Dec 202010

Most parents planning a summer driving holiday with their pre-schooler or early primary kid will have contemplated (or become dependant on) the ubiquitous back-of-car-seat DVD player. Nothing like a bit of mindless entertainment to keep the kids quiet on a long journey.

Unfortunately, more and more research is demonstrating that too much mindless TV is bad for the young brain. At the same time, many of the best and brightest of our educational psychologists are being lured by the grubby dollar to work for educational software companies.

It’s a win-win if you’re prepared to invest some of your hard-earned in the devices produced by said companies in developing the genius of your offspring. Combine that with the drive to your summer holiday destination and you’re in Christmas nirvana!

The Leapster Explorer is the latest must-have gizmo from the clever folk at LeapPad. Not only is it completely incompatible with all earlier leap-gadgets that have gone before it, (clever move, LeapPad folk, though annoying to those who have invested heavily in the predecessors) but it is also fabulously addictive for the average 4-9 year old – and, bonus, probably good (or at least, not too bad) for the developing brain.

The Explorer comes in pink or green, has a touchscreen display and high-res graphics. (Yep – you spotted it – it’s a junior iPhone, without the phone.)  There are educational activities (disguised as games but by this age kids won’t be fooled), music (exceptionally annoying) and even mini-videos.

There are kid-baiting tie-ins with eBooks and other content starring key Disney and Nickelodeon characters that can be downloaded, from Leapfrog’s Amazon wannabe site – at a price and via a wannabe iTunes-like voucher.

(Though I’m a little uncomfortable about grooming my kids to a life of paid downloadable content, I suspect this bit will be a huge hit.)

The add-on camera and video is a thoughtful addition. From the age of four, kids will learn to be content creators with their very own tools.  (Ah, let us hope they use these early talents for good and not evil!)

There’s web-enabled progress tracking, personalised content – what’s not to like? It’s a little pricey, but filled with clever surprises. The LeapPeople suggest siblings can share, clearly this is a recipe for disaster, but if the budget it tight – good luck with that!

Bottom line: Wire your kids up before they can read


How much : $ 140 for the Leapster, $30 for the camera, additional games $25

PS :  Miss Four found one in her Christmas stocking and has so far taken almost a hundred photos and a good hour of video. Snippets of these offerings so far are quite good – I may have a YouTube hero in the making!!

Aug 122010

Always wanted to busk – but your instrument of choice is the piano? Would love to join the musicians around the campfire – but don’t want to set the baby grand alight?

Here’s the solution!  Piano Hands comprises a pair of neoprene rubber gloves that feature a rather fetching piano-key-themed design reminiscent of some particularly sad neckties.  Move over,  jazz hands –  piano hands are here.

Each glove finger (but I think not the thumbs?) contains a sensor which triggers a sound each time the finger is tapped on a surface.

And you can go up (or down) an octave by judiciously tapping the heel of your hand on said surface.

The gloves are attached (via a pair of thin black wires) to a small white controller with speakers; the controller and gloves can then be recharged via a USB connection. (I’m not sure if the USB connection serves any other purpose, it doesn’t seem to.)

Ten demo songs are included (oh dear) and the piano hands play eight different instrument sounds; while piano and organ are predictably among the options, more surprising are the trumpet, violin, mandolin, guitar, drums and – music box?!

And in these days of preset music, of course the piano hands are supplied with –count ‘em- thirty different rhythms and adjustable tempo control.

Bottom line: Give us a song, you’ve got the piano hands (but are we all in the mood for that melody?)


How much : ₤ 50 (about Au $120)

Piano Hands

Piano Hands

Dec 202009

As any parent of a pre-schooler knows, young children are very, very cunning; they are born with an innate ability to sense the slightest moment of adult weakness; then their inbuilt instincts kick in, allowing them to take maximum advantage.

It’s very easy to make a major childrearing mistake in a matter of seconds. One day, in a moment of desperation, you hand your mobile phone over to your beloved offspring to keep them quiet at a critical moment – and, to put it bluntly, dear reader – you’re stuffed.

No matter how many Dora or Wiggles plastic substitutes you now try and fob off on your child, they’ve tried the real thing – and few substitutes will suffice.

Some parents have, in desperation, bought a Nintendo DS, just to regain control over their phone. But that’s just being a bad parent, because they’re not really educational. (Though when your child is naughty, you can confiscate it and play with it yourself!)

But now – yay – there is an Educational Alternative – you can be a Good Parent, and still have your own phone.

The clever clogs at Leapfrog have come up with a series of gadgets (beyond toys, really!)  that are all about education. They all feature an animated dog called ‘Scout,’ complete with BBC accent.

The Scribble & Write is my favourite of the bunch of toys (which include a mobile phone, called the Text and Learn, which has simulated text messaging!)

A cross between an etch-a-sketch and a kiddy-friendly chunky plastic PDA, the writing tablet part of the gadget lights up a series of dots for a series of shapes and then for each letter of the alphabet. Kids trace over the lit-up dots to form shapes and then upper- and lowercase letters.

Combining high-tech speech and animation with low-tech writing tablet is inspired, and really encourages active learning.  This cynical reviewer is a total convert!

It’s great for the car. My preschooler loves it – and at just three, she’s getting quite reasonable with pen control and letter recognition.  (Plus I’ve got my mobile back!)

Bottom line: Great little pre-schooler gadget that’s fun and educational
How much : Au $ 43

Dec 022009

Before waxing lyrical on the joys of this particular gadget, I’d better start by outing myself as a recovering arachnophobic.

Actually, the word ‘recovering’ right there is possibly a bit of an exaggeration. Let me tell you, spiders and me just do not work together. NOT a fan.

So, for some sick reason, I get to be the one who is sent to review this Gravity Defying Gizmo in the form of an infra-red remote controlled spider which can climb walls and ceilings, just like a real one.

The rather creepy spider has an inbuilt fan system that creates enough suction to defy gravity while its tracks keep it moving along the walls. Or if you prefer (hey, I prefer, alright?!) you can flick a switch that turns the fan off, so the spider stays on the floor.

This – thing – requires six, count ‘em, AA batteries and measures a completely over-the-top 13 x 11 x 3.3 cm, which is seriously way too big for any spider-shaped object.

Still, not quite big enough to rival the world’s largest spider, the Goliath Birdeating spider which lives in the Amazon and has been known to grow to 30cm and live for 14 years, though I do need to point out that no birdeating spider living in my suburb would get the opportunity to grow anywhere near that big or live for .. well, live.

If you’re into remote control and you’re into spiders, this could be an absolute beauty. I would imagine there are many arachnophiles who would be hugely appreciative should they find it under their Christmas tree.

But should a Gravity Defying Spider of this size appear unannounced under the tree of an arachnophobic, recovering or not, I fear it risks total annihilation with a large blunt object.

Bottom line: Not happy, Tim
How much : £29.99

Jul 012008

Despite my family suspecting me of early-onset dementia, I do have some remnants of working memory and, like most people over the age of about ten, once I have read a book, I’ll only read it again if it was a jolly good read and some time has passed.
But as any parent knows, once your pre-schooler has decided a particular book is a favourite, you’ll be up for a recital several times a day for the next six months or until you hide it somewhere they would never look (like their wardrobe).

US-based toy company Leapfrog scored a winner with their LeapPad kids own laptop reading system, launched a few years back, which appealed to a broad range of parents: the pushy parent wanting genius advantage before little Johnny got to kindergarten; the time-stretched parent whose kids had learned the alphabet from Sesame Street; and the desperate parent who had to buy themselves a new laptop following a trip to the sandpit.

The LeapPad’s successor is destined to be an even bigger winner, apparently; called The Tag Reading system, it is based on a chunky plastic pen-like stylus, in green or pink, that will read a paper-based book aloud and never has to do the washing-up first.

The Tag stylus contains an infrared camera that scans dot patterns on the books and then reads out the appropriate text to the child. Magic, I told my two-year old (though it probably uses an inbuilt MP3-like audio file.)

A USB connection allows you to plug the stylus into your PC to track your child’s progress and additional phonics-based activities at the back of the book can be useful to promote reading. Or you may have the kind of child who just wants to make chicken noises hundreds of times in a row. (Maybe that’s just my offspring!)

At least there’s a range of books to choose from – 18 books have been rolled out with the initial launch with the promise of more to come. And though aimed at 4-8 year olds, this would make a great present for stressed-out parents of 2-6 year olds. Just add batteries.

How much : Basic tag and book kit from Au $99, with extra books starting at around $22