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.

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/

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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