Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Photo Mosaic to Ring in the New Year (Meme)

1. Growing Pains, 2. Julia Ormond (of whom there was no photo, apparently), 3. Pregnancy, 4. Feeling at Home, 5. Auld Lange Syne, 6. Homebirth, 7. Columnar Apple Trees, 8. Inner Peace, 9. Blissful, 10. A Greek Olive Grove, 11. Domestic Bliss, 12. Family of six

The answers to these questions are above:
1. 1. Looking back on 2008, what might the theme have been?
2. If 2008 was a movie, who would play you?
3. What was your greatest gift of 2008?
4. What is your New Year Resolution, or, what are you committing to this year?
5. If January could be represented by one song, what would it be?
6. What do you wish for your body in 2009?
7. Name one new thing you would love to try in the New Year.
8. What do you long for 2009 to bring?
9. If that happened, how would you feel?
10. Where would you love to vacation in 2009 if money were no object?
11. What would you like the theme of 2009 to be?
12. If 2009 was a book, and the title was 5 words or less, what might the title be?

To create your own New Year's mosaic, type the answer to each of the 12 questions in the Flickr search page, choose a photo from the first page of search results only, then copy and paste the URL of the photo into the mosaic maker. Don't forget to adjust the number of rows and columns in your mosaic to accomodate all 12 photos. Et voila!

Thanks to Suzie for sharing this with her readers and inviting them to join in!

Most of all, have a wonderful, wonderful New Year, readers. :-)

Toy Review 2: Disney Princess Super Playhouse Tent with Lights

Picture from

Next up comes the toy with the absolute worst rating from us. This is a toy that will be returned for sure. I'm not sure where this was purchased because it was bought by a family member for Annie. Let's first put aside the whole Disney princess character debate, okay? Okay. Thanks. The real problems with this toy have nothing to do with its nourishment for the young girl's soul.

All right, all right. In the interest of staying positive, I will say that Annie was thrilled when she got this. Though we already have a playhouse type thing, she is much more into castles than she is into cottages, so we acquiesced and opened it despite my distaste for duplicate gifts. The thing is humongous and can fit all three of my kids comfortably for a little tea party or refuge from attacking skeleton armies (I'll let you guess which scenario belongs to which child's imagination).

Now onto the cons. My first and biggest complaint is that the tent just doesn't work. The poles (plastic, of course) are meant to be inserted into channels in the fabric shell, but almost all of the poles are about an inch too long to fit into the channels! This means that they cannot be secured by the velcro flaps and slide out with just a bit of jostling by the children, forcing the roof to collapse. I looked online at various sites to see if others had this problem, and they had. In fact, this product got only 2 stars on the Toys 'R' Us website. There were also poles to expand the turret rooms, but the channels for these were actually sewn shut on our particular playhut.

The problems mentioned above are easily and cheaply solved (wood dowels cut to size, paring down the plastic poles, etc.), but when you pay $50 for an item, there shouldn't be any immediate need to fix things, right?

Did I mention that the playhouse actually requires batteries!? There are LED lights around the doorway of the castle, apparently "for safe nighttime play" ( again). So... polyester shell, plastic skeleton, battery-powered LED lights, foreign made... not the most eco-conscious toy on the market.

I would absolutely not recommend this product to anyone.

Overall rating (out of 5 stars): *
Affordability: ***
Educational value: **
Durability: *
Ease of use: *
Versatility: ****
Environmental Friendliness: *
Fun: ***

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Toy Review 1: Quadrilla Marble Railway Basic Set

So, the gift-giving holidays of 2008 are over. Phew! As usual, between us, their grandparents, aunts, and uncles, the kids got more than they asked for and more than they needed. Some of it was wonderful and some of it was... well, returnable. I thought that over the next week I'd give reviews of some of the best and worst gifts given to our children, not to brag about what they got, but as a guide to my fellow parents out there.

First up is one of the best toys: the Quadrilla Marble Railway Basic Set. This was actually purchased by me for Airius (on sale through Oompa Toys) after reading every review I could find online. Airius loves to work with his hands but still lacks the fine motor skills needed for writing, drawing, and many other creative endeavors, so I thought this might be a nice step up from the typical building blocks that he's been playing with for years.

My favorite thing about this product is the endless learning opportunities it provides. Each block has its own specific function, so it requires some problem solving skills and a basic grasp of gravity/physics to form an effective marble run. The manufacturer provides a guide with building instructions for several fun configurations, but my kids almost immediately wanted to go into uncharted territory and make their own setups. Awesome!

My biggest complaint about the Quadrilla is that it is touted as being a wooden toy, but there are actually plastic parts to it. Each of the wooden blocks has a small plastic ring at its junction point, and some of the blocks have other plastic bits to guide the marbles. The wooden pieces are beautiful, though, and the blocks are dyed in water-based stains. A lesser complaint is that the structures are a bit delicate once they're set up. It's relatively easy to knock things out of whack while sending down a deluge of marbles, which of course makes the marbles go everywhere, but as long as things don't get too rambunctious it usually stays intact. There are plastic sets that lock together more securely if you don't mind the tradeoff of plastic versus wood. The occassional diversions are great learning opportunities, if you ask me, requiring the kids to slow down and troubleshoot their structure to figure out just where things are going awry.

There are many add-ons for the basic set that can be purchased to keep your child's imagination growing. We haven't yet tried any of these or shown them to the kids because I'm trying to discourage "collector mentality," but we will be keeping them in mind for later gifts if the kids seem interested.

Overall, this is a product I would highly recommend to other parents. Even today, nearly a week after it was opened, all of the kids are enjoying this toy. The Quadrilla is much, much more expensive than its fully plastic counterparts, as is to be expected, but I think the extra price is worth it.

Overall rating (out of 5 stars): ****
Affordability: ***
Educational value: ****
Durability: ****
Ease of use: **** (recommended for the 5 and up crowd especially)
Versatility: *****
Environmental Friendliness: ** (they get docked extra for misleading advertising)
Fun: *****