Books, Holidays, Reading, Toys

Picture Books Make Magical Gifts!

Give a picture book this holiday season!

Share the joy of reading this holiday season. Whether it’s a package of picture books or a toy/book pairing, books make magical gifts. Find a slew of books and related gifts in this Soaring ’20s Holiday Gift Guide, which features the A TRUE WONDER gifts below.

Order your gifts now for best selection and availability.

Books, Holidays, Just for fun, Toys

7 Gifts for Wonder Women of All Ages

It’s Wonder Woman Day! Our superhero celebrates 80 years on newsstands this month. And today she’ll be inducted into the Comic-Con Character Hall of Fame. HOORAY!

What better way to celebrate than with some of my favorite Wonder Woman gifts and gear for all ages.

Arts/Crafts, Outside, Science/Math, Toys

DIY Stomp Rockets

We’ve purchased numerous stomp rocket kits over the years. Inevitably the foam rockets disintegrate within a matter of weeks. The plastic launchers often become brittle and fall apart. When I realized how easy it is to make your own rockets and launchers at home, I was in heaven; no need to buy expensive kits year after year.

Now, I confess that our parts came from a backyard rockets kit purchased at Barnes and Noble. The directions below are adapted from the book that was included, Stomp Rockets, Catapults & Kaleidoscopeby Curt Gabrielson. Using the book’s directions (pp .104-105), you can do it yourself even without the kit. Here’s what you’ll need:

2 liter plastic bottle

10-inch (approx.) portion of bicycle tubing

2-foot piece of PVC pipe, 1/2 or 3/4-inches in diameter

Duct tape

Masking tape

1 piece 8 1/2 x 11 paper for your rocket body (make sure to decorate it)


1 circle of paper , 3.5 inches in diameter with a wedge removed


Here’s what you do:

1) Fit one end of the inner tube over the top of the 2-liter bottle. Duct tape to seal.

2) Attach other end of the inner tube over one end of the PVC pipe. Duct tape to seal. This is your rocket launcher.

3) Roll up your decorated 8 1/2 by 11 paper, using the PVC pipe as your guide. Make sure the rocket body fits snugly over the PVC pipe, but not so snugly that it can’t fly. Tape the edge securely.

4) Cut at least three fins from card stock. Ours had a hypotenuse of 3 inches. Tape these to the bottom end of your rocket at equal intervals.

5) Cut a circle approximately 3.5 inches in diameter. Cut a small wedge from the circle. Roll it tightly, making sure the cone fits snugly over the top end of your rocket. Using the dowel, push the cone through the rocket until it emerges at the top end. If necessary, tape it.

6) You are ready for launch! Place your rocket over the PVC pipe. Launches work best with two people: one person to stomp on the bottle, the other to point the PVC up to the sky. We had to blow into the PVC pipe to re-inflate between launches.

You can experiment with your rockets to spark discussion. What happens if you don’t put a cone on your rocket? What if you don’t include fins?

Books, Toys

Licensing Deals and Brand Extensions: Richard Scarry’s Busytown

As a part-time business instructor, I find book-based licensing deals fascinating. I’d love to know how much Warner Bros. is raking in from licensing arrangements for J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. And then there is Disney’s licensing of its version of Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Still, it seems like there are far fewer licensing deals that originate with picture books and hold true to the original artwork and characters. Of course there is Curious George and the Hungry Caterpillar, but these examples are few and far between.

One exception is my children’s current obsession: Richard Scarry and Busytown. We’ve been reading Richard Scarry books for years. What Do People Do All Day? is a recent favorite. Scarry’s books are rich in detail. For example in “Building a New House,” Scarry shows how the pipes bring in clean water to the house and carry dirty water to the sewer. “Wood and How We Use It” reveals how a sawmill works, including the water wheel, saws and scrap lumber piles that later get turned into paper. My five-year-old eats up the “how things work” element of Scarry’s books.

I’m not sure how we stumbled across TV’s Busytown Mysteries, based on Richard Scarry’s books. However, one glimpse, and the children were hooked. The animation and characters seem to have jumped off of Scarry’s pages. Each episode challenges the children to make observations and solve a mystery, like who stole the muffins or what happened to the pickle car. Looking closely and finding interesting things are activities Scarry’s books invite children to perform, so the show is in keeping with the spirit of the books too.

My three-year-old sings the show’s theme song constantly. Even on the potty. At the top of his lungs. “There’s no doubt we can work it all out with Huckle….and Busytown!” Given the Busytown obsession, I was immediately on the lookout when my friend Sarah mentioned a that there was a Richard Scarry Busytown board game.

The game is a perfect extension of the Richard Scarry brand. The 6-foot game board is packed with pictures of Busytown, just like the books. The game is cooperative: everyone must work together to reach Picnic Island before the pigs steal all the food. Along the way the children get to work together to solve mysteries and earn bonus points. For example, they use magnifying glasses to find as many kites, ice cream cones or bicycles as they can around the town. It forces them to look carefully. Working together, they find more of the required objects. The game is a lot of fun for two to four players. It’s even won a Parent’s Choice award.

So, I’m curious, what’s your favorite licensing deal or extension of a children’s picture book? Why don’t picture book characters translate into more toys, games, TV shows and other products especially when there is such a market?


Thoughts on the girl-friendly “LEGO Friends” controversy

Cool: new "Ladyfig" stands up in the electrical truck

Not cool: She's too long to sit in the truck cab or the cab of any standard vehicle

Readers of this blog know how much I LOVE LEGOs. Cooper had a LEGO birthday party for which I laboriously made LEGO minifigure cake pops. I typically give LEGO building sets solid reviews. With that said, LEGO’s new effort to appeal to girls has ignited controversy. After an initial negative reaction, here’s a letter I wrote to the LEGO Corporation with my two cents on the new play sets. NOTE: I did actually buy, build and play with one of these sets before offering my final analysis, and I let the boys play with it too. The boys are currently fighting over the Olivia minifigure.

Dear Mr. Jorgen Vig Knudstorp,

Let me begin by saying I love LEGOs. As a mother to two boys, ages 3 and 5, my living room floor is littered with bricks and minifigures. My boys spend hours poring over the LEGO catalog and reenacting scenes from building sets. I think your products are a good value and offer opportunities for imaginative play, spatial awareness and development of fine motor skills.

Still, I am one of 45,000+ people who hastily signed a petition on against your new LEGO Friends line. I say “hastily” because I’ve decided I want to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. I want you to succeed because I think you are the best toy maker out there, and I think it’s important the LEGOs appeal to both boys and girls. I know some sets, like the Harry Potter series and Duplos, already appeal to both genders.

Before you dismiss my letter because I’m a mom of boys, let me tell you that I buy lots of birthday and Christmas gifts for girls. I would love to be able to buy a LEGO Friends set for my nieces in good conscience in lieu of Polly Pockets or My Little Ponies. Your Friends sets may appeal to girls, but if they don’t appeal to parents too, they may not sell as well.

As a parent, here’s what appeals to me about your Friends sets: the minifigures represent the diversity of our world in terms of hair and eye color (though not a diversity of body types); the minifigures have back stories encouraging imaginative play (though I find the back stories themselves awfully stereotypical except for token “geek” Olivia); you’ve introduced new, feminine colors; you’ve integrated some themes that appeal to girls: playing house, playing with animals (vet hospital), etc. You’ve gone beyond traditional “girl” themes to include an invention workshop and a design school.

With that said, here are my key complaints:

  1. A few offensive themes: Why do girl’s sets always have to depict girls getting their hair done, lounging by the pool (with a boat drink?), shopping and singing on stage a-la Hannah Montana? Can’t girls be interested in other things?
  2. Too much pink, purple and pastels. Yes, the pastels will appeal to girls, but must EVERYTHING be pastel? Let’s mix in some other colors that might serve as a bridge to other, gender neutral or, dare I say, “boy” sets. Honestly, many boys would love the design studio and invention workshop. My boys are playing with the latter as I write. However, the overabundance of pink and purple might be off-putting for older boys who have realized that pink and purple are girl colors. And did you really have to put heart and flower doodles on the chalkboard in the lab? That might limit it to “girl-only.”
  3. Lack of integration: I bought Olivia’s Invention Workshop so I could test how well the new “ladyfigs” would integrate with existing sets. Olivia can stand in the bucket of our electrical truck. Cool! However, her legs are too long for her to sit in the cab or the cab of any other LEGO vehicle. Plus she lacks holes in the back of her legs to lock her into place. Finally, because her legs aren’t fully moveable, she can’t ride our police motorcycle or the bikes.

As a girl growing up in the 1970s, I played with my doll house, my Barbies (controversial herself), paper dolls and Cabbage Patch kids. My sister and I played dress up and Wonder Woman. Based on my own experience as a girl, and watching my nieces and friends’ daughters play, here are some thoughts.

  1. You’ve designed Olivia’s house. What if you created a doll house with modular components that could be put together like your LEGO Creator Grand Emporium, Pet Shop and Fire Brigade? Parents could buy the Kitchen set, the Bedroom set, the Living Room set, etc. individually and then the girls could put them all together. My sister and I spent hours playing with the multi-room doll house and doll furniture my father built. Olivia’s house is a little one-dimensional.
  2. Let’s add some themes that a child might reasonably encounter in a town:  a school (lots of kids play school), a bank (with a female loan officer) to teach girls about money, an airport (with a female pilot and male flight attendant), grocery store, etc. Or better yet, create a girl-friendly minifigure that provides full integration with LEGO City and other LEGO sets. Shorten their legs and make them fully moveable. Add some holes in the back of the legs so a child can attach them to a vehicle seat. It would be great if the Friends and girl LEGO lovers weren’t pigeonholed to pastel Heartlake City.

I wish you all the best with your LEGO Friends effort. I think with a few modifications, it will be a great gateway for girls into the wonderful world of LEGOs.

Kind regards,

Kirsten W. Larson, MBA

Homeschool, Science/Math, Toys

Chemistry Experiment 2: Color Changing Liquids

Our second mind-blowing science experiment was dubbed “Color Changing Liquids,” an experiment you can easily do at home without special equipment. Our science kit included red cabbage juice powder, which we added to two separate cups of water to create a purplish-colored indicator (a substance that changes color when mixed with an acid or base). To make your own indicator, simply shred some red cabbage and soak it in water overnight. Strain it the next morning, and you are ready to test!

To our first cup, we added citric acid (you could use vinegar), which turned the liquid red. To the second liquid, we added baking soda, which turned the liquid blue, indicating a base. Then, we mixed the two liquids together. The acid and base neutralized each other, creating a purple liquid and released carbon dioxide just like in the “dancing powders” experiment.

Steve Spangler Science has some variations on this experiment. These include ideas for other acids and bases to test and  how to create your own pH  test strips from red cabbage juice. Enjoy!

Homeschool, Science/Math, Toys

Mind Blowing Chemistry Experiments

My sister bought Cooper and Finley the My First Mind Blowing Science Kit for Christmas. The kit has been calling to the boys for a week now: “Mix magic fizzing powders! Create a crystal sunset in a test tube. Make an underwater volcano!” We opened it Saturday and tried our first two chemistry experiments.

Unlike the primary science set we own (which I highly recommend), this one includes chemicals you may not have at home. The first experiment we did was called “Dancing Powders.” Essentially, Cooper combined baking soda (a base) and citric acid powder in water. The acid and base neutralized each other and produced fizzy carbon dioxide gas bubbles as a by-product. As you may recall from school, carbon dioxide is the gas we exhale. Plants breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale the oxygen we inhale.

If you don’t have citric acid on hand (and who does), you can still replicate this experiment at home. This same fizzing process is created when you mix baking soda with any other acid, like vinegar. In fact, baking soda and vinegar are the chemicals commonly used to create exploding volcanoes in elementary school. Just make sure to put a cookie sheet or tray under the container you are using to mix the two, as your concoction might fizz over. And never combine acids and bases in a closed container or they might actually explode.

As a side note: The Queen of Clean recommends pouring vinegar and baking soda down drains to clean them. When you are done experimenting, pour your chemicals down the drain. Two birds, one stone.

You can also replicate this experiment with Alka-Seltzer.  Remember “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is?” That “fizz, fizz” is carbon dioxide escaping as part of the chemical reaction. The Web site Fun Science Project Ideas discusses how you can control factors that might affect how quickly the Alka-Seltzer dissolves in water and stops fizzing. These factors include how much acid you use, how hot or cold the water is and how big or small the Alka-Seltzer tablet is.

Tomorrow, I’ll recount our “color changing liquids” experiment from the same kit and how you can reproduce it at home.

Homeschool, Science/Math, Toys

Short circuiting boredom

Building a circuit

For Christmas, Cooper got a Snap Circuits Jr. kit, which is providing a lot of cause and effect fun. In fact, I’m not sure who is enjoying building the circuits more, Cooper or me. So far, we’ve built a light switch, a fan, a sound-activated speaker (it’s just like The Clapper!) and a station for testing the conductivity of various materials. With the latter we discovered that metal rings, pennies, paperclips and aluminum foil all conduct electricity, while drinking straws, plastic spatulas, cloth and paper don’t. They’re insulators.

Circuits are an area where I am definitely out of my element. A little Web research turned up a fantastic, visual explanation from San Jose’s Tech Museum…  Here’s what I learned: electricity is essentially moving electrons. Remember the atomic particles that orbit an atom’s nucleus like tiny moons circle a planet? That’s an electron. Good conductors have free electrons. When you apply energy, using a battery, for example, these negatively charged electrons move from positive nucleus to positive nucleus. Thus the electricity flows along the wires and into the lightbulb, where it turns the lightbulb on. The Tech Museum site also includes instructions for building your own series and parallel circuits at home without a Snap Circuits Jr. kit, though I think Snap Circuits Jr. is a safer way to play with electrical concepts.

While the circuits kit is labeled ages 8 and up, I  a 5-year-old could easily play with this toy with some assistance. It’s very sturdy and will definitely stand up to some boy handling.

Organization, Toys

The day after…thoughts on toys and storage

If your house it anything like mine, it is still strewn with wrapping paper and cardboard boxes and littered with new toys that haven’t yet found a home. I now see why we were required to display our Christmas presents under the tree for a few days after the holiday; it probably took my mom that long to figure out where to put our loot!

Here are a few thoughts about keeping and storing toys:

  • This is the time of year that storage goes on sale. If you have any storage needs, now is the time to buy. For small children, clear storage is generally easiest, because they can see inside without dumping everything on the floor. If you use opaque bins or drawers, try attaching a picture to the outside so children who can’t read know what goes inside. This makes getting children to clean up a lot easier.
  • We are so overcome with LEGOS! I am planning on building this LEGO storage/building station I saw in FamilyFun. Heck I may even build two….one for the Duplos in Finley’s room and the other for the larger LEGOS in Cooper’s room.
  • Less is more. Now is the time to purge those toys your children haven’t played with in a while. Box them up and move them to the garage or attic. You can make a decision to keep them or sell/donate them in a few weeks. I know some people who regularly cycle toys in and out of the house. When a toy’s been out of sight for a while and returns it often seems new and exciting.
  • Did you get a train for Christmas? I love our Gadget Masters train table with trundle. It has a lid (with a chalkboard on the other side) to keep creations out of sight. The trundle serves as a second play space or could be used for additional track and train storage.
  • The boys love to play dress up. I bought a couple of Halloween costumes on clearance as Christmas presents. Right now all their costumes are stuffed in a drawer, which is not conducive to playing dress up. I don’t have room for a clothes rack, so Grandpa, the woodworker, is going to build a petite version of this coat rack.

Enjoy playing with all your new toys!

Holidays, Toys

Great Gift Ideas 2011…..part 3

You’re probably well into your holiday shopping by now. However, if you are still searching for gift ideas for a few curious kids, here are some toddler and preschool-tested ideas.

Pacific Play Tents Super Duper 4 Kid Tent: Santa left us this play tent (retail $30) last year. It’s very durable and super easy to set up and take down. There are multiple ways for the kids to get in and out, and it is large enough to fit a grown up or two. My husband and I frequently get roped into a game of Apollo 11 in which one of us gets to play Michael Collins to the boys’ Aldrin/Armstrong. This tent also works well for indoor picnics in the winter. Play tents are great for all sorts of imaginative play!

Very Silly Sentences

Very Silly Sentences (by DK Publishing): We received this game for Cooper’s 4th birthday. He wasn’t reading quite yet, so I put it away for several months. However, when he started to read, this game proved to be a fun way to practice. What preschooler doesn’t love silly jokes and ridiculous sentences? “The shiny teacher stands under the grumpy zebra?” Hilarious! Through this game, children can practice reading skills. However, they also learn basic sentence structure, as well as parts of speech. My five-year-old already knows his way around articles and a prepositions. We give this game two thumbs up!

Giant Melissa and Doug Floor Puzzles: Melissa and Doug make the best puzzles, hands down. One of my all-time favorites is the 4-foot fire truck floor puzzle ($12). This was a present for Cooper’s 3rd birthday, and he was able to put it together with a little help. It has 24 large pieces, so it’s pretty easy. We also have the 10-foot Alphabet Train (28 pieces) and Dinosaurs puzzles (48 pieces). I would recommend Dinosaurs for 4+ years, since it has nearly twice as many pieces as the other two.

Need more ideas? Check out my previous posts:

Great Gift Ideas 2011….Part 1

Great Gift Ideas 2011…. Part 2