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.