Seal of Approval Winners, Father’s Day 2011*

PREGNANCY AND INFANCY

Baby Hip Hugger (Baby Nari)
The Baby Hip Hugger looks like a big fanny pack but instead of a pack, there is a little seat where you can rest the baby. There are Velcro straps with safety buckles that you can fasten around your waist. The seat is angled towards your body, and there is a non-skid seat, to help keep your child in place. You have to hold your baby to your body at all times, but the Baby Hip Hugger distributes the baby’s weight across your body. Instead of finding awkward positions to support the baby, I’m able to maintain better posture and relieve my arms and back of the baby weight. The seat also has a tiny pocket that will fit a diaper, a small wallet and a set of keys. There is a small mesh pocket along the Velcro straps as well, where you can fit a bottle of water or milk. All-in-all, I think the Baby Hip Hugger is a baby carrier that I’ll put to good use. The biggest challenge is remembering to put the Baby Hip Hugger on and leaving it on while I’m not holding my son. Having said that, once it’s strapped in place, it is very easy to pick the baby up and put him back down.www.babynari.com

TODDLERS AND PRESCHOOLERS

Las Estaciones (The Seasons)Spanish DVD
and Cha, Cha, Cha, Spanish Music CD (WhistleFritz)
Research shows that children who learn a second language exhibit more flexible thinking and creativity, have stronger listening skills, and score better on standardized tests. And what dad wouldn’t want that for his kids? The Whistlefritz programs (DVDs and CDs) use a playful combination of live-action, animation, music, skits and more to start exposing your children to Spanish. And the Whistlefritz folks know that parents are the best teachers, dads (and moms) are encouraged to participate as well. It’s a great way to have fun with the kids–and you’ll learn a little something too. Ages 3 years and up. www.whistlefritz.com

Building Blocks Technics (HabaUSA)
We love the wooden toys from Haba, and this set of blocks and wheels is no exception. This set is extra special, because it starts to teach young builders, 3+, how to add 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, playing imagination games, is a great way to connect with the kids on their level. Ages 3 years and up. www.habausa.com

Where is Leo? (HabaUSA)
We’re big fans of Haba games. They’re refreshingly low-tech, easy to learn, competitive enough to be fun for pretty much everyone in the family, but not so competitive that fights break out in the living room. Where is Leo? is no exception. The rules were a little complicated, but once we got going, the game had no problem keeping an entire family entertained. For dads who aren’t terribly hot on competition or who are lookng for an engaging game that doesn’t plug in, beep, or whistle, this is an excellent option. Ages 3 years and up. www.habausa.com

Animal Jam (National Geographic Kids)
Animal Jam is a virtual world that you and your young child are going to want to visit over and over. The folks at National Geographic have made learning about animals and the natural world so much fun that it’s easy to forget that you’re actually learning something. Besides being incredibly kid-friendly, Animal Jam is advertising free and has a great parent dashboard which allows dad (and mom) as much control as you feel you need. Memberships range from $5.95 for one month to $59.95 for a year. www.animaljam.com

Roll Up Roads (Wild Creations)
If you’re a dad who likes to get down on the floor and build with your young contractor, Roll Up Roads is a great addition to the blocks box. Roll Up Roads look like rolls of adhesive tape printed with patterns of highways, railroad, dirt roads and more. But the adhesive backing isn’t super sticky, but sticky enough to lie down flat on carpet and floors, or even upholstery without doing any damage. We like this simple idea that doesn’t steal away from the imagination of the child (and dad!), but can help dad and child plan the city they are building or map their new adventures together. www.wildcreations.com

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Find It: On a Hunt (Find It Games)
Imagine sending the kids on an hour-long treasure hunt, with instructions to find a few dozen items. And imagine how much time you’d have to spend cleaning up afterwards. Well, with Find It games there’s absolutely zero mess to deal with–everything you need is sealed in a large, sand- or pellet-filled plastic tube. You can hunt for objects together, take turns trying to beat each other’s score, or get two and go head to head. Either way, it’s addicting. There are a number of games to choose from, including the beach, zoo, sports, and the Wizard of Oz.The one we evaluated has camo-colored pellets and includes an arrow, dog, and a pesky penny that no one around here has been able to find. www.finditgames.com

Anamalz (Anamalz)
Looks like we’re not the only folks who appreciate wooden toys. Anamalz poseable toys are wonderful on many levels. They’re made from sustainable maple wood and non-toxic dyed textiles (meaning you won’t have to worry if they end up in someone’s mouth. They’re cute, feel good in the hands, and are gender-neutral enough that even boys will want to play with them. Accessories are available too–trees, rivers, and open space.There’s also an owners-only website where kids (and their parents) can learn about the environment. Oh, and did we mention that you and your children are going to have a wonderful time playing and learning together? What a great way for dad to subtly teach young children about animals and the environment. Doesn’t get much better than that. Ages 3+. www.anamalz.com

Does Your Daughter Have Dad Hair? by Craig Lawrey
What is it about dads and daughters? As the father of three girls, I can’t even count the number of times I had my nails painted, face powdered, and eyes smeared with mascara. Or the number of hours I spent conditioning hair (not mine) and combing out snarls that seemed big enough to house an entire family of hawks. Or the days I spent shaking my head in amazement as a straight-haired -daughter used some kind of medieval torture instrument to curl her hair, while her wavy-haired sister used an equally frightening tool to straighten hers. In my book, every minute you spend elbow-deep in your daughter’s locks brings you closer together and strengthens your relationship. And whether you’re trying to do your first pigtails or you can do five-strand French braids in the dark, this book is a must-have. www.dadhair.com

GeoPalz Kid’s Pedometer(GeoPalz)
GeoPalz is a fun way to get kids out and get active. Walking/hiking dads will love how a simple pedometer, connected to a simple website can motivate kids to take steps every day. GeoPalz themselves are very simple pedometers, calibrated for little legs. They count daily steps, which kids enter into a fun website. Dads don’t have to worry that the website has chat or mail; all it does is add up the steps and send a weekly report to dad or mom. When kids accumulate enough steps, they can win a $5 iTunes card or a small toy. For some kids. that’s enough to keep them walking. And walking. We also liked the lessons it teaches kids, from adding up steps and “feet” to miles and also saving steps to earn a prize later. Ages 5+. www.geopalz.com

Fire Station (Box-O-Mania)
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, children played with cardboard boxes, turning them into rockets, race cars, pirate ships, and clubhouses. Imagination reigned supreme. Too many kids these days have no idea what they’re missing. So along comes Box-O-Mania, which tweaked the plan old cardboard box in a very cool way. Instead of using cardboard, they use a sturdy corrugated plastic. And that means that the kits can be used over and over and over. Markers and stickers are included, and they too can be recycled. And just in case you want to regain control of your living room, the kids pack up neatly into a box that fits under just about any couch. It’s also a great place for kids to have a sleepover–or for dad to set up his home office. www.boxomania.com

Makedo Freeplay Kit (Makedo)
What a cool concept. The Makedo (pronounced Make Do–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 is one of those cases where the only limit is your (and your children’s–assuming you’ll let them play too) imagination. www.makedo.com.au

Now I’m Reading! Plays: Jack and the Beanstalk (Innovative Kids)
We love the Now I’m Reading series. It’s a completely new type of book for learning readers that can get them motivated, but can also involve the whole family. Jack and the Beanstalk, like others in the series, like “The 3 Pigs,” is a playlet, which can be read as a book, or can be acted out by dad and child(ren) at bedtime with the five included scripts. It can even be fully produced as life performance with mom and dad as the audience. Included also are five ready-to-wear masks for kids to wear while reading the story or putting on the play. “Jack” is a slightly more advanced “Level 2″ version, but still good for kids five and over. It also makes a fun idea for sleepovers and family game night. www.innovativekids.com/

PiggyBack Bandz (Fungrins, LLC)
Another great dad-daughter bonding experience. After you’ve done her hair, played dress-up, had your nails done, and build a few castles, it’s time to relax and put on a few Piggy Back Bandz. With standard sillybandz, once they’re on your wrist you have no idea what shape the band actually is. With Piggy Back Bandz, problem solved. They add a mini version of the whatever it is you’re wearing (whether it’s a lava lamp, your name spelled out, a baseball bat, champagne glass, etc) stands on top of the actual bracelet. So now you can be cool–and everyone will know it. www.piggybackbandz.com

TWEENS AND TEENS

Oh, Really! (Find It Games)
Think you’ve got your family and friends pretty well figured out? Well, after a few rounds of Oh, Really? we’re betting you don’t know them half as well as you thought. It’s a pretty simple concept. You take five cards with completely random words and then rank them 1-5 based on your personal priorities. Meanwhile, the other players try to guess what matters most to you. The juxtaposition of the words makes for an uproarious evening. And what you learn about your friends and family will make for some pretty odd discussions later. Definitely for ages 10 and up. Ages 10 and up. www.finditgames.com

Reverse Charades (Reverse Charades)
This is one of those I-can’t-believe-no-one-thought-of-this-before kinds of products. Instead of having one person act out the clue for the team, with Reverse Charades, the team puts on the show for an individual. When testing this game we had people ranging from 5 to 78–and we played for more than an hour. Everyone agreed to stop only when I promised that we could play again. Soon. And for a longer time. www.reversecharades.com

Seal of Approval Winners, Spring 2011

Pocket Referee (Vraney, Inc.)
We love the Pocket Referee. It’s a very simple, very low-tech solution to one of the worst parts of being a parent: having to continually play King Solomon to children arguing over whose turn it is, or who gets the last cookie. The Pocket Referee is a silver dollar-sized coin (it comes in gold or antique brass finish) that passes from child to child. The holder of the coin either uses it to be the current decider and passes it on to the other child, or holds on to it when the decision just isn’t that important to him. This is a dad-invented product that deserves a shot if you have two or more kids who fight about every decision. And don’t we all?
www.thepocketreferee.com

Periodic Quest (Periodic Quest)
Periodic Quest is a game that will orient the whole family toward the Table of Elements. We recommend this product only for dads who have at least a basic familiarity with the Table of Elements. Dads expecting to learn science along with their kids may get a little frustrated, but if you’re interested in chemistry and you want to share your passion with your kids, this game is a real winner. For ages 12 and up.
www.periodicquest.com

Daddy Sneaks (by Sharlene Weingart)
In this charming story by Sharlene Weingart, Daddy–a goateed, hip-looking guy–takes the whole family, pets and all, camping. You’d think that in 2011 there would be more books with positive father role models. Sadly, no. But that just makes the engaged, loving, caring–and kinda sneaky–Dad stand out even more. Ages 3-6.
www.mommytakesaway.com

BANANAGRAMS
APPLETTERS
PAIRSinPEARS
ZIP-IT
(Bananagrams)
If you like Scrabble, Anagrams, and Boggle, you’ll love all four of these games. Actually, you’ll love them even if you’ve never heard of those other games. Besides being really fun, they all have a few things in common: boys and girls will both enjoy them, they’re fast–no sitting around waiting for everyone else to take their turn, you don’t need a board or even pencil and paper, they can be enjoyed by adults as well as kids, they come in really cute packages, and they’re a great way to help early gradeshoolers with spelling and those know-it-all teens and tweens build their vocabulary. Oh, and they’re addictive as hell.

Bananagrams is the one that started it all. Players turn over tiles and race to be the first to use them all, cross-word style.

Appletters offers a fun twist on Bananagrams by allowing words to be built from only the first or last letters. So instead of a crossword you’ll end up with more of a snake. It’s actually three separate games in one–each appropriate for a different age group.
PairsInPears stays true to it’s word-bilding roots, but adds a memory and matching component. Very fast paced.

Zip-It might be the fastest of them all–you can play a hand in under 20 seconds–but you’ll want to stick with it for longer than that. Zip-It uses lettered cubes (like dice) instead of tiles and the zippers on the carrying case are used to keep score. Again, lots of fun for everyone.
www.bananagrams.com

Baby Goes Pro DVD (Baby Goes Pro)
This DVD introduces toddlers to five popular sports: baseball, basketball, golf, tennis, and soccer. It was created by tennis pro Gigi Fernandez. The idea is to introduce very young kids to sports while giving them a chance to see real athletes in action–all coached by a pretty entertaining monkey. No guarantees that your baby will be the next Tiger Woods (on the course, not off) or Cy Young winner, but it’s a great way for dad to open the door to sports in a low-presure, fun way. Ages 3-6.
babygoespro.com/m

Create Your Own Floor Puzzle (Cobble Hill)
This is one of these “Why didn’t anyone think of this before?” things. A blank, 36-piece jigsaw puzzle that provides a great opportunity for dads and kids to work on a cool project together. But with Mother’s Day just around the corner, it might also be a fun way to make a memoriable, meaningful gift for mom.
www.cobblehillpuzzles.com

Kids Photo Growth Chart (Kangaroom)
Watch your child grow by feet and inches and have the photos to prove it! If you have kids, you have photos (from school, sports teams, birthdays, holidays, etc.), and until now, you probably haven’t had a good way to display those yearly photos!! Our brand new Kid’s Photo Growth Chart-a totally unique way to keep track of your child’s growth physically, as well as in photos. This hanging organizer can be customized as your child grows and changes: one side for photos of your child and the other side for photos of favorite friends or family. Customizable labels and personality cards (to record favorite things and thoughts for each age) are made to slip in front or behind photos to create a lasting keepsake of childhood! Don’t let your child’s photo history sit in a messy drawer any longer!
www.greatusefulstuff.com

Gogo Kidz Travelmate(GoGo Babies)
If you’ve ever had to shlepp a sleeping infant or toddler through the airport to the very last gate in the furthest terminal, your back is probably still sore. Next time pich up the Travelmate. It’s kind of like a hand truck that enables you to roll that car seat with ease. Not only saves your back, but can do wonders for your mood as well. So when your child wakes up, you’ll be ready to play.
www.gogobabyz.com

Koobli(Koobli)
If you come home and your son or daughter is often covered in paint, flour, or mud, then the Kobli smock is for you. It’s just a simple, water-repellent shirt that you put on backwards like a hospital gown. It covers you from the waist up with elastic at the wrists to keep you clean if you either are diving in for a welcome home hug or to take part in the activity. The Koobli is not for the dad of any child, but you’ll know immediately if this is a lifesaver for you.
www.koobli.com/

Wet Happened? Zippered Wet Bag (ItzyRitzy)
We don’t know how moms handle it, but we’ve found ourselves many times at the pool with wet children and now soaking wet bathing suits to carry out in the cold air and then drop, soggy, onto the floor of the car for the ride home. With all the chlorine on the floor and floor mats, I’m surprised it hasn’t faded the fabric. Itzy-Ritzy makes just the thing for this problem: The Wet Happened? bag. It’s a nice cloth bag on the outside with a zipper closure that keeps the water in. Perfect when you take kids to the pool, or need to stash wet stuff to put in the suitcase for a trip home after a day at the beach. Yes, a plastic bag, does the same thing, but sometimes dads like a gadget that does something better and cleaner–and sometimes the kids want to make a fashion statement.
www.itzyritzy.com

Easy Stroll (Goosey Loo Industries)
Okay, if you’re over 5′ 8″, most strollers just aren’t comfortable. Some come with extendable handles, which makes taking the kids out for a walk less painful. But not all do. The Easy Stroll gives you complete, one-hand stroller operation, which allows you to stand up like a real Homo Sapiens and relieves some of the stress on your shoulders. Installs on any stroller in minutes.
www.easystroll.com

Doodle Roll (Imagination Brands)
The Doodle Roll is a fun addition to a bag to take to the restaurant or on a plane ride. It’s a low-cost roll of paper, prepackaged with crayons. Creative dads will use it to doodle and draw along with their kids as they might in a restaurant that provides paper tablecloths and crayons for the whole family. The unique on-the-go dispenser, handy crayon-caddy and safe tear-away edge allows Dad to interact as much or as little as he and his children choose. It’s also a fun way to engage in free-spirited doodling without the limit placed on kids by the four sides of a sheet of paper. Dads can also use it to play simple games like battleship and tic-tac-toe, the only limit is your knowledge of games. It also makes a great way to make a banner for Mother’s Day.
www.doodleroll.com

XRanger 2000 (Xploderz)
Maybe it’s the Marine in me (you know what they say, once a Marine…), but I have nothing against guns–as long as they’re used safely. In our house the shoot-above-the-knee-and-you-lose-it-for-a-day rule is set in stone. But even if you’re not a big gun fan, it’s hard to miss the entertainment value in the XRanger 2000 (the 2000 refers to the number of rounds of ammo that are included). Aimed at kids who’ve outgrown the soft darts but are too young for paintball, the Xploderz firing system (they deliberately stay away from the word “gun”) shoots a soft, round, water/gel pellet that explodes harmlessly on contact. Easy to clean up and doesn’t stain. And, in case someone does shoot above the knee, it’s completely painless (I had my daughter shoot me in the chest from five feet away and didn’t feel a thing). .
www.xploderz.com/

Wii Party (Nintendo Wii game)
Take Mario Party 8 and remove the tedium of waiting between mini-games and use your own avatar rather than playing as Mario and you have a good idea what Wii Party is all about. It’s big, big collection of mini-games that gives a fun play option for everyone in the family. We loved it. It’s simple to play. People can move in and out, and games are short enough that no one gets bored. All games can be played by almost any age at some level.
wiiparty.nintendo.com/

SnoozeShade (SnoozeShade)
There’s always one parent who is more concerned with plastics or air quality or over-doses of sun exposures. For the dad who is the worrier in the family, the Snooze Shade is a simple solution for outdoor strolls. It’s UPF 50+, breathable black fabric, so perfect for letting junior sleep even in bright glare while protecting his young skin, blocking out 94% of sun’s rays. It can also be used to shade from insects.
www.snoozeshade.com/

Ruining Childhood—Before It Even Begins

Dear Mr. Dad. My 9-month old daughter is happy and healthy in every respect (her pediatrician concurs). But all our friends are talking about the things they do to help their children grow, develop, learn, and so on. Is any of that really necessary? Will our daughter be okay if we just let her develop on her own?

A: I have no idea how it started, but somewhere along the line, a lot of parents got the idea that happy, healthy babies weren’t enough and that normal intellectual and physical development were happening too slowly. Babies, it seems, had to be constantly entertained and educated. Low-tech toys were replaced by electronic ones that light up, make funny noises, count, say the names of letters, colors and shapes, or conjugate irregular Latin verbs. And instead of learning to crawl, walk, and run on their own, babies needed personal trainers. What ever happened to letting kids be kids?

The short answer to your question is that, assuming your daughter’s pediatrician is right and your baby is, indeed, healthy, she’ll achieve her developmental milestones, gasp, without outside intervention.

That said, physically playing with your baby is wonderful for her—and for you. At the very least, you’ll feel more confident and competent as a parent, and your daughter will learn that she can count on you to always be there for her. A strong relationship with mom and dad is, hands down, the best gift you can give your child.

So here are a few ideas for fun ways of interacting with your baby. They’ll also stimulate her brain and body—but that’s not the primary goal.

For major muscle groups:

  • Put some toys near her feet and encourage her to kick them.
  • Roll a ball far enough out of her reach so she has to crawl to get it.
  • Supervised stair climbing is great. But stay nearby and be extremely careful. This is a good time to start teaching your baby to come down stairs backward. But be prepared to demonstrate yourself and to physically turn your baby around a few dozen times a day.
  • Chasing games: you chase her; she chases you. Reward her with a big hug and—if she doesn’t protest—a little wrestling. Besides being fun, these kinds of games teach your baby a valuable lesson: when you go away, you always come back. Plus, kids who wrestle with dad grow up with more highly developed social skills than kids who don’t get as much physical play.

Hand-eye coordination:

  • Puzzles. The best for this age wooden, have a separate hole for each piece, and a peg for easy lifting.
  • Nesting, stacking, measuring, and pouring toys. Also things to crush, tear, or crinkle—the noisier the better.
  • Weave some string between baby’s fingers or tape two of her fingers together. Can she “free” herself?
  • Hand-clapping games.

Consequences. The idea that different actions produce different effects can’t be reinforced often enough.

  • Jack-in-the-boxes—especially the kind with four or five doors, each opened by a push, twist, poke, or some other action. Be cautious the first few times, though; some babies may be frightened.
  • Pots, pans, xylophones, or anything else the baby can bang on. She’ll learn that different things make different noises when smacked and that hitting something hard sounds different from hitting something soft.
  • Doors (and anything else with a hinge, including books)—provided you’re there to make sure no one gets pinched.

But remember: Your only agenda is to have fun.

Seal of Approval Winners, Holidays 2010*

Avio Stroller (Inglesina)
The Avio is a sleek, lightweight, yet sturdy stroller. The single bar design allows for one-handed operation, which frees up your other hand to hold another child, drink your coffee, or talk on the phone (but shouldn’t you be paying attention to your child?). It comes with a cup holder, rain protector, a window that allows you to keep an eye on your baby, and a few other options. Rear shocks make for a somewhat smoother ride. And it fits Graco, Britax, and Peg Perego car seats. It’s a nice-looking stroller that won’t make you feel embarrassed to be seen pushing it. The one big problem is that that the handles don’t extend, which means that anyone over about 5′ 8″ will be stooping after a while. I guess you could use your extra hand to hold an ice pack… Price: around $500.
www.inglesina.com

Olive Kids website (Olive Kids)
It’s pretty hard, these days, to find bedding and other decor items for kids’ rooms that aren’t commercials for some TV show or movie or toy or character. So if you’ve had it with superheroes, Disney princesses, Pixar characters (don’t get me wrong–I love Pixar movies, but sometimes I need a break), Bob the Builder, Thomas, Scooby Do, GI Joe, and all the rest, you’ll definintely want to check out the Olive Kids website. They’ve got blankets, sheets, pillows, clocks, growth charts, plates, backpacks, lunch boxes, and lots more–all of which are attractive, well made, can be personalized with your child’s name, and are mostly under $50. Our kids are becoming brand conscious at younger and younger ages. Making your child’s room an ad-free zone might help slow the tide.
www.olivekids.com

Fire Truck (Green Toys, Inc.)
Put out 3-alarm blazes. Rescue kittens from treetops. Protect the environment from harm. That’s just a typical day in the life of the Green Toys Fire Truck, billed as “the world’s greenest emergency vehicle.” Made from 100% recycled plastic milk containers, this solidly built toy will stand up to even the most brutal dives out of second-story windows. The roof ladder pivots vertically and rotates 360 degrees, and the two side ladders are removeable. No BPA, PVC, or phthalates, so assuming you let your child play with this cute-as-a-button toy, it’s okay for him to put it in his mouth.
www.greentoys.com

Ice Age Excavation Kit
Crystal-Growing Trees
IR Cockroach
(Wild Creations)
Wild Creations keeps coming up with new ideas to stimulate science learning among young kids. The Ice Age Excavation Kit is a fun way for kids to get some insight into what it’s like to break open a pile of rock and find dinosaur bones. Developed under supervision of a paleontologist, dads can expect this toy to open up real discussions on dinosaurs, time, and geology.

Crystal-Growing Trees continue the theme of making science accesible and engaging for kids and adults. The package says it’s for ages 10 and up. But even kids who are way too young to care about the science will have fun creating a tree and watching the crystals grow.

Once you get past the yech factor, the remote-controlled IR Cockroach is another science project masquerading as a fun toy. Kids and dads will have fun examining the real life details of this giant cockroach (it’s about the size of a cantaloupe), and likely terrorizing mom, especially with its “prepare and scare” mode, which allows the toy to sit idle for 30 seconds before it comes to life. www.wildcreations.com

CitiBlocs (CitiBlocs)
Besides being fun, playing with blocks is a great brain builder. If you give your kids a chance to get near your box of CitiBlocs–which now come in an explosion of colors: orange, pink, red, yellow, and natural–they’ll benefit too, learning reasoning, problem solving, cause and effect, engineering, and improvising. Besides being educational, CitiBlocs are safe, green, and infinitely adaptable. They come in packs of 50, 100, and 200 blocs. If you can, get the bigger pack.
www.CitiBlocs.com

Terra Kids Experimental Box Knack of Knots (HABA)
For those of us who missed the boy scouts, didn’t join the Navy, and aren’t into bondage, and this battery-free kit includes everything you’d ever want to know about knot tying. Aimed at kids 8 and up, the Knack of Knots comes with detailed instruction cards, ropes, and even things to tie together. A wondeful way to strengthen those father-child ties.
www.habausa.com

Elf Magic (Elf-Magic)
Elf Magic is really a kit to create a new holiday tradition in your house. The idea is for dad to use the elf toy to represent Christmas magic for young kids. While this isn’t the kind of thing that all dads are going to spark to, we like the kit that comes with Elf Magic that helps guide dads in creating new holiday activities to delight a child.

http://www.elf-magic.com/

Balance Math & More! (The Critical Thinking Company)
The Balance Math & More! activities sharpen your child’s critical thinking skills, computational skills, and develop algebraic reasoning. The first book in the series focuses on addition and subtraction of whole numbers. The spiraling difficulty level is designed to scaffold a child’s conceptual understanding of the targeted operations from beginning to advanced. A great way to make learning math fun–for your child and for you.
www.criticalthinking.com

Piggyback Rider(Full Sail International, LLC)
There’s a point, somewhere around the time our kids turn three, that they make the transition from “able to walk just fine” to “unwilling to walk no matter how many times and how nicely you ask.” Unfortuately, even though most dads really love to carry their kids, that’s just about the same time that our backs start to give out. This is where Piggyback Rider comes in. Designed to accommodate kids as heavy as 60 pounds (although it’s better suited for kids 50 pounds and under), this well-built product shifts the child’s weight forward, over your hips, for a less-back-destrying ride. Handles on the shoulder straps (the ones over Dad’s shoulders) enable your child to hang on tight without choking you out.
www.thepiggybackrider.com/

Preschool Building Set
Power Sweeper
Constrction World II
Rok Works Construction & Action Set
(Rokenbok)
If you’ve got a budding engineer or builder on your hands, he or she (and you too, Dad), will love these blocks. With the Preschool Building Set, kids as young as two or three can start creating working, 3-dimensional working models of buildings, vehicles, planes and more.

One of the nicest features of the Rokenbok kits is that all the pieces work with each other. So as your child gets older you can add new and different blocks and build even more complicated structures. The Power Sweeper is perfect for older preschoolers.

The Construction World II and Construction & Action Set add in even more complicated structure, plus kids, when their dads will give it up, can incorporate engines and other moving parts and create vehicles that can be driven by remote control. Truly a building system that will grow with your child.
www.rokenbok.com/

3D Sneaky Puzzle, Singin’ Sea Creatures
Stir ‘em Up
Word Shout
(Patch)
Has anyone else noticed that just about everything is in 3D? Patch’s 3d Sneaky Puzzle is no exception–it even comes with 3D glasses. The puzzle itself is colorful, engaging, and pretty easy for toddlers and preschoolers to put together. But Patch adds a fun degree of difficulty by cleverly hiding all the letters of the alphabet and numbers 0-9 among the seashells, lobsters, and other undersea life.

Stir ‘em Up is no ordinary word game. To start with, there’s no sitting around waiting forever while everyone else takes their turn–everyone plays at the same time, making words out of letter tiles. Kind of like Scrabble, but with the letters constantly changing. For ages 8 and up, it’s great for vocabulary building, speed reading, and just plain old family fun.

Another fun game for kids 8 and up, Word Shout is like a combination of Boggle, Yahtzee, Scrabble, and a crazy day on the trading floor of the stock exchange. It’s designed to be played in 20-30 minutes so there’s never a boredom factor.
www.patchproducts.com

7 Function Binoculars
Bug-Eye Headlight
(Coghlan’s)
The Bug-Eye Headlight is perfect for kids (and grownups) who enjoy the outdoors–or who just like to read under the covers. Easier to hold on to than a regular flashlight and leaves both hands free if you’re camping and out in the middle of the night looking for a tree to pee on. The light is adjustable and since it’s powered by an LED, you’ll never have to worry about replacing bulbs (batteries still need replacing).

Like the Headlight, the 7 Function Binoculars are great for getting kids up and off the couch and into the great outdoors. It really does have seven functions, all of which encourage exploration and learning: binoculars, monocular, magnifying glass, linen counter, compass, stereoscope, and signal mirror. A great way to teach about directions, compases, and orienteering.
www.coghlans

Kim and Tim: The Color and Number Squirrels (HABA)
We had a lot of fun with the Haba Kim and Tim game. Like all Haba games, this one has a real appreciation about how kids play and what levels are right for different ages. The age range identified on the box is 3-6, which seems about perfect. My almost 7 year old son enjoyed the game, but he was clearly on the advanced side of the spectrum. My ten year old played patiently, and I was able to see the game through the eyes of a dad with the slightly younger child just learning shapes, colors and numbers. While the game uses a die and healthy amount of luck, there is some skill and memory involved in winning, especially if you’re only four years old, unlike other simple board games that would bore anyone over seven. Dads will enjoy playing this game with little kids, if only to watch their little minds turn through the challenges, albeit very simple for an older child.
www.habausa.com

Sports Resort (Nintendo Wii game)
Dads and kids who enjoy playing the Wii will have a ton of fun with Wii Sports Resort. Recently endorsed by the American Heart Association as an active video game, many of these games will get you out of your seat to play beyond a beginner level. The game includes new activities such as table tennis, frisbee, and swordplay, all requiring new skills. Many of the games can be played with three or four players, though most also require a Motion Plus accessory that attaches to the bottom of the Wii-mote. All games can be played by almost any age at some level.
WiiSportsResort.com

Kabongo website (Kabongo)
Unlike a lot of learning games online, my kids were engaged with Kabongo. The characters are engaging, in a snarky and silly sort of way, and the language learning games are well integrated into the game without seeming like an add-on. As dads, we especially like the weekly emails that tell what your child is playing at and doing, along with ideas on how to further develop their cognitive skills. This is the first game we’ve seen that actively involves parents, and we we hope they add more features like this.
www.kabongo.com

Power Strike Quick Fire 48 Blaster (Prime Time Toys)
If you don’t approve of guns, skip this product. But if you don’t mind your kids playing with firearms (toys, of course), this is a blast. It’s essentially a hand-held Gatling gun for kids. Unlike most other “harmless” toy guns (like marshmallow shooters, super soakers, and foam dart crossbows), the Power Strike is battery powered, which turns this baby into a battle-ready weapon. It has a payload of 48 darts, which can be launched as far as 48 feet. A good pre-paintball weapon. And it provides ample opportunity to teach your child about empathy, the importance of followoing rules, and consequences for not listening (in my house, the general rule is if you hit anyone above the knees, you’re disarmed for the rest of the day).
www.primetimetoys.com

The Mr. Dad Seal of Recognition

Not every product or service we evaluated met our strict criteria of helping dads get or stay involved with their children and improve the quality of father-child relationships. But there were some entries that we felt were worth noting.

From My Mama’s Kitchen: Food for the Soul, Recipes for Living, by Johnny Tan
Johnny Tan cooks up a tasty story of motherly love. Tan, who moved to the U.S. from Malaysia when he was 18. Since that time, he had the good fortune to meet nine different women, each of whom he lovingly refers to as “mom.” Tan incorporates each mom’s wisdom and guidance–along with a few recipes–as he explores the meaning of motherly love. It’ll help you appreciate your own mom a bit more, and the mom of your children a lot more.
www.frommymamaskitchen.com

A Bird, a Plane, SuperDad

Dear Mr. Dad: A good friend of mine, Rich, is a single father of a 4-year old boy, Max. Before becoming a dad, Rich had never spent any time around kids, and he has no idea what to do. He’s very serious and says it just isn’t any fun getting down on Max’s level and playing. At the same time, though, he feels bad that he isn’t spending enough time involved with Max. Any suggestions I can pass on?

A: The best “cure” for what you’re describing is for Rich to get out of his work clothes the moment he comes home. Did you ever watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood? If so, do you remember how he started every show? He’d come in, take off his nice jacket, hang it up, and put on a sweater; take off his dress shoes and put on sneakers instead. No question that what you’re wearing affects your behavior (think of Superman and other superheroes who change out of their work clothes and into their costume—can’t very well go around saving the world in a fancy suit and tie).

Once Rich is in play mode, it’s time to start rolling around on the floor. It may feel weird for a while, but he’ll eventually get used to it. And even if doesn’t like that kind of play, there are plenty of other ways for him to spend quality time with Max. But the most important thing is to jump in. Rich may be feeling the need to entertain Max all the time and that could be what’s keeping him away. The reality is that all Max really wants from his dad is to be together. It hardly matters what they’re doing, just as long as they’re doing it together.

If you’re looking for some specific ideas, check out the winners of our Seal of Approval program at mrdad.com/seal. Browse the lists–there are some really terrific games/toys/activities that Rich and Max will have a ton of fun doing together.

Dear Mr. Dad: I’ve been divorced three years, and have had a couple of serious relationships. My 11-year-old son, who lives with me half time, has met these women and a couple others, and seems pretty indifferent when the subject of my dating comes up. My ex thinks it’s reckless and harmful for my current girlfriend to be in contact with him. For now, I’m respecting her wishes. Still, I worry about this pattern continuing. For the record, in three years I’ve had a woman stay over exactly once when he is with me.

A: My advice is to keep kids and new partners apart until the relationship can be truly considered “serious.” Of course, that means different thing to different people. The problem is that kids form attachments very quickly (even if they, like your son, seem indifferent), and the last thing your son needs now is yet another breakup. I know it’s a tough situation–you don’t want to feel that your ex is running your dating life. But think about it as something you’ll do for your son. The fact that you’ve only had one girlfriend spend the night means that you won’t have to make any big changes. Could you confine your dating to the days your son is with his mom? When I was a single dad, I tried to do exactly that. That way, when my kids were with me, I could be there 100 percent for them, and when I was with a girlfriend, I could be with her 100 percent (or close to it).

Seal of Approval Winners, Fall 2010*

PREGNANCY AND INFANCY

Rumparooz Cloth Diapers (KangaCare)
If you’ve been avoiding using cloth diapers, you’re about to run out of excuses. To start with, they’re adjustable, so you don’t have to wait for your baby to reach a certain size. Thanks to super absorbent, natural material and a patented “gusset” system on the diaper itself, even the gooiest messes stay where they’re supposed to. They’re also hypo-allergenic and very low in toxins. And finally, they come in a wide variety of snazzy colors and patterns. But best of all, they encourage dads to get more involved in what we think is a highly underrated way to bond with your baby. At around $25 each, they’re a little pricey, but your baby will never look better. www.kanga-care.com

BestView Handheld Color Video Monitor (Summer Infant)
Not all that long ago, parents who wanted to be sure their baby was safe had to make do with listening for cries, or tiptoeing into the room to peek. Then, along came audio baby monitors, which made parents wonder what they ever did before. Now, with a full-color, digital display, the BestView is destined to be the latest “how-did-we-ever-get-along-without-this” gadget. With the pan and zoom features, even the most squirmy baby won’t be able to hide. Battery life could be longer, but at least it’s rechargeable. www.summerinfant.com/

Sound Beginnings (Creative Baby, Inc)
Sound Beginnings is a comfortable, fabric band that allows mom and dad to share music and voice with baby-to-be safely and easily. An easy-to-use, record-anywhere feature makes it possible for dads (and others) to even record their voice by phone if they can’t be there during the pregnancy. A great feature for dads who are deployed or who are on the road a lot. www.creative-baby.com

First Toddle (First Toddle)
One of the frustrating things about baby gyms and play blankets is that they tend to be good only for a few months. But First Toddle is designed to stay with your baby from 3 months to three years. With a soft football, field hockey stick and ball, and soccer goal and basketball hoop, this is a budding sports dad’s dream. There are also plenty of other things for the baby to bat and smack around. Our reviewers noted that one of the nicest features is the absence of electronics. No batteries, no flashing lights, no sounds (except for your baby’s giggles). Easy set-up and breakdown, and an all-around great way to hang with your baby. www.firsttoddle.com/

Sleep Tight and Enjoy the Ride (books by Suzy Martyn)
I had the chance to interview author Suzy Martyn on my radio show, “Positive Parenting” (you can hear the interview here), and she’s a smart, entertaining, wise, and very practical woman. These two slim-but-information-packed books are filled with terrific tips and advice on how to handle some of the most common–and most vexing problems new parents face. The more confident you feel in your own abilities as a dad (or mom), the more comfortable you and your baby will be with each other. And that’s an essential part of building a strong relationhip. www.mothersfriendsos.com

TODDLERS AND PRESCHOOLERS

E-Z Bat baseball toy (Monkey Business Sports)
The E-Z Bat makes it easier for kids to hit the ball. Good for developing confidence, but also more fun for dad. If you’ve ever spent a half hour tossing unhit pitches and chasing balls that are behind your child, E-Z Bat is a good option for a more fun-filled practice session, until they get old enough to hit the ball. www.monkeybusinesssports.com

Matryoshka Madness! Nesting Doll (Matryoshka Madness!)
If you’re the father of a daughter, you’ve probaby figured out that one of the best ways to spend quality time with your girl is to break out the dolls. And these Russian nesting dolls (Matryoshkas) are no exception. But unlike the original wooden ones from Russia and Eastern Europe (which were so easily breakable that they just weren’t fun to play with), these are made of durable ABS plastic. They also come in a variety of themes, inluding traditional folk costumes, puppies, and fairies. But in an attempt to woo little boys, there are also pirates, monsters, ninjas (pictured), and wrestlers. (www.matryoshkamadness.com/

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Book Pig (Book Pig)
BookPig is a Netflix-style book site for kids that helps kids choose a specific number of books to rent each month. The recommendation engine is especially powerful and helps dads know their kids are safe at a site that only has books that are appropriate for their age. Children’s Book award-winner lists also help dads pick out the best books for kids to to try. www.bookpig.com

Eco Acquarium (Wild Creations)
The Ecoquarium is an easy-to-set-up tank that comes complete with two adorable miniature frogs and a year’s worth of food. It’s extremely easy to take care of–and more fun for dads and kids–than fish. The “eco” part means it doesn’t require much cleaning or maintenance. www.wildcreations.com

Land of Me Interactive (Made in Me)
An interactive “book” that provides a great opportunity for dads and kids to play together. Kids learn basic concepts like shapes, colors, and numbers. They can choose characters, make plot decisions, and visualize the choices they make. Meanwhile, Dad can read background information to discuss with the kids. Other tools give off-line cutouts of puppets, masks, and maps. www.madeinme.com/

FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY

Zuvo Water Purator (Zuvo)
An eco-friendly solution for making tap water safe for the whole family to drink.
We liked now easy it was to install on a standard faucet, and the kids enjoy watching it working as the water bubbles through the cool blue UV light. Plus it satisfies a little bit of that provide-protector thing so many dads have.
www.zuvowater.com