Thursday, January 22, 2015

10 Best Toys for 2015

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Over the past 8 years we’ve gone through a lot of toys. Some get played with for a day and then sit in their storage bins gathering dust. Others are beautifully-designed but don’t hold my kids’ interest. Then there are the loud, plastic noise-maker toys that my children love and I cannot stand! (light-up shrieking toy jackhammer anyone?) There are a few toys, though, that have been heavily played with for years. I recommend any of these as great holiday or birthday gifts. Although I have sons, these are not just toys for boys, and all of them would be great fun for girls as well. (These are listed in no particular order.)

1. Legos – My boys are currently ages 5 and 7, and legos have taken over our house. Sometimes the classic toys really ARE the best! Whether they're putting together complex sets or free-building an architectural design, my sons are completely absorbed by their legos. Until now I've almost entirely avoided toys with teeny tiny pieces that can get lost or lodged in my foot, but Legos are the exception. Best place to buy - Amazon or the Lego store (they have a loyalty program). Occasionally sets pop up on discounter Zulily - search for the term "brickmaster".

2. Anything from PlanToys – I cannot say enough great things about this company and the cool toys they make! Eco-friendly, award-winning, beautiful and clever, Plan Toys are made from Rubberwood. And they are VERY hard to break. When he was a baby my younger son loved this cone stacker. Then as toddlers my kids adored the large wood construction vehicles shown in the photo (unfortunately a lot of these have been discontinued, but they're still featured for sale at online discounter MyHabit now and then.) Currently we're obsessed with the large, PlanEducation kids. These are primarily sold to schools and they hold about 130 pieces, like tool kits or building sets. They're featured on Gilt periodically at about half price, and they come in a big, gorgeous rubberwood box.

3. A wood Play Kitchen – My sons spent many hours pretending to prep and cook food for me. I think they were especially interested in their kitchen because my husband is the cook in our family. I prefer wood to plastic since it looks and holds up better. The one we had (pictured) is from Hape, and included a lot of really cute food. The Ikea version is darling too, and both are under $100!!!

4. Trains and tracks – These are readily available used, and you can save a lot of money buying them via craigslist, ebay, yard sales, or your local mom-listserve. And since they hold up well, you can sell them once you are done with them! Before we bought our train table (found at a yard sale for $30), my older son and I would build tracks on the hardwood floor in endless permutations. I found that the Brio trains were better-looking and better constructed than the comparable Thomas or Ikea ones. But many of the trains (and tracks) are compatible and can be used together.

5. PlasmaCar – Of the many ride-ons we’ve tried, this one is the best. It can be driven without using one’s feet. It requires no batteries — it’s propelled by mechanical operation, by moving the steering wheel back and forth kids can ride in either direction. The best thing about this toy is something most parents don’t know — it has a 220 pound weight limit. This means an adult can drive it around the house with a small child seated in front. I really enjoy cruising around with my younger son! And now both of our children have started riding around together. Note: don’t opt for one of the knockoff brands, reviews say they’re inferior to the original.

6. Magnatiles – My kids love many building toys, but these win the most-played-with award. Magnetic blocks are lighter, less apt to get lost and much easier to clean up than standard blocks. And children love the way the magnets snap together to create boxes and shapes. Magnatiles can be used to build huge structures, and the clear type (which we prefer) allows kids to create transparent boxes to hold other toys. The best price I know of is at my local toy store, Henry Bear’s Park, using a 20% off coupon. If you’d like to receive their coupons yourself, call or visit and ask to be added to their mailing list! Honorable mention for other good building toys includes Tegu blocks and Konstruk-tubes. I've heard good things about Magformers as well, but we haven't tried them. Again stay away from the knockoff brands, I have read and heard that the magnets are weaker. In this case the original is worth the price.

7. A Butterfly Net This turned out to be the best birthday presents my son has ever received. He has hunted and captured bugs, toads, frogs, fish, crabs, eels, and yes, even snakes with his net. In the process he has become fascinated with the natural world and different animal species.

8. Art Supplies –  I think one way to get kids more interested in art is give them a good variety of tools to work with. Let’s face it, the basic crayola crayons and markers kids use at school are pretty lame. I don’t feel any desire to color when I look at them, do you? A set of these nice markers from Pro Art are under $20! Just make sure kids put the caps back on. Or spring for a nice art set from Xonex. Currently on amazon for $50, but they’re often sold on  Zulily for around $22 (and Zulily has a flat-rate yearly shipping option comparable to Amazon Prime). People are always so excited when we give these art kits as birthday gifts.

9. The Maxi Kick Scooter – We've tried many scooters and this is the best one on the market. The third wheel and simple rear breaking system make it easy for a young child to ride. And the steering column is totally intuitive – twisting the handle is not necessary. If you pull it horizontally to the right, the scooter glides right. After being intimidated by a basic razor, my kids happily scoot around everywhere on their Maxi Kicks all summer long. Don't bother with the Mini Kick - your child will grow out of it in no time. The Maxi Kick adjusts to an extremely low handlebar height, making it suitable even for a 3 year old to ride (suggested starting age is 5, but I think that must be a liability thing.) The only downside of the Maxi Kick is its price tag. $130 on Amazon, but a couple of times a year it goes down to $67 (and that included shipping cost) on Gilt, so definitely watch their kids section if you're in the market.   

10. Papo and Sleich figurines – These two brands in particular make highly detailed miniature figures (about 4 inches high) that have given my kids endless hours of pretend play inspiration. First they loved their animals, then they moved on to their knights and mythical beasts and now they have "battles" and play games with their collection. Get them on Amazon, at local toy stores or at a discount when they're featured on Zulily.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Giveaway!!! (Completed as of May 1, 2014

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UPDATE: This giveaway and discount promotion is over as of May 2nd. We will likely be having another Tuff Kookooshka giveaway in the fall. 

Two lucky winners will each receive a $50 gift certificates to Tuff Kookooshka, a maker of adorable kids clothing based locally in Fall River, MA. Tuff Kookooshka is a true family business; the owner started in a Cape Cod basement using remnants and salvaged fabric from Malden Mills in Lawrence, MA. They use the highest quality PolarTec Polar Fleece still produced locally at Malden Mills, with accents and trims made from Luxury Wools out of Prato, Italy.

I fell in love with this brand a few years ago when I found them on Zulily and ordered my son this monster-themed pullover:



They used to be called "Tuff Cookie". Such beautiful quality and attention to detail, as you can see in the photos of my sons and their friends. Right now (through Friday) you can save an extra 15% on anything on www.kookooshka.com with code: samplesalemom15 Their clearance section is already marked down 50% off so this is a killer deal, at much lower than Zulily prices. The red robot pullover my son is wearing in the first photo, for instance, would only be $23.80 with this deal, regular price is $56.



To enter the giveaway to win one of the $50 gift certificates:

1. Go to my facebook page and "like" it

2. go to www.kookooshka.com and find your favorite item. Comment on my giveaway post (on facebook, not this blog) with the name of that item. If you've ordered Tuff KooKooshka before, tell us about your experience too! One comment per person only please. The contest will end Thursday at noon. The promo code samplesalemom15 is good for 15% off everything on the site through Friday at 5:00 pm.

For ANOTHER chance to win some Tuff Kookoosh, check out my friend Lisa's Married to Medicine blog page  - between her giveaway and mine there are four prizes, so your odds of winning are pretty good!




Sunday, February 2, 2014

Boden and Mini Boden Clearance Sale Review (Boston, February 1, 2014)

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If you want to read a couple of my other reviews of past Boden sales, you can find them here and here. This time I arrived at the sale earlier than I have in the past. I parked at 7:20 and got in line at about 7:25. This turned out to be a good move - I got in with the first intake (the first group of 75 people in line get let in at 10 for the first few minutes while the others have to wait. After that, 50 to 75 more people get let in every few minutes). The line to get into the sale is inside the building (so no, you don't have to wait out in the cold) and everyone sits down to wait. Most people bring snacks, a water bottle, an iphone and/or a book. Most people sit and talk to the women in line next to them to pass the time. 

Being in the first group in the hall meant that there were only a few of us at the boys table for those first few minutes. I used that time to grab as many boys lined pants as I could in the sizes I was looking for (6 through 10). I also grabbed a swimsuit for my son and a t-shirt for my younger son. I saw a few hoodies and wanted one, but I didn't find one in the right size right away and I primarily was looking for pants so I concentrated on those. The hoodies went very quickly. Last time there was an INCREDIBLE selection of boy's stuff - there were many nice winter parkas and many summer shorts. I saw neither of those this time. Mostly just lots and lots of pants and t-shirts and some long-sleeved shirts. 

This is the updated price list for 2015 (the old 2014 one has changed so I've removed it.)

After filling one of my large bags with stuff for my boys, I decided I had enough for them and wanted to concentrate on items for myself. At this point the hall had filled with women and things were insanely crowded and crazy. A friend of mine who was there grabbed me the EXACT coat I had been looking for, so that was one great steal. I filled a bag with dresses and a few other things, shuttling between the 2/4 table and the 6/8 table since I wear some 4s and some 6s. There was just an enormous amount of stuff - dresses, sweaters, tops, bathing suits. And a vast array of shoes (I didn't go for those this time) I headed to the "try on area". I'm putting that in quotes because really, women try things on everywhere, all over the hall. The few men there must feel a bit uncomfortable when faced with so many half-dressed, frantically-changing women. 

Most of the items I grabbed weren't quite right. However, I got two dresses that fit me beautifully - one summer, patterned maxi dress, and one fall, black, retro style dress. I can't wait to wear them! There are only a few full length mirrors scattered around, so we all had to share. As soon as I discarded items, they were scooped up by other women waiting to try them on. 

There was a special $5 table with select women's items this time. I noticed a lot of women buying those items (there were just a few of several styles). I didn't see exactly what was available there and I sort of forgot about it, so I can't report on that.

In hindsight I probably should have stayed longer and spent more time looking through people's discard piles, but I noticed that a line was beginning to form and I wanted to get out and get home to my family, so I got in line to pay. I only had to wait about one minute... this was at 11:05 so most of the women there were still in crazy-shopping-mode. For a good sense of just HOW crazy, check out this photo by one of my facebook fans, Maribel Carvajal:


The sale was both overwhelming and REALLY fun and I will definitely be going to the next one (for a schedule of upcoming Boden sales check my webpage listing). I have a bunch of tips listed on that page about what to wear, what to bring, and where to park. If you are interested in seeing discussions of each Boston Boden sale, get $5 off coupons for each sale, or find out who to contact about working at a sale, like my facebook page (and message me.)

Last but not least, if you want MORE discounted Boden and Mini Boden and you don't feel like leaving your house, here are a few ways to save money on Boden right at home.
  1. For a 20% discount on your first only purchase of Boden or Mini Boden, visit their site through my link. Discount will apply automatically. If you are not a first time buyer, keep an eye on my facebook page as I regularly post the current 15 or 20% off coupon codes.   
  2. Online discounter Zulily now has Boden sales every few months at up to 50% off catalog prices. You can also search in their search bar any time and they often have a few Boden items on sale. To be alerted about upcoming Boden sales on Zulily, you can click the white heart next to "Boden" on the site so that it turns red. They also have sales on plenty of other awesome brands - some of my favorites include Hanna Andersson, Tea Collection, Kate Quinn Organics, Keen & Sophie Catalou.
  3. Several other sites now regularly sell Boden "vouchers" - For $35 you can buy a $50 Boden voucher good on anything on the site. There is usually a one or two per household restriction, per voucher sale. Sites that sell Boden vouchers include Zulily, and Rue La La, and I post all of these sales by the day they start on my facebook page.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Love Bug Classmate Valentines (Using a Silhouette die-cut machine)

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If you have a die-cutting machine like a Cricut or Silhouette, these Valentines are easy to make! I was inspired by the love bug valentines I saw on pinterest but wanted to take it up a notch and make them a little more artistic. For this project you will need:

Colored card stock (the kind you would use for scrapbooking)
White card stock
Fuzzy pipe cleaners
Double sided tape or glue
A Die-cut machine (best deals are here, but they aren't always on sale)
Bugs (you can order these on Amazon for about $6)
Silver or black marker for your child to write his/her name

You can buy my templates for $6 via paypal (contact me here) or you can easily make your own using design software. The template should include two small slits or holes into which you can insert your pipe cleaner piece to hold the bugs. First, use the colored jar template to make the colored jars and punch out the letters. Next, have your child sign the colored jars. Then attach your bug using the pipe cleaner, twisting at the back. Cut off excess pipe cleaner. Then, after the front is finished, use a second, larger jar template to create a slightly larger white outline/backing layer. Just scaling-up the original jar won't work because it will be uneven - if you are working in adobe illustrator, make a "stroke" around the colored jar template, remove the lettering, and use that to cut the white jars.

The last step is to attach the back and front layers - I like scotch double-sided tape, but you can also use elmers, rubber cement or another adhesive. If your Valentines are put together correctly then the back of them should be solid white and the pipe cleaner shouldn't be sticking out the back.

You can make them all the same color, but for me the fun part was choosing different colors to highlight all the different bugs! More photos below...









Monday, February 18, 2013

Boden & Mini Boden Sample Sale (Boston, February 16, 2013)

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UPDATES: 
There is another Mini Boden sale coming up at the Hynes Convention Center on February 7, 2015! (Updates on my facebook page) 

This is a review of the Boden & Mini Boden clearance sale at the Hynes convention center, Boston – February 16, 2013. If you'd like to read updates on Boden sales both in Boston and Pennsylvania, please see my website here and like my facebook page here. I will post $5 off coupons for the sales on my facebook page (at least for the Boston sales) 

This will be a short review since I did a "targeted strike" and spent a very short time inside the sale. To get a more thorough idea of what the Boden clearance sales are like, check out my post on the previous one here

I  got to the sale around 8 am and was pleased to find under 100 people in line ahead of me. The line behind me (see pic above) was hundreds long by the time the sale opened. To be clear - all your waiting will be done indoors - you do NOT have to wait out on the street! I'm thrilled that I got in early because the Mini Boden stuff seemed to sell out much faster this time, there was less of it than at the last sale, and it was heavily weighted to the larger sizes (11, 12 and 13).

If this had been the first time I'd ever been to a Boden sample sale, I would have left happy. But I was really disappointed to find out that since the previous sale, Boden had raised their prices. I primarily come to the sales for Mini Boden, and the majority of items were $10 at the last sale. This time they were $15 to $25. Here is the new pricing sheet for the Boston sample sales:


For some items, these are great prices. A women's coat for $50 is fantastic if it's normally a $178 coat. But $30 for tops (including light summer tops) or $15 kids' t-shirts seemed excessive to me - sometimes you can get them at this price right on the website! 

I first hit the boys table and picked up 11 items, most of which are pictured above. The majority of the items I got were heavy, winter items (*love* Mini Boden lined pants for boys) By the time I was finished, everything under a size 12 had been snapped up. I looked briefly at the shoes and women's coats sections and didn't find anything I wanted. I was about to head over to the women's tables and look at the sweaters and dresses when I got a call from my husband asking me to come home (one of the kids had scratched him in the eye - he's fine now). If the prices had been lower I would have stayed anyway, but I was very concerned about getting stuck in the gigantic line to pay again... at August's sale I had waited for 2 hours and 20 minutes to get out. So I decided to get home and skip the women's stuff. In hindsight I probably should have stayed longer.

I parked at the Prudential Center parking garage and only paid $12 for my parking since I had my ticket validated (you're supposted to make a purchase at a store in the Pru. mall of $10+, but I just bought a coffee at Dunkin Donuts and they stamped it for me) 

I ended up spending $167 at the sale. I was able to use my discount coupon only once - apparently they've cracked down on people using multiple coupons. Some of my facebook fans have told me that in all the craziness, they were overcharged for their purchases, or knew others who were - so if you go to an upcoming sale, CAREFULLY check over your receipt before you leave the hall.

Although I was somewhat disappointed in the Mini Boden selection and higher prices at this sale, I will certainly go back for the next one, which will likely be in August 2013. I am also very, very excited that Mini Boden is now occasionally being featured for sale on discount site Zulily. In mid-January they had a great Mini Boden sale which, unfortunately, sold out in about 10 minutes. But I managed to snap up a few things - and they were the new line, this upcoming season's stuff. The live sample sales are selling catalog returns, so they do not normally have the very newest catalog items. Today (Feb 18th) I found that Zulily had some girls' spring clothing on sale for 50% off, but it was not announced - I found it by searching - so it never hurts to search in their search bar for Mini Boden. So far they have not featured Boden women's but I am keeping my fingers crossed!!

If you went to the Boden sale please leave a comment with any useful information I may have missed, or tell us how you did!

Last but not least, if you want MORE discounted Boden and Mini Boden and you don't feel like leaving your house, here are a few ways to save money on Boden right at home.
  1. For a 20% discount on your first only purchase of Boden or Mini Boden, visit their site through my link. Discount will apply automatically. If you are not a first time buyer, keep an eye on my facebook page as I regularly post the current 15 or 20% off coupon codes.   
  2. Online discounter Zulily now has Boden sales every few months at up to 50% off catalog prices. You can also search in their search bar any time and they often have a few Boden items on sale. To be alerted about upcoming Boden sales on Zulily, you can click the white heart next to "Boden" on the site so that it turns red. They also have sales on plenty of other awesome brands - some of my favorites include Hanna Andersson, Tea Collection, Kate Quinn Organics, Keen & Sophie Catalou.
  3. Several other sites now regularly sell Boden "vouchers" - For $35 you can buy a $50 Boden voucher good on anything on the site. There is usually a one or two per household restriction, per voucher sale. Sites that sell Boden vouchers include Zulily, and Rue La La, and I post all of these sales by the day they start on my facebook page.





 


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Custom Wrapping Paper Featuring Your Child's Artwork

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My son and I made this wrapping paper using a pattern of his drawings to wrap his holiday gifts for some of our friends & relatives. This is great for Valentine's Day, Christmas, Mother's Day presents, etc...

Stuff you and your child need to do this:
1. Black sharpie marker and paper
2. Some water-based colored markers for coloring in drawings
3. A computer (preferably with design software, but microsoft word will work)
4. Either a scanner or a digital camera with a close-up setting
5. Either an Inkjet printer (a large-format one if you want to print large sheets & Epson matte printer paper in the largest size your printer can print OR take your file to Kinkos or Staples and have them print it.

1.) First, have your child do several drawings in black sharpie. A regular child's black marker won't work, because when they color over it the colors will run and look muddy. Let the outline dry. SIMPLE drawings work best, like the "Robots" shown above. The proportions should be roughly square - not short and wide or tall and skinny.

2.) Your child can then color in each drawing.

3.) Either scan in each drawing with your scanner, or shoot a digital pic of each one, separately.

4.) If you have photo editing software you can brighten the artwork or up the contrast. Some photo editing software usually comes free when you buy a scanner.

5.) Place your scanned files into Word, Illustrator, or photoshop, and shrink them down until they are under an inch high at 150+ dpi. Then copy and paste each one multiple times. Your file should be at least 13 by 19 inches unless you will only be wrapping small gifts.

6.) Print out your sheet of shrunken drawings onto the Epson matte printer paper. This paper is *amazing* - it is a graphic designer secret. It makes colors look brighter and more vibrant. It comes in two weights, the lighter weight is best for wrapping paper but I used the heavier weight since that's what I had sitting around. It is available in 8.5 by 11, 11 by 17 and the large size - buy whichever size is the max printable area for your printer.

Gift Tag
For the gift tag like the ones shown above, you'll need either Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator - take a black and white drawing (no color) with your child's writing underneath, scan it in, autotrace in illustrator or select in photoshop and color in accordingly. I had Alex use a silver marker to write the recipient's name on each tag. If you'd like me to make a custom-gift-tag from your child's artwork you can email me for info - use you contact link on my bottom of my homepage here.

If you're looking for a gift for your child to make for people, see my earlier post that goes along with this one - the same artwork can also be made into fridge magnets like this.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Fridge Magnets from your Kid's Artwork

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This is a nice gift your child can give to teachers, friends, grandparents, etc... that they will actually USE. And they last forever! Well, at least a decade... I have some that I made with my own artwork 10+ years ago and they are still in use on the fridge and in great shape. This project is best for kids who are around 5+ so they have the manual dexterity for it.

Stuff you and your child need:
1. Black sharpie marker and paper
2. Some water-based colored markers for coloring in drawings
3. A computer (preferably with design software, but microsoft word will work)
4. Either a scanner or a digital camera with a close-up setting
5. Inkjet printer & Epson heavyweight matte printer paper
6. 1 inch round magnets (see Amazon.com)
7. A 1-inch round punch (available at craft stores for around $5)
8. A small stiff paintbrush & a scissors
9. Mod Podge matte finish
10. Colored paper (optional, for the backer shown above)

1.) First, have your child do several drawings in black sharpie. A regular child's black marker won't work, because when they color over it the colors will run and look muddy. Let the outline dry. SIMPLE drawings work best, like the "Robots" shown above. The proportions should be roughly square - not short and wide or tall and skinny.

2.) Your child can then color in each drawing.

3.) Either scan in each drawing with your scanner, or shoot a digital pic of each one, separately.

4.) If you have photo editing software you can brighten the artwork or up the contrast. Some photo editing software usually comes free when you buy a scanner.

5.) Place your scanned files into Word, Illustrator, or photoshop, and shrink them down until they are under an inch high. Then copy and paste each one multiple times.

6.) Print out your sheet of shrunken drawings onto the Epson matte printer paper. This paper is *amazing* - it is a graphic design secret. It makes colors look brighter and more vibrant, and it is nice and thick so you can't see through it at all.

7.) Cut the paper into strips of drawings and use your punch to punch out each one as shown in the photo (bottom right corner) above.

8.) Put magnets on a slick surface (like a cookie sheet or plastic, NOT paper, which will stick) Use Mod Podge to attach each mini-artwork to each magnet, then coat each one on the top and sides. Let it dry and do a second coat.

9.) If you want to make the backer shown above, take one of your kid's black and white drawings (not colored in), scan or photograph that, and plop it into Word. Created that black frame around it and some type with your child's name. Print and cut out along the black frame. Use double-sided tape to attach the magnets (don't use the Mod Podge as the paper will be permanently stuck.)

My son gave these out to some of our friends & relatives at Christmas and they were a big hit! We plan to do some different themes in the future.