Kids Who Care: Charity Begins With Play

If raising just about any child in today’s materially-focused, celeb-geeked world is a Herculean challenge, then it may seem downright impossible to rear a kid who actually gives a rip—about his or her family, about the community, and about the world around us all. That’s why, when I ran across a handful of toy companies that are encouraging our kids to care, I wanted to grant them a little press.

Take, for example, Disney’s Club Penguin(www.clubpenguin.com)—the plush-toy company that encourages kids to donate the time and coins they earn playing in the virtual world to make a difference in the real world (more than 2.9 million players have donated 4 billion coins). Kids choose their favorite cause, then they get to direct how a $1 million cash donation is divided among projects and organizations that are serving our world.

Think that’s cool? Then give this a gander: Uberstix(www.uberstix.com), which is a construction toy engineered from recycled materials such as straws, papers clips, and water bottles, donates 5 percent of its profits to underprivileged schools within the United States. The company provides these kids educational programs that teach physics and technology—so when your kids plunk down their cash to buy this product, they can feel great about the difference they’re making in their neighbors’ lives.

And then there’s the company with a longstanding reputation for generosity: Karito Kids (byKidsGive at www.kidsgive.com) continues to teach children about charity through its six signature dolls and books, which represent different cultures from around the globe. Whether you pick up Lulu from Nairobi, Kenya, Piper from Sydney, Australia, Wan Ling from Shanghai China, or Piper from New York City—you’ll be making a charitable contribution to a child with your purchase.

To round out this list of do-gooders, I’ll give the final spot to the Drip Drops (www.thedripdrops.com), a company dedicated to helping children explore the world of color with the help of an adorable set of characters first featured in a children’s book series. President and CEO Tony Lawlor created the Drip Drops, then decided to dedicate part of his company’s earnings to the children ofGrossman Burn Center. It’s a cause close to Lawlor’s heart: Lawlor is himself a burn survivor who once had to cope with the financial, medical and emotional traumas that a burn injury brings on. So even if moms, dads, and kids dig the color-saturated Drip Drops purely for their entertainment value—and the little critters certainly areaddictively lovable—they can rest assured that their money has been put to good use. And that kind of generosity, we all hope, will inspire children to pay it forward for many decades to come.

Toy Trivia

Q: How many feet of wire does it take to make one Slinky?

A: It takes 80 feet of wire to make one Slinky, which was invented in 1945 by Richard and Betty James and has sold more than a quarter billion worldwide..

Drizzly Day? Go With These Games

As high-tech gadgets have claimed so much of the media spotlight in recent times, one decidedly low-tech option suddenly sounds like a great escape from our stimuli-a-minute e-world: The board game. I know, I know: for some of you, board gaming sounds like a snore—the kind of activity that blue-haired senior citizens sit playing after they’ve pulled on their nightcaps. But this year’s crop of board games isn’t just for Granny. In fact, there are oodles of products that will bring the entire family together for giggles and good times. Here are four family games that I recommend:

1. Nab It: Family Game of Stolen Words.Manufacturing giant Hasbro (www.hasbro.com) brings parents a game created by the makers of Scrabble. With this crowd pleaser, up to four people can turn any surface into their board for creating words with colored tiles. Tiles can be fashioned into a crossword and even staked to make new words.

2. Quelf. Imagination Games brings us a product that does double duty: it’s great for pulling together families as well as making your next party a laugh-out-loud hit. As players move around the game board as one of eight characters, things suddenly get a bit wacky—thanks to the fact that you’ve gotta answer trivia questions, perform stunts, and obey silly rules (like wrapping your face in toilet paper). It might sound ludicrous at first, but 30 minutes into it, you realize you haven’t cracked up so much since…well, never. Learn more about this game at http://www.imaginationgames.com

3. Sort It Out! Which is faster: a cheetah or a helicopter? That’s exactly the kind of puzzle you’ll have to piece together in a speed-round of this game (University Games). To win this game, you’ll need to keep your wits about you—and pull out the little knowledge you likely have on a vast array of topics. PS: Sort It Out was hailed as Game of the Year at the 2010 Toy of the Year (TOTY) awards.

4. The Office Monopoly Collectors’ Edition. This game is a twist on the classic Monopoly game, from USAopoloy (www.usaopoloy.com). Based on the NBC sitcom “The Office,” the game includes characters from the popular series, as well as most of the same components that first made the basic Monopoly set to popular when it was released (drumroll, please…) 75 years ago. Talk about staying power.

Here is what’s so amazing about games: Once you buy one of them, it can provide you with a new experience every time you play, making it one of the most cost-effective ways to use your funds during a cash shortage. And besides: It glues together moms, dads, tots, teens—and yes, even grannies—for more face time…and less Facebook time.

The Brainpower Boost: Rev Up Your Child’s Imagination During the Sunny Season

All the recent chatter about America’s childhood obesity pandemic has shifted our gaze away from another potential sloth: Our children’s brainpower may be seeping away as they passively take in oodles of media. Without consistent, vigorous exercis the brain indeed atrophies as quickly as your waist measurement seems to climb once you hit 30. What better time than summer to give your kid’s brain a mini sweat session?

If you want to kick-start you kids’ imagination, you’ve come to the right place. This August, keep one eyeball peeled for My Take Along Theater from Playmobil. Using figures and variable scenes, children can dream up an endless number of storylines that ignite their creativity for hours. The set even comes with a touch of theatrical authenticity—a sound box of pre-recorded music, sounds, and children’s laughter. Bonus: Moms will love that the self-enclosed carry box stashes away all of the figurines and makes portability a snap. If stagecraft isn’t quite your cup of tea, then swing by for a visit with the crown prince of creativity—Crayola. From the Spira-Chalk Blaster (which lets kids create eye-popping spiral designs using sidewalk chalk) to the 3-D Disney Fairies (which lets kids draw and color characters like Tinkerbell), Crayola has mastered the art of all things imaginative. They even offer aSidewalk Chalk Maker where children can whip up their own customized hues using six jars of colored chalk powder. When it comes to bolstering your child’s fine motor skills—as it turns out, our children’s dexterity development is just as exercise-starved as their brains are—few products trump Perplexus (PlaSmart), a maze game in which players must maneuver a marble around challenging barriers inside a transparent sphere. To add some fitness training to your children’s mystery-solving and navigational skills, introduce them to Treasure of the Lost Pyramid (Basic Concepts), a 3-D pop-up game during which teammates compete to discover what’s hidden in each of the four Pharaoh’s Tombs. Then at Toy Fair 2010, Hasbro unveils its brain-titillating Scrabble Flash Cubes—for a twist on the classic game, players can slide, move, and shuffle electronic cubed letter tiles in a race to create new words in 60 seconds flat. And not list of brain-teasing toys would be complete with a mention ofCreationary—a LEGO game in which each player can builds an object while playmates guess what he or she is creating. Not only does this game stretch your memory to the max, but it brings together family and friends for at least 30 minutes of bonding.

Fit or fat? When it comes to keeping those neurotransmitters popping in your child’s brain, what goes for the gluteus maximus also holds true for the cerebellum: You either move it or you lose it.

The Outdoor Life: Summer Plaything Picks That Get Kids Moving Again

If Michelle Obama is a tad worried, that’s enough to nab my full attention: Last February, the First Lady launched the “Let’s Move!” campaign to fight an obesity epidemic that is jeopardizing our children’s health. Our kids come by their fat honestly—two thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, and one third of our children fit into those categories. If Moms everywhere are wolfing down chips, donuts, and soda—and I can attest to the kind of continuous stress that breeds such bingeing—why are we surprised when our little ones follow our lead? And aside from choosing differently with our forks, how can we put our children back on the path to good health?

Enter summer 2010—the perfect time to stock up on a few fat-fighting, figure-friendly playthings that also get your kids outdoor. Starting with Hide and Seek Safari Classic from R & R Games(www.rnrgames.com). Hide and Seek Safari Classic is a digital twist on the “hotter, colder” game many of us once played; the Seeker wand lights up to show your children just how close they are to the stuffed tiger—and once they’re within five feet of the tiger, the Seeker beeps.

Want to tempt your tyke to burn off a few of those cheeseburgers? Make exercise fun with the Toy Story 3 Space Shooter Game from Hasbro (www.hasbro.com). Your kids will need to stay in constant motion as they target enemy toys with the Space Ranger foam disc blaster, collect tokens, and ultimately bring their toys to safety—all while moving their buns.

If you’re going for the ultimate calorie burn, your kidshouldn’t miss the Wild Planet’s Hyper Dash EXTREME! (www.wildplanet.com). The electronic game requires that players race against time using target and a handheld unit. Set up targets on a tale or around a living room or backyard. Children zip around their makeshift racecourse (and this is the fat-slashing part) to tag their targets with the handheld unit.

One of my all-favorite offerings comes from DigginActive, a toy company that promotes a let’s-get-moving lifestyle with its products. Squap is a throwing toy in which players use a mitt to launch and catch a ball as quickly as possible—all the while exercising their arms and legs. Another toy that’ll whip your kids into shape isSwinxs, a Toy of the Year (TOTY) nominated product. Using microchip wristbands, kids stay connected to the screen-free electronic console, which interacts with them through speech and sound; the games can be downloaded (for free!) from the site (www.swinxs.com).

As part of Michelle Obama’s obesity campaign, children will be encouraged to get moving for at least an hour a day. Here’s how moms and dads can play their part in that cause: We can make the would-be chore that we call exercise feel as much like child’s play as it did back when we were kids.

On the Road Again: Toys for (Looong!) Car Trips

As we head into summer—that season of vacations and car trips with screaming tots—I wanted to send you off on the road with a little help. Which is precisely why I’ve selected (from the oodles of great playthings that exist) four fabulous fold-‘n’-go toys that’ll keep those kids—be they tykes or teens—busy in the backseat during your next road trip. So without further ado, I bring you my top travel toys of 2010:

  1. Crayola Dry Erase Travel Activity Center. First of all, dry-erase kit racks up major cool points for its ease of portability—but aside from that, it’s also a marvelous educational tool. Interchangeable templates help children write, draw, count or just play different games—whether that’s at the kitchen table or in the car.
  2. Zingo Travel Game. Think Fun brings you a way to keep between two and eight kids occupied with this game that’s reminiscent of Bingo: Your kids will have race each other to be the first to fill their cards with a set of matching picture tiles.
  3. Animal Soup Card Game. Why not distract your little ones with a quick card game in the back of the SUV? Enter Briarpatch’s Animal Soup, which challenges children ages 5 and up to match up the crazy critters they spot on the cards!
  4. Travel Around the World Teddy Bear. What better way to gallop the globe than with a plush and portable teddy? Aurora has just the one, and he even comes with in a carrying case the size of a lunch box and with a map so your kid can discover where his or her travelmate is from.

Make it a fab summer…and happy toy trails!