Sunday, December 23, 2007

Holiday Hack: Slacker Gift Wrap

Wrapping Giant Gifts:
At my friend Karen's house I noticed a giant box clearly labeled playhouse next to the tree with a couple squares of gift wrap on it.

I must have looked perplexed because Karen said, "All you have to do is cover all the pictures."

That's right- our toddlers can't read yet! Pure genius!

Plus, it minimizes paper use/waste.

If your box is covered with photos, or you want full coverage merely for aesthetics- wrap the oversized box or item in a tablecloth, blanket, or bed sheet and secure it with ribbon, yarn, string, and/or safety pins.

Wrapping Very Small Gifts:
Back in the olden days, my brother and I (heavily financed by Mom) bought Dad a pricey video club membership.

If you're saying "Bought a video membership?" you have forfeited your right to sing along with Time-Life commercials relating to the 80s.

It was essentially a paper business card with my Dad's name written on it- by hand. It entitled us to rent any of their 50 or so videos at additional cost. We were soooo proud of our gift- it was a shame that it was so small that it could even get lost in his stocking.

So we put it in a wooden caboose Dad built for our train set. And we wrapped that in a big box. And we wrapped that big box in a giant box filled with wadded up newspaper from the recycling shelf. And that- we could wrap with a sheet.

And as a holiday gift to everyone, we'd like to share a favorite (and timely) Jones household word:

scurryfunge (we heard it attributed to New England, but have no idea if this is accurate)- a hasty tidying of the house between the time you see a neighbor coming and the time she knocks on the door. (Informal English)

We tend to use this word to describe the frantic last minute cleaning I'm avoiding right now.

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Holiday Hack: Toddler-friendly Ornaments

Jim and I didn't own a Christmas tree the first year of our married life. His mom thought that was a travesty and bought us a 2' tall artificial tree. This little tree was our primary tree for years. We liked to load it down with comically large ornaments or decorate it with only lights and keep it on the bathroom counter (I smirk to think of this, even though I have no idea why).

At some point we bought a 6' artificial tree which we suspect is made of plastic and standard grade pipe cleaners. I'm sure we got it on clearance. Its weak boughs can't support an ornament of much weight. Every year we get motivated enough to put it up (which is something like 1:3) we swear we will buy a new one next year.

Ranger LOVES holiday lights. We put the big tree up last year without ornaments. We added a foot tapper on/off switch to our tree on the recommendation of Parent Hacks- and he loves controlling the lights.

As we're not very invested in tradition, we decided to try this year to make the decorations as toddler-friendly as possible.

When a friend mentioned that he was wiring all his gaming figurines to hang as holiday decorations, it struck me that we might not need ornaments or wire ornament hangers at all. With yarn or ribbon and the versatile lark's head knot almost anything can become an ornament (and you can jettison those silly wire ornament hangers for good).

Thus, the first Baby Toolkit video was born! Learn to make a lark's head knot:

Sorry about the off-screen portions, I shot the video alone while Ranger napped, so there was no time for a retake. I promise I'll do better with framing in future videos, but I will probably always sound like total tool.

We hung our lighted tree primarily with Barrel-of-Monkeys monkeys (again, Parent Hacks inspired) and linking letters. We also put up some other small toys that Ranger generally tends to ignore most of the time. We didn't put anything very tempting on the tree because we didn't want to torture the kid or inspire him to take up indoor tree climbing.

When it's time to put the tree in the closet, I'm getting all the old ornaments out. The ones without sentimental value (which is most of them) are headed to a local thrift shop.

Recast toys or other objects you already own as ornaments reduces decorating costs and required storage space for those other 11 months of the year.

There will be no more talk of replacing the tree. It finally looks like it actually belongs in our house.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Clear Unsightly Blemishes: the Case of the Ballpoint Baby Doll

Blogging makes me weirder. My friend told me her son drew all over her childhood baby doll with a pen, and my first response was to excitedly ask "Could I borrow the doll?" I did have a legitimate reason for asking- we're testing a permanent ink remover for review and I had not yet tried it on a doll.

So wee Elizabeth came to visit (I can't say young Elizabeth as she's almost as old as I am). The young artist in residence had tattooed her with a giveaway ballpoint pen. He didn't just doodle a image here or there, we're talking full-pathology facial tattoos including eyelids (seriously, back away slowly from anyone with these), skull tattoos, leg tattoos, and marks on the hands and soles of the feet resembling stigmata.

I figured the inexpensive ink didn't have a chance against my long list of cleaning ideas. My friend's husband had tried a magic eraser which yielded no results.

The permanent ink remover did absolutely nothing against the ink. Across a week, I tried almost everything in my normal stain-removal arsenal (I skipped a couple things that seemed potentially damaging to the plastic/vinyl):
  • baking soda paste
  • 409
  • rubbing alcohol
  • vegetable oil
  • Murphy's oil soap
  • Simple Green
  • dishsoap
  • GoJo handsoap with pumice
  • toothpaste
  • CarpetAid+
  • waterless hand cleaner (works well on grease stains)
  • non-acetone nail polish remover
  • adhesive remover
  • evaporated milk (works like a charm lifting recent ink stains out of fabrics)
The ink's dye soaked deeply into the plastic, staining it so that no amount of surface scrubbing would remove it. Prolonged scrubbing with simple green could lighten it about 50-60% but that did little to improve the doll's overall appearance.

I trolled the Internet for answers and came up with one so insane I would normally have passed it up. Next thing I knew I was buying 10% benzyl peroxide acne cream for a doll. A toy collectors' forum suggested that acne cream and sunlight could remove the ink stains without bleaching the doll's skintone or removing painted accents.

On an overcast afternoon, I smeared a tiny bit on a test patch and left Elizabeth on our dining room table for the last hour and a half of sunlight. Having been disappointed by every other test, I didn't expect much from this solution with or without sunlight. When I checked Elizabeth, the test spot was entirely free of ink stains. Her plastic seemed otherwise unaltered by the cream.

Elizabeth spent yesterday sunbathing in the dining room. The darkest stains took around 4 hours of bright sunlight to disappear. Many of the lighter stains were gone in 2 hours.

The top of her head was shadowed by her body, so I used a small regular mirror (don't use a magnifying one for this!) and bounced sunlight to the top of her head while the rest of her graffitied body got full sun. It worked on the same timeline as direct sun exposure. Later, I moved the mirror to give additional illumination to her curving hands. The reflected light could reach some frequently shadowed places.

Elizabeth sat down for a quick photo shoot this morning before returning home.

Moral of the story? Don't leave pens unattended around toddlers -or- be very cautious about wearing acne cream in direct sunlight.

***This is the independent opinion of Baby Toolkit. We have no affiliations with acne cream manufacturers. We are not chemists, skin care experts, nor professional cleaners, so take everything we say here with a grain of salt. (c) Baby Toolkit, 2007- all rights reserved.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Booster Seat Bonus

Some hacks exist almost invisibly once implemented. When the delivery man came to install our new fridge, he (also a parent of a toddler) commented on how we installed our son's booster seat to our kitchen chair.

So here's our simple way to keep our wooden chair goop free and minimize scratches and other marring from the booster and its straps:

Materials: 1 standard bath towel, two safety pins, chair, and booster seat. (If you're booster seat shopping, we LOVE our Fisher Price booster seat. See our seat comparison for more information.)

Step 1: Find standard size bath towel (ducks not required, but bonus points for any waterfowl). Lay towel over chair so seat is fully covered and there are a few surplus inches overhanging front edge of the seat.

Step 2: Safety pin the rest of the towel (about 1/4 of the total length) behind the chair. I used brass safety pins that don't rust, but the normal kind will probably suffice unless you hose your child down in their booster seat (in which case you're probably not using a wooden chair to begin with).

Step 3: Fasten booster to chair normally. When the towel shows signs of peach yogurt and/or pureed yams, just remove the safety pins and machine wash.

Voila! Another Jones secret revealed. You are now one step closer to world domination

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Toys & Toxins: New Resource

Toys have many parents worried.. and for good reason. Some companies are arguing that it's okay for their toys to contain illegal levels of lead (like this RED blood-pressure cuff) as long it's not on the surface of the product. Relatedly, Fisher-Price (a Mattel company) refuses to pull lead tainted toys exceeding federal standards in states other than Illinois (from Consumer Reports blog).

Well, here's a little good news. Ecology Group, a Michigan environmental group is independently testing toys for 9 toxins that can be viewed through x-ray fluorescence. They report their findings in a great database at I whiled away a couple hours cruising through this great site. You can even proposed more toys for them to test and subscribe to database updates.

I was relieved to see one of Ranger's favorite chewable baby toys get a pretty clean bill of health even though he quit chewing on it some time ago. And we crossed Wedgits off his Christmas list until they're PVC free.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Soaper-Star: Johnson's Easy-Rinse Foam Shampoo

Since Ranger was a wee thing we used Cetaphil's gentle skin cleaner to wash his hair & body. It rinsed remarkably well, wasn't drying to his skin, and didn't have any discernible fragrance (I find most perfumes cloying at best).

The conservationist/cheapskate in me is obsessed with foam soap pumps and their ability to dramatically extend soap use. So, I started looking for foam shampoo pumps to refill with regular products mixed with water. There are startlingly few shampoo foam pumps, but I finally found a few in the kids' aisle.

Johnson's Buddies Easy-Rinse Shampoo was on sale and I needed to make a $25 minimum to buy a turkey at disreputable prices, so into the cart the yellow bottle went.

The shampoo smells great, but isn't strongly scented. The foam keeps it from running into the little guy's eyes when lathering. The lather hangs atop his head until it's time to rinse (and allows for some fabulous fauxhawk styling). This product rinses easily and leaves hair clean, lightly scented, and manageable without stripping moisture. We've not yet managed to wash any of it into Ranger's eyes either (the foam is pretty easy to manipulate away from the eyes while rinsing).

Though Johnson's doesn't appear to currently offer refills of the shampoo, the pump seems refillable (1/3 shampoo and 2/3 water). It would be great if they would come out with a bulk sized refill bottle.

Don't buy a single bottle through Amazon- unless you can get free shipping. They're simply exorbitant once you factor in shipping costs.

Happy bathtime!

***As always, this is the independent opinion of the geek family at Baby Toolkit. We received no compensation for this review and have no undisclosed relationship with Johnson & Johnson.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Under Our Tree

Jim and I spent many years trying to get family members to donate to our favorite organizations (like Heifer Project) rather than purchase holiday gifts for us. It's not that we didn't like gifts, but we didn't NEED anything and our house overflowed with stuff already.

For us, holidays are the best playing games and enjoying time with family and friends. We really hope that Ranger will also appreciate the community aspects of holidays more than the stuff or the volume of stuff.

So, we're trying to give each family member a personally significant, reasonably priced gift and not fall prey to the last minute "one more thing" add on gifts.

Here are a few of our 2007 choices:

For my dad, our geek grandpa: a Rhinoskin CASE for his techie cell phone/PDA (not the phone itself).

For Jim's dad, our fisherman grandpa: a personalized CASE (reading GrandpaJones) for his fishing rods.

For our 4-year old niece: a ceramic name necklace.

and for Jim's mom: a ceramic photo tile pendant with a favorite picture of Ranger.

Does your family have a holiday giving strategy? What gifts (or kinds of gifts) are you giving this year?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Look, a Thanksgiving turkey everyone can love! This vegetarian beauty was made by the fine minds at Figs with Bri. [via Craftster]

And Jessica at Indexed- beautifully sums it all up:

Happy Thanksgiving to you!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Get the Most Out of Black Friday: Buy Nothing!

One of Jim's and my favorite holiday traditions is Buy Nothing Day. In the late 90s we started reading Adbusters, and something about BND really captured our imagination. It's subversive and creative. MTV won't even air Buy Nothing Day's paid ads. (See them below if you're curious what kind of thinking offends the people who make Jackass and the Osbournes)

We're looking forward to a relaxing day of friends, food, and games. For me, that's way better than any doorbuster deal.

Happy Thanksgiving!

thanks for the reminder, Judy!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

XO Laptop: Changing the World

A laptop with ears? Well, yes... Designed for kids? Right AGAIN! And also an instrument of global change.

The XO laptop is a marvel of energy efficiency, durability, and innovative software. It is designed for the One Laptop Per Child initiative in developing nations.

And for one more week (as part of a two week program) you can Give One and Get One. For $399 ($200 of which is tax deductible) you can send a laptop to a child in a developing nation and one to the Canadian or American home of you choice. These are sweet laptops, but their real appeal is their dedication to social justice.

In a week (on Nov. 26) the XO will no longer be available in the US or Canada for purchase except in massive quantities, so don't wait to decide. T-Mobile is throwing in a year of complimentary Hot Spot WiFi access (retail value $350) for everyone who GOGOs.

You can also enter an XO laptop giveaway at Prizey through January 4, 2008.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Crafting with Crayons

Vegbee's gorgeous crayon shavings projects remind me of crafts my mom organized during my childhood. My brother and I would usually send our finished projects to our far-flung relatives.

I have some good memories of watching my mom iron sometime similar on a sunny winter afternoon.

Here are the Martha Stewart instructions Vegbee used.

What crafts projects do you remember? Which ones do your kids like?

Vegbee's "Time Change Madness' mobile is a great reflection of our house's post-time change nap chaos.

Anyone else hating the time change?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Chocolate's Dark, Dirty Secret: No, It's Not Nougat

To the utter astonishment of friends and relatives, Jim and I quit chocolate cold turkey in 2001. We were chocoholics of the first degree. When I cleaned out the kitchen for all our chocolate we found over 14 pounds- not counting things containing cocoa.

At first I thought I would lose my mind. One night someone walked past me in a Circuit City smelling of Butterfinger bar and my consuming envy made me want to tackle them and bounce their head off the floor a few dozen times. I'm not a violent person, so this bizarre desire definitely meant I had momentarily relocated to downtown, central Crazy.
Chocolate was to me comfort, reward, and love. My beloved grandmother used to keep chocolate bars stashed for the grandkids, so it's hard not to associate a Nestle Crunch with the pure joy of visiting grandma. My grandma loved kids, all kids- so much that she dedicated her life to schools and orphanages in Africa. I'm sure she had similar treats for the kids there.

As a result of my grandparents' work, I always had a heightened sense of Africa. My mom never said "Eat your dinner, there are starving children in Africa." Instead I overheard conversations about war, coups, government closure of schools and orphanages, poverty, famine, police that show up in the middle of the night, imprisonment, execution, and families that had become kin to ours fleeing their nation through dangerous means both legal and illegal. I have always felt thankful not to have been born there, and I deeply respected my grandparents' courage to work in such a dangerous place.

So... when I found out that virtually every American chocolate bar is tainted with child slavery (enacted in Africa), I didn't want to believe it. Knight-Ridder had a series of articles outing the use of child slaves to harvest cocoa and coffee beans* in the Ivory Cost and Mali. It's fallen off most of the news site because it's age (2001), but it's been reprinted here.

After a few months of research, the evidence mounted- and it became apparent that the American chocolate industry was not interested in reform. Bob Dole was hired as a lobbyist for the Chocolate Manufacturers Association as they quashed Congressional energies to mandate slavery-free labeling. Instead of agreeing to voluntary labeling, they offered a alternate plan in which they would monitor cocoa farms and work for reform. Their compromise, the Harkin-Engel protocol was accepted and immediately forgotten. To date, the chocolate industry has not even attempted to meet their own plan. They don't really care about anything beyond their bottom line and big chocolate is banking that the American consumers won't care about the lives of foreign children either.

So Jim and I quit eating chocolate. Honestly, even something so delicious starts to taste like fetid poo when it's produced by companies willingly complicit in child slavery. It seemed to me like every chocolate bar I bought undid my grandparents' efforts to help children in Africa.

On the whole, our friends and family didn't respond well to this decision. Some mocked us for caring too much, others went out of their way to find chocolate industry PR to reassure us, and one close family member broke my heart by saying "Well, what else would those kids do? It probably keeps them out of trouble."

So, we turned our boycott into something secret. Just an "I don't eat chocolate" response. I was tired of arguing with everyone and hearing things that disappointed me. People would ask why and Jim and I started giving dodgy answers. I clearly lack my grandparents' courage.

A recent article in Melbourne's The Age newspaper on chocolate slavery nudged my sheepish social consciousness. Jim sent me links surrounding Tony's Chocolonley (a Dutch man who turned himself in to the police for knowingly buying goods obtained through a crime).

Now I won't ask you to stop eating chocolate on my word alone please Google "chocolate slavery BBC" for a reputable international source.

I am asking that everyone at least bypass gift chocolates this holiday season. Do you really want to feed you children the product of child exploitation? Fair-trade certified chocolate is okay, but everything else- according to the Salvation Army's anti-slavery unit probably contains beans harvested by slaves (thanks to the workings of the commodities market).

Sorry about the soapbox, but I really needed to say something about this issue that's been buried or misrepresented in the American media. I'm just having trouble believing that I live in a country where people are willing to have children suffer and even die for cheap luxury goods.

If you're considering boycotting gift chocolates, we'd love to hear about it...

*We don't drink coffee.

***This post is the independent, unsolicited opinion of Baby Toolkit. Photo: Baby Toolkit, (c) 2007. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Give 'Em a Smile: Calendars as Holiday Gifts

My friend Karen found some well-priced blank calendars that she is scrapbooking into grandparent gifts for the holidays.

And if you're like me- short on filigree scissors and decadent papers- you're probably thinking "I could do something like that with a editing program and a printer." Well of course we can- but do you really want to drive to a copy shop for spiral binding?

If the answer is yes- then consider making the calendar pages with Google Calendar. You can enter all the relevant family holidays as one calendar per clan. Then, with a few mouse clicks, you can choose to include the appropriate family dates and whatever calendars are appropriate (like Catholic observances for my mother-in-law, the Tour de France dates and phases of the moon for my dad, and, ahem, license plate renewal reminders in bold for a forgetful friend). With a minimal amount of work you can produce some calendars that are personalized in function as well as form.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Styrofoam: Proceed with Caution

After recent talk of BPA in plastics, this probably sounds like another health concerned post. It is not. And although Styrofoam is terrible for the environment, this is not an ecology post either.

This is a toddlers-and-Styrofoam-should-not-mix post.

Around the 3rd hour of a 4 hour car trip, we wanted to reward Ranger with a treat. He's an awesome long-distance car traveler. We've never used a DVD player, VCR, or laptop to entertain him en route, and thus far he seems unscarred by our resistance to in-transit entertainment technology.

The boy is crazy for lemonade (the real lemons, water, and sugar stuff, not the fountain version with high fructose corn syrup). So, as we knew we were approaching a rare purveyor of actual citrus squeezings, we said the L-word aloud. Ranger immediately brightly blurted "JUICE!" in response. This is his word for lemonade. He seems to know that lemonade is not exactly the same as juice, but just loves tweeking his English major mama with poor paraphrase. Ironically, he doesn't like many other fruit juices, so this tends to bite him in the hiney whenever he's out with people who understand juice to be apple or grape.

We drive through the lemonade place and get Ranger a lemonade, Jim a lemonade slush, and me the largest ice cream sundae I've seen in person (they only have one size- mammoth). I am driving, so we have to pull into the parking lot so I can wolf down the legal portion of the dessert.

About two bites into the sundae, Ranger's warbling voice lets out a sad cry "Juuuuuuice! Help, help, help, help." When I turn around, I can see that he's removed his straw from the cup. Jim can reach him more easily, so I ask him to reinstall the straw properly. This should have struck me as odd because Ranger's been manipulating straws forever.

Jim turns around and puts the straw in, but Ranger's crying does not cease nor does he take a drink. Suddenly Jim says "OH NO!" and grabs pulls the drink into the front seat baptizing the borrowed mini-van's leather interior with lemonade.

Ranger managed to pierce the side of the foam cup with his straw. It had since been filling his pants and car seat with sweet, sticky, sugary "juice." Now it had also gotten the front console, 3 additional leather seats, some carpeting, Jim's coat, my bag, and Jim in the process.

It's not fair to blame Jim for bringing the cup forward. Our instincts to save our young- even from cold lemonade in the pants- are very strong- and as Jim was still seatbelted in and holding a lid-less slush in his other hand he had limited options.

When I realize that Jim can't open the door with both hands full, I start laughing. He's unsuccessfully trying to plug the hole with a finger and just getting soaked in the process. I reach across him and open the door- so he holds the spurting cup over the parking lot. Eventually, I think to unsnap his seatbelt and release him from the car.

Ranger is still crying.

We dump the lemonade and do a quick toddler costume change in 40 degree weather. Unlike Jim's pants, the car seat's cover is remarkably water resistant, so it's easy to dry.

From here on out we'll be keeping a small straw cup with a lid in the car to prevent future juice geysers. Consider yourself warned.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Confused About Polycarbonate Bottles? Zrecs has answers

If you're concerned about Bisphenol-A in baby bottles and sippy cups, then you should definitely visit's comprehensive overview of major manufacturers' products and attitudes. This directory is a great new resource.

Plus, the Zrecs folks are offering some BPA-free products from BornFree in Prizey's current giveaway:

Reading Pays- Especially When It Comes to Credit Card Updates

My mailbox was full today, so it was tempting to jettison the "Important Amendments to Your Credit Card Agreement" envelope into a "To File" box without opening it.

Maxed Out has left me with a greater sense of fiscal research duty, so I opened the fat envelope and pulled out a disjointed handful of papers. Everything about this envelope seemed designed to discourage actual reading. That made me suspicious, so I trudged on.

The cover sheet told me how my account was improving and listed lots of great new features but no drawbacks. Nothing in the cover letter merited a legally mandated update.

On the second page I found gold- for the credit card company- a 3% increase on all cash and cash-equivalent advances. This increase applies to new and outstanding balances. Nice, eh? Then I found the part they worked so hard to discourage me from reading:
You may reject the APR increase by following the Rejection Instructions described below.
Seriously? Well, yes. They don't make it easy though:
1. Write to use at [postal address only]. Clearly print or type your full name and full credit card account number and state that you reject this change. You must give us the notice in writing it is not sufficient to telephone us. Send this notice only to the address in this paragraph. Do not send it with a payment or any other type of customer service request. This mailbox is ONLY for rejection of the Annual Percentage Rate Amendment.
2. We must receive your letter by [date approximately 3 months in the future] or your rejection will not be effective.
So by writing a letter in which we emulate Bartelby's "I prefer not to" we can maintain our 3% lower rate? No wonder they make that paperwork so boring.

Even though we don't ever use cash advances, I'm sending a letter in on principle.

Not reading these things can cost us real money.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Move Along, Little Chubbies! Viking Toys' Ingeniusly Simple Line

We love Chubbies! And that's no reference to pot, dating, anatomy, music, hamburgers, body type, or fat babies...

Viking Toys (Sweden) make the very best in toddler rollers. When I was pregnant with Ranger, we bought a fleet of these great cars to entertain our visiting toddler niece. We kept them in a basket on the coffee table long after her visit. On more than a few evenings, Jim and I would find ourselves on opposite ends of the living room floor rolling these cars back and forth or absentmindedly trucking them around the coffee table.

With super soft, non-marring rubbery wheels and flexible rubber bodies, these cars take on a luxurious feel. We thought the strange little guys wouldn't roll well on carpet, but it turns out they travel farthest and fastest of our mini-fleet. They flip less than most of our rolling toys thanks to a low center of gravity.

One strange benefit of the soft materials is that cars make less noise (almost none) when dropped in, say, a large solemn, formal service in a grand, stone-floored cathedral. Not that we would know about that firsthand...

Ranger loves that the individual cars can hook together. It's easiest for him to link the 4" ones, so we're getting him some more for Christmas (right now, they're on sale for a great price here). There's a train set (3 4" pieces) for the happy linker.

The 3", 4", and 5" versions get the most play time in our house. While the 10" ambulance (with rolling gurney) gets some play, I think many toddlers prefer toys that fit well in a toddler hand. I like the 3" ones because they fit in my coat pockets and bag pretty easily.

I just found that Viking even makes a disposable playscape placemat (like our beloved Table-Topper) to keep kids tidier and entertained while eating out.

Viking Toys are manufactured in Thailand and haven't been subject to any lead recalls. They are purportedly dishwasher safe, but I don't like the idea of chlorine dish detergent on the axles, so I hand wash them in dish soap or wipe them down as needed.

The smaller versions are a great late infancy/early toddler toy (though they have appeal for a wide range of ages). The 5" versions can have more detail than their smaller counterparts- and they're sometimes sold in themed sets. Slightly older kids get a lot of use out of the 10" Super Chubbies which are more specialized vehicles (tractor, sedan, dump truck, ambulance, a fire engine, and a Woody-esque roofless SUV).

If you get some Viking Chubbies for your household, make sure to share them with your kids.

*This review is the independent, uncompensated, and unsolicited opinion of Baby Toolkit. (c) 2007, all rights reserved.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Raid the Recycling: There may be a cool kitchen in there!

Cruising Craftster I found an AMAZING play kitchen (made from salvaged-from-the-dumpster cardboard!) and a smart new(-to-me) blog.

Anna of Forty-Two Roads: Art, Craft, Life made this ingenious interlocking (glueless, nail-less, duct tape free) play kitchen for her daughter Lara's second birthday. And not only is it well-engineered (it disassembles into totally flat pieces for storage!!!), it's also breathtakingly cute. This is one glorious geek mama at work.

With no further ado, please go check out young Lara's delicious kitchen...

Nov. 1, 2007 UPDATE:
Plans are now available for this great kitchen!
Photos used with permission. (c) Anna Wulick, 2007. All rights reserved.

A Year's Worth of Fun: Giving Kids' Magazines

When Jim and I were racking our brains to find good gifts for our godchildren, we started talking about gifts we loved as children. And while the so-strongly-desired Pretty In Pink Barzbie and the Stroller Bowler both hold a place in our holiday memories, we both came up with the same absolute favorite gift: magazines.

We both had grandparents who subscribed us to magazines like Cricket, Ranger Rick, Highlights, and National Geographic World (the precursor to National Geographic Kids). Later on we received Smithsonian, Discover, and National Geographic. Our memories of enjoying these magazines and even the content of the articles lasted so much longer than almost all of the other gifts.

My friend Michael* reminded me of Contact Magazine (aka Contact Kids connected to the kids' science show 3-2-1 Contact; publication suspended in 2001) and its monthly BASIC programs. Oh, the warm geeky memories that brings back of my TI-99.

So far, we've stuck to the Cricket family of magazines as gifts. They're good reading with a variety of interest areas. Plus, they're listed by age group, which makes selection a lot easier. We've given Click (science), Ladybug (literary) and Ask (science). Cricket's Appleseed (themed issues with an in-depth look at a single topic) has growing allure as the kids get older.

If you want more than a little subscription notification card to give, you can buy a single copy of the magazine (preferably not one that will overlap with the subscription) and have something larger to wrap up. This gift may not get a huge response initially, but it will probably be a winner in the long run. Every kid loves getting mail!

So, if you want something lead free and curiosity-inspiring, you might want to browse the magazine aisle for some great gift ideas. Magazines also can be donated to a local library booksale, doctor's office waiting room, or school when your finished, or they can be shared with friends, so they can be low-clutter gifts (YAY!).

As for the grown-up magazine-loving geeks in our household, we recommend ReadyMade, American Heritage of Invention and Technology, WIRED, MIT's Tech Review, 2600, MAKE, and Parents.

What magazines do you recommend?

*Michael (who was chatting with me while I wrote this post) wrote some great suggestions for the 12+ crowd at his blog.

***This is the unsolicited, independent opinion of Baby Toolkit. (c) 2007

Monday, October 22, 2007

Wubbanub: A Friend in the Dark of Night

Jim and I were talking about Ranger's early months, and a piece of gear with Most Favored status came up: the wonderful Wubbanub. Not only can you substitute the word Wubbanub into the lyrics of Roger Miller's "Chug-a-lug," it also helps you get more sleep during your child's infancy.

They're the only pacifiers you'll take the time to name. And for good reason... when your pacifier-lovin' baby wakes in the middle of the night to find the pacifier inexplicably missing and/or unobtainable, they YELL LOUDLY and with great urgency. This is really inconvenient for anyone trying to sleep. After a few nights of pacifier emergencies we decided there must be a better way to live and turned to the wise old Internet.

And like a beacon in the night was the not-available-in-my-community, Wubbanub. The Wubbanub sports a silicone Soothie pacifier (exactly the one that Ranger had been introduced to in the hospital's NICU).

We bought an express-mailed little red dog who provided enough ballast to remain with the baby throughout the night. The stuffed animal offers a lot more maneuverability for the barely dexterous, so even youngest infants can maneuver the pacifier into their mouth. With the dog on night watch, we found ourselves getting a lot more sleep.

We ended up buying two more of the dogs for us (one is inevitably lost and/or needs cleaning) and about 20 others which we've given as gifts. I even convinced the local hospital to carry them in the gift shop.

Wubbanubs come in a variety of species: cats, frogs, horses, and ducks. At around $10 each they also make a cute, useful, and affordable gift.

***This is the independent, unsolicited opinion of We have no relationship with the Wubbanub's maker (Trebco Specialty Projects, Inc.) and have received no compensation for this review.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

These Blocks Build More than Towers: W J Fantasy, Inc.

It's funny how visitors can help you see your own environment more clearly. Ranger and I hosted four under-3 friends for a play date last week. We all (adults and kids alike) ended up playing with 2 great nesting block sets by W J Fantasy.

The Numbers and Colors block set with colorful art by Sara Lee Anderson is a huge favorite of Ranger's. He likes numbers and counting- so anything with numbers on it is great. One side of the block has colored dots corresponding with its number, another side has the numeral, the third side shows an animal, and the fourth side shows a picture corresponding with that block's animal and number (e.g. the number four block has a rabbit one side and 4 carrots on the opposite face).

After a few minutes, we also pulled out the My Hometown block set so 7 people could easily play with the blocks. It has shops and other community features (train station, gas station, library, fire house). It's fun for imaginative play as well as stacking and nesting.

The blocks are pretty durable. They're cardboard, so don't expect huge feats of strength. They've held up well to over a year of appropriate play, but a destructive 4-year old could crush them all in less than a day.

They come in a rope-handled box which is useful as a carrying case and a storage box.

W J Fantasy has other great designs: a cool castle set where the insides of the box are castle rooms, a musical block set, touch and feel blocks, a great Jewish holiday set that turns into a (flameless) menorah, and alphabet blocks.

These compact, educational sets make great gifts as they don't consume a lot of household real estate yet they provide a lot of entertainment.

This is independent, unsolicited opinion of Baby Toolkit. We have no undisclosed relationship with W. J. Fantasy, Inc..

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

You've Got To Ask Yourself a Question: Do I Feel Lucky? Well, do ya punk?

Okay, I'm probably channeling a little extra Dirty Harry today because my dad is having surgery. After the dawn of the VCR, my dad, brother, and I watched every Clint Eastwood movie made... Please forgive my action movie sentimentality this morning.

Z Recommends
And I hope everyone is feeling lucky- or will be soon- because Jeremiah at Zrecs has dreamed up a great new online resource. Meet PRIZEY, it's a blog catalog of parent-friendly online contests. Prizey sorts out all the cruft (like linkback contests) and offers a calendar of upcoming contest deadlines. Jeremiah, like some new Professor X, has assembled a big team of mutant bloggers (including me) who search the interwebs for great contests.

And, in the course of setting up Prizey, I've already won a Little Capers Superhero t-shirt with removable cape (...for Ranger, because they don't come in adult sizes).

Don't forget to enter our contest for Siente (an awesome nocturnal cd) while you're at it.

Good luck, everyone!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Congratulations, Kim!

Our last copy of ScreamFree Parenting was won by Kim of Hormone Colored Days, Scrambled CAKE, and a couple other blog projects. I met Kim at BlogHer where we talked about food and parent blogging over lunch one day. Her allergy tips for the classroom are great for parents of young kids with food allergies.

Kim, in what can only be considered good karma, is hosting a PMS Survival Kit giveaway at her blog this week. This kit is loaded with delicious plunder from her journey through the All Candy Expo trade fair as well as other goodies. Stop by and enter; maybe you can win the deliciousness!

Like a Hammock in a Gentle Breeze: Siente's International Night Songs Soothe

Long after Ranger quit waking up at night, I found myself plagued with insomnia. At night my mind kept buzzing even though I was tired- very, very tired.

Then I got a cd (Siente) in the mail from Yellow Tail Records. Vocalist Partice O'Neill and classical guitarist Hilary Fields collaborate with a host of guest artists to weave a magic web of tranquility. Seriously, I fell asleep mid-afternoon the first time I heard this album. It was so lovely but so completely atypical that I began to wonder what genius neuro-linguistic hacker designed this profoundly soothing album.

The international lullabies and night songs selected were mostly unfamiliar to me, and they are sung in their native tongues. In every track exists a subtle motion that mentally transports me to an outdoor hammock or a gently rocking boat on a postcard perfect day.

Siente is like a brief hassle-free vacation. These songs might also work with kids, but honestly I've too relaxed to notice.

Sound good? There are samples of the songs on the Siente web site.

For more information on Siente, Zrecs also has a review and an interview with the artists behind the album.

View or buy Siente at Siente's web site or Amazon.


Yellow Tail Records was kind enough to offer a copy of Siente for one lucky reader. If you want to enter the giveaway, email babytoolkitcontests[at]gmail[dot]com by midnight CST October 22, 2007. Use the subject SIENTE. If you want to keep my inbox interesting you can tell me your favorite location (real or imagionary) for a nap? Nitty-gritty contest details: We'll use a integer generator to select a winner ( We are not liable for packages lost or damaged in the mail. Although we can't always provide international mailing, we can for this contest (YAY!).

*This review is the independent opinion of We've received a sample album from Siente, but have no relationship (beyond being grateful listeners) with Yellow Tail Records or any of the artists involved in Siente.*

Monday, October 08, 2007

ScreamFree Giveaway Ends Tomorrow at 6 AM EST

Congratulations to Dawn in Ontario on winning the 4th copy of ScreamFree Parenting donated by Random House's Broadway Books.

If you haven't already entered our drawing for a hardback copy of ScreamFree Parenting, there is still time. Entries will be accepted until 6 AM EST tomorrow (Tuesday, October 9, 2007).

Good luck!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Apple-tizing: Slice Up Something Tasty

When our son started on solids, I found myself cutting apples a lot as he's carpophagus (not to be mistaken for coprophagous). When Jim noticed my apple-cutting technique he first said "Where did you learn this?"

I told him my mom always cuts my apples that way from infancy to well... now.

"You really are spoiled."

So, spoil your kids with delectable thinly sliced apples. I don't know if it's the greater surface area or the crunchiness of the thin chips- but kids dig apples sliced this way.

Peel the apple first if your kid's a prima donna about such things. Ranger is, but I left the peel on so the pictures didn't look like potatoes.

Cut alongside the core on the side away from your hand. Estimate where the core ends (I usually guess between 1/4 and 1/3 of the way from the stem to the edge).
Lay the apple on the cut side and slice on both sides of the core.

Lay the apple on a flat side (preferably with a core side toward your holding hand). Slice off the remaining non-core chunk.

Check to make sure you didn't get to close to the core- like I did on one side (see the seeds?).

But the roughage (extra fiber) is easily cut away.
Then slice your apple chunks to thin or wafer-thin.

This style of cutting is great for some toddlers because it takes them longer to eat the slices. It makes a great time-consuming (for them, not you) snack. It also can extend a single apple among a greater number of kids in those didn't-get-to-the-grocery pinches.

8 Random Facts About Me (Adrienne): Chocked Full of Hard-Earned Life Tips

When Heather at Rookie Moms tagged me in an "8 Random Facts About Me" meme, I heard the unused unicycle in my garage start rattling for attention. But I'm opting to ignore it (and my lime green ukele) for the moment to pass on eight important life tips (mostly the products of experiential learning).

Meme Rules:

1) Post these rules before you give your facts

2) List 8 random facts about yourself

3) At the end of your post, choose (tag) 8 people and list their names, linking to them

4) Leave a comment on their blog, letting them know they’ve been tagged

Life tip #1- When your washing machine's drain cycle mysteriously fills your bathtub with murky drain water, it is not a good time to experiment with the drain system by flushing the toilet. The morning we discovered this gem I was heading to a job interview and hadn't yet showered or brushed my teeth. The bathtub filling is a symptom that your main drain line is blocked (tree roots were eventually found to be the culprit). When I saw the tub filling, I wondered what would happen if I flushed the toilet. This, I should mention, was a completely academic question and unnecessary flush. Short answer- the toilet does not drain into the bathtub (which is kind of a relief), BUT I ended up learning how quickly I could bail a rising toilet into a trashcan with a Dixie cup.

We fought with a horrible implement called a toilet snake (way worse than any deadly viper) for about hour, but just couldn't get the line clear. This turned into our first call for a professional plumber which brings us to...

Life tip #2- Plumbers are almost always worth the expense. And treating them as superheroes when they work on your house doesn't hurt either.

So I met the plumber at the front door in my robe (which probably freaked the poor guy out) and with a handshake and exaltations of his speed fit for Mercury. The plumber offered to come in through the back door (I joke not). Our house was less than grand, so I laughed. He said that it wasn't common in our neighborhood for people to ask him to do exactly that. Wow, you'd think we were living somewhere classy- but the truth is our 1950s era mass-produced neighborhood had floorplans where you had to walk through the entry room no matter which door you chose. Silly people.

Jim quit wrestling the toilet snake (this sounds like a very twisted horror movie). Normally Jim offers his hand to shake, but in this case, I'm sure the plumber appreciated his standoffishness. We also now always offer the plumber a drink (no one has ever accepted), but that didn't seem so appropriate after having hands-on contact with the toilet.

Jim offered to help the plumber and we'd already moved everything out of the way (this is especially nice when there are large appliances involved like clothes washers). It ended up the plumber was able to use a clean out line in the backyard and get the drain cleared so I wasn't even late for the interview.

As the plumber was friendly, Jim said "How's your week going?" We heard a great story about how half a wine glass got lodged in the neck of a bar toilet at such an angle that it couldn't be broken by a snake. It was really funny. This wasn't the best bar in town, actually it was a place where you're pretty surprised to find a wine glass on the premises, so the bathrooms were horroshow much like the one in Trainspotting.

Plumbers aren't surprised to be treated as untouchables (at least where we've lived) which is really shabby because they are usually taking care of some pretty dire situations in a very heroic capacity.

That house had 6 more years of plumbing failures and we never paid full price for any service call. We also got fast service because the plumbers came to recognize our name and address.

Life tip #3- The inevitable experience of caring for barfing kids can be improved by preparation.

Life tip #4- Sometimes it's just "too big to split." Confused? So were we. There was this restaurant called "The Hole in the Wall" a little North of Upland, Indiana that specialized in baked potatoes with a variety of dressings. When they hauled these GIGANTIC mutant potatoes as big as your head out to the tables near ours, my friend and I decided to split one.

When the waitress took our orders, she refused to let that potato be split. "It's too big!" My friend said, "That sounds perfect..."

The waitress wouldn't allow us to split the mega-giant potato and she was getting irritated by our stupidity. "HONEY, it's TOO BIG TO SPLIT" (the additional "how can I say it more plainly, you absolute idiot?" was understood by everyone in the place.'

So we stupidly ordered one each to answer the old vaudeville joke "Well, how big is it?"

Flipping huge. The table creaked under the first one and I think it came to rest on all our knees with the second one. They had a gravitational pull that drew small objects like silverware across the room. I could easily see splitting one in two with an axe or chainsaw. Or splitting it in twenty to feed everyone in the place and a few people passing by on the street.

"Too big to split" is now code in the Jones family for anything fervently believed by others but completely inexplicable to us. Some mysteries in life are not to be answered: They're simply too big to split.

Life tip #5- Mommas need posses: Not long after my week-long hospitalization for mastitis and Ranger's cold-turkey weaning, I went back to library group. Ranger was hungry, so I started looking through my bag for still-foreign formula supplies. I'd left something essential at home, but a friend loaned me the missing supply and peace was restored after a short Ranger meltdown. The whole situation left me sad and rattled and a mom next to me said (with a strong dose of self-righteousness) "Well, that's why I breastfeed my daughter." About the time my eyes started to burn, but before they filled with tears my momma friends jumped to my defense. It immediately made me smile to watch them go after this woman. If it's bad to anger a momma bear, it's apocalyptic to anger a den of them.

Life tip #6- Few things are more empowering than helping others.

This sounds really trite, but the second major life event for the Jones in 2005 (shortly after the birth of Ranger in chronology and significance) was being hit by a 2 AM F3 tornado. As was the case with many tornado victims (and I suspect other disaster victims in the wake of Katrina), our insurance company was using every dirty tactic in the book to not pay enough to repair our damaged home.

I was so angry and felt completely subject to the company's decisions. I was told there was no appeals process and I had to settle on their terms. We just wanted a fair settlement (a working house). No one had any idea what to do to get our costs covered. One Friday night I decided to give up an accept their paltry offer and work to make up the $10k+ deficit on our own. I was broken. Thank God it was a weekend. On Sunday, my Dad told a funny story about grandpa and the federal credit card regulatory agency and the penny dropped. While insurance is regulated on a state by state basis, our state has a great Department of Insurance. Talking to one of their investigators gave me enough information to scare the insurance company into meeting our costs. That made me feel a little better, but it was a still a painfully long and frustrating process.

In the meantime, I invited the Department of Insurance to return to our city about 2 months after the tornado for two public meetings. They were WONDERFUL. They came and worked individually with every one who attended the public meetings. It turned out our insurance problems were minor in the grand scheme of things. Fines were levied, some people who had previously been cheated were given 100% or more of their policies' benefits. You can read about it here. This particular settlement is the product of a lot of hard work by a lot of fine people, but the egregious treatment by the insurance company only came to light in those public meetings. The fact that people cared about our community (not the message conveyed by some insurance companies) was more healing than any restoration of our home. Knowing I could still help others when I had felt so subject to circumstance helped me get out of bed during those terribly dark months.

(Side note: Our absolutely horrible experience was with Horace Mann and their subsidiary Teachers Insurance Company- I know you were wondering.)

Life tip #7- Look everyone in the eye. I stole this from Mother Teresa's playbook (I doubt she'll pursue me for copyright). Not necessary long, lingering looks, but enough to realize you're interacting with someone. I honestly think this changes the viewer more than the viewee. It's improved my life greatly and goes well with a smile.

Life tip #8- (also known as the Jones family motto)

So Jim and I went to this arts fair over a decade ago and watched a master baker decorate cakes (see, adventure around every corner!). This guy could created contest-worthy creations in record time. He then took questions. An observer asked him to show the best technique to make a rose. He pulls out something that looks like a giant thumbtack and pipes a perfect rosette on it in less than 30 seconds while giving good narration.

His questioner looked perplexed. "That's how I do it and mine never look that good." She probed for his trade secret, "How do you do it so easily?"

Through a wide grin he offered a secret to success in life as well as rose-making "The first thousand times are the hardest."

To further this "8 Random Things About Me" meme, I'm passing it on to:
Anyone else have life tips they want to add?