who’s not quite ready for a big tablet, the VINCI Tab III is made to entertain, engage, and educate. It comes with a great bumper (which incorporates a handle) to protect it from those inevitable childhood drops and “oopsies.” The company says the VINCI is aimed at kids 18 months to 9 years, but we think it tops out at about 6 years—today’s tech-savvy kids will be on to far more sophisticated tablets by then. But the little guys will have a great time learning and playing without getting overstimulated. The fun, game-based apps teach math and reading skills in an enjoyable way that they’ll want to play over and over—and that will keep them quiet wherever they happen to be. What a great way to keep those young minds humming without having to resort to “Angry Birds” or “Fruit Ninja.” $129 at http://store.vincigenius.com

swimways sea squirts life jacketsSea Squirts life jacket (SwimWays)
Going for a swim with children who are less than 100% water safe? You can literally keep their head above water with a number of swim aids from SwimWays.  They’ve got a wide variety of vests, life jackets, baby floats, and other products, so you’ll have no trouble finding something for each child’s swim abilities. The Sea Squirts life jackets are adorable and even sport a stylish fin (orca, dolphin, or clownfish). The Power Swimr swim training system comes with nine flotation pads which you gradually remove as your child moves from floating to swimming. Please remember that when it comes to children, no swim aid can substitute for mom’s or dad’s watchful eye. Be safe. Sea Squirts run $47 and the Power Swimr is around $21. https://www.swimways.com/

Taking the Boredom out of Family Game Night

We’re all about families having fun together, and game night is one of the best ways to do that. But playing the same games over and over can get a little stale. So, in the interests of injecting a little more fun into your family’s game night, here are some great choices that will keep you and yours engaged and laughing.

Battle SheepBattle Sheep (Blue Orange Games)
Simple to learn, fun to play, but a new challenge every time. Players start off with four board tiles (there are a total of 16, so up to four can play), which they take turns laying out until the board is complete. Each tile contains four “pastures.” Then, each player takes his or her herd (a stack of 16 color-matched sheep tokens) and places it on one of the pastures along the edge of the board. The goal is to put your sheep on the most pastures. Move as many of your sheep as you’d like—but you have to leave at least one behind, and you can only move in a straight line. Seems simple enough, but if you’re not paying attention to your opponents and plotting out your own moves a few in advance, some of your flock could get penned in. The first few times you play, you’ll probably be on the defensive—doing whatever you can to keep your flock free. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll go on the offensive and start blocking everyone else. The board tiles and tokens are sturdy and the game is great for building strategic- and abstract thinking skills. For 2-4 players, ages 7 to adult. Retails online for around $21. http://www.blueorangegames.com/

LoonacyLoonacy (Looney Labs)
Loonacy combines elements of Crazy Eights, Uno, and Dominoes to make a fun, fast-paced game. Players start with seven cards, each with two images on it. The goal is to be the first to empty your hand by matching at least one of the images on your cards with one on the cards in the face-up pile(s) on the table. All you need is quick reflexes, a good memory, and a lot of luck. The fewer the number of players, the more discard piles you have (two players have four piles). That adds an element of strategy to the game since there are so many matching options. But as you add players, the number of discard piles decreases (five players have only one pile), which turns the game into a completely crazy free-for-all—something that may frustrate younger players. Takes only 5-10 minutes to play for 2-5 players, ages 8 and up. Retails for about $12.16. http://www.looneylabs.com/

regular show fluxxcartoon network fluxxRegular Show Fluxx and Cartoon Network Fluxx (Looney Labs)
If you’re looking for free-for-alls, this one takes the cake. It starts so peacefully, with each player getting three cards. The rules are simple. Draw one and play one. But here’s where the fun starts. Each card played can change the rules of the game, requiring you to draw more cards, talk in a cartoon voice, play all the cards in your hand;, steal cards from an opponent, and so on. Rules can be combined if they don’t contradict each other (for example, you might have to draw four cards and talk in a cartoon voice). Regular Show Fluxx features characters from the Cartoon Network’s “Regular Show,” while Cartoon Network Fluxx features characters from nine CN shows, including “Powerpuff Girls,” “Eddy,” “Adventure Time,” and “Samurai Jack.” Both are for 2-6 players, ages 8+ and retail for around $16. http://www.looneylabs.com/

Hitting the Road

Despite all the rosy news one hears these days about sinking unemployment numbers and a rising economy, plenty of people are still having financial issues. As a result, a lot of families are taking their vacations a little closer to home. This week, we review a few cool items that will make any family road/camping trip a success.

reese car top carrierReese Explore Car Top Carrier (Reese Brands)
Once you’ve decided where to go, it’s time to start packing up the car. Unfortunately, a lot of us tend to bring way, way too much, which leaves barely enough room in the car for the people. One great solution is this roof-top carrier from Reese. It’s made of lightweight-but-durable nylon that will keep your belongings clean and dry regardless of the weather, and is a lot easier to attach to your car’s side rails or cross bars than many of its competitors. Best of all, it’s expandable (going from 12 to 16 cubic feet of storage), which is a big help if you’re trying to carry awkwardly shaped items. Retails for about $65 at http://www.walmart.com/

dragons adventureDragons Adventure World Explorer (DreamWorks)
Keeping the kids entertained on a long drive can be a challenge. Ideally, you’ll have a mix of tech and no-tech options. When it’s tech’s turn, Dragons Adventure is perfect. It’s inspired by the How to Train Your Dragon movies and set on the Isle of Berk. As you might expect from DreamWorks, it’s beautifully designed and quite interactive. There are quests—light signal beacons, move a sheep from one place to another, but Dragons Adventure has a few twists that make it truly unique. In it-home mode, players (who can be either Hiccup or Astrid) fly around the world, rescuing dragons from evildoers. But the real fun starts on the move. The app uses HERE maps to bring the roads you’re driving on into the game in real time, so players will see familiar landmarks as they fly their dragons. It also info from The Weather Channel to change the weather conditions in the game, and data from Foursquare to determine how many Vikings appear along the route. Another neat feature: If you plug in your starting point and destination before you start, the game will wind down as you reach your destination. Free for Microsoft Windows phones and tablets.

mountainsmith conifer 5+Conifer 5+ (Mountainsmith)
Once you get there, you’ve got to sleep somewhere, right? You can’t do better than the Conifer 5+. To say it’s roomy doesn’t do it justice. The tent itself has 83.5 sq. feet of floor space, lots of interior pockets, and a ceiling height of 6’2”, so there’s plenty of room for two adults, three kids, and a dog or two. There’s also a “porch,” which adds another 30 sq. ft for storing luggage or just hanging out. It’s quick and easy to set up, but best with two people—especially if it’s windy. Directions are printed right on the stuff sack, so they’re a lot hard to lose. Prices range from $285 to $360. http://mountainmith.com/

washdropsWashdrops (Cequent Consumer Products)
After a long road trip, you’re going to want to wash that car. But today, when everyone’s concerned about conserving resources, wasting all that water is a big no-no. So what’s an environmentally savvy parent with a filthy vehicle to do? All you need is one bucket of water and Washdrops . It’s non-abrasive and leaves you with a shiny surface without repeated rinses. It’s completely non-toxic—no solvents, butyl, phosphate, or ammonia—so when you’re done you can use what’s left in the bucket to water your garden. $10.95-$22.00. http://washdrops.com/