Thursday, December 11, 2008

Discovery Store: Macro Microscope

I have wanted to buy a microscope for Sam for years. Every Christmas for the past three years or so I have looked at microscopes online and in catalogs to decide what one I should get for him. But every year I've eventually decided that he was too young.

But this year he's seven, and really into learning about science. So I was thrilled when the Discovery Store sent me their Macro Microscope to review.

I've looked at a lot of microscopes and I have to say that after seeing this one in person, I would be delighted to buy it. I really liked that it looks and operates like a "real" microscope. It's not something to be tossed around and played with like a toy. It's a tool to learn things. And have fun while doing it.

The microscope comes with prepared slides as well as materials and instructions on how to prepare your own. I took a photo of all the materials that come with the microscope, but (surprise!) the one on the Discovery Store website was better, so I lifted this from their site:


There's a lot of cool stuff there. The "big deal" slide in the package is the Peruvian mummy wrap slide. Here is some information from the box, if you're curious:


I used this slide to test out the microscope and it was really neat. The microscope features 40x, 100x, and 400x magnification. If you'll pardon my amateurish photography, here is the mummy wrap at 40x:


And here it is at 100x:


Cool, huh?

The microscope is labeled for kids ages 8 and above, and that's probably a good estimate. Sam is seven, and he'll need to be assisted with this. (And no way is it getting left unattended in his bedroom with him, Jack, and Quinn.) But isn't playing with your children and helping them to learn what having kids is all about?

Another feature I like is that the eyepiece is soft so you and your kids won't give yourselves headaches banging into the thing.

Also, the instructions are thorough and give ideas for further experiments.

I can't wait to share all of the fun things we're going to learn about with this microscope. When I showed my husband, the first thing he said was, "The next time someone gets a cut, we can look at their blood!"

If that's not using science to make the world (or a boo boo) better, I don't know what is.

Honesty Clause: The Discovery Store sent me the microscope at no charge. It retails for $79.95.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Discovery Store: Spark Talking Globe

Did you know that the ancient Incas were some of the first to use peanut butter? Did you know that caribou have special fur to keep them warm and that it even helps them float? Did you know that the Great Barrier Reef is made of millions of tiny living things, but is so large that it can be seen from space?

Well, my kids and I do, and it is because of the Spark Talking Globe from the Discovery Store.

This fun, colorful toy is supposed to be for kids three and over, but all three of my kids (up to age 7) enjoyed playing with it.

There are lots of neat features to the globe. Kids can choose to learn facts about countries, continents, and cultures from ten different categories. The easy-to-use slider lets the user choose from facts about animals, sights, food, ideas, festivals, sports, music, national anthems, languages, and clothes.

Once a category is selected, the child spins the globe and touches a part of the world. Wherever they touch, the cheerful animated bear narrator rattles off the name of the continent and a fun fact. The small screen displays simple pictures that complement the fact.

The facts are simple enough to stand on their own, but could also form a basis for you and your child to go research and learn together. Once you hear about the Great Barrier Reef, maybe your child would like to see pictures on the internet, for example.

I like that the globe is an easy way to teach young kids very basic facts about the geography of the earth that they live on. Because the globe features only continents and not countries, it is uncluttered and simple to teach.


There are so many enticing toys from the Discovery Store. You are sure to find something there for everyone on your holiday list. This is a great option for kids just getting excited about their world.

Plus, where else are your kids going to learn that Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest volcano in the world?

Honesty Clause: The Discovery Store gave me the Spark Talking Globe for free. It retails for $49.95.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Emotes Giveaway

Well, I know you've been on the edge of your seat just waiting to find out who won our good friend Ick.


Congratulations, LeAnne, who commented fourth. LeAnne, your profile is blocked, so I don't know how to reach you. Please email me (stimeyland at gmail dot com) with your address so I can mail Ick to you. (Because who doesn't want a little Ick in the mail?

If I don't hear from LeAnne by this Saturday or so, I'll pick another name. Thanks for your comments!

Monday, December 1, 2008

32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny

I recently read 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny: Life Lessons From Teaching, by Phillip Done, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The word I wanted to use over and over to describe it to myself was "delightful." And when I was done with that word, I wanted to use the word "charming."

And when I was done with those two words, I wanted to use the sentence, "This is the perfect teacher gift!"

This quick and fun book was a joy to read—and evocative too. As soon as I read that Done considers "I can touch the paper cutter," to be one of the boons of teaching, I instantly flashed back to elementary school and the paper cutter than every student was forbidden to go near.

As a former student, I loved this book. As a parent to children in elementary school, I wanted to enroll my kids at Done's school. Done has taught for 20 years and has won the Schwab Foundation Distinguished Teacher Award. He also was nominated for the Disney Teacher of the Year Award. And just from reading his words, it is easy to see why.

Although his story about almost being killed by the school's laminating machine makes one wonder. But it'll make you laugh too.

Done writes the way I hope that I come across. His self-deprecating prose is funny and genuine. And while he makes gentle fun of his charges, he easily lets his intense love for them and his joy for teaching seep through the pages.

We should all be so lucky to have a Mr. Done in our or our children's lives. At the very least we can read this lovely book to catch some of his spirit.

Honesty Clause: I received this book for free. The hardcover retails for $19.95. It is currently on sale for $13.57 at Amazon.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Leapfrog Tag: The Books

I've obviously written previously about the Leapfrog Tag. We've since gotten some new books for the system and I'd like to tell you about them. LeapFrog sent us The Cat in the Hat and Dora the Explorer: Dora Goes to School.

My kids loved both of them. Although The Little Engine That Could is still Quinn's favorite. And Kung Fu Panda: Po's Tasty Training ranks highest for Sam and Jack.

Even after a couple months of owning the Tag, my kids haven't gotten tired of it. Quinn in particular loves it, I think because he can't read on his own. We love it so much that we got one for my nephew for Christmas.

Books that read themselves—how can you go wrong?


Honesty Clause: Leapfrog sent me The Cat in the Hat and Dora Goes to School free of charge. They retail for $13.99. (But are on sale at the LeapFrog site for $10.49 each. Plus, buy three, get one free. Use code HY8NTG.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Emotes Toys & Books (plus a GIVEAWAY!)

As a parent of an autistic child—and a parent of neurotypical children—all of whom need to learn about feelings, emotions, and positive ways to live, I was intrigued by Emotes.

Emotes are "cyber-beings with human-like emotions who live inside the internet in the land of Emotia. Each one posesses a unique power that corresponds with their distinctive personality." The company has online comics and videos that feature the Emotes, but they also have toys and books that are sold at Amazon.

When I first opened my package of Emotes, my reaction was similar to that of Jenny, the Bloggess. My kids were also initially a little wary of them.

We got Ick, who is disgusted most of the time. He grunts and frowns with disgust when he is not happy. His super power is "Cloud Forming Powers."


The stuffed toy was cool, but I took a quick, perverse liking to the little plastic figurines. Alex and I spent a few days hiding them in fun spots, like on top of the TV, and on picture frames. They entertained us a whole lot.


We have Bubba, who is happy; Boom, who is angry; and Jumpi who is scared of lots of things. My kids each adopted one as their own.

The thing I like about these are that they are a little bit more sophisticated that your typical emotion-teaching tools. They have that Pokemon-y thing that makes them a little cooler to the older set.

Sam, for instance, really enjoyed the books we got from the people at Emotes. Written by marriage and family therapist Matt Casper and Ted Dorsey, each book centers on one of the Emotes to explore the emotion inherent in its personality.

For example, Drain is tired all the time. So he needs to learn to stop drinking caffeine and get more rest. Jumpi is scared of things, but he goes to camp and overcomes some of his fears. At the end of each book are a couple of pages of tips for kids.

Again, these books were cool for the older set because they have a fun comic book vibe. They also don't underestimate the intelligence of the reader. They acknowledge that feelings are complicated, but still break them down into easy to understand stories.



So, yeah, they're a little weird and kinda silly. But they're also an interesting alternative to teaching kids about emotions and how to deal with them.

Want an Emote of your own? I'm giving away the plush Ick doll to one lucky commenter. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment below by Saturday, November 29. If you want to help a sister out, leave in your comment a note about how you taught your kids about emotions. Only those in the continental U.S. are eligible to win.


Honesty Clause: Emotes sent me a pack of toys and books, including a plush Ick, three figurines, and three books. The plush toys retail for $19.99, the figurines for $4.99, and the books for $9.99.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Vtech Write & Learn Smartboard

I first heard about Vtech's Write & Learn Desk in a Toys R Us guide about toys for differently-abled children. I was intrigued because Jack, my autistic son, is having a hard time with writing.

Writing is difficult for him and he often tries to avoid it, partly because of some problems with fine motor skills and because his grip on his pencil is not the best.

It is also difficult for him to write with certain instruments. For example, it is easier for him to write with a marker than with a crayon.

Because he responds really well to electronics, I thought something with electronic prompts and rewards might encourage him to write.

We ended up with the Write & Learn Smartboard (Although ours is the one that looks like this, not the one on the Vtech website. I can't speak to the differences between the two versions.)

When I got the toy, I immediately pushed a button that prompted me to write the letter "W". I did so, and was told that I had done it incorrectly. I tried again. And was again told I was wrong. I tried again, and when the chirpy little voice told me to try again, I almost broke it in half and never gave it to my children.

I'm glad I didn't. The reason it didn't give me credit for the letter is because I didn't form it correctly, according to the Zaner-Bloser method. Now, if you just want your child to learn to make the shapes of the letters, and are not concerned about them making the letters precisely and with specific pen strokes, this may not be the toy for you.

It also says it is for ages 3 and up, but I would have to recommend this feature for an older child. My three-year-old can successfully recreate the "O" and sometimes the "Q", but that is about it.


For my five-year-old though, this is precisely what his teachers want him to learn. He's been turning some of his letters around and makes the letter shapes without any rhyme or reason. We've been using the Smartboard to work on a few letters a day before bedtime and I've been encouraged by how quickly he is picking it up. Whereas he doesn't seem to care when I tell him how to form his letters, if the little electronic voice tells him, he will carefully draw the letters until he gets it right.

There is a number writing feature that is very similar to the letter writing feature.

There are, however, other features to the Smartboard that are easier for the younger set. The one my children enjoyed most is the drawing feature. You can let the toy give your child a prompt for what to draw or your child can draw whatever he or she wants to. Once done, pushing the "go" button causes the drawing to appear in the screen and dance. All three of my kids liked doing this. Oddly, they especially liked filling in the entire square. They were weirdly proud of that accomplishment.


There is a spelling feature, an activity that prompts the child to put letters and numbers in the correct order, and and ABC sing along that teaches letter order.

My children like this toy, the younger two more than the seven-year-old (although he could really use some help with his handwriting, thank you very much!). I wouldn't say it is for everyone, but if you are looking for the specific things this toy teaches, you will not be disappointed.

Honesty Clause: Vtech gave me the Write & Learn Smartboard for free. It retails on their website for $29.99.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Goosie Cards

We've never been a flash card type of family, but when Goosie Cards reached out to me to see if I'd like to review their flash cards, I jumped at the chance. The reason I was (and still am) so excited is because they offer custom flash cards. Basically you can upload your own photos and text and make flash cards of anything you want. What a great idea!

Be prepared, I'm about to get all gooshy on you.

Goosie Cards sent me a set of ten standard number cards to start with. As soon as I opened them up, I was impressed with their quality. Each card is 4" x 7" and laminated. They are terrific quality. These cards look like they could take a lot of abuse by the little people: drooling, chewing, tearing, and more. They seem like they would be impervious to all of it. They're easy to clean too.

The photos were lovely: clear, colorful, vivid photos of candies, pennies, blocks, balloons, and more. I was delighted. My kids were drawn to them too.

But the thing that really excited me was the customizable option. Goosie Cards sent me a gift certificate (adorably packaged, by the way, for you gift-givers out there) for a set of ten customized cards.

The creation process was really easy. In fact, the hardest part was deciding what I wanted to put on the cards. There are some suggestions on the Goosie Cards site, including making cards of extended family to teach kids about their relatives, making cards of clothing and getting dressed, making cards of sign language, or foods, or things to do to get ready in the morning.

The idea I settled on was to create a set of "rule cards" for Jack to remind him of basics that he is working on learning to be successful in school this year. I found some photos that fit what I wanted to do and I also took some new ones with my digital camera. The site also has a gallery of 150 free images to choose from if you can't find one of your own that works.

When you go online to create your cards, you have to create an account where you can work on and save your projects, so you don't have to do it all in one sitting. I was so excited, though, that I put mine all together in less than a half hour.

You get to personalize the name of the set, which is printed on each card above the photo. You get to upload your own art from your computer. (Both vertical and horizontal photos looked great.) You can also personalize all of the text on the card, including spacing and line breaks.

Once you've put them all together, the site shows you exactly what your cards will look like so there are no surprises when you get them in the mail. And I will say that they are, in fact, exactly like they looked online.

They ship the cards in 3 days. I ordered mine, left town for five days, and came back to find mine waiting for me.

Here's what I found:




Could you just die?! Aren't they the cutest things you've ever seen? Jack was absolutely delighted too. Now these cards and their phrases are like mantras that Jack knows by heart. Granted, these cards haven't solved Jack's behavior problems, nor will they, but they are a concrete and relatable way for him to understand the rules.

The Goosie Cards people tell me that they support autism causes in their local (NY/NJ) area and nationally, mainly through Autism Speaks.

Goosie Cards come in 10, 20 and 26 card sets. And I think they're fabulous. (Can you tell?)

Honesty Clause: Goosie Cards sent me a free set of ten "123" cards and a gift certificate for a free set of ten customizable cards. The set of "123" cards retails for $16. Other premade sets range from $16-$32. Customizable cards are $34 for ten, $46 for 20, and $52 for 26.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

BlueSky Rocket Art Print

I was absolutely delighted a couple of weeks ago when Stacey, the owner of BlueSky Rocket, emailed me to let me know that I had won 5 Minutes For Special Needs' art giveaway.

What I won was a beautiful triptych of ABC art. The prints are seriously beautiful, people.




I framed each of them individually and hung them in my children's playroom. I am absolutely thrilled with them. They are adorable. Mine are 13" x 19" each, but you can also buy them in smaller (and less expensive) sizes.

Check out BlueSky Rocket's website. They sell clothing, bags, jewelry, furniture, art, and more. And it's all incredible.

Honesty Clause: The large size Trees & ABC's art print sells for $40. BlueSky Rocket did not request a review. I just think that we should all have cute stuff on our kids and walls.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Bats at the Beach & Bats at the Library

On a visit to the library a long, long time ago I asked Jack to pick out a book. He randomly picked up a book from the shelf. It was Bats at the Beach by Brian Lies. We didn't know then what a treasure he'd found.

We read this book constantly and pored over the detailed paintings. We learned about bats and laughed at the buggy food they ate. My kids fell in love with the bats.

The day I returned the book to the library, I went to the bookstore and bought a copy. Jack in particular fell in love with the book. I'm not sure what it was about it that he loved so much, but he would look at it and read it over and over.

The story is adorable: the bats fly out for a night at the beach. They do all the things people do at the beach, but in their own nighttime, batty way. All told in lovely, soothing rhyme.

Our love of this book has not diminished over time either. On Sunday night I was trying to find a book for Jack to take to bed. He turned down four or five before he agreed to Bats at the Beach.

Then Monday when I was volunteering at my kids' school book fair, I saw Bats at the Library just laying on a table waiting for me.

I walked past it many times, glancing longingly at it each time until finally I couldn't stand it anymore. I grabbed a copy and bought it. My kids were delighted as soon as they saw it.

It has the same type of delightful paintings, only this time the bats sneak in through an open window at the library to read books, play games, and swim in the water fountain.

I was also delighted to see the reappearance of the bat from the first book who wears a bright yellow life jacket. (We call him "Bananee" because my kids think he's holding a banana. I can't bring myself to correct them.) Inexplicably, he's still wearing the life jacket.


But since this is a book about reading bats, I'm willing to forgive the inaccuracy.

These books are so delightful. I highly recommend them for any children.

Honesty Clause: I purchased both of these books at full price. Brian Lies, his publishers, and their PR machines have never heard of me. I just feel the need to help spread the word about his beautiful books.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Play-Doh Magic Swirl Ice Cream Shoppe

I have to tell you right off the bat that I'm Play-Doh phobic. I have all kinds of sensory issues and have a hard time making myself handle the stuff. Play-Doh brand playdough is the best. Homemade or other brands? I'm not going to touch it.

My kids, on the other hand, love it. So I had mixed feelings when I received the Playdoh Magic Swirl Ice Cream Shoppe to review. None of this is Play-Doh's fault. Or Playskool's, who makes the Ice Cream Shoppe.

Even with my Play-Doh aversion, I have to say that this is a cool toy. What I really like about it is that a lot of stuff comes with it. It comes with the ice cream maker (more on that later), plus dishes, "cones", spoons, and FOUR cans of Play-Doh. Even if you were starting with zero Play-Doh, this would set you up ready to play for a good long while.

Quinn was delighted with the ice cream maker and immediately set about making ice cream cones. The toy also makes sprinkles and different "toppings" to decorate your ice cream with. And there is not an inch of wasted space on the toy. There are molds all over it to make cookies, flowers, and other decorations. there is even a feature where you can create a cake with candles. It's pretty cool.

It does take a little strength to push the
Play-Doh through the ice cream maker.

I knew that I'm not the best judge of Play-Doh type toys, so I took it over to a friend's house. This friend and her kids play with Play-Doh a lot. I figured that we liked it, but I would see what some real connoisseurs thought.

They liked!

One of them unfortunately didn't read the warning on the box: "Fun to play with, but not to eat."

In her defense, they were creating some pretty delicious looking items . I think my friend had just as much fun as the kids did. I left the toy at her house so they could play with it some more. My friend reported the next day that her kids had woken her up at 7 a.m. to ask to play with it.

I'm not sure if that's a plus or a minus.

Naturally, you will have to feed your
children ice cream after they play with the toy.

If your kids like Play-Doh and like ice cream, then they'll like this.

Honesty Clause: I received the Ice Cream Shoppe for free. It retails for $14.99

Kideo Personalized DVDs

Keep reading for a special discount for Things and Stuff Reviews readers!

When I first heard about Kideo personalized DVDs, I thought they sounded like a cool idea, but didn't consider them to be something that was essential to my life.

I underestimated these DVDs.

Basically, you send Kideo a photo of your child and they put their face and name in a 20-minute (or so) DVD with any of a variety of characters. You can get DVDs with Spider-Man, Barney, Dora the Explorer, Arthur, Baby Genius, Care Bears, or Gregory and Me.

I thought my kids would think the DVDs were cool, but would then forget about them. But all three of them adore them and keep asking to watch them. If your kids are like mine, and regularly pretend to be TV characters, I'm pretty sure they'll love the DVDs.

My personal favorite was the Arthur DVD we got that starred Jack.

Jack was sold from the second he saw the cover of the DVD with his name on it. The story is all about how Arthur wants to be friends with his pen pal Jack, who he'd never met before. Arthur thinks up all sorts of fun things to do when Jack comes to visit. Including going to space.


Considering we have never watched Arthur, I was impressed with how much Jack loved this. Once it was over, Jack pretended to be Jack and made me be Arthur and he pretended that Arthur was visiting him. We've had a lot of fun playing Arthur and watching this DVD. Every time he sees it, Jack gets really happy. And so do I.

I liked that even though I had submitted a photo of Jack that only had one ear, they switched the picture back and forth in different spots in the DVD, so it didn't look weird.

Quinn starred in a DVD about Gregory and Me. I've never even heard of Gregory, but the DVD was very cute and featured lots of stories about safari animals. And a tune called "Safari Samba" that I couldn't get out of my head for several days.

Here is a photo of Quinn on safari with Gregory:

Could you just die from the cuteness?

The last of the videos starring my children also starred Spider-Man, who is kind of a big deal around my house. The cool thing about this DVD is that your child actually IS Spider-Man in it.


The Spider-Man DVD does have some slightly older kid-type violence that you would expect with a superhero story. I felt okay showing it to my kids, but if you are uneasy about that sort of thing, Dora or Arthur might be better suited for you.

When I showed the DVD to Sam the first time, I waited until it ended, then asked him what he liked about it. His response was: "Everything. Can we watch it again?"

Kideo sent me a Spider-Man DVD for each of my three children. They all love them so much that they will sit through all three of them in a row, with the only difference being the child who is in the DVD.

I watched samples of the other DVDs also. Both the Barney and Dora DVDs are very much like regular episodes, except they feature the child prominently throughout the story. Both of these talk about the child as the birthday kid, so these would be great as a birthday present. And if you're having a Barney or Dora-themed party, this would be a very cute addition.

The Care Bears and Baby Genius, plus the Gregory and Me DVDs are definitely aimed at a younger audience and feature songs and dancing.

You can see samples of all the DVDs at the Kideo website. You can also place orders there. PLUS, they are offering Things and Stuff Reviews readers (that's you) a discount. Enter STIMEY on their website and you will get $5 off your order.

I think Kideo did a really good job integrating the photos I sent into the DVDs. The parts where the different characters say the children's names is obviously (to an adult) voiced by someone else. But none of my children (ages 3, 5, and 7) even noticed. They were just thrilled to hear their names.

If your children love one of these characters, they will get a real kick out of hearing their names come out of their mouths and watching themselves play with their TV friends.

Honesty Clause: Kideo sent me five DVDs starring my children for free. DVDs retail for $22.95 to $29.95.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Kidizoom Camera

My kids love cameras. They love to take photos. Digital cameras are great for this because you can let your kids take photos without wasting film. But if you're anything like me, you're probably sick of deleting 56 photos of the floor after you give your camera to your kids to keep them busy.

Solution? The Kidizoom camera from VTech. I am thrilled with this product.

One thing I love about this camera is that it comes ready to take photos. A lot of photos. You can buy a memory card, but my kids took 328 photos and several videos, and there was still room for more.

It's easy to use too. I handed it to Quinn and he immediately started to wander the house taking photos. It's amusing what catches the eye of small children.


Photo taken with the Kidizoom.

The camera interface is really easy to use. All three of my kids figured it out easily. Features such as the flash are simple as well.

There are games on the camera as well, Tic Tac Toe, and matching, and one other. I couldn't care less that they're on there. I'm more interested in the camera. But for what it's worth, Jack and Quinn love them. And they come with volume control too. (For the camera, not your kid. VTech aren't miracle workers.)

We took the camera with us to play with some friends and I'd like to report that the friends adore the camera as well. I would also like to report that if a four-year-old drops the camera on the sidewalk, it is well-insulated enough to not break.

My kids are mostly interested in taking the photos and looking at them on the screen on the back of the camera. I've seen other kiddie cameras, and the screen on this one was a pleasant surprise.

My kids couldn't care less about uploading their photos, but I know some kids do care. Once I uploaded my 328 photos (and deleted about 312 photos of stains on my floor) I noticed that the photo quality is dependent mostly on the amount of light. (Obviously.) Outdoor photos fared better than indoor photos, but if my kids did care about the finished product, I would defintely have been able to produce enough good shots to make them happy.

I also have to admit that the quality of many of the photos was less than desirable due to sloppy camera work on my three-year-old's part. Using this camera would be a great way to teach a kid about photography if that is something you are interested in.

Following are some photos taken with the Kidizoom:

This was obviously taken outside. By me. I love this shot.


Low light creates a less-desirable image. But still functional enough for most kids.


This is the first photo I took with the camera. It looks a little pixelated, but I kind of like it. And I know my kids wouldn't care.

But possibly the best thing about this camera? I don't have to sacrifice my pricey adult digital camera to their grungy little hands anymore. That is worth its weight in gold.

Honesty Clause: VTech gave me the Kidizoom camera for free. It retails for $59.99.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Leapster2

I was really excited to try out LeapFrog's Leapster2 game system. My kids adore hand-held video games, and because I spend a fair amount of time trying to keep my children busy in waiting rooms, I'm always thrilled to find something that might keep their attention.

Please ignore the green paint on his face and the glue in his hair.
Focus on his intent interest in the game.

This definitely fits the bill. My kids all adore the game. The really nice thing about this system is that it comes with two activities built in, so you can play it right out of the box, or if you forget all your game cartridges at home.

One of those built-in activities is an art program that lets kids create their own art or decorate the scenes provided in the "sketchpad." It was amazing. I'm 35 and I played with it for a good amount of time. It's pretty neat.

The other activity is a learning game that is focused on letters and numbers. I liked this because it had four ability levels ranging from figuring out the difference between letters and numbers to spelling words. All while flying a cute dragon around the screen. I appreciate the fact that all three of my children can play the game.

The controls and stylus are all intuitive and easy to use. I didn't have to coach my five- or six-year-old at all or show them how to play. It is easy and fun.

Another nice feature of the system is that there are slots for three players to create accounts, as well as a guest sign in spot. This works especially well for me, considering I have three children. Kids use these accounts to upload their art to a computer and to view online awards earned during gameplay.

We also tried out Dora the Explorer's Camping Adventure. My kids enjoyed this game, which, among other learning activities, teaches them some Spanish words.

Because I use this game system mainly in waiting rooms, I usually have my guys wear headphones. So it's amusing to see them playing quietly and occasionally bursting out with a Spanish word that Dora tells them to say.

That said, that was the only downside of this game that I saw: to play the games (at least the ones we tried), you need to hear the verbal instructions, so you can't just turn the sound off. There is a volume control, but if you're on a plane or somewhere that people might object to video game sounds, take headphones.

I'm looking forward to trying out some of the many other games offered for this system. For instance, I don't know what Jedi Math is, but Sam is going to learn it. I'm going to buy that for his birthday.

As for those waiting rooms? As long as the Leapster2 is in their hands, they are the best behaved kids around.

Honesty Clause: LeapFrog gave me this toy and the Dora the Explorer game for free. The Leapster2 retails for $69.99. Game cartridges retail for $24.99.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Tonka Bounce Back Racer

When I looked at the package containing the Tonka Bounce Back Racer, I thought it looked sort of fun, but a little forgettable. I completely misjudged the appeal of this toy.

My children ADORE it. I cannot even tell you the amount of giggles this truck has given us.

It is a remote control car that can flip over and, because the wheels move from side to side, the car does too. The wheels and parts of the car are soft enough that you don't have to fear for your walls. Or your feet, because your children will drive this over your feet.

The controller is very easy to figure out because there are only two options: forwards and backwards. For a three-year-old, I much prefer this to remote control cars you can steer. True, it's hard to get it to go where you want it to go, but it turns out when you miss your target, zoom the car under a chair and into the dog, it's waaaaay more fun.


Plus, because the car is red and orange on one side and green and blue on the other, it's kind of like two cars. I wouldn't have thought that, but Quinn kept saying, "I want the blue one now." or "I want the red one now." Either my kid is dumb, or Tonka knows what they are doing. I choose to believe the latter.

One other thing that surprised me about this toy was how much my older two kids liked it. They also laughed uncontrollably while playing with it. And they were able to make it do tricks:


The only downside of this toy, as I see it, is the battery situation. The controller takes a 9-volt battery and the car takes 6 AA batteries. All these batteries go into three different compartments. So it takes a while to put them all in, what with the child-safety screw-closed doors. I'm also a little nervous about the battery life. I hope they last for a while, but with the constant play my kids have been doing with it, I'm unsure.

I was thinking about doing a giveaway with this, but I think Quinn would be extremely upset. This one is a keeper.

Honesty Clause: I got this toy for free. The Tonka Bounce Back Racer retails for $29.99.

Monday, September 15, 2008

An Open Letter to Ruby Tuesday

Dear Ruby Tuesday,

It was a few months ago when we ordered takeout from one of your restaurants and were dissatisfied. We'd ordered your Strawberries and Ice Cream dessert only to come home to find that the strawberries and sauce weren't in our bag. That left us with a dry pastry and a scoop of ice cream for $4.99.

I called the store to complain and they told me they would send me a gift card to make up for it. Your employee put me on hold while she "found a piece of paper." I gave her my address and began waiting for a gift card that never came.

Last night my husband and I were hungry enough that we decided to forgive you for your poor service, so we ordered more takeout. Here is what was wrong with our order:

1. Your employees left an entire entree out of the bag. My husband had to go back to the restaurant to get his food. Your staff was kind enough to remove the price of the entree from the check, but I know he would rather have just paid for the hamburger than have to make two trips to get it. Takeout is supposed to be easy and convenient.

2. We ordered two of your Chocolate Tallcakes. Neither of them came with the chocolate and caramel sauce listed in the description in the menu. The cakes were good, but not what we had ordered.

3. My entree came with a salad. I was taking my last bites of the salad when I found a giant CHUNK OF WOOD in the box. I repeat: I found an inch-long, jagged chunk of wood in my salad.

This chunk of wood:


I would like to let you know that this has pushed me over the edge. I will no longer be purchasing food from you. Bad service and inattention to detail, not to mention the wood from an unknown source I found in my food, has ensured that my family and I will no longer be your customers.

Sincerely,
Stimey

cc: Ruby Tuesday Support Center
150 W. Church Ave.
Maryville, TN 37801

Honesty Clause: After receiving this letter, Ruby Tuesday contacted me and subsequently sent me some gift cards.

Friday, September 12, 2008

VTech V-Motion & V.Smile Cyber Pocket Update

I have felt the need for several days to come back here with a longer-term review of the VTech products I reviewed here last week. At the time of the reviews I had mostly positive things to say, but I don't feel that I really gave those products their due.

Here are some of my initial issues and how my opinion has changed:

My kids couldn't care less that the graphics on the V-Motion aren't as good as those on the Xbox. They just want to play the Thomas the Tank Engine and Spiderman games we have. All the time. The VTech games are the first thing they want to play with when they come in the house.

At the time of my initial review, my kids weren't very good at using the V-motion motion-activated controller. Well, now Jack loves the motion-activated controller and prefers to play that way. (Sam and Jack still use the joystick option.)

As far as the Cyber Pocket, I just really have to reiterate how well it keeps the attention of all three of my children. The time I spend at karate has gone from being a chore for me to a nice respite. My kids are not only entranced by the game, but they're learning.

I still think they should include a power cord with the V-Motion console.

Honesty Clause: VTech in no way contacted me or requested these changes. It's just that after using these products over a longer period of time, I realized that my kids and I liked them even more than we did when they were brand new.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Leapfrog Tag

When I got the call from the school nurse today that Jack was sick and that I should come pick him up, I was sad. But at least it gave me the opportunity to have him and Quinn test out our new Leapfrog Tag.

The Tag is an electronic pen kids can use to interact with books. It's kind of like a LeapPad, but all packed into a compact package. You can have the Tag read the book to you, have it read individual words, and more. It's pretty cool.

And it's kind of like magic. I know there's probably a perfectly logical reason you can put the Tag on the word "frog" and it reads the word "frog" instead of just saying "bwonk," but I don't know what it is. I'm going to chalk it up to voodoo and move on. I don't have to know how it works to like it.

We have a LeapPad, and have gotten a lot of use and fun out of it in the several years we've owned it. However, the Tag improves on the LeapPad in a big way. Tag books are hardcover, which makes them a lot harder to destroy. Plus, where our LeapPad and accessories take up a big chunk of space on our shelf, the Tag system doesn't take up much room.

But the thing I love most is that I no longer have to keep a book and a cartridge together with the system. With the Tag, I only have to keep track of a book. Which, if you know me (or my kids), is a big deal.

The tradeoff is that once you have a Tag book, you have to create an account at LeapFrog and upload the audio for the book to the Tag pen. The process was quick and pretty easy, impeded only by my inability to type the same password two times in a row to register.

Once we were all set up, we started playing. The books are really nice quality and the narrators were wonderful. Kids can choose to have the narrator read by word, by page, or by entire book. And there are games on each page and at the end of the books that kids can play.


I wasn't able to find anything on the pages that didn't make a noise if I touched it with the pen, and believe me, I tried. (I may have played with it after my kids went to eat lunch.)

This system would be great for travel. I wish we'd had it when we drove from Maryland to Wisconsin (and back) this summer. My kids might have read books instead of watching so many DVDs in the car. And it would even work on airplanes because it has a headphone jack as well.

The book selection seems to be pretty good too. Ozzie and Mack comes with the Tag, and they have more than 20 more books and games available.


Jack particularly liked Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. He laughed and grinned as he listened to it four times in a row. Then he read it himself out loud, giggling and exclaiming the whole time.

My biggest problem with the Tag is that I see several books in their library that I want to own and I'm a little afraid that I'm going to have to go buy out the section at Target. (I did just see that the LeapFrog website has a buy 3 books, get the 4th free offer.)

Quinn had a freakout when he saw they have The Little Engine That Could, and I think I Spy would be a lot of fun with the Tag. I am not, however, excited by the possibility of listening to Walter the Farting Dog. I can only imagine the sound effects. I think it would cause problems in my three-young boy household. I do think that my kids would find it hi-larious though.

Bottom line: I'm excited by this toy. I think it's a great way to maintain kids' interest in books, and is probably a good way to get them started on pre-reading skills.

Honesty Clause: LeapFrog gave me the Tag and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom for free. The Tag retails for $49.99. Books retail for $13.99 each.