Matchbox 20

June 11, 2012

In my grandmother’s town, where I spent my summers as a kid, there was an ancient toy store run by an even more ancient man where he still sold individually boxed Matchbox cars. I loved small things and little containers, so a tiny car that came in its own garage was fantastic. (He also sold chemistry sets from 1954, one of which my brother bought and melted – the metal box included – so, you know, safety first.)

Matchbox cars are still great, even though the matchbox part has been replaced by endlessly irritating plastic packaging. For kids, they fit in small hands nicely, the wheels run well, and they take satisfying jumps off the end of the playground slide. For parents, they make no noise and take up virtually no space, so hooray minimal!

If this is your first time at the tiny-car rodeo (which is an awesome idea, thank you very much, TM), spring for the 20-pack. It’s worth it: it’s not just the Corvettes and a truck or two that you get in the smaller packs or that you find sold individually. It has construction vehicles, a taxi, maybe an ice cream truck and a VW van, so blue collar, hippies, and urbanites are all covered. Consider it a first lesson in population diversity for little Angelique. If twenty cars seems a little overwhelming for a new driver, just open the package on your own and dole out the cars over a few weeks or months. Or the course of a long plane flight. I know: tell your seat mates you’re welcome from me.

Note: contents vary, but you’ll always get some of the weird, fun vehicles along with the regular cars.

Matchbox 20, $22 at Amazon or your local toy store (In San Francisco, Ambassador Toys has them)


Fire Trucks

June 10, 2012

Fire trucks are awesome. What’s not to love? I got a ride on one once. The firemen were heading out, I came by on foot wearing something fetching, and voila: a ride to the pub on the Upper West Side on a fire truck. It was fantastic.

We live a few blocks from an old-school firehouse and I needed to find Astrid a fire truck that met her expectations after seeing a real one and ringing its bell. It was surprisingly challenging.

Bruder MAN Fire Engine (with working hose)

There are two basic types: realistic ones with noises and hoses and ladders or “little kid” ones with larger and fewer features (and no break-off-able parts for choking).

In general, I try to steer clear of loud toys, but the siren is what first attracts kids to fire engines, so you can’t not have it. That concession made, I did stop short of getting her a giant one with all the bells and whistles, although I’m sure when she’s a little older than two and can work them herself, the ones with the hoses will make a reappearance on the radar.

The little kid ones were hard for me to get next to. The Green Toys fire truck doesn’t much resemble a fire truck except that it’s red and has tiny ladders, and inexplicably their vehicles’ wheels won’t run on hard floors. What fun is that?? In general, I like Plan Toys a lot, but their wooden fire truck just wasn’t close enough to the real thing for me.

These were my favorites:

Tonka’s Lights and Sounds Fire Engine. Medium-sized (bigger than Matchbox but smaller than giant) and with three brief sounds, Tonka’s Lights and Sounds Fire Engine was my final choice. The ladder moves and the doors open and that’s it. Astrid misses that it doesn’t have a bell, but other than that, it looks and sounds like the fire engines she sees all the time, and it fills the need without filling the room (or breaking the bank). We may upgrade later to one with people and hoses, but for a two year old with a limited attention span, Tonka’s is great. A little steep at $30+, but I couldn’t find any cheaper. About $30-35 at Amazon

For slightly older kids or full-on fanatics:

Bruder makes fantastic trucks, including several different fire trucks. They’re expensive though (nearly $70) and the size is a bit big for a city home (19″x10″), but if you’ve got the budget and the space, they’re sturdy and realistic looking. The final deciding factor for us though, besides price and size, was that none of them look like the basic “rectangular box with ladder and bell” that lives up the hill in our fire house. Still, great trucks and all the moving parts are attractive for an older toddler. $50-$70 at Amazon

Do you know the difference between a “ladder unit” and a “fire engine”? Yeah, me neither. But Playmobil does. The guy at the toy store explained to me all the different kinds of trucks that are in rotation at the city’s fire houses so I would understand how comprehensive and accurate Playmobil’s offerings are. Ultimately, I decided not to invest in another line of toys (in addition to the Legos and blocks we’re already navigating), and, like Bruder, Playmobil’s are big, but if you’ve already got your foot in the Playmobil door and have the space, they are cool. Various trucks, firepeople and station, $28-$80

Kids love dipping their food. Ketchup, syrup, tartar sauce: our refrigerator door is crowded with salty and sweet condiments. So it makes sense that the condiment bottle collection we got Astrid for her little play kitchen is a big hit. That and the fact that the tops actually come off, which is key.

Speaking of – and I don’t mean to go off on a rant here – but what are toy companies thinking when they ship toys that have no interactive component to them? For Pete’s sake, what kid wants to play with a box of “food” that is painted to look like the real containers except none of them open, unwrap or uncork? I mean really. Giving a toddler a block painted to look like half a gallon of milk is like giving her a bike with wheels that don’t turn. Or the box the bike came in. Except I guess you could play in the box. Which makes it better than that milk, which isn’t even a good block because it’s all slope-y on one end where it should’ve had an opening for the milk to come out of but instead just has a $(*&#$! slope.

Anyway, Melissa & Doug did a good job on this one. It’s a five-bottle set of common condiments, each with a top that comes off an re-attaches with magnets. The magnets are the most brilliant bit. Without them, you’d lose the lids in, like, a day, Plus,with the magnetic pull and satisfying click when they lock, even the littlest foodie can get them sorted out. Astrid fell for them in the play room at The Academy of Science when she was a year old and still loves them. (It took me a while to find the set online since the word “condiment” isn’t in the name. But “bottle collection” is. Like my toddler is a antique collector. Or an alcoholic.)

Melissa & Doug Deluxe Wooden Kitchen Magnetic Bottle Collection, $17.50 at Amazon

Astrid loves vegetables. I don’t feel like I can take much credit for that because I’ve tried to get her to like fruit too and it hasn’t worked at all. We just got lucky. (Well, that and her first foods were veggies, so that might’ve helped a little.) Like most toddlers, she also likes “helping” in the kitchen, so play food became an early focus of my little kid shopping.

I have to say, for the size of the market, I’m not super impressed with the offerings (lots of heavy wood “food” that’s unwieldy and unrealistic – are you listening Melissa & Doug??), but I am loving on the Hape Garden Salad. After hunting for something that seemed fun and not just heavy (the food group and the actual toy!), I ordered the Garden Salad as soon as I found it.

Like the Kidoozie veggie set, it’s – I don’t know what the right phrase is here – “anatomically correct” (??) and looks like an actual salad. Felt lettuce leaves and carrot sticks and little wood tomato and cucumber slices with seeds, rings of red and yellow pepper and some onion slices to boot. The set also includes oil and vinegar bottles, a pepper shaker that makes a shaking noise, salad serving tools and a plastic bowl for the whole healthy meal.

Unlike most of the rest of her play food which lies there like plastic or wooden bricks, this looks like something I bring to the table for dinner, and she plays with it every day. I also love that it’s a.) small, and b.) a healthy example.

Hape Garden Salad set, $25 at Land of Nod (they’ve re-named it the Leafy Keen Salad Set, but it’s the Hape Garden Salad) or $28 at Amazon

First Doll

April 16, 2012

I wasn’t keen on raising our little girl to just like dolls and kitchens, so I got her a red car about the same time as I got her her first doll. She was about eight months old and wasn’t interested in either of them, so nice work me! I chose the doll very carefully to be soft and safe but still have hair she could play with and a friendly face. Our nanny gave her one with similar features a couple months later at Christmas. Still no luck. Which is to say, if your child is anything like Astrid, s/he will probably be a year old or a little older before he shows much interest in dolls.

The one I settled on next, Corolle’s Cailin, was a winner and still is a year later. He looks like an infant (she has an older one too but her only interest in that one is in the removable shoes), which is probably attractive because he’s littler than Astrid herself, so she feels she can take care of him.

The Corolle dolls aren’t the least expensive, but they’re also not super creepy like some of the all-plastic ones with weird eyes and hard bodies. Cailin’s body is soft for cuddling but the arms, legs and head are plastic, so toes can be counted and eyelids close. The child development expert at Day One noted that realistic dolls are great for mirroring with little kids: they can identify similarities and features and that’s both interesting and stimulating.

Oh – and the dolls smell like vanilla. I’m not kidding. And they keep smelling like vanilla. I don’t really want to know how they make that happen, but it’s kind of nice (even though I don’t usually like vanilla scents): not too strong and sort of soothing.

Clothes are removable and washable and you can buy other outfits if you want (although Astrid won’t allow him to be changed into them because he looks like a different doll, so try out one alternate outfit before you invest in many!) Also, tons of accessories available for later (cribs, bibs, strollers, etc.)

Corolle Mon Premier Cailin 12″ doll, about $23 at Amazon, Caucasian in pink or blue outfit, Asian girl or African-American girl


April 13, 2012

With a two year old, bubbles are on the menu every day. They have been for a while. And babies love them too. So stocking up on bubbles, especially novel ones, especially ones that don’t spill, especially ones that are easy for little ones, is a part-time job. Well, OK, less than that, but still.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not crafty (in the arty way or in the guile way. I am a terrible liar. In case you ever need me for a surprise party or to back up your story, just don’t even bother to ask because it will end in someone’s tears. Or just a lot of confusing explanations.) But I had to go to Michael’s for some basics and ran across a huge selection of crazy-cheap bubbles. Who knew a craft shop sold bubbles in the first place??

Regular bubbles, bubbles in tubes with Easter bunnies on the wands, big wand bubbles for the park, and little tubes of those plastic bubbles that you can stack on your finger but which leave a weird residue when they pop. They were, like, $1. Or $2 for the big bottles. Absurd. And way cheaper than anywhere else I’ve seen. So go stock up there and no more bubble-hunting or paying Walgreens $7 for some silly little bucket that won’t last the afternoon. You might want to wait a week or so to head out there though: I think I bought all of them.

Michael’s Arts & Crafts, find your local store 

Eat Your Veggies

March 21, 2012

Let’s face it: if you’re cooking dinner, your child is too. They like you, these kids of yours. So if you’re in the kitchen dicing vegetables, chances are, they’ll want to help. Especially with those colorful paring knives. Yeah, those are big draws in our house. Anyway, sooner or later, you’ll go looking for some play food for little Mario to manage on his own so your pork chops and their trychinosis can be left in peace. Let me recommend the Kidoozie veg and fruit set.

They’re fantastic. And I did some shopping around, trust me. For one, they come in their own little cloth shopping bag, so they can all be stored together. For another, all the fruits and veggies can be pulled apart (or “cut” with the enclosed plastic knife) as God intended: the orange splits into sections and the peel comes off, the cabbage “peels” back, the corn husk comes off, and so on. Little pieces of Velcro hold all the pieces together and has held up remarkably well – no issues so far and it’s been nearly a year since I handed the little bag of produce over to Astrid. I much prefer this set to any of our wooden food, which is much heavier and less life-like – which is probably why it’s also much less popular with the toddler crowd.

Most of the other sets I considered are either whole pieces of plastic or wood that can’t be separated/”cut” to see inside them, or they’re like Plan Toys’ set: they come apart, but at one arbitrary seam only. Small World Living Toys Peel n’ Play set is almost identical to the one we have (although only veg, no fruit) and I assume it’s also great, albeit slightly more expensive.

Get ’em excited about produce early – and give them something to cut up on the counter, other than their fingers!

Kidoozie Garden Fresh Fruits & Veggies, $15.50 on Amazon