Great Toys You Should Know About

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When my son was turning 5, we decided to throw a space themed birthday party for him, so I did a research on activities related to that and discovered the Stomp Rocket. An instant hit with everybody. Then we visited our friends one day and my kids were excited about Snap Circuits Jr. they found in their playroom. While browsing on Amazon, I accidently stumbled upon OgoDisks, which turned out to be a fabulous outdoor toy (read more about it in the section Outdoor Fun). We have been asked a few times where we got it when we played at a park.

To save you the trouble and hours spent clicking away on the Internet, here are some of the things with great reviews that you may like too.

Doinkit® Darts A hit at our house, magnetic darts work great. My husband even goes to our kid’s room to throw a few darts just for fun.
Melissa & Doug Deluxe Magic Set A cute set, my daughter likes to practice the tricks.
magic set

Snap Circuits Jr.
snap circuits jr.Fantastic! A must-have!
Snap Circuits Physics Kit
snap circuits SCOnce your kids master the junior version, you can add this one to your collection. My daughter got this set for Christmas at the age of 8 and loved it.
Snipe Game
snipeThis is a nice version of hide-and-seek game. The snipes make chirping noises and kids (adults too!) race to find the other team’s snipe first. A friend of mine just asked me what it is called when she came pick up her kids and they didn’t want to leave because they were in the middle of this game.
Perplexus Original Maze Game
perplexusBoth my daughter and my son like to try their dexterity and roll the marble in the maze.

Ultra Stomp Rocket
stomp rocketMy son’s favorite toy. We also used it for his space party and the kids had a blast with it!
imaginetsWe had several similar sets from the Czech Republic (that’s where I come from) but this set would work great if we had to look for one here. You can let your imagination go wild and construct anything using the shapes provided.
Orb Factory Mosaica 
mosaicaA nice magnetic set, good for car trips or a restaurant.
Orb Factory Magnetic Mosaics Kids
orb factory magnetic mosaicsMy daughter absolutely loved it! She is too old for this game now so we gave it to her little cousin. If you are looking for a quiet activity, this is it!
Battat Take-A-Part Crane
battatA hit with little boys!
Educational Insights Design & Drill Activity Center
design and drillFun for little kids.
Pogo Jumper
pogo jumperMy kids still take this jumper with funny squeaking noise out occasionally but I think it is more appropriate for younger kids.
Doll House
doll houseI had to include this doll house in my list although I see the price has gone up because it comes with furniture too. I bought this house a long time ago when my daughter was 2 or 3. I’d say my son has played with the house even more than she did. He’d place animals and either action figures in it, used the wooden furniture I ordered separately. Although not among the cheapest I still think it is worth the money if you know you’ll get years of use out of it. My son is almost 7 and still asks for it now and then. I chose this house because of the modern design and because I was looking for a house that could be accessed from different sides and more open than regular doll houses (more kids can play at once).
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Outdoor Toys

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After we bought several kites from different stores (Target and similar) that never flew, and flying a kite was a frustrating experience instead of fun, I swore to my kids I’d find some that would be easy to fly almost anywhere. I don’t know if this is the best website or if you can find them cheaper anywhere but we bought a set of three kites for beginners that have been with us since then. They are of a very good quality, easy to fly, even with little wind, they came with sturdy pockets, our kids are happy and we don’t have to spend another dollar on a kite. You can find more kites on Into the Wind website.
OgoSport Mini OgoDisk
mini ogodisk
This set has been a hit with a lot of kids AND adults. My brother would borrow it every day from me during our vacation last year to play with his wife. We have both sets—this mini set and then the larger disks (see below). Both have their pros and cons. For younger kids, it’s easier to hit a larger surface but the bigger disks are also more difficult to handle. I’ve found that everybody has their own preference so my advice would be to get both—it is more fun to play as a whole family anyway. You can use these disks as Frisbees too. My son and our friends also like to play solo—they just bounce the ball up as many times as they can.
OgoSport Mezo OgoDisk Set  
mezo ogodiscSee the description above to understand the difference between the two sets.
Boochie, A Whole New Ball Game
boochieIf we didn’t have a Bocce set, I would have bought this game a long time ago. If you’d like to have a good outdoor game for your family, you should give this one a try.

Here is a list of games that have excellent reviews and are on my list for future reference.

Speedminton Fun Set
Wham-O Trac Ball Racket Game
wham o track ball
Diggin Squap 
An indoor and outdoor game.
diggin active squap
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Balance Bike

balance bike

If you have a two- or three-year-old and like to take your kids biking, here is a tip you should not ignore. Buy a balance bike. They are very popular in the Czech Republic and almost every kid has one. But many people here are not aware of them. When my kids were riding theirs in a park there was almost always someone asking about it or commenting on how cool the bike was.

Balance bikes can be made out of wood or metal but they have one thing in common. They don’t have pedals. Kids just use both their feet to walk the bike and then scoot. They get it going faster, raise their feet slightly off the ground and cruise while balancing on two wheels. If they lose balance, they just put one or both feet down so it is perfectly safe.

We bought the German LIKEaBIKE because we knew we’d get years of use out of it. It is of excellent quality and adjustable so our kids started using it when they were not even 2 years old. I think it would have been good until they turned five but we just got them a 12-inch (or 14-inch—I am not sure anymore) bike when they were 3 and ½.

We had a nice Kettler tricycle  (with a push bar) that I used a lot for walks around the town as soon as my kids didn’t have to sit in a stroller but they never liked to ride it in a park—they would just trudge slowly on the path. And no wonder they were not excited; it is not fun to be as slow as a snail—the fun is in the speed, which the balance bike gave them. Take my word for it, I could not catch up with them once they got the hang of the balance bike. It is also perfect for families that like to go biking and have older kids. The little ones can almost keep up with older siblings.

I read somewhere that if you want to teach an adult how to ride a bike, the best thing is to take the pedals off and teach him/her balance first. I thought that the articles that claimed the kids learned riding a regular bike in a few minutes if they had a balance bike before were exaggerating. But it took literally two minutes for both my kids to learn how to ride a bike, no kidding. So do yourself and your kid the favor and give it some thought if you don’t own one. We sold ours on craigslist so I bet you can find one used if you don’t feel like spending too much on it.

Here are two articles on balance bikes that can give you more insight.

Bye-Bye, Training Wheels. Hello, Balance Bikes

Down With Training Wheels

I did not include any links to balance bikes because there are a lot of brands available online and you need to choose one that is right for your family. If you are shopping for your first child, I’d say it is worth spening more money and get a better bike, not made in China. That’s what we did and we did not regret it. When we were deciding on our bike, I read somewhere that the quality and features go down with the price. I got a balance bike made in China for our friend at a yard sale but it was too high for him and the seat was not adjustable. Ours had several positions and our kids could reach the ground at 20 months. However, if you have three children and you want to buy a balance bike for the youngest one, look at other options. We sold ours on craigslist so you can try your luck there.  I just typed in “balance bike” in the search window and got plenty of results.

Buying a bike

We are not serious bikers, you know, those families dressed in tights, riding a bike every weekend. But we like to go biking more than just to a park. Before our kids were born, the most we rode in a day was around 31 miles. When they were little, we’d take them on an occasional bike trip in the child seat during our vacation (e.g. in Acadia NP where it would be a shame not to explore the network of carriage roads on a bike). When they were 1 1/2 years old, they got a balance bike (see a post about them), then they graduated to a 12-inch at age 3.

Once they outgrew the smallest bikes, I started looking for a bicycle that would be better than the heavy, often wrongly assembled bikes from stores like Wal-Mart, Toys’r’us, Target, etc. On the other hand, we were not willing to shell out $300 or more for a bike our kids would outgrow in a year or two. What we wanted was decent bicycles that would allow us to take day trips with our kids so that they’d enjoy biking and learn to love it but that wouldn’t cost us an arm and leg.

So I did my usual thing. I spent a few hours reading on the subject online. Here is an excerpt from International Bicycle Fund:

There are literally hundreds of brands of kids’ bikes.  We don’t have the resources to collect, test and rank even a fraction of them, and we don’t know anyone who is.  A second problem for the consumer is that most of kids’ bikes are being sold at stores where you can’t trust the employees to know the difference between coaster brakes and side-pull brakes, and they similarly don’t know very much about the quality of bikes on the showroom floor.  A third problem is often these same employees assemble the bikes — with no formal training as bike mechanics — so even a good bike may be assembled wrong, making any rating dubious.  Given the circumstances, caveat emptor!

The best we can do is to try to educate consumers so that they can make a more informed decision about what is a good bike. (to continue reading, click on the link above)

After having read repeatedly how bad the bikes in major stores are (WalMart, Target, Toys’r’us etc.), we went to a few bike shops. Some stocked several kids’ bikes but the prices were pretty steep and we felt that the owners were not really helpful; they were just trying to sell the bikes on the floor. I went online again and looked for the best bikes (without gears) in our price range. I found one that people everywhere in the US were raving about (see it below). Then I discovered a small, family-owned bike shop 5 min from our house. The guy was very knowledgeable and although he had only one or two kids’ bicycles in the store, he showed me some on the computer and said he could order it for us, assemble it plus we’d have any service on the bike for a year (or maybe even longer) for free. We were sold.

Jamis bike

We bought the bike I researched, Jamis Laser (in red), for my daughter. We figured that if we bought a bike at Wal-Mart for $100, we would never be able to sell it in a few years for more than $15 but if we spent a bit over $200 on this one, we could easily sell it later for $70. The difference in the price is not as bad as it could seem.

torker bike 2

When our son was ready for a bigger bike, our daughter was still using her Jamis so we went searching for a bike for him as well. Our kids are 22 months apart and it didn’t make sense to buy a smaller bike than a 20-inch for our son because it would last him a year max; however, he was just not tall enough to reach the ground on a bike of that size. Again, we visited the small bike shop, and the owner recommended Torker Throttle 20, on which he could lower the seat so our son could put his feet down on the ground. It was even cheaper than the Jamis. (Here is another link)

We are very happy with both bikes and our kids have successfully biked 20 miles in a day. We didn’t feel it was necessary for them to have gears yet. We choose mostly level bike paths, with small inclines or hills. Next spring we’ll be shopping for a bike with gears for our daughter. While doing research on the bikes for our kids, I have come across this pdf guide of best bikes on Steve the Bike Guy website. I have not studied it closely yet but if you are shopping for a bike for your child, it might help you pick the best one for you.

And last but not least, if you are on the lookout for good but cheap adult bikes, check out this website that was recommended to us by our friend who is a more serious biker than we are (we took his advice and bought our bikes there for $300 each).

We also searched for a good bike rack for our car. Since your choice of a bike rack will depend on your needs and type of your car, it may not be useful to you but I have been asked by three friends which bike rack we bought so I decided to post it here.
bike rackAllen Sports Deluxe 4-Bike Hitch Mount Rack Last time I checked, it was just $70, now it’s $90–or maybe not anymore. Like with everything on Amazon, keep checking because the prices fluctuate a lot there—in my experience the price you see today might not be there tomorrow or next week but it can come down again the following week.



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The Best Building Blocks

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I am sure everyone has heard of the benefits of playing with toy blocks. I bet each of you have some at home. I am not going to add another article to the already existing sea of literature on the benefits of building blocks. That’s not why you are here.

We, like anybody else, had first Mega Bloks, then Lego Duplo, common wooden blocks in different shapes and colors and then Legos. Since my son loves to build, I soon started a search for an open ended set of building blocks that would be simple but allow him to be creative. I found the answer: flat planks of wood, all the same shape and size that can be stacked in a wide variety of ways—you can build almost anything, including very complicated architectural structures. The set I bought is called City Blocks. We also purchased the colored version. They are the same as the famous Kapla but much cheaper. We use the design booklet that was included, but this set is a great open ended toy that gets the kids’ creative juices flowing.

There are several other sets of blocks that are very good.

City Blocks
(see my comment above)
You can also get the colored version.
Melissa & Doug 60-Piece Standard Unit Blocks
Melissa and doug unit blocks
LegoHere is a thought. Buy a box of used Lego’s to keep the creative spirit at home. My son LOVES Lego Ninjago and similar sets but he treats them as toys. In other words, he builds the set and never wants to take it apart. He wants to keep the cool vehicle. That beats the purpose of this toy. I decided to go on eBay and buy a huge box of used Lego’s because it didn’t contain just regular bricks that you get in the basic Lego sets. It has all the cool tiny pieces from Star Wars and other specific sets, however, totally taken apart with no instructions. I love to see him making his own creatures and vehicles. That’s what Lego’s are for.
ZoobThis set is not for younger kids because it takes some strength to connect the pieces. My son was able to play with these after he turned 5 but it is one of the most popular building sets in our home.
Magna Tiles or Magformers  were very popular with everyone, including my kids, in preschool.
magnatiles magformers

I also found this magnetic set people evidently love:

Magnetic Stick N Stack 100 pc’s
magnetic stick n stack
(CLASSIC Set 98 Magnetic Tiles With 2 Magnetic Wheel Bases & Bonus Storage Case)
wedgitsThis unique building toy allows you to stack and wedge the pieces together to create different sculptures. It comes with a design booklet with ideas. It is a terrific idea but I must say that if I had to choose which building set I’d get for my kids, it would be the ones above because even though neat, it is not a toy my kids would play with on a regular basis. They do like it but is like a puzzle that they take out once in a while.
The same holds true for Connectagons 
connectgonsIt’s not something they’d play with on a regular basis but they like to play with them as well. I think my kids feel they are somewhat limited in their creativity because it is sometimes hard to build a figure or an animal no matter how hard you try to connect the circles. I’d say that this set is better suitable for abstract structures but you may have a different experience.
LaQWe have discovered LaQ in the Bronx Zoo in their kids’ activity corner and my kids fell in love with it immediately. It is mostly for older kids (I would say not younger than 6). The downside is the price tag. I actually got this set on Amazon when it was on sale for around $40. I find they constantly change prices and you have to check often if you are looking for a deal. The price you see might not be there the next day.
JengaThis classic game can be also used like regular building blocks. Our son, in fact, likes to use these quite a lot for building roads and paths.
MindWare Pattern Play 
pattern playAlthough it could be used as a puzzle, it is a set of blocks that can let your child’s imagination run wild by creating different colored patterns.
lego technicWe don’t have any sets of Lego Technic at home but I have heard about it. It looks great but the prices are a bit daunting. I don’t know if we’ll ever buy them but if your kids are into this stuff a lot, it is worth considering.
erectorI cannot tell you how these blocks worked for us because my son is only 6 ½ and it is on my list if I feel he needs a different building toy. But just in case you haven’t heard of it and have an older boy, I list it here for you to consider: Erector Super Construction Set
The following sets are blocks but also puzzles. I would like to mention them because if you have a child who likes to build, it might be something you’d be interested in. The games are all part of a series so you only need to purchase one of the sets and then you can buy just the booklets for the rest (for example the booklet for Equilibrio is $12 on Amazon right now).  There is no need to buy all though; you can just try one you like the best.

A reviewer nicely described the differences in the series:
The series differs in this way:
Tangramino Game This set builds the structures flat on the table like tangrams.
Architecto Game This set builds upright structures.
Equilibrio Game This set builds upright structures that have challenging balancing aspects to them.
Cliko Game This set gives images to build from a draftsman perspective. You are given multiple views of a structure to build.
Architecto Game 

Equilibrio Game
Block by Block
block by block
Camelot Jr.
camelot jr.
Castle Logix
castle logix


Blocks for younger kids

When my kids were little (about 3 and 4 years old) they fell in love with pipe builders that I got on a sale shelf for $2 in our local supermarket. They played with them very often. A few months ago a little boy who was over at our house couldn’t put them down.
I found them online as either Pipe Builders or as Quercetti Tubation
pipe buildersquercetti tubation
bristle blocksAnother good one for younger kids is Bristle Blocks
My kids stopped playing with them when they were about 4 1/2 years old so keep that in mind.
Play Stix
playstixMy daughter liked this set more than any other blocks we had at home. They both still play with them now and then.

The following are not exactly building blocks but I feel I should mention them here.

imaginetsWe had several similar sets from the Czech Republic (that’s where I come from) but this set would work great if we had to look for one here. You can let your imagination go wild and construct anything using the shapes provided.
Camelot Jr. and Castle Logix are mentioned earlier on this page (see above).
Orb Factory Mosaica
orb factory magnetic mosaics
Orb Factory Magnetic Mosaics Kids


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