Educational Systems That Actually Educate (and Entertain)

In recent years, there’s been a lot of controversy about “educational” DVDs, flash cards, and worksheets—do they work or are they doing more harm than good. The answer is all about communication. If you park your child in front of a DVD or leave your child with a stack of worksheets, there’s little to no benefit. But if you’re together, talking about what you’re watching or seeing, it’s a big win-win.  Here are two educational programs—one DVD-based, the other paper-based—that do a wonderful job of engaging parents and their preschoolers.

 

Little Pim

little pim parents@playIf you’re interested in exposing your little one to a new language, Little Pim is a great choice. Using the “Entertainment Immersion Method,” each Little Pim DVD covers a particular theme (usually common activities like waking up, brushing teeth, getting dressed, mealtime, and playtime) and introduces about 60 words and phrases. Kids (and adults) learn a new language the way they learned the first—by example and repetition. The discs are further divided into 5-minute chunks that make parent-child interaction, practice, and discussion a breeze.

Little Pim adds to the learning—and the fun—by including music CDs. The French Bop CD, for example, includes 15 popular French children songs which will help your little one retain the vocabulary while learning about French culture. To round out the experience, there are also word- and phrase cards to quiz your kids with (or that you can use to practice on your own). With patience and practice, today’s preschooler could learn enough to play tour guide on your next overseas trip.

Little Pim has kits in Arabic, Chinese, French, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Russian, all of which are perfect for the classroom, home, or a quick on-the-plane or in-the-airport language brush up. Most are also available digitally and can be downloaded to your tablet or smartphone. Preschool and up. http://www.littlepim.com/

 

Newmark Learning

newmark learning parents@playKids who do the best in school are usually the ones who get the most support and encouragement from their parents at home. Knowing mom and dad are there motivates kids and shows them that making an effort makes a difference. It’s tempting to leave everything to the teacher, but if we truly want our kids to be successful, there’s no substitute for rolling up our sleeves and working with our little scholars. Sometimes, though, parents want to be supportive but don’t know how. Enter Newmark Learning’s Parent Involvement Kits.

newmark learning parents@playEach kit is focused around a single subject (including math, social studies, and science) and contains books, a parent guide, and a reading journal. We reviewed the Social Studies kit, which covered a variety of topics such as maps, birthdays, towns, and more. Each book’s vibrant, large pictures and simple words encourage kids to read along with parents at story time.

If you’re working with a child who isn’t reading yet, you’ll really appreciate Newmark’s Sight Word Readers (included in the Parent Involvement Kits), small books designed to teach pre-readers to recognized basic words they’ll see all the time. Usually, sight word drills are boring. These are just the opposite. Parents@playmate Samantha, who’s a teacher by training, says that the Newmark Learning programs are the best she’s ever used. And she was thrilled to see her 5-year old flipping through a book, looking at words and reading them aloud. Perfect for home, home schooling, or the classroom. Pre-K – 2nd grade. newmarklearning.com/

Building Blocks of Success

There’s a reason blocks have been a part of just about every child’s toy box for hundreds of years: Building things with blocks (and in my house, knocking them down) is just plain fun. But fun is just the beginning. Blocks teach children about colors, shapes, proportions, patterns, spatial relationships, physics, experimentation, and design. They also build hand-eye coordination and stimulate creative thinking—and they have the remarkable ability to adapt to your child’s physical and intellectual age—the older the child, the more complex her block play will be. Best of all, playing with blocks is a great opportunity for parents and kids to hang out together, learn from each other, and strengthen their relationship. Here are some of our favorites.

Nanoblocks
nanoblocksParents and kids can spend time together building a variety of animals and architectural sites from around the world. Since many of the nanoblock sets represent well-know buildings, dads who enjoy architecture will enjoy the process and teaching kids about the original buildings. The one caveat is that these blocks truly are “nano” in size compared to the common Lego-style blocks. Nanoblocks require good eyesight and nimble fingers to control, but they’re great for building attention span, focus, and fine motor skills. We also like the “nano-sized” price point that makes these easily a tenth the cost of the architecture collection of the major competitor. Ages 6+,www.mynannoblock.com

Building Blocks Technics
We love Haba’s wooden toys, and this set of blocks and wheels is no exception. What makes this kit extra special, though, is that it introduces young builders to the concept of adding motion to their block creations. More and more research points to the value of using basic toys to stimulate a child’s imagination. And for dad and mom, playing imagination games is a great way to connect with the kids on their level. Ages 3+, www.habausa.com

Makedo Freeplay Kit
makedoWhat a cool concept. The Makedo (pronounced Make Doo—as in, “we’ll have to make do with what we have around the house”), is a container filled with reusable connectors that can help dads and kids turn even the most useless pile of recycling into a great project. Got a few scraps of fabric, an old oatmeal can, an empty tissue box, and a few toilet paper tubes? You can build a robot. Or a plane. Or anything else you can think of. As overused as the expression is, this truly is one of those cases where the only limit is your (and your children’s—assuming you’ll let them play too) imagination. Ages 4+,www.makedo.com.au

Lite Brix Building System: Extreme City Lights.
litebrix from lite brixWhen you take the Lite Brix out of the box, they look kind of boring. Almost all the bricks (which, in shape, look a lot like Lego) are the same color—kind of a translucent white. But once you and your child have built the first skyscraper and turn on the battery-powered LEDs, wow! And when you finally get all three up and running, wowie wow! The buildings seem almost alive. Detailed directions make it pretty easy for parents and kids to assemble cooperatively—better yet, let your child read the instructions and show how well you can follow orders. The three buildings that are part of this kit can be rebuilt into a single structure, and can be combined with other Lite Brix kits. But don’t feel limited by the instructions. Lite Brix also combine with Lego, so you can build even bigger and even more amazing structures. Ages 6+, http://www.cra-z-art.com/

All A-Board

Most board games these days have boards that are pretty similar to each other—some variation of a square. But in an attempt to stand out from the crowd, a lot of game companies are coming up with boards that are often as interesting to look at as the games themselves are to play.

Don’t Panic (Goliath)
don't panic Don’t Panic’s “board” has two components. A roundish board and a timer. The only other pieces are pawns (markers) and a deck of 85 cards. The concept is simple and you’ll be up and playing within minutes. The person whose turn it is spins an arrow and the player to the left pulls one of the cards and selects the question that matches the color of the space the other player is on. The arrow determines how many responses (4-8) the spinning player has to answer. The timer indicates how many spaces that player (or team) will move forward. Questions vary in difficulty, from ingredients found in tacos to U.S. Vice Presidents. Getting the first few answers is easy. But the fun starts when time is running short and players start stuff up. A great game for learning to think on one’s feet. 2-18 players, ages 8 and up.

Wordsearch (Goliath)
wordsearchWordsearsch’s board is kind of a cross between a lazy Susan and Chinese checkers. Choose from one of 10 round, two-sided cards, each of which has more than 25 hidden words. There are also words printed along the outer edge of the circle. Rotating the board reveals one of those words at a time, which all the players rush to find. Like most other wordsearch games, words can be forwards, backwards, or diagonal. Whoever finds the word first grabs the “totem” (essentially a squeaky dog toy) and squeezes it. Then he or she covers each letter of the found word with translucent tokens. The player with the most tokens on the board when all the words have been found wins the round. A fun way for younger players to learn word recognition and spelling. For 2-4 players, ages 7 and up

Skateboard Madness (Mindtwister Games)
skateboard madnessSkateboard Madness’s board looks like an X formed by two overlapping skateboards. Game play is a bit like rummy, where players pick up cards and put them together into “skate sessions.” As they shred their way through the board, players learn new tricks, Ollie (jump) over other players, slam (get injured), find bandages (to heal those injuries), answer trivia questions (four levels of difficulty), and even find sponsors. The rules are complex but intuitive—once you get the hang of them—and are laid out in a 15-page instruction booklet, which you absolutely must read. Entertaining for the whole family. For 2-6 players, ages 8 and up. http://mindtwisterusa.com/products/games/

Pochecko (Pockecko)
pocheckoPochecko combines the fun and excitement of poker with the strategy of chess. Its unique looking board is made of a triangular spaces. 52 are marked with the value of one of the cards in a standard deck. The rest are blank and used for moving. Each player has five pawns, which they place around the board. There are also two other markers which indicate the “community” cards. As with poker, players try to build the best hand. But what makes this game especially fun is that unlike Texas Hold ‘Em, where you don’t know for sure what cards your opponents are holding, in this game you know—or you can make an educated guess at—the hands they’re building and you can take steps to block them. For 2-4 players, ages 12 and up. http://www.pochecko.com/
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Cool Alert: Phabulous Tablets from Nokia

For better or worse, we’re old enough to remember when cameras on cellphones were first appearing. Back then, advertisers would go on and on about how great the phone was—call quality, fewer drops, ease of use, and so on. Then, almost as a throwaway, they’d say, “Oh, and by the way, you can take pictures with it too!”

Fast forward to today, where you’d be hard pressed to find a cellphone ad that actually mentions about the phone. It’s all about the apps, the web surfing, checking email, and, most importantly, the camera. Take stills, shoot video, zoom, edit, and upload direct to Facebook and YouTube. “Oh, and by the way, you can make phone calls with it too!”

Read the rest of our review of the sleek, stylish, Nokia Lumia 1520 and 2520 at Parents@Play, here:

More Post-Holiday Fun

Glitzi Globes Starter Kit
glitzi globesGot a girl who loves animals? How about all things pink and sparkly? If so, you’ll want to check out Glittzy Globes, a kit that lets your child create her own snow globe accessories. The Glitzi Globes Starter Kit comes with four globes kids can make all by themselves. They can design these glittery Globes by using the included dome maker (which looks sort of like an egg slicer, but without the blades) that holds the globe firmly, freeing up your young artist’s hands so she can add different characters and charms. Each kit includes a special water bottle that can be filled with water and inserted into the globe, four snow domes, four bases, four pop sticks, one bag tag for displaying your creations, 12 floating charms, five glitter tablets, four characters, and one instruction booklet. Whew. That’s a lot of stuff for one box! $18 at Toys R Us or your favorite retailer.

KRE-O CityVille Invasion Police Station Zombie Defense
zombie defense police stationKids can build their own city and defend it from zombie invasion. This police station comes compete with a rotating gun turret, combat vehicle, two police and two zombie figures. The cops can patrol CityVille and round up zombies with their squad car outfitted with a zombie-capturing claw. Back at HQ, they can lock up the zombies in special jail cells. For kids seven and up, but fun for parents too, especially if they’re fans of “The Walking Dead.” Go ahead and re-create the prison breakout scene, but let Hershel live… $25 pretty much everywhere.

Calico Critters Cozy Cottage
calico critters cottageThe Calico Critters Cozy Cottage is a great way to begin a Calico Critter collection. Or, if you already have a bunch of the critters, it’s a perfect place to put them. The soft, detailed, and posable critter figures are not only cute and cuddly, but also come in many animal varieties and sets. The house comes fully assembled, furnished, and ready to play with (which may come as a relief to any parent who’s feeling a little overloaded after non-stop Holiday assembly projects), so there’s absolutely no need to buy anything else. The Cottage includes Bell Hopscotch Rabbit, a bed with matching sheets, a round table with chairs, a kitchen counter with sink and oven, a moveable ladder for easy access to each floor, cookware, and plenty of food. Designed to demonstrate real life values (friends, family, sharing) and encourage imaginative play, each Calico Critter family and doll plays a different role in the Cloverleaf Corners community. $50 wherever you like to buy your toys.

Mamas and Papas Rainbow Hobby Horse
rainbow hobby horseWhat kid doesn’t love a hobby horse? It’s perfect for playing cowboys, riding through the Wild West, catching bad guys, being a castle-storming knight, a princess on her valiant steed, or anything else you can think of. The possibilities are truly limitless. This colorful printed hobby horse (which is also available in a slightly more boyish “cowboy” horse print) will inspire hours of imagination as your child gallops through the house and yard, jingling as she goes. Press the horse’s ear and he’ll neigh. These hobby horses have solid wood hand grips and poles, a colored harness, and yarn mane. Although recommend for ages three and up, we think kids even younger will like it too. But stay close, just in case your toddler decides to wield it as a weapon. $35 at http://us.mamasandpapas.com

What to Do When You’ve Waited Past the Last Minute

Black Friday and Christmas—and the shopping insanity that surround them—are just memories, but now may be the perfect time to fill in the gaps in last year’s gift lists. And because of all the sales and clearances, you’ll be able to take advantage of perhaps the lowest prices you’ll see all year. Here are some of our after-the-last-minute picks.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Ninja Control Shellraiser (Playmates)
teenage mutant ninja turtlesThis new remote-controlled vehicle has all the bells and whistles and has been pronounced “so cool” by many a six-year-old. The Turtles action figures (sold separately) can really ride on it, and the fully child-controlled rapid-fire sewer-cover cannon is a blast for the kids (and their daddies). $49.99. http://www.playmatestoys.com

Peter Rabbit DVD and Gift Set
peter rabbitIn case you missed it, those classic Beatrix Potter tales that you grew up with are now a hit TV series. The Peter Rabbit set includes full episodes from the show as well as activities to keep your own little bunny hopping. A great take-along for travel, snow days, sick days, and even a trip to grandma’s. The included puzzle and crayon pack are perfect for keeping little hands busy instead of getting into trouble in Mr. McGregor’s garden. $20.00.  Exclusively at Walmart.

Brush Pets and Glow Pets (Pillow Pets)
brush petsThere’s always something new going on at Pillow Pets. One of their latest is a line of six singing toothbrushes, made to look like the kids’ favorites Pillow Pets. Brush Pets play for two minutes (exactly what your dentist recommends) and use fun sounds and silly instructions to keep the kids brushing. Brush Pets also come with a suction-cup “house” that attaches the brush to a wall and helps keep your vanity top clean. $7.99

Also new is the Glow Pets line. During the day, Glow Pets are regular stuffed animals. But at night, they can turn into the perfect, cuddly, after-dark companion—especially for a child who’s afraid of the dark. Glow Pets do indeed glow (they use 30 LEDs that never get hot) and they shut off by themselves after 20 minutes. Requires three AA batteries. $20. http://www.PillowPets.com

DiscoRobo (TOSY Robotics)
disco roboThese cute robots use “beat detection technology” (bet you’ve never hear of that!) to feel—and dance along with—whatever music you’re playing. DiscoRobo’s got 56 separate moves (about 53 more than most humans) and eight different facial expressions, and looks like he’s having such a good time that the kids (and you) won’t be able to keep from joining in. Since it’s probably illegal to sell a toy these days without a smartphone app, DiscoRobo’s got one. It allows you to “chat” with your Robo and even customize his dance moves. Sounds silly, but so did Rock Band and Dance Dance Revolution, and look how much fun those are. Got a kid who loves to dance?  Or a shy one you want to encourage to come out of his or her shell? This will be a hit for them and the rest of the family. $45 at http://www.tosy.com/discorobo/

Still looking for something for the special lady in your life? Check out the retro jewelry at Jade and Jasper (http://www.jadeandjasper.com/). It’s fun, funky, affordable, and easy to mix and match. If you’d prefer something a little more personal, Joseph Nogucci has lovely-yet-inexpensive jewelry that she’s sure to love. http://www.josephnogucci.com/

Finally, be sure to check out the latest winners of the Mr. Dad Seal of Approval. New winners are announced four times per year and we’re now accepting submissions for our Spring 2014 awards. Visit http://mrdad.com/seal.