Monday, November 9, 2009

Snow White Sure Looks Good for Her Age

Full disclosure: I'm not precisely sure how old Snow White is. She's either 197, if you count her as born in 1812 when the Brothers Grimm published their version of her story. Or she's 72, if you count her as born in 1937 when Disney first released her feature movie. Or she's untold hundreds of years old, if you consider her origins in stories that date back to the Middle Ages.

In any case, those plump rosy cheeks and bouncy black curls certainly make her forever young and endlessly fascinating for the adoring-all-things-princess set.

I was fortunate enough to be offered a combo-pack of the newly-re-released Disney Snow White Diamond Edition, with all sorts of extra features. It is an incredible restoration job. The colors are intense, and the whole movie seems to glow from within. Watching it, I couldn't help but find myself constantly reminded of the astonishing skill and patience it took to make a feature-length cartoon at a moment in time when every single one of the roughly 1.5 million frames had to be hand-drawn and painted.

I love that the combo pack comes with both a traditional DVD and a Blu-ray disk. We don't have a blu-ray player yet, but I would imagine that at some point we will, so it is particularly nice to know that buying this set means that whatever technology you have, you can still watch the movie.

Daughter and I sat down to watch, and I have to say that there is a lot about this movie that is dark and terrifying. It is pretty clear that Disney, in focusing on a feature-length film, was thinking about appealing to an adult audience at least as much as a child one. The attention to detail is tremendous, while the Queen's death wish for Snow White is pretty graphic. Even so, my three-year-old was not as afraid as I would have thought. She watched, wide-eyed and entranced, as Snow White enchanted the forest animals with her singing. She danced when Snow White and the Dwarfs danced. She clapped with delight when the prince rescued her.

There are many additional features to this combo pack that I think will provide hours of entertainment for other days. In addition to watching the movie, there are Disney family play games, a sing-along, and some fascinating back story of the production of the movie.

Of course, I, in my geek-dom, wanted more, so I did a little digging around and found a reposting of this article from Popular Science Magazine, originally published in January 1938.

After a giant scan of the first page of the article, this site transcribes the whole thing, which provides a detailed and completely fascinating discussion of the process of making what was the very first feature-length cartoon ever produced. If you are a lover of the original movie, or if you vaguely recall it and want a reminder, definitely check out the lushly resorted Diamond Edition of Snow White. And if you are a person fascinated with technologies past, a constant asker of "How did they do that?" don't miss the Popular Science article. Either way, it's a wonderful dose of an old classic that is only looking better with time.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Most Stylish Baby in Town

One thing I discovered when my children were first born is that it's really really easy to find decor for children's rooms in pastel colors and "classic" motifs like trains or teddy bears, but it's not so easy to find things that appeal to a grown-up sense of whimsy and style while still looking baby appropriate.

Enter This site carries everything from decorations to nursery furniture to strollers--basically every thing your baby could ever need. All the high end brands like Maclaren and Bugaboo are there, and if you spend some time looking through the hundreds of pages of baby goods they have on offer, you will find a whole world of wonderfully child-friendly products in styles that will suit the most current tastes.

As the name of the site suggests, the designs are modern -- in face, I'd call them modern with a retro feel. You'll find lots of chocolate brown mixed with fern green, or Wedgwood blue with cream and tan, or glossy red. Furniture and accessories have sleek lines, and there are pages and pages of classy pieces that you will use for years. There are even pages of things for yourself.

I am personally pining for a Stokke high chair, wishing I'd known such a thing existed back when my first child was an infant. If I'd gotten it then, it would have done duty already for five years as a fabulously convertible seat. Ingeniously, both seat and footrest adjust in height, and there are multiple padded seat/strap systems that vary according to the age of the child you have. In the end, the chair is suitable for infant feeding, toddler messes, and preschoolers who need to be raised up to the height of the table. Now, of course, it seems a little too late for me, although I am sure it would do much to restrain Daughter and help her work on her table manners if she had a chair like this one to put her at the proper height at dinner. This is precisely the sort of thing I think is worth spending more money on, since it will do duty for multiple chairs and last so much longer than anything that's not designed to be convertible.

I also love their washable, affordable polypropylene floor mats in bright colors. These would be great under a high chair to protect the floor from wayward bits of food from a just-learning-to-eat baby, or under an easel in the playroom, or anyplace else where there is risk of spillage. Honestly, I just might make an excuse to find a spot for one of them because they're so brightly cheerful without containing a single set of ABC's in their design.

Here's where this review gets exciting for you.

AllModernBaby offered me $75 worth of credit on the site to check out some of the products for myself, but since my kids are past the baby stage, I asked them if I could give away the gift certificate instead -- and AllModernBaby was happy to oblige.

All you have to do to enter to win $75 to spend on your own fabulous baby gear is go check out the site, and then leave me a comment below telling me what something you love there.

For an additional entry, tweet the contest with a link back to this page, and then come back here and leave another comment that includes a link to your tweet.

The fine print: Limit two contest entries per person. Giveaway open to those in the US and Canada. Contest will remain open for one week. The winner will be chosen by and announced on Monday morning, July 27. Please be sure to leave your email address in your comment so I can contact you if you win.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Syms Meets Schoolhouse Rock

A full disclaimer is certainly necessary right up front: I am terrible at video games. Anything newer than PacMan is beyond me. I don't get the key strokes, the movements of the characters make me dizzy, and I am generally more annoyed than entertained by almost everything about them.

By contrast, my son takes after his father. At five years old, Son scores in the 65-75% range playing the guitar in Daddy's Rock Band. He has great fun jumping around like crazy on the Dance Dance Revolution pad. He thinks Sonic Tennis is awesome. And, of course, he loves to play things on the computer if I let him. Noggin games are approved by me as not too violent for him. The one learning system game I set him up with a few months ago was a big hit.

So when a representative from JumpStart contacted me with an offer for a free trial, I was delighted to let Son explore another learning system/computer video game, particularly since he is on the verge of going to Kindergarten, and I figured honing some skills this summer might be a good idea.

Although my initial impression of JumpStart was not stellar, a little fortitude and some experimentation got me through the initial video-game learning curve. And now, I can whole-heartedly say that we LOVE this system in our house.

Because that there are all sorts of online games out there purporting to be educational, I think it's worth it to know what is good and bad about any given system, so I'm going to tell you exactly how we found it. The short version of what follows is that although there are some drawbacks to this system in terms of how intuitive (or not) the play is, the down-loadable JumpStart worlds absolutely cannot be beat for keeping children engaged in the learning that they are doing online.

You should know that there are games you can play online through JumpStart, as well as ones you download. The latter are much more involved, both in the structure of the games and the skills you learn. You can try out some things for free online, but the downloadable games (which are far better) require a membership.

Here are the PROS

* The (free) educational games on the JumpStart site have two sets of level controls. You choose a level for the content that corresponds to your child's knowledge about, say, addition, and then you also choose a level for the video game play that corresponds to how good your child is at gaming skills. I, for example, can rock all the highest levels in the reading games (duh, they only go up to third grade skills), but even on "easy" settings for game play, I still find myself irritated and befuddled by the video game tasks. I just don't like trotting around virtual worlds looking for stuff -- but that's not JumpStart's fault. And I really appreciate that they have figured out that just because a kid is advanced in reading, she may not be good at jumping barrels using key-strokes, or vice versa.

* The graphics are good, and the 3-D worlds are customizable, so you can build a character, paint the scenery, and so on, which makes the kids feel invested.

* The learning interfaces limit your child's ability to just play shoot 'em up. For example, one game asks you to fly through the hoops containing the correct answer and blast the incorrect answers with your jetpack. But you only get five "blasts" before you run out and thereafter can only seek correct answers. So you can't turn what is supposed to be a game about matching math sets into one that's about shooting asteroids (which my five year old totally would do if he could, since watching asteroids blow up seems cool to him, while the long term goal of staying on task so that he can accumulate points to buy things in a virtual world is not a concept he's ever encountered).

* It is extremely well-designed and thoughtful as a virtual world for young children. There is no violence (unless you count throwing pies at things violent), no innuendo, no danger of encountering any strangers online since each account is separate. The adventures are fun and engaging, and the play options are widely varied.

* The downloadable games have a whole series of units with carefully sequenced lessons that build upon previous knowledge. There are lessons in math, sets, logic, letters and reading that each involve a different kind of game, so that things don't get stale.

* A portion of the system is available for free, and it is also possible to sign up for a free trial of the subscription parts of the service too. This means that you can check out the whole thing, poke around, experiment, and really see if your child falls in love before you commit to a monthly fee. That is a huge bonus in my book.

Here are the CONS

* There seem to be glitches in the online (for free) games. In the first two hours of play, we encountered instructions to "follow the trail of yellow lanterns," spent ages grasping for the only yellow lantern we could find, and then finally found a trail of PURPLE lanterns that would lead us to the right place. That was annoying, but surmountable. Much more disheartening, however, were the errors in the learning games. Supposed to locate shields with the "fffff" sound on them, Son lost many points for blasting shields marked with the letter "m" only to discover that ALL the shields were marked "m," but that if you got close enough, the voice over would tell you that that shield was actually supposed to be the letter "d" or "f" or "p" or whatever. On an adjectives game I tried, all the shields were marked "ripe" although the voice over would tell me that actually some of them were supposed to read "shiny" or "eats" or "quickly" or whatever. Obviously, it is impossible to get the right answers if the game itself is displaying letters and words that don't match what it thinks it's displaying. We have not had these kinds of problems with the games we downloaded, but we have had them on multiple occasions with the games we've tried to play online.

* Nothing about getting around in this world is intuitive to me. Now, I think if you are a gamer, your experience would be completely different from mine. So I think the fair critique here is that this system is very video-gamey, which is to say that if you play other types of virtual world games, you will no doubt be able to get around because you are used to how these maps work, to assuming you are supposed to click people to get them to talk to you, and to locating items "by the tree," for example. But I, who have little-to-no gaming experience, found myself completely unable to navigate my way around the Storyland that was supposed to be for preschoolers. After 20 minutes there, unable to find any hint of the "letter trail" I was supposed to follow, I gave up. Probably, if my husband had been playing, he would have been able to figure this out. But what that suggests is that if your child does not have a parent who understands the assumptions and common moves that underlie virtual world games, then your child might have a frustrating time getting around in this one.

* You have to download the actual learning game worlds. The "Adventureland" that is obvious and easy to get to, and the map that you start with, lets you into arcade style games (car racing, etc.) and a (less interesting) learning game. All the others must be downloaded separately. It's not hard to do; it's just hard to realize that that is what you need to do, since the instructions at start up do not make that clear. Hence, my child got all sucked into arcade racing and other fun games before I could even find anything educational.

* The system saves your progress to your C drive rather than to its server. This is a drawback if you want your child to be able to play on more than one computer, since all his/her progress will only be stored on one. It also means that if your computer crashes, or you install a new operating system, all of your child's progress will be lost. Since it took my son over an hour just to get through the "training" that would let him into Adventureland to start playing a learning adventure, I would imagine that such a loss would be a disaster for a child who has been playing for months, amassing points, collecting stuff, and working through a curriculum.

* To move up from one level to the next in the system, you have to work your way through all the required tasks, some of which are educational lessons and others of which are video-game style tasks involving doing jobs or locating objects in the virtual world. There are nominal benefits in the gaming tasks, which are supposedly about helping your virtual friends, for example, but I wish the system had a smaller proportion of these hoops to jump through. I think Son spends as much time on these game parts as on the educational parts of each unit.

Here is the overall assessment

I think JumpStart is a great activity for children if you are looking for something engaging and safe online. It is a fantastic alternative to traditional video games in that there is no destruction, violence or mayhem, and there are great lessons that help reinforce math and reading concepts. If you go into thinking of it as fun, interactive games that may also result in your child learning something, then I think you will be more than delighted. At $7.99 per month, it costs less than taking your child to one movie, and it's far more educational. If you purchase it thinking it will be a serious supplement to your child's curriculum, then I would imagine some frustration with the amount of set-up time and the many possibilities for online play here that do not involve academic lessons.

Although I think that overall this system could be a little less game-y for my taste, my son ADORES it. He is excited every time he earns a new badge; he is able to work his way through the curriculum and stay engaged. This one has real lasting power, and I can imagine him playing it for months.

Should you get it? YES! But skip the online (free) games, which are annoyingly complicated and have a low learning-gaming ratio, and go straight to the downloadable ones, which are rich, interesting, thoughtfully designed as learning games. Have a little patience for the long download and set up/orientation process, and you will be richly rewarded in the end.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Whooga! Sheepskin boots for the rest of us

Did you know that ugg boots have been around for decades as the preferred footwear of competitive swimmers and surfers? As someone who has to wear boots six months of the year to keep her feet warm against the snow, the thought of wearing thick heavy sheepskin on the beach seems pretty funny. But apparently the wicking properties of fluffy lining on these boots helps regulate your body temperature -- perfect for ensuring you don't get chilled when you first get out of the water. Cool.

Did you further know that there have been some ugly trademark disputes about these boots? The UGGs brand-name has tried to argue that people are infringing on their trademark by describing their sheepskin boots as generic ugg boots. But in Autralia, the term "ugg boots" has been in use for over 50 years to describe this style of boot, no brand required.

What does all this add up to for you? Why $30 off your very own pair of cozy, comfy, fashionably ugly boots, obviously!

A number of small Australian companies offer sheepskin boots, and Whooga is just one. You can find on their site all the styles you might want -- tall, short, even woven/knitted ones with buttons. They come in lots of colors besides the classic tan and brown, including pink, dark purple, forest green, and black.

Whooga's customers sing their praises for excellent customer service, great comfort, and very competitive prices.

If you've always wanted to try a pair of these sheepskin boots but have been put off by the price, then Whooga might just be your answer. Priced nearly 1/3 less than competitors' brands, Whooga boots are certainly more affordable. And on top of that, Whooga generously created a coupon for Mommy's Martini and The Best Stuff readers. All you have to do is type MOMMYSMART into the coupon code at checkout, and Whooga will deduct $30 from your order!

The coupon is only good for the next two months, and as anyone who has ever tried to buy some of these boots for a holiday gift in the winter knows, supplies run low once cold weather comes. So what are you waiting for? Check out Whooga. And may your feet be cozy come fall.

Full disclosure: I'm not getting free boots out of this, just access to the same coupon you have. I haven't ordered mine yet, but only because I can't decide what color to get. I already have some light tan faux shearling boots. If you didn't want tan or brown, what color would you pick?

P.S. For more great deals and giveaways coming your way, you might want to subscribe to or follow me here.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Musicals for the Prescool Set?

I have always loved theater. In high school and college, I dabbled in acting, made costumes, ran shows backstage. Whenever I travel to a city, I make a point to see a production of something. The summer I was in London for three weeks, I saw four plays.

I've also done my best to get my children interested in theater. I take them to local productions, university theater department plays, puppet-based theatricals, basically any place that I think the show itself is appropriate for small ones. It never ceases to amaze me, although we've been to a fair amount of theater, how well they can pay attention and maintain a respectful silence.

But for me it's always a gamble: will my three- and five-year-olds behave themselves in a "grown-up" venue?

So, I was quick to jump at the offer of promotional tickets to the traveling production of Thomas and Friends Live Onstage, which is perhaps the only BIG show I know that is explicitly aimed at the preschool set. (Even Disney on Ice is, I think, aimed at children in the 4-7 age range.) And then, today, off we went.

Here's what my son (age 5) had to say about the show: "It was good; I liked it." When pressed to clarify what he liked about it, he replied with a smile, "Everything." My daughter clapped along, made Thomas toot whistle sounds, bobbed her head to the music, laughed a lot. In short, both of them were thoroughly entertained.

My husband and I, on the other hand? Not quite so much. Sure, it was really fun to watch the children having such a good time, but the plot of the show itself was hardly scintillating (a circus is coming to town, and Thomas keeps messing things up by trying to be helpful). And the entire experience was LOUD. L-O-U-D, *loud* loud LOUD.

Part of the noise was due to the incessant chatter of the three-year-old audience. "Where's Harold? Where's Harold? Harold? Harold! Haaaarrrrrooolllllddddd!" chanted a little one in the row in front of us. It was pretty cute in the singular. But multiply it by the hundreds of people in the audience, and it made sense why the cast had to have the volume turned up so exceedingly loud on their microphones. Between the chattering audience, the shout-singing cast, and the numbing plot, I was glad when the two hours were over.

To be fair, I find the television episodes of Thomas a little odd and not that compelling either. And I realize that what is compelling to a parent is often precisely the opposite of what will be enrapturing to a pre-schooler. But I also think that the best productions aimed at children, particularly very young ones, contain elements intended for adult appreciation -- excellent skating, if that's your thing, or fancy footwork in the choreography, or an intriguing plot, or witty dialogue.

This show had, I must say, fantastic trains. Apart from the excellent fact that their faces were mobile, the engines chugging across the stage look exactly like the tiny, shiny plastic ones in the battery-operated Thomas line. But these engines onstage were big enough for full-grown humans to drive as conductors. That was pretty amazing.

In short, my recommendation would be to take the little ones to this show if you personally enjoy the animated episodes. It really is just like an episode come to life. If you don't love Thomas on tv yourself, but your little ones do, then take them for the joy of watching the joy on their faces. That is certainly not valueless. Just don't go expecting a show pitched at adults. Because, really, your three-year-old has different taste than you do.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Math Was Never This Much Fun Back When I Was Young

My son just turned five and has deep and heartfelt longings to start Kindergarten. I think, if I could get the information out of him, that a large part of what he longs for is a day at school during which no one forces him to lie down on a cot to take a nap.

But we did have a very telling conversation a few weeks ago, when he was complaining yet again about getting ready for preschool, and I asked him why he didn't like school. Eyes blazing with indignation, he turned to me and said forcefully, "They shouldn't teach you what you already know!"

My boy, he likes a challenge.

I know that what I do with him at home doesn't make up for what is not being done for him at school, and yet, I do my best to come up with fun projects and challenging games, and to offer up a little bit of teaching wherever I can. He loves learning new words or working out little puzzles in his head. Back in December, our car trips were all about what my old math books used to call "word problems."

If Santa has eight reindeer who like apples, but he only has five apples, how many more apples does he need to get, so that each reindeer can have one?

Son loved this stuff.

So when a representative from DreamBox Learning contacted me and asked me if I'd like to try out their online math program (geared towards grades K-3), I jumped at the chance. I figured that no matter how good it was (or wasn't), it might provide some interesting distraction for my son. I had no idea what we were in for -- and I mean that in the best possible way.

Trust me, if you have a child somewhere in the range of 4-9 (though it's dependent on math skills more than age), you really want to know about this system.

Here is what I absolutely LOVE about the DreamBox design.

* There is a parent dashboard that tells you not just how much time your child has spent online, but precisely what skills she has been working on. It tell you what her progress is, where she is advancing, and provides you a graphic image of her abilities relative to average curriculum goals for the grade level(s) at which she is working. (She can be, for example, at a first grade level for counting skills and still at a Kindergarten level for addition.) All of this makes it very easy to see what conceptual elements of math your child has or has not grasped.

* The system is astonishingly responsive to a child's current knowledge. Although it's set up like a game, the initial tasks clearly set a baseline to establish what the child already knows. Then, the math tasks he is asked to do set accordingly. Son, for example, can count to 100. The system very quickly figured out that he didn't need to work on counting objects, and it moved on to higher concepts like recognizing how many objects are in a set if you don't have time to count them. (e.g. You know the "five" on dice because of the pattern of the dots, not because you recount them every time.)

In addition, as a child encounters a new skill, the system adjusts. One addition/subtraction game he played was too difficult, and he missed the first three questions, with two tries for each answer. So the game changed to make the challenge easier, while still working on addition/subtraction. For example, it set all the problems to add/subtract for numbers 10 and under (hence, he could use his fingers for help). It also offered him ways to get clues to answers that would begin to help him grasp the concepts without simply doing his work for him.

* There is just enough narrative to the system to keep a child engaged. The "gimmick" is that you have entered an amusement park and have to choose an area in which to play. There is a dinosaur area, a pirate one, a house, and a garden. Each area has eight games available. In the dinosaur area, for example, one game is to free a triceratops that is stuck in the mud. You do this by completing a whole series of math tasks, each set of which garners you one more tool to do the freeing.

The tasks are set against a backdrop of jungle and hungry pythons, flowers you can make bloom with enough correct answers, and other interactive pieces that keep a child engaged. I cannot stress enough that these are nothing like the worksheets we remember from school. They are graphic and interesting, varied and fun.

* You can move back and forth between different kinds of problems -- visual ones, counting ones, ones with numbers, ones with objects -- which seems to me to address different learning styles. And, again, the dynamic system adjusts to a player's skill level.

* There are very clear explanations and directions for the tasks. Potentially unfamiliar words are defined ("'Equal to' means the same as. Which number is equal to the dots you see here?"). Then, if the child misses several problems that are working on that concept, the definition will come up again as a gentle reminder.

* After an initial set-up of about 15 minutes, he was able to play on his own. I watched over his shoulder for more than an hour, fascinated by the game itself, but the directions were so clear that he didn't need my help.

* Games are very long, but the system saves your child's place automatically, so that when she comes back in an hour or three days, all the work she's done up to that point is still recorded. This is really important as Son has played for five hours and is just nearing the end of his first game in his first area, which means that there are potentially 31 other games he could play. That's a LOT of math. But because the games are dynamic and adaptable, I can already see that whatever he chooses for game 2 will pick up where game 1 left off, with him more advanced at some skills and a total beginner at others.

* Parents can actually log on and play the game to see how it works without affecting the child's games. Parents are reminded that it is counter-productive for them to give their children too much help solving the problems in the game, since the system bases the tasks it asks of children on how well they've already done. So if mom answers all the subtraction problems daughter can't, daughter will be given harder ones, rather than easier ones.

This is an intense, thorough, and long curriculum, which would be great if your child needed tutoring help in math, or if you wanted something to supplement a home-schooling plan. The one downside to this tremendous thoroughness is that, five hours in, my son is eager to try a pirate game. He's had enough of dinosaurs for a while. But he can't get into a pirate game until he completes this one. So he's taken a break for a little while.

I have nothing but tremendously positive things to say about DreamBox. It was certainly designed by a fleet of brilliant educators. There are obvious teaching strategies at work, clear goals being tracked, thoughtful sequencing of skills in all the games. On top of that, they have managed to make the games walk precisely the right balance between fun and challenging. Just as it gets frustrating, the game senses the child's uncertainty and adapts (it even notes when the pauses for answers are taking overly long). And there are moments that perfectly hit the kindergarten funnybone: for example, the serpent grows with every answer you get right, stretches his neck towards what he thinks is a flower, only to get a pie in the face. Bwahahahahahah! if you are five. (I don't know if the jokes get more sophisticated as the child moves up in grade level, though I wouldn't put it past DreamBox.)

And do you want to know the best part? I loved DreamBox so much that I asked if I could give some of it away to you, and they obliged with a free one-month subscription to DreamBox for one lucky reader who wants to try it.

DreamBox is really doing things right by offering ALL families a two week free trial. (Plans cost as little as $8.33/month, so it wouldn't break the bank if you got hooked.) Even if you don't win the month here, you and your child can try it out for two weeks to see if you like it. If you are already signed up for the free trial, and you win this giveaway, that will add another month. If you aren't already signed up for the free trial, then you will only get one month free. Still, in a month, your child could get hooked on math. I know my son is loving this.

He told me this is "even better than Noggin's game of the month" -- which is high praise from him. And I love that when he plays it, he is actually learning something.

If you have children the right age for this system, do yourself a favor and check it out. And if you'd like to be entered into the drawing for a free one month subscription, just leave me a comment below -- including a valid email address. Drawing will take place on Monday, March 9, with the winner announced Tuesday morning, the 10th.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Websites Everyone Should Know About

In my travels around the interweb (not on a horse, though don't I wish), I find all kinds of interesting and mentionable things. I'm sure you do too. I keep lists, and I think to myself sometimes, "Self, you really ought to tell people about that. More people should know about this awesome bit of virtual real estate." But then I don't know how to work it into whatever post I'm writing.

Here's this funny story about something dumb I did when I was a kid. And, by the way, check out this great coupon site!

Not only are there simply no segues available to smooth that transition, but I run the risk of sounding like some really bad marketer.

So here I am, telling you about the top four sites I think more people ought to be checking out. (And just to clarify, no one put me up to this, paid me to say this, offered me swag or other bribes, or anything. I just thought you might be interested in knowing about these spots.)

1. Violence Unsilenced. The brainchild of Maggie @ Okay, Fine, Dammit, this incredible site offers a space in which survivors of domestic or other personal violence can tell their stories. It is possible to post anonymously. The rule of commenting (comments are moderated) is that only supportive comments will be allowed. The site is brilliantly designed with a giant "Quick Escape" button, should you be a reader of the site who is in danger and need to erase your trail fast. It also has a "Take the Pledge" page, where bloggers can show their support of the courageous stories appearing here and grab a button for their own sites. Having felt a tremendous sense of relief myself after telling the story of my own post-partum depression -- which is nothing like as scary as working through domestic violence, I assume -- I can only imagine what a tremendous service this site will prove to provide to people everywhere. Please, check it out, tweet about it, spread the word, and take the pledge yourself as a show of support.

2. Swap Mamas. This great site, net result of much loving labor by MommyPie, is a meeting place for all things swapable. The idea here is that you might have 2T little girl clothes, outgrown. You put your 2Ts up for grabs, pay to mail them off to the swappee who makes the best deal with you (no money is allowed to change hands), and get something in return. Perhaps it's some new books to read. Or a small kitchen appliance. Or size 4Ts. Or perhaps you find someone who needs what you have, but that person doesn't have what you need. Karma says, send your stuff on anyway. You can also put out the word that you need 4Ts. And if you've already done a good deed for someone else by sending your gently used things out into the world without a direct trade in sight, then the person with the pile of 4Ts that need to be mailed out is more likely to choose you as the lucky recipient. Even if you can't send her a thing she needs. See? What goes around comes around. Lots of great members are already there, swapping, chatting, and getting to know each other. So what are you waiting for? Go check it out and start swapping!

3. Retrevo. This clever site matches needy consumers with people who have extra coupons for the digital boxes necessary to convert analog television. Explicitly no selling of coupons is allowed. The only thing changing hands is a coupon. The idea is that some people who claimed these coupons for free boxes (coupons no longer available) may not have need for them, while others who no longer can get such coupons are now out of luck with the new digital-only broadcasts. If you know someone who has or needs such coupons, send them here. And twitter it if you can. It's good to get the word out.

4. The "For Parents" page on the Environmental Working Group website. This site is devoted to shedding light on the chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis. Although much of the site has technical information that can be hard to get through, the "For Parents" page is well organized, with all sorts of useful tips for everything from greening up your home to avoiding exposure to BPAs. This page is broken down into sections with quick tips, more information and comprehensive product information. From there, if you want to learn more, you can navigate throughout this extremely comprehensive and useful site to learn all the ways that you can help protect your children (and yourself) from unnecessary exposure to the dangerous and sometimes toxic chemicals that, terrifyingly, surround us in our daily lives.

And there you have it: four great, completely different, sites worth knowing about. Happy Travels!

(Cross-posted from my main blog, Mommy's Martini.)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Have You Thanked a Teacher Today?

Quick! What's one memory that stands out vividly for you from elementary school?

For me, it's Mrs. Jones in second grade, telling us the gruesome, horrifying, so-awful-that-I-wanted-to-hear-every-word story about the time she was bitten by a rattlesnake. I was breathless, terrified, and intensely interested all at once. Something clicked with me that day. Not about rattlesnakes (though I now suspect the point of the story was that we should learn how to avoid these beasts), but about story-telling. She may have been a country lady in the South who thought pin and pen were homonyms (much to my mother's horror), but Mrs. Jones could sure tell a story.

So can Phillip Done.

An elementary school teacher for over twenty years, Done has written a delightful, horrifying, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny book entitled 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny. This book captures all the heartache, simplicity, complexity, and astonishment of eight-year-olds as they work their way through class projects, fall onto the floor in impossible paroxysms of laughter over red strips of paper ("you said strips . . . like strips naked!"), and try to remember things they have already been told five times that day alone.

The ultra-short chapters -- vignettes might be a better word -- are compact nuggets of perfection. Some are sad (how do children cope with pet death?), others quirky (what happens when you becoming addicted to the laminating machine?), still others philosophical (what are the key things a third-grade teacher wants his students to finish the year knowing?). The snapshots are arranged roughly chronologically, moving from the first-day jitters of a new school year and a new profession through the pitfalls and highlights of Halloween, the class musical, the pet parade, parent-teacher conferences, and the Last Day Party as viewed by a seasoned teacher.

If you have children in school, or if you recall your own elementary education with some fondness (or regret), you may think you don't need to read this book because you have already lived it. But I promise you, unless you actually are an elementary school teacher, you need to read this book. It will give you a perspective you never could have imagined on a subject you thought you knew intimately. You will laugh, perhaps get a little choked up, and throughout never cease to be amazed at the good will and patience of truly gifted teachers.

Do yourself a favor, as you are contemplating what to say to your own child's teacher in this term's parent-teacher conferences: read this book first. It's lighthearted and truly enjoyable, quick and fun to read, but it leaves you with an abiding sense of the power of inspired teachers -- not, certainly, because Phillip Done tells you he is one. If anything, he's overly modest about accomplishments and overly generous with the stories of his gaffes. But because, by the end, you can tell his students love him, and he has truly taught them, and their lives will never be the same.

All children should be so lucky as to have a teacher like him. And perhaps you will put the book down, and thank a teacher in your own life the next day.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Get Your Grove On, Little One

Earlier this winter, the Swingset Mamas sent me a sample of their "Swing, Dance, and Sing" DVD, one Nick Jr. rated in its "best for preschoolers" gift category. I previously mentioned it in my holiday gift guide, but I thought I'd like to give it a more in-depth discussion now that we've watched it multiple times. Two sweet-voiced women with a passel of adorable kids have put together this DVD, which comes with a bonus CD with a sampler of just a few of their songs. The short, colorful videos for each song feature these Mamas in an incredible range of styles -- from zydeco to 60s mod to ballad -- singing about everything under the sun.

Everything that's good for you, that is.

More than just wholesome, this DVD is packed with useful lessons. There are songs about wearing sunscreen and eating your vegetables and reading books and tidying up and many other useful preschool habits. Interspersed among the lessons are sillier songs -- one which is a series of knock-knock jokes, for example.

I appreciated the gentle and widely varying music, the easy-to-understand lyrics, and their attempts to capture children's interest with lots of color, choreographed dance moves for kids to follow, and an overall very upbeat tone.

Frankly, though, I think this DVD is a little boring for adults. The songs are very simple, musically, and the quantity of teaching moments they manage to pack into each 3 minute melody is a little redundant for a grownup who is past the "it's fun to tidy up!" stage. On the other hand, I know I am not the intended audience for this DVD. And it did keep my nearly five and two-and-a-half year olds completely engrossed. Furthermore, compared to the children's bands I've heard that make me want to remove my own ears rather than be forced to continue listening any longer, the Swingset Mamas are a most welcome addition to the repertoire in our car CD changer.

The only complaint I have that is related to the intended viewers of this DVD is that most of the songs have a pace that is a little too slow to really get kids up and moving. Although my children found themselves singing along and waving their arms in imitation of the children on TV, their participation was more passive than I had hoped.

The mamas themselves are energetic and cheerful, and I love that they've included a bunch of singing, dancing, and bopping with kids on the DVD. I will definitely play this again (we've already watched it several times), and I will love it if the conversation we had about the song "Eat the Rainbow," for example, actually helps my kids eat more foods of every color. But I might turn to other more heavy-hitting dance tunes next time I need them to burn off a little steam.

If you are looking for simple, engaging music that isn't saccharine for your preschoolers, I would absolutely recommend the Swingset Mamas.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Little Help for Your Hands

I am a lotion and cream fanatic. I have a pump bottle by the sink in the kitchen and another in the bathroom just around the corner. I keep sample sized-bottles in my purse, my desk at work, and my car. I have a pot of body butter and some Oil of Olay in my gym bag. I have fancier, heavier face creams in my medicine cabinet, pump bottles of lotion for my legs in my bathroom cupboard, and a giant pot of what we call "Cow Cream" on my daughter's dresser.

Between the washing my hands dozens of times a day that is necessary when one has little children, the dryness of a wintery climate that forces one to have the heat on at least five months a year, and my own genetic proclivity towards eczema, I wear a lot of lotion. And I can't stand lotions that are overly scented.

So when the SkinMD people contacted me and asked me if I wanted a sample of their super hydrating "shielding lotion" to try, I jumped at the chance -- but not before asking for two bottles, one to try, and one to share with you.

Here's what I like about this lotion: it's light and not greasy, absorbs quickly, and definitely makes my cuticles and hands feel less flaky. It has no discernable smell, which is great if you are senstivie to the cloying scents of products at places like Bath & Body Works. (Just walking into their store gives me a headache some days.)

The SkinMD lotion contains lots of natural ingredients like aloe, comfrey, yarrow, and vitamin E, all of which are good for moisturizing. (In fact, I remember my mother opening vitamin E capsules and rubbing the oil straight onto her poor cracked knuckles in the winter.) There are still nine ingredients I can't pronounce, not counting the three active ingredients that produce the sunscreen, so I'm not sure the word "Natural" on the label is completely accurate; nonetheless, I do appreciate all the herbal rather than chemical help. I also notice that it does not contain one preservative commonly used in personal care products to which my sister and many other people are allergic, so that's a plus. SkinMD seems to have de-chemicaled to some degree.

And let's not let it slip by too quickly: this product deserves props for containing sunscreen. While SFP 15 isn't major, so you won't be using this instead of your normal sunscreen in the summer, I think it's always good to have a lotion with sunscreen as your everyday one. I use a face lotion with SPF 15 in it as my daily moisturizer, and then I know that if I end up outside for longer than I'd expected to be, at least I have a little something on my face. If I had ever been outside without gloves at all in the last month, I am sure the SPF in the SkinMD lotion would have been perfect for me. But, alas, in Michigan in winter, sunscreen on anything but your face is somewhat superfluous.

I really can't speak to the fancy claims about "transforming the outer layer of skin into a hydrating invisible shield," since while I've felt very good, I haven't felt like I have brand new, transformed skin this last month. And I certainly haven't become invisible. But I will say that this is a very nice moisturizer, scent free with SPF, and mercifully not greasy, and so it has become the latest bottle that I carry around in my purse.

If you'd like to try SkinMD lotion for yourself, leave a comment on this post telling me what your most important quality is in a hand lotion: what's the one thing you can't do without? Contest will last till Thursday, February 12 at midnight EST, and I'll announce the winner of the free bottle of lotion on Friday 13. Because everybody deserves a shot at a little good luck on Friday 13.

Edited to add: According to, the winner is:

Random Integer Generator

Here are your random numbers:


Timestamp: 2009-02-14 03:46:14 UTC

And that means, Mrs. F with 4! Quebec must be harder on hands than Michigan, so I'm very happy for you. Congratulations.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Disney on Ice: Movies in Real Life

Perhaps you remember the great time my family had this past fall at the circus? For us, performances of all kinds are things to adore. Having been involved in theater myself throughout high school and college, I eagerly took my son to his first performance of a play (a musical comedic version of Pinocchio) when he was just shy of two years old, and he sat like a stone throughout the whole near-two-hour show...and then burst into tears when the lights came up because he didn't want it to be over.

After that rousing success, we have jumped at the chance to take the kids to live performances whenever we can. Sometimes these are professional performances; sometimes they are university productions; sometimes they are free concerts in the park on balmy summer nights. Whether we're off to see a puppet show, a musical, a sporting event, or a circus, though, both kids (now ages five and nearly-three) are extra-excited that there will be real people there performing! In costumes! Singing! Or Taming Tigers! Or Running Around with Balls! Or, in the case of our exciting upcoming event: Ice Skating! (Childish enthusiasm requires the exclamation points, you understand.)

We took them to see Disney on Ice this past fall -- back when the Incredibles were on tour, as it were. Despite the chill in the air around the open rink, and the fact that, as my son rightly pointed out, "that boy doesn't quite look like the real Dash," they had a wonderful time. It was fascinating to watch my son look for similarities and differences to the movie he loves, while his little sister was primarily interested in all the "bootiful" skating.

So in a few weeks, we are off the The Palace at Auburn Hills for another Disney extravaganza -- this time in the form of "Worlds of Fantasy." To be honest, it's not clear to me that anything about Disney is anything but worlds of fantasy, but the name aside, this show promises to have something for everyone. With vignette performances from the favorite characters of a number of recent classics, I am sure they'll both be thrilled. Lightening McQueen will be there, as will The Little Mermaid, the animals from The Lion King's "circle of life" and Tinker Bell and a passel of her fairy friends. As if this weren't enough, there is a complimentary Princesses fashion show before the actual skating performance starts.

My son is just interested enough in gender stereotypes that I am predicting this will happen: he will adopt a high-pitched, coddling voice, wrap his arm protectively around his little sister's shoulders, and usher her down to "meet the princesses" -- all because he is absolutely certain that this is precisely my daughter's deepest heart's desire. I'm not sure why he thinks she wants him to talk in a falsetto every time he mentions pink or princesses, but nonetheless, his effort to be kind to her is lovely, even if I later have to help undo the stereotypes by demonstrating to him that, in fact, she is quite as fond of racing cars as she is of dressing up in her pink fairy princess costume. (I swear, I'll post a follow up to let you know if this prediction comes true.)

The bottom line is: the show is sure to be impressive, fun, and delightful. AND, thanks to the good folks at MomCentral and Feld Entertainment, you too can get a great deal on tickets if you are in the Detroit area at the end of February. You can get a big discount by mentioning the code MOM when you purchase your tickets. This will entitle you to a set of four tickets for any performance for just $44. (Not valid on rink-side or VIP seats.)

This discount is only valid for shows at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Wednesday, February 25 - Sunday, March 1. There are matinee performance on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, in addition to the evening performances throughout the run. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or at 1-800-745-3000.

What could be better than the movies come to life?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Two for the Price of One Never Felt So Good

The first time I heard about TOMS shoes was in a little magazine article that featured this progressive company and announced the upcoming launch of shoes for small feet. Never heard of TOMS? It just might be the most socially responsible shoe-making venture in the world. Started by a young entrepreneur determined to make a difference, TOMS offers the best "two for one" deal I've ever heard of: for every pair of shoes you buy from them, TOMS will donate a pair of shoes to a child in need somewhere in the world. It's simple and incredibly effective.

The first "shoe drop," as TOMS calls it, was in Argentina, and consisted of 10,000 pairs of shoes.

In 2007, TOMS donated 50,000 pairs of new shoes to children in South Africa.

I was fascinated by the article, and immediately sought out TOMS online, hoping to learn more. The story of the shoes, their simple and comfortable design, and the decision to build a company that would not just create a product but would try to make a difference in the world was an inspiration.

And, the shoes were so appealing -- fun, lighthearted scuffs for skipping around in summertime parks. They have soft, lined canvas uppers with a flexible rubberized sole. There were all sorts of colorful designs that I could easily imagine wearing. I didn't buy a pair right that second for two reasons: I have exceedingly high arches, and I was worried that, like every other pair of ballet flats and canvas sandals I've ever tried on, these flat shoes would leave my feet aching half an hour after I got to the playground.

But also, TOMS was about to come out with Tiny TOMS, their styles for children -- and I wanted to wait to buy a pair for Daughter. What pink-loving little girl, who tries to keep up with her running big brother, wouldn't want a pair of these?
While I was waiting, I got distracted by life and never made the purchase. Then, out of the blue, a representative from TOMS contacted me, and offered me a pair of shoes to review. I went to check out all the "Fall and Winter" shoes for women and found all sorts of designs I loved, in retro men's suiting plaids, and suede, and other fun styles. I also looked more closely inside the shoes and discovered something amazing: these flat shoes aren't ordinary flats: they have a suede, highly padded, shaped footbed with an actual arch built in. I was sold! So TOMS sent me these:In a word? I LOVE them. They are so incredibly comfortable that I never want to take them off. There is so much cushion in them that I almost feel as though I'm wearing an athletic shoe, except that they are light and airy in the uppers. I wish I could wear them to work, and running errands, and to the playplace with the kids. The only reason I haven't had them on every single day since I got them is this:

This is the only negative thing I can say about TOMS: they aren't exactly going to protect your feet if you're walking through calf-high snowdrifts.

BUT, they do have some adorable winter styles, if you're in a climate that's chilly and unhospitable without being downright tundra-like. There are kicky knee-high wrap boots in several colors, suede, corduroy, and even fleece-lined models.

And, every single pair you buy means a pair gets donated to a child who otherwise doesn't have shoes.

As soon as she can go outside without snowboots, Daughter will be sporting a pair of Tiny TOMS, and I'll be skipping alongside her at the playground in my grey-and-green pair...and two more kids in the world will also have a pair of shoes thanks to our purchases.

What could possibly be better?

I hope you go check out TOMS -- and if you live somewhere that you can actually wear shoes (instead of boots) right now, I hope you find some you can't wait to buy. A child somewhere will be glad you did.

P.S. In case you didn't notice? This is MommyTime's new reviews blog. It won't have new post every day, but I can promise that things I do choose to talk about here will be things you'll be glad to have more information about. Whee! for new adventures. (And what do you think of the new digs?)