Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Up On Blocks: Top Construction Materials for Young Builders

We love blocks. From Jim to the baby, we can lose ourselves in long cycles of construction and destruction.

These simple toys can motivate the baby to army crawl at top speed to topple and me to linger a little longer at the kids' bedtime while we make the ramp just a little bit longer or the tower a little taller. Six-year-old Ranger builds huge marble runs in his bedroom, and three-year-old Scout sneaks into rearrange them while he's at school.

When Uncle Punk is around, we build using all the blocks we can muster. Then we bombard the structures with ping pong balls, bean bags, and old Crossbows and Catapults flying disks.

For the youngest (1 year and under), we prefer cardboard blocks (as she loves knocking towers down on her own head). Our homemade milk/juice carton blocks are a bit too big for her to handle, so she usually plays with Melissa & Doug Alphabet nesting blocks. She isn't much of a stacker yet, but she does like to nest the blocks.

The next step in our ziggurat of block building are old Fisher Price Stack & Build Blocks. These rounded blocks hold together without actually locking. They require less accuracy and motor control to stack and restack independently. Sadly, they're discontinued, so look at resale stores, yard sales, and (in our case) an awesome friend's living room (I promise she gave them to me).

Fisher-Price Stack & Build blocks
 Next in the lineup are MEGA Bloks. When kids' fine motor control and hand strength start improving, big locking blocks exercise their hands and their spatial reasoning. Not that the kids care about that. They're great fun. I chose MEGA over other favorite block brands because I can always find used ones cheap and MEGA seems to have been making exactly the same block for a long time (so there aren't near-fit problems when combining sets). Plus, Ranger's grandma gave him a MEGA Bloks set that he adored.

Melissa & Doug Unit Blocks
Around the same time, we get out the Melissa & Doug Unit blocks. These old school stackers are big and dense hunks of wood that are the mainstay of Jones' building. They are bigger than most home block sets. These are 6-year-old Ranger's most played with toy. Scout got a 2 small sets (2- 30 pc sets) for her 3rd birthday (so she would stop sneaking into Ranger's room during the school day to play with his).

Growing up, Uncle Punk and I shared a similar block set (though ours were covered in suspiciously bright, probably toxic, paint). I can remember sitting down on college breaks with my older brother and building elaborate structures (that we later knocked down with balls). If our geek genes prevail, the kids may get decades of play out of these.

Keva planks
A new block type we like are Keva planks. These unassuming identical planks require more planning than the unit blocks, but they introduce more strategy to block construction. Instead of simply grabbing the double long block to span a threshold, now we have plan ahead. There are often many solutions to each challenge, and it's easy to learn that some solutions are much more stable than others. As the kids get bigger, I think these (and their photo book of suggested structures) will become a centerpiece in our living room.

Research reveals that kids are more likely to read in homes where parents read. It is probably some combination of parental modeling and opportunity (more books around and natural pauses in the schedule to read). With blocks as a regular activity, we're seeing some of the same results. Scout, who has grown up watching us build with Ranger, uses blocks in ways that are surprising for her age (like improvising recognizable structures).

Even if blocks don't develop spatial thinking, they're still lots of fun to stack (and knock down).

***Baby Toolkit is the unbridled geekery of Jim & Adrienne Jones- Midwestern parents of three. We have no affiliation with any of the block makers listed above. We are Amazon affiliates, so we get a small percentage of purchases made through our Amazon links.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Household Essential: 3M Book Tape

Photographed to emphasize tape
It's no secret that we love books. Despite our best intentions, sometimes we even love them to pieces.

Before we had kids (okay, even for a while after we had Ranger), I thought we could maintain an organized library of carefully maintained books. I slowly came to realize that, at least for picture books, I could have readers -or- crisp, clean editions, but not both.

Why have books without readers?

I nearly wept the day Ranger ripped a page out of the hardback copy of On the Day You Were Born that I bought him upon request. He loved that book, and although paper kind of grows on trees, changing that paper to books can be an expensive process.

Then Jim reminded me of book tape. At one point, we both worked in an academic library and regularly traversed the catacombs behind the public areas. In one dark corner of cataloging, dedicated bibliophiles maintained and repaired worn and broken volumes. Little red boxes of book tape sat shoulder to shoulder waiting to assist in the ongoing battle against time, entropy, and abuse.

I use book tape to stitch together damaged volumes, but it also works on puzzle pieces and game boxes. Jim even uses it to reinforce the covers of frequently used reference books before damage occurs.

Corner reinforcement by library (interior)
The tape is slightly re-positionable when first applied (unlike clear packaging tape), but bonds firmly once placed. Its thicker and stiffer than packaging tape. The edges may shed a little adhesive, but it rolls off easily (like rubber cement) rather than creating a gummy mess. The tape can be creased easily over the edge of a softback cover or spine. Our local library even adds it to hardback corners to slow cover wear.

Exterior spine & corner reinforcement by library
Even with three young readers, we don't worry about letting our kids handle books.

A roll of book tape costs about $6 for 15 yards of 2" wide tape. That's far less than the replacement value of most books and a downright paltry investment in independence for a young reader. There's even an 8 roll value pack that might prevent the stink eye when someone abducts a roll "for work."

***Baby Toolkit is the periodic chronicle of a couple geeks crawling the dungeons of parenthood. We're Amazon affiliates, so purchases through our links will help us buy more books and book tape and other bits and bobs. Though we may be categorized as 3M enthusiasts, we have no non-imaginary relationship with the company.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Orbiting Jupiter

Dear friends,

You may think our previous "back on track" post was some sick tease, but two days later I stood holding the baby's hand while a CT scanner roved round and round her head. By the end of that week, she and I were talking to the director of pediatric neurosurgery (okay, the baby mostly listened).

Now we're waiting for a more complete, full-sedation-required, 3D CT and its analysis by a brain surgeon and a plastic surgeon.

That has mostly taken the wind out of our sails.

Yet we are trying to live with mindfulness and intentionality. Time with our daughter has greater significance, time with all three of our kids does. In this strange waiting period, we are keenly aware that time with family passes at the same (too fast) rate even during anxiety or crisis.

Shortly after all this happened, we went to a local observatory (built with a barn silo dome) and peered all the way to Jupiter and saw her icy moons.

Jupiter 22 October, 2011
Jupiter, October 22, 2011. photo credit: Peter Riesett, (LordJumper) via Flickr and Creative Commons. (Thanks for sharing!)

Before Ranger's obsession with space, I couldn't stand to think of the universe's enormity. Now, I'm grateful for the awareness (from our vantage point atop the shoulders of giants). We are markedly different than most of the known universe, and we have the remarkable tools to explore it. Even kids who can't tie their shoes can see more clearly than many master astronomers of past generations.

I'm trying to look at our medical unknowns in the same light. Not to fear the vastness, but to find the wonder, opportunity, and miracles in what unfamiliar territory teaches about our present position.

***Baby Toolkit is the chronicle of two Midwestern geeks encountering the vast and varied realm of parenting.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Actually, the title might best be "Falling Behind with the Joneses." Since Spring 2010, the quick summary of our lives sounds a bit too soap opera for comfort: family member in coma, frightening pregnancy, rare pregnancy complication, emergency birth peril, NICU, preemie, newborn sleeplessness, birth defects, medical appointments, friend in coma, parent having surgery, and the deaths of (different) friend and (different) family member.

My mind was simply too muddled to write. Since Ranger started Kindergarten and Scout started preschool this Fall, I've been trying to tackle a year and half of neglected housework and family business. As the dark tide of laundry recedes to reveal the laundry room floor and the downstairs sofa sheds it heavy coat of clean laundry, unwritten sentences rise to the surface.

So, with a slight flutter of Apple II-era remembrance* (thank you, Mr. Jobs), may I repeat the first phrase I ever made a computer monitor to display:


We've missed you.

*The electric thrill I felt seeing those words appear on the screen of my grade school's only computer still resonates when I consider how words written in my living room instantly travel worldwide.

***Baby Toolkit is the periodic commentary of two geek parents from the Midwest. When we're not telling our kids things like "Don't eat the toilet paper," we read, play games, explore, and generally struggle with parenting and household management.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tilt-an-URL: Check Your Links

Back in 2007, Jim told me to buy a domain. I dithered around until was snatched up by another party (who ran a web store), and then I registered the runner up URL

In pixels I thought it was great. Then I tried to verbally direct someone to it. Oy vey.

Baby-toolkit expires tomorrow and shall not be renewed, so if you're one of the 3 people using that address please stop and start using:

(drum roll please...)

We outlasted the web store (which is like outliving a gnat) and plucked the URL from their ashes.
If you were looking for a web store, WELCOME and please disregard the previous message.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

All Together Now: Tangling with Gamewright's Forbidden Island

Every couple of weeks, Adrienne, Ranger and I (and perhaps a friend or two) launch an expedition to a sinking island in search of ancient artifacts of legendary power. If luck is on our side, if we keep our lines of communication open and if we focus on cooperating, we might unearth The Crystal of Fire, The Earth Stone, The Ocean's Chalice and The Statue of the Wind before our helicopter pad sinks into the treacherous waters of the surrounding ocean. If we don't, we'll be cut off from returning home and forever seal our fates... at least until we reset the board and try again.

"What the heck's going on!?!"  you might ask.

Well, we've been playing Forbidden Island.


Forbidden Island is a cooperative board game of daring treasure hunting that pits all the players against the game itself. The players of the game either win or lose as a group. Forbidden Island is designed by Matt Leacock, designer of two other of our favorite board game titles, Pandemic and Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age. It is published by Gamewright, who also publishes another game we reviewed recently and thoroughly enjoy, Rory's Story Cubes (check out our review, To Tell A Tale: Rory's Story Cubes). C.B. Canga's full color art illustrates the exotic locales of the sinking island.


At the beginning of each game, the players shuffle the twenty four island tiles and place them one by one into the cross layout as illustrated in the Forbidden Island rule book. Next, the four plastic figures representing the treasures of The Crystal of Fire, The Earth Stone, The Ocean's Chalice and The Statue of the Wind are placed in the four open corners of the island.

Forbidden Island includes fifty eight cards that are split into two decks. The red backed Treasure Deck includes twenty treasure cards (five for each treasure), three Waters Rise! cards, three Helicopter Lift cards, and two Sandbag cards. The Treasure Deck is the resource deck of the game, giving players the items that they will need in order to complete their objective. They'll have to watch out, though, as the Waters Rise! cards randomly cause areas of the island to sink and be removed from the board. The Treasure Deck is shuffled and placed to one side of the island layout.

The blue backed Flood Deck consists of twenty four cards, each representing one of the tile cards that make up the island. The Flood Deck is shuffled and placed on the opposite side of the island layout. The island's already started to flood and to represent that, six cards are drawn from the Flood Deck. For each card that is drawn, the players flip the corresponding island tile from its full color side to its blue toned flooded side.

There are six adventurer cards that represent the different treasure hunters that are coming to explore the island. Each adventurer has special skills that let them ignore or break specific rules of the game. Exploiting your adventurers' skills at the right time will be critical to your success or failure on Forbidden Island.

The six adventurers and there special skills are:

Diver: The diver is represented by the black pawn and can move through one or more adjacent flooded tiles and/or sunken tiles for one action as long as he (or she) ends the turn on a tile.

Engineer: The engineer is represented by the red pawn and can shore up two flooded (blue colored) island cards for one action.

Explorer: The explorer is represented by the green pawn and can move and/or shore up flooded tiles diagonally.

Messenger: The messenger is represented by the gray pawn can give treasure cards from their hand to a player anywhere for one action per card.

Navigator: The navigator is represented by the yellow pawn and can move another player up to two adjacent tiles for one action.

Pilot: The pilot is represented by the blue pawn and can fly to any tile on the island for one action once per turn.

During the setup phase, the six adventurer cards are shuffled and randomly dealt to each player. The pawns representing the adventurers are then placed on the island by finding the island tile that has the corresponding pawn icon.

Next, the adventurers are outfitted with their initial gear by drawing two cards from the shuffled Treasure Deck. If they draw a Waters Rise! card, they draw a replacement treasure card and shuffle the Waters Rise! card back into the deck. All cards are left face up in front of the players in order to make it easier to cooperate when completing their player's goals.

Once all of the adventurers are outfitted with two Treasure Deck cards, the group decides on the difficulty level of the game and set's the Water Level  marker on the Water Meter. The closer the marker is to the top, the harder the game will be. For beginning players, the Novice level is recommended which, while being easier, doesn't guarantee a win for the group.

That's it for setup. As you can see, there are a lot of elements that add to the re-playability of the game. The island is going to be in a different configuration every game (with a special note on that at the end of this review). Your group of players will also have different adventurers with different roles and their starting tiles will most likely be in a different starting position every game. And finally, as your group gets better at the game, winning more times than losing, they can start at increasingly difficult water levels.

So, how do you play the game?

Playing Forbidden Island

Each player's turn consists of three phases. During the first phase they can take up to three actions. After they have finished their actions, they must draw two Treasure Deck cards. Finally, they must draw the number of cards from the Flood Deck equal to the current Water Level on the Water Meter. Let's break each of those down. As we look at the basic rules of play, remember the special abilities of each adventurer that allow them to break specific rules during their turns. Players have three actions that they may take.

On their turn, players can move to an adjacent tile above, below, to the left or to the right of their current position. They can make multiple moves during their turn, with each move costing one action. The only restriction for most adventures is that they can't move over or stop on an area with missing, sunken, tiles.

Another option is for the player to shore up a flooded tile. Players may shore up tiles adjacent above, below, to the left, or to the right of their pawn's position. When a player announces that they are going to shore up a flooded island tile, they flip it from it's blue flooded side to its full color side. Each time a player shores up a flooded island tile, it takes one of their three actions.

If two or more players have their pawns on the same island tile, they may then spend one of their three actions to exchange Treasure Cards. Players may not exchange special action cards and they must stay within the five card hand limit. They may exchange as many cards as they have action points remaining as long as they don't go over their hand limit.

Finally, if players are occupying one of the two island tiles that can house each of the Forbidden Island treasures, they can exchange, if they have them, four treasure cards matching the particular treasure in order to capture it. Once captured, they put the four matching Treasure Cards into the discard pile and take the corresponding plastic treasure miniature and put it in front of them.

After spending their three action points, players must then draw two treasure cards into their hand. If they are over the hand limit of five cards, they must discard the excess into the Treasure Card discard pile. The Special Action cards include the three Helicopter Lifts and two Sandbags. A player can play a Special Action card at any time, whether it is their turn or not, and it does not cost any action points.

If a player draws a Waters Rise! card, they must immediately move the Water Level marker up one tick mark on the Water Meter. They then must take all the cards in the Flood Deck discard pile, shuffle them, and put them on top of the Flood Deck. This has the effect of making it more likely that flooded tiles will then sink. Then they discard the card to the Treasure discard pile.

As their last action, players must draw the number of Flood cards indicated on the Water Meter. For each card that is drawn from the Flood Deck, the corresponding island tile is flipped over if it is not already flooded or removed, along with the Flood Deck card, from the game. In this way the island sections first flood and, if they are not shored up, eventually sink into the ocean. As the island sinks away at an ever increasing rate, the players will have fewer and fewer routes to complete their goal of capturing all four treasures from Forbidden Island. If a pawn is on a flooded tile that then sinks, the tile is removed and the player must move to an adjacent tile. If a tile doesn't exist within one space, it sinks into the ocean as well and all the player's lose.

Speaking of losing, how do you win a game of Forbidden Island?

Winning (and Losing) Forbidden Island

As I said in the beginning, Forbidden Island is a cooperative game. Players win or lose the game together. Here's the tricky part. There is one, and only one, way to win Forbidden Island. The players must first capture all four treasures. Then all of the players must move their pawns to the Fool's Landing helicopter pad island tile. Then one player must discard a Helicopter Lift special action Treasure Card to lift the entire team off the sinking island. That's a tall order.

So how do you lose? I'm glad you asked.

There are four ways to lose a game of Forbidden Island. If a set of the island tiles that houses the treasures sinks into the ocean before the treasure is recovered by a player, the players lose the game.  If the Fools Landing tile sinks, cutting off your player's chance to reach the helicopter and escape the sinking island, the players lose the game. As stated earlier, if a player is on a island tile that sinks and is not close enough to another tile to swim to safety, the players lose the game. If the Water Level on the Water Meter rises to the skull and crossbones, the players lose the game.

This may seem harsh to some of our readers. I won't lie, this can be difficult, especially as you gain experience and confidence and start the game further and further up the Water Meter, ratcheting up your starting difficulty. But I will say that playing, and winning a game of Forbidden Island is an event, especially if your players really get into the idea of being treasure hunters and try hard to work together. When you lose, which will happen (heck it might happen the first couple of times you play and continue to happen off and on throughout the time that you own the game), you will all feel it together. You'll talk about what you might have been able to do differently. You'll commiserate over the bad luck of drawing the wrong flood card at the wrong time. You'll wonder if things would have been different if you had a different assortment of roles. Remember, this is a game for two to four players and you have six special roles that are randomly assigned.

And then... you'll want to set the whole thing up and try again. This game is addictive. And when you win, I'll bet you'll do what every group I've played this game with has done. You'll jump up from your chair and cheer and give high fives all around. You'll rehash the close calls and the clever plays. You'll relish the adventure of it. When's the last time you did that when playing Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit. When was the last time that you played any game that left everyone playing feeling so good.

So, while it is hard. It's definitely worth the effort.

Components and Cost

Forbidden Island comes in a beautiful full color embossed metal tin. Inside, a molded plastic insert holds the twenty four full color thick cardboard tiles that make up the island. There are six colored wooden pawns representing each adventurer. Additionally, there are the Flood, Treasure and Adventurer decks outlined earlier and the Water Meter. Finally there are four color plastic miniatures which evocatively represent Forbidden Island's lost treasures. All of which fits nicely in this lovely tin with the clearly written and wonderfully laid out full color game rules. All of the tiles and cards are linen backed so they should be able to withstand repeated plays for a long time to come.

Given the quality of the game's tin, components, and rule book, you'd expect Forbidden Island to command a premium collector's game price. One of the most amazing things about the game is that it can be had for under $17. On, Forbidden Island currently lists for $13.44.


Forbidden Island is a great game for two to four players. If you have never played a cooperative game, a genre that has gained popularity in hobby games market in the last few years and one that my family particularly enjoys, Forbidden Island is a fantastic introduction to the category. We love this game as a family and here's why.

Forbidden Island can be played with a diverse range of ages and can still engage everyone involved. We have played this with groups made up only of adults and with mixed groups including players pushing their forties and our five year old son, Ranger. The only difference in the play is that Ranger was more in need of suggestions as to which action to take on his turn. On the other hand, these game sessions enabled him to see how adults evaluated a number of potential actions and chose the few that were most optimal. Over time, he's getting a crash course in creative problem solving. He's also learning how to communicate with other people about a problem and learning how to take suggestions for possible solutions from others.

Forbidden Island captures the imagination. If I'm presented with the choice of playing a card game of Uno or going on a treasure quest to a sinking island, I know which one I'll choose ninety percent of the time.

Forbidden Island builds memories. Like Matt Leacock's other, more expensive, cooperative game Pandemic which focuses on ridding the world of epidemic diseases, a win in Forbidden Island is difficult and memorable. You'll tell stories to other's that you inevitably introduce the game to about an amazing recent win or heartbreaking loss. I still remember the time that a group of co-workers won when there were only four (of the twenty four!) island tiles left on the board. It was the last possible turn before the skull and crossbones was reached and a combination of a lucky card draw, plus having the pilot, won the day. It was intense. It was nail-biting. Everyone screamed and  and stood up and cheered with excitement that we'd actually eked out a win. All in a public snack area with passers by thinking we were crazy. And... it was awesome!

You just can't beat the cost-value calculation of this game. Forbidden Island is cheaper than most kids' games (Sorry, I'm looking at you) and is going to be something that your children's children will be able (and enthusiastically want) to play for years to come. It's not a game that you're going to get bored with easily as it has an amazing amount of re-playability built into its very design. Plus, if you start to get so good that your group regularly wins the game, you can try these European edition and fan created alternate Island tile layouts to increase the challenge level. How well are you going to do on Forbidden Skull Island, or the Forbidden Island of the Crescent Moon?

Are you ready for your family's first expedition to Forbidden Island?

Let us know if you are a fan of cooperative games in general and Forbidden Island in particular in the comments. Happy adventuring.

***Baby Toolkit is brought to you by the neurological happenstance of two geek parents in the midst of the  middle Midwest. While we purchased Forbidden Island from our local Borders (R.I.P.), we do periodically receive review copies from Gamewright. We love Forbidden Island designer Matt Leacock's Pandemic, so we simply could not resist buying Forbidden Island when we saw it in a bookstore- especially since I had a 40% off coupon (sorry, Borders). Expect more game coverage as we're going crazy with GenCon Indy 2011 anticipation.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Teacher Appreciation: Quick & Caffeinated

Growing up in a teacher's household, I know teachers treasure the sentiment behind gifts from students.  The gifts themselves are truly secondary to the feelings of appreciation.

Over the span of a teaching career, sentimental gifts abound and start to swamp most teacher's homes, so I try to give consumable gifts.

This year, after seeing this inspired "Thanks a Latte!" printable project I was all geared up to craft some sweet gift card holders with Ranger.

And then I remembered, I have three very young children- two in diapers- and utterly no spare time to wait for glue to dry.

Enter "Thanks a latte!" v.2. Cup and lid: easily acquired at time of gift card purchase.  Hard candy: quick, cheap, and easy.  Ribbon: around here somewhere.  Cellophane/plastic bag: not in my pantry and a Ziplock would lack panache.

So how do I dress up the cups to keep them from being mistaken for empties? I punched a couple holes in the sides of the adorable little espresso cups and threaded ribbon handles through.

Ranger helped put a handwritten note inside (on flower printables) with a gift card and some peppermints.

With smaller plain paper prints (print file as a 5x7 image) of the flower printable and my sticker maker (though any bit of sticky would suffice), I attached some mini-thanks a latte flowers to the cup lids for labels.

Viola.  Little baskets of sugary, caffeinated gratitude.

***Baby Toolkit is written by some sugary, caffeinated, grateful geek parents.  Thank you for giving us some of your time.  We're not affiliated (or even particularly enamored) with Starbucks and this hack could work just as well with your local coffee shop as long as they have gift cards and to go cups.  We are however Amazon affiliates, so a portion of purchases made through this web site's Amazon links help us stay connected.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Quick Change Artists: DIY Playdough Playmats

My artists: chaos & control
My kids love Play-doh, but I dislike the million multi-color crumb clean-up.

I cut some lengths of freezer paper (size corresponding with age and messiness) to use as perpetual playmats.  Waxed paper or parchment would serve equally well.

When playdough interest wanes and the dough is tucked back into cans, I shake the papers over the trash can and many of the wee nuggets are vanquished.

It is not a perfect system.  Some days the bottoms of my socks still look like they have a Seussical pox, but the slick paper playmats cut clean-up time substantially.

***Baby Toolkit is a collection of hacks, coughs, and observations from a couple geeky Midwestern parents.  We're Amazon affiliates, so a portion of purchases made through our links goes toward our dreams of a giant Batsignal spotlight.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Required Reading for Geeks & Parents: Science Fair Season Set Me On Fire

Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch . . . and What It Takes to WinAt first blush, Judy Dutton's Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, A Robot Named Scorch. . . and What It Takes To Win looks like Spellbound recast with science geeks.  Don't be fooled.  While Science Fair Season explores the lives of a handful of contestants in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, it deftly illustrates artful parenting and success in learning as well.

The high school students' projects are sometimes mind-boggling in scale (like building a reactor for nuclear fusion).  I expected the top achieving high school students to be working on an undergraduate level, but these noteworthy projects more clearly resemble post-graduate research.  Because the students approach their inquiries with fresh perspective, they see possibility and challenge where more conventional researchers might not explore.

While no two contestants' stories are remotely identical, patterns do emerge that speak to science education and parenting young children.  So often the students' stories begin with an early spark of interest in something (horses, electricity, cars, astronomy) which parents encouraged with exploration.  Though the kids' interests didn't usually mirror parental interests, the parents went out of their way to feed their child's curiosity and enthusiasm.  Time after time, parents provide opportunities (like a homebrew chem lab, a borrowed Geiger counter, or time with horses) and find mentors with similar interests.  Granted, not every child is going to become a super-competitor in science by the mere magic of parental support, but these stories clearly illuminate a parent's ability to multiply interest into inquiry and fascination.

Yet the book is not populated with Tiger Moms or Stage Fathers, the burgeoning interests are consistently directed by the kids (and I say kids because this explosion of interest seems most common in early childhood).  These biographies are full of freedom and exploration.

The other looming discussion is that of how students come to love science learning.  Halfway through the book I became painfully aware that, although some "outsiders" come to science interest in junior high or high school, most of the kids with scientific fervor (and the resulting knowledge) fully embraced science long before most schools begin to seriously teach it.  We, as a nation, are missing the critical window where kids fall in love with science.  Thanks to budget cuts and lack of advocacy, science is barely taught when young students are making decisions about what they love.  When schools finally start teaching science in junior high, the approach is often dry and makes the very foundation of existence seem irrelevant and esoteric.

During the space race, science charged into unsuspecting homes through popular media.  While the media marveled and quaked at Sputnik, rocket scientists became the heroes of coal mine town boys like Homer Hickam (NASA engineer and author of Rocket Boys).  This book reminds me that not only are science heroes present today, they're still coming of age (though in increasingly shorter supply).  Our tech role models need to be more than wealthy boys with killer apps (Apple's Steve Jobs, Facebook's Mark Zuckerman).  Kids would be better served to know about Pluto Files atrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson and science humanitarian Amy Smith.

In my life as a university academic advisor, the most frustrating academic trajectories were those of students with no real interests. A student sorting through a abundance of passions brimmed with energy, but one without a single definable interest made me want to bang my head against my desk.  I knew then that, should we ever have kids, I wanted them to deeply love some thing that challenged and expanded them.

Science Fair Season left me with a long to-do list.  I want Ranger, Scout, and the Detective to gain exposure to math and science beyond what they'll get in the elementary classroom, and I also want those opportunities to be available for their friends and classmates.  My mom's fifth grade class had this amazing interactive experience put together by an orthopedic surgeon dad; the dad set up hands-on stations where the class could use real orthopedic tools to meet objectives (like screwing a nut on a bolt) through obstacles (inside a bottle) to simulate surgical challenge.  My mom believes that one presentation converted more students to science than any other single event of her long teaching career.  This it the type of early experience I want for my kids and as many other kids as we can involve.

I think the future, not just of our kids' educations, but of the country and the world, may lie in the opportunities we offer our kids in their early years.

Well written and entertaining, Science Fair Season is going to have the broad voyeuristic appeal of subculture documentaries like Word Wars and The Farmer's Wife, but it also has the seeds of one of the most critical educational discourses of our generation.

Hyperion, hardcover $25 MSRP, $15.99 on Amazon.
Read excerpt at author's site.

***Baby Toolkit is a couple geek parents currently so hot about science learning that we might just turn to plasma.  Hyperion supplied us with a free e-book loan of Science Fair Season, but we've now bought three hardcover copies to share with friends and family (the first taste is free...).  As Amazon affiliates, a small portion of purchases made through our Amazon links brings us one step closer to a giant dirigible trip around the planet.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Yet Another Barf Tip: Hairstyling Cape

Andre Zephyr #617 Hairstyling Cape, BlackLate last night, Scout reminded us of the incident that inspired our 2007 post Barf-a-rama: Coming Too Soon To A Home Near You.  The spontaneous stroll down this particular toddler memory lane was like a parenting pop-quiz on a chapter long-forgotten.

We scored high on items like EXTRA SHEETS, but sadly that particular point was irrelevant as the eruption landed solely on a handmade pillow (Sorry, Mimi-n-Moe's Mom, but it does wash beautifully!).  I entirely forgot #2 and immediately thought, "Hey, that's the last of it."  Thus I earned a second pair of chunkalicious pajamas to launder.

Once we realized that our child should be treated as an erratic fire hose of digestive destruction, I reached behind the door and grabbed our easily washable, water resistant nylon hairstyling cape.*  A couple snaps later Scout's clean jammies were shielded by her "Sick Cape."  Nothing like a barfing, backwards caped superhero. I would normally offer action shots, but the simultaneous unsubscribes might break Feedburner.

And after a few more rounds of awful, all the exhausted citizens of our little patch of Gotham slept soundly in clean, warm beds and jammies.

Yes, this book.

*I cut Jim's hair: sometimes well, sometimes badly.  My only "training" consists of a VHS tape that came with the clippers and the 1978 manual Haircutting the Professional Way by Bruno from my parents' house   It started during our potato years (we couldn't even afford salad) as a cost cutting measure, but Jim prefers it (despite the risks) because he doesn't have to make small talk with a barber or stylist.

***Baby Toolkit is the work-in-progress of a some slightly bloodshot geek parents raising an energetic clutch of wee people this side of the Land of Nod.  We're Amazon affiliates, so a percentage of purchases made through our links (you know you want that Bruno book) bring us that much closer to owning our own decommissioned nuclear silo on the windy plains.  Thanks for reading Baby Toolkit!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Extreme Breastfeeding: Pumping for NICU Without Losing Your Mind

-or- Free Your Hands and Your Mind Will Follow

When our littlest geek (locally dubbed the Baby Detective) ended up in the NICU, I found myself back in familiar breastfeeding territory.  My role on supply side of breastfeeding began in the NICU.  As a first time mom who gave birth by c-section, my milk didn't come in for days.  That newborn, a "sugar baby" in NICU lingo, had low blood sugar and a low body temperature, so my first attempts at breastfeeding were bedside in the NICU.

It was awful.  There's no just way to prepare for breastfeeding or the hormonal postpartum roller-coaster.  Throw in the physical separation, heightened anxieties, and lack of privacy of NICU, and the natural act of breastfeeding dials itself up to an 11 (on a scale of 10 for those who haven't had the senseless pleasure of This is Spinal Tap [available on Netflix streaming]).

I won't tax you with all the gory details (although keywords like nipple shield coupled with a multitude of synonyms for breast might spice up my Google hits).

When we decided to grow our family to five, I assumed the third round of nursing would be without surprises. Then BabyGeek 1.3 arrived six weeks early after swift and furious pregnancy complications.

Instead of a bassineted baby in my hospital room, our teeny geek was an isolette half a building away.  She was challenged to digest liquid food, much less consume it.  While she drew most of her nutrition from IVs and lipids from a feeding tube, I pumped every 3 hours in an attempt to provide breastmilk that she could consume by bottle.

The only things previous breastfeeding experiences had taught me were I hated pumping, I didn't have much success with it, and with growing sleep deprivation, the low moan of the pump motor turned into crazy words that made me loathe pumping all the more.

With 8 pumping sessions a day on the horizon, things had to be different this time.

In order of importance, here are the big changes:

Easy Expression Bustier Hands Free Pumping Bra (Large 38-40 D-f, Black)1. Go hands-free: this list-topper may seem painfully obvious to the working moms, but somehow I managed to miss the advantages with earlier infants.  Maybe it was the early '90s era models in their shoulder padded power suits, but somehow hands-free seemed inappropriate for someone who spends most days in jeans, tees, and a sea of Cheerios.

Prior to this baby, I loathed pumping and avoided it at all costs.  The deeply bovine feeling of hooking up to a milking machine felt humiliating (especially in the hospital with people walking into the room all the times).  Holding the flanges in place kept my hands and mind focused on the pumping process.

This time, with the phone ringing off the hook, and hardly a moment to bolt a meal, I walked my hospital gown clad self into the lactation boutique and bought an Easy Expressions hands-free bustier.

Suddenly, I had my hands back, and along with them came a solid measure of dignity.  Yes, I was still fastened to a very dairy machine, but I felt more 80s throwback (think Madonna) or crazy fashion forward (Lady Gaga) and even a bit Amazing Stories.  It was the best kind of ridiculous.  When my hands were unshackled, my brain and soul were now free to contemplate something, ANYTHING, other than the pumping process.  Pure awesome.  Worth every penny.

Man vs. Food: Season One2. Kick back and watch something distracting.
I hesitate to offer this advice as television kills brain cells and such, but there are times in life where really senseless shows can be blessedly soothing and distracting.  While I couldn't sleep and pump, I could pump while watching every episode of Sons of Tuscon, Doc Martin, The IT Crowd, Toddlers & Tiaras, and Man v. Food on Netflix streaming.

3 . Hospital grade pumps should be considered.
Medela Symphony Breast PumpBefore Ranger was born, we bought a Medela Pump-In-Style Advanced pump.  I still own it, but I instead opted to rent a Medela Symphony from the hospital boutique.  When pumping 8 times a day, it's important that the pump works well- 10 minutes more per session adds up to 80 more minutes per sleepless day.

4.  Lactation consultants can help immensely, but tend toward generalizations.
I love the lactation department at our hospital.  The consultants have helped me over the years.  This time they lent me a DVD copy of Hands-On Pumping (the 3 videos are available free online at  Those techniques improved my supply quickly.  Pumping every 3 hours (at the hospital or at home) is an insane challenge.  Undersupply broke my heart because (in my hormonal insanity) it felt like the only thing I could do for my vulnerable baby (in more reflective moments I realized the error in that thinking, but I'll save that for a later post).

While I appreciate their expertise and enthusiasm, I've also been given general advice that didn't apply to my specific situation and made me feel like I was failing.  Go breastfeeding, but skin-to-skin contact, homeopathic supplements, and 2 hour pumping schedules just weren't options I could consider.  They really wanted my baby to feed directly before leaving the NICU, but it was simply too difficult for her and taxed her limited energy.  I understand their concerns that breastfeeding might not last as long if she's bottle-fed, but I also knew my daughter was overtaxed by breastfeeding.  The neonatologist agreed that the baby would come home sooner if bottle-fed, so I focused on more effectively pumping and bottle-feeding.  For us, bringing the baby home sooner was a much higher priority than direct breastfeeding (or even breastfeeding).

Once the baby was bigger and stronger, the transition to regular breastfeeding was easy.  We were so glad to say goodbye to bottles.

5.  The White Wave -or- What to do with all the milk

Lansinoh 20435 Breastmilk Storage Bags, 25-Count Boxes (Pack of 3)During time I pumped daily, the surplus milk quickly engulfed our fridge's freezer.  The hospital can only store so much per patient, and the nurses told me about other moms buying deep freezers.  I started freezing the surplus in Lansinoh breastmilk storage bags instead of the space-hogging NICU bottles.  They freeze flat, and 10 can be neatly stowed in a gallon freezer bag .  With Amazon Mom and Subscribe and Save, I was able to get cases of these delivered to my doorstep at an excellent price.

6. Washing Up
Munchkin Deluxe Bottle Brush, Colors May VaryCleaning the pump parts after every session brought to mind Sisyphus forever rolling the stone up the hill to watch it immediately roll back down.  In this sleepless rendition of the classic tale, it's easy to feel that the stone is actually rolling over you on its disheartening downward fall.  This is where a kindly clan of magic bottle-washing elves would come in handy, but my neighborhood owl seems to have taken them out (along with the toilet paper fairy).  Wash up all the parts as soon as you put the milk in cold storage.  It feels even worse to start the whole process with the washing.

We went through 3 different bottle brushes before again settling on the Munchkin's Deluxe Bottle Brush which we liked back when Ranger was formula fed.

All in all, it's no small feat to pump for a NICU baby.  If you are a parent who is going through this now, take care of yourself as much as you can.  Your kiddo needs YOU more than breastmilk.  Sleep as often as you can, eat, and drink lots of water.

If you know someone else going through this, feed them a meal (or, even better, set up a food registry for them at

***Baby Toolkit is the ongoing story of a couple of Midwestern geeks and their kids.  We are not affiliated with Medela, Munchkin, Ziploc, Meal Baby, nor Netflix, but we are Amazon affiliates (so a small portion of purchases made through our Amazon links go toward the Baby Toolkit jet fleet).

And be sure to check out related post The Boob Wars.