Sunday, July 18, 2010

Parents ABC Architecture Blocks by Battat

This is a beautiful set of alphabet blocks that are made of a soft molded pvc and bpa free rubber/plastic that children as young as 6 - 12 months of age can float or stack. The blocks come in nine different shapes and each one has both a letter of the alphabet and a relief design of an animal whose name starts with that letter on it. Strengths: This is a really flexible set of blocks that can be used by very young as well as older children. As a child develops better motor control they can build all kinds of interesting shapes and forms because these blocks are not just a traditional square shape. You can also use the basic counting blocks with these more unique shapes. Weaknesses: These blocks have been really popular with the children I work with and I haven't been able to find any drawbacks to using them. Price: $20 - $27. Where to Buy: There are lots of major chain stores, like Target, that sell the Parents line of toys. You can also find them online, but I have found that the prices at Target are usually lower than the online retailers.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Little People Pirate Lil' Treasure Hunt by Fisher Price

How can you have a pirate ship without a treasure chest? This little raft and treasure chest are designed to be used with the Lil' Pirate ship as a way to expand the ideas during pretend play activities. Strengths: It's fun and light weight and really can be incorporated into other pirate play. The raft is a nice size and can hold several pirates if a group of friends decide to go on a treasure hunt. Weaknesses: It's a little expensive for what you actually get. Perhaps if it came with the pirate ship it would be easier to see the actual value of the toy. Price: $12. Where to Buy: Online retailers are your best bet, but I found mine at a local Big Lots store and only paid $5 for it. Since it's not one of the popularly available Fisher Price toys you can usually find it in a discount store for a lot less than the suggested $12 price tag.

Choosing Toys for Children with Special Needs...

Sometimes it's really difficult to find toys that are fun and accessible for children with special needs. Here are some of the sites that I have always had lots of luck with when I'm looking for a special therapy toy.
Able Play - This is a toy rating system and website that provides comprehensive information on toys for children with special needs.
Beyond Play - An excellent resource for toys designed for children with motor, visual, cognitive, social, sensory, and language needs.
Bright Tots - This is an excellent collection of shopping tips, toy buying guides, and links to need specific websites.
Dragonfly Toys - The focus is on computer games and other adaptive technology.
Glamma Toys - You’ll discover a world of unique toys and games that promote imaginative play for children.
Mealtimes - Oral motor toys and other resources for promoting successful feeding interactions are available.
Lekotek Centre - Often family members may be uncertain which toys the child with special needs will be successful using. Out of this need the Lekotek Toy Resource Helpline 1-800-366-PLAY was established.
Pacific Pediatric Supply - This site provides innovative, high quality, sensory integration products for autistic and special needs children.
Play Works - Toys that encourage children to play, to learn what happens as a result of their actions, and to build skills are featured.
The Therapy Shoppe - On this site you will find a wonderful assortment of therapy merchandise and specialty toys and games.

Engaging Autism by Stanley Greenspan & Serena Wieder

This well written and accessible book provides an overview of the Developmental, Individual, Relationship based (DIR) model of intervention, commonly referred to as Floortime, an intervention approach that focuses on building social relationships with children diagnosed with Autism. Dr.'s Greenspan and Wieder provide an in depth overview of the stages of social emotional and social communicative development children must pass through in order to become effective partners with the people in their immediate environments. Engaging Autism provides a pragmatic approach to thinking about people on the autistic spectrum, including specific ideas for enhancing connectivity and communication in children at any age. The application of Floortime Principles to many different professional disciplines are also discussed. Sadly, Dr. Greenspan recently passed away, but his contributions to the field of assessment and intervention with children with Autism will live or a long, long time.

Check It Out.....

I was doing a little web surfing today and came across a really cool website called Wonder Baby. . It was designed by the parents of a child who is blind and offers some really excellent suggestions for adapting toys for a child with visual issues as well as other types of special needs. There are also links to some other very interesting resources and web sites. The modifications they suggest for toys and other activities are easy to do and really promote involvement in play that doesn't have to feel like therapy!

Tadoodles Pop & See by Crayola Beginnings Baby

According to the manufacturer these 5 Snap together pop beads feature a variety of different sounds and actions to engage toddlers in an activity that promotes spatial awareness and problem solving. The Tadoodle come in bright colours and patterns and supposedly will light up and play different music when they are snapped together. Strengths: They are cute and the colours are very attractive to young children. They are also a good size for toddlers to physically manipulate and if a child decides to mouth the toy it is large enough not to pose a choking hazzard.. Weaknesses: This is one of the most frustrating toys I have ever purchased for my work with children. The Tadoodles are marketed for children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years, but most of my children in that age group are more interested in mouthing them than actually playing with them. The pieces are difficult to snap together and it requires quite a bit of pressure to pull them apart. Also, each Tadoodle is supposed to have a certain cause-effect reaction when connected to the other beads. The effect is so brief that most children don't even notice that something has happened. I'm really disappointed in this toy because it sounds like such a great concept but it really failed in execution. Price: $7 - $12. Where to Buy: You can find these in stores like WalMart, Target, and Toys R Us, as well as online retailers like Amazon.

Stackabilities by Discovery Toys

For a child who really, really loves to stack towers this would be an interesting addition to the collection. Stackabilities comes with four different shaped pieces pieces that you must fit together in order to make the tower. Strengths: The appeal of this stacker rests more in the colours and fun little activities that each piece offers (e.g., spinning rings, shaking beads) than in the toy as a whole. Weaknesses: Because each piece is a different shape that you must fit into the right base, it really isn't that much fun to play with. It takes the creativity out of stacking and really forces the child to stack the tower in just one way every time. The octagon and triangle are difficult for little hands to manipulate into the correct position, so I see lots of frustration when I use this toy. Price: $20. Where to Buy: Discovery Toys used to sell this toy, but I didn't see it in their catalogue this year. You might be able to find one on eBay if you really wanted the toy.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Wooden and Organic Toys.....

It's really difficult to find quality wooden toys that are both fun and appealing to many young children. Here are some of the websites that carry a great selection of wooden toys, as well as natural fibre clothing, and other accessories for infants and toddlers:
A Toy Garden - /. This site sells toys & clothing for children made from natural fibers
Euro Toy Shop - This site offers a wide range of European toys for children of all ages.
Fat Brain Toys - This is a specialty & educational toy company that offers a huge variety of unique toys.
Little Wonderland Toys - This site offers hand made wooden toys. There is a great selection of toys, games, musical instruments, & furniture all made from natural products.
Maukilo Toys - This is another European toy seller. They offer beautiful wooden toys from different manufacturers.
Moolka Toys - . Moolka is another European toy seller that offers a really broad range of wooden & non plastic toys.
Oompa Toys - Oompa has a huge selection of European toys, all the way from toys for newborns to games that older children would enjoy playing.
Rosie Hippo - Rosie Hippo sells a wide variety of wooden and natural toys. They have some very unique and cool stuff.
Willow Tree Toys - . Willow Tree Toys sells natural and organic toys from the U.S.A. and Europe.

Nesting Farm Animals by Little Tikes

I have had this toy for about 18 years and it's still a favourite for most of the children I work with. The cow, sheep, pig, and chicken all come apart (the mouse is a solid piece) so it can be fun to not only nest the animals inside of one another, but it's also fun to mix and match animal legs with animal heads. Strengths: When taken apart, the animals make good scoops for beans, rice, or sand, and they can turn into wonderful hats for younger children. It's a simple toy, but there are just so many different ways of playing with it. It's an incredibly durable little toy. Weaknesses: It's no longer commercially available. Price: ????? Where to Buy: I have seen these on eBay, but often times the mouse is missing from the stack. You could also check out garage sales where people are cleaning out old children's toys.

Brightlings Builders by Leap Frog

This is another instalment in the Brightlings toy series. The builders come with 9 pieces overall (3 bases, 3 heads and 3 other pieces) that can be stacked and rattled - one of them lights up when pressed and one has a tiny mirror. They can be used with the Brightlings Station, but are more of a "stand alone" toy than some of the other Brightlings pieces. Strengths: They are cute and a nice size for toddler hands. The fact that the pieces can be used interchangeably is a nice touch. I've found that the piece that rolls is the most popular with the children I work with. Weaknesses: Although these are a cut building/stacking toy, they don't really seem to keep children interested for a long time. When the pieces are stacked together, they tend to be a bit wobbly and will often just fall down when the child tried to move them. Price: $9 - $19. Where to Buy: I found them on a website called ( for $9.99 but you can still get them through different Amazon sellers.

We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen (illustrated by Helen Oxenbury)

A father and his four children go on a bear hunt based on the old chant: "We're going to catch a big one. / What a beautiful day! / We're not scared. / Oh-oh! Grass! / Long, wavy grass. / We can't go over it. / We can't go under it. / Oh, no! / We've got to go through it!" The family swishes down a grassy slope, splashes across a river, squelchs through mud, stumbles through the forest, struggles through a storm, and tip toes into a cave and, of course, finally find a bear, who chases them all back to their home, where they decide that they never go on a bear hunt again. Not only does the book have a great story, but the text is predictable (which is a bonus for younger children) and the sounds and actions are fun to act out. The story lends itself to lots of vocal and facial affect and lets children get involved in the hunt by acting out how the family faces their many obstacles. I love this book and have used it with very young children (who love the funny sounds and actions) as well as with older children (who love to act out the whole story). Where to Buy: This book can be found in children's book stores, large chain bookstores, and of course through online retailers.

Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems

Who isn't afraid of a monster that could be lurking in your closet or under your bed? Well, in Mo Willems fun filled ode to monsters we meet Leonardo and monster who desperately wants to be scary but simply ends up being cute and quite incapable of scaring anybody. Leonardo's greatest wish is to "Scare the tuna salad" out of someone, so he tries to find the most scaredy-cat kid in the whole world - Sam. But even though Leonardo tries his best to scare Sam, it just isn't all it's cracked up to be. So Leonardo and Sam wind up being friends, but sometimes Leonardo still ties to scare the tuna salad out of little Sam. This is such a simple premise for the story, but the drawings are great and their is some nice subtle humour that the adults reading the book can also appreciate ( e.g., He didn't have 1, 642* teeth like Tony [*Note: Not all teeth shown]). The publishers suggest that this is a preschool to kindergarten age book, but I've used it with two year olds who really enjoy the funny monsters and the little twist of friendship at the end. Where to Buy: Mo Willems is such a popular author his works are available through all sorts of book and toy sellers.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr & John Archambault

This is a bold and beautiful alphabet book that has been delighting children for 20 years! Brilliant colors and simple graphics fill each polka-dot bordered page as the alphabet begins its adventurous journey to the top of a coconut tree, twice. The rhymes in the book are irresistible and fun to be read again and again. With verses like "Whee!" said D to E F G, "I'll beat you to the top of the coconut tree" it's a fun way to help young children learn the alphabet. I found the coconut tree and Velcro alphabet at Lakeshore Learning, and it has proven to be the perfect companion piece to the book. It gives children lots of hands on experience with the alphabet and is a great alternative to magnet letters (just in case you don't have appliances that they won't stick to). What's really great about the idea behind Chicka Chicka Boom Boom is that you there are a whole range of other products, such as alphabet blocks, magnet books, musical shakers, and number books that can be used to help reinforce alphabet learning in a fun and interactive way.
Where to Buy: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom is such a popular book you can find it in almost any outlet that sells children's books. I've only found the tree at Lakeshore Learning.

Baby Dino Land by Fisher Price

This is a fun, although not all that necessary addition, to the Dino families described below.There are buttons on the base of the toy that when pushed make dinosaur sound effects and there is a surprise pop up baby dinosaur. The set includes a baby Brontosaurus, baby triceratops and baby t-Rex, cave person, and a food bucket. Strengths: It's a fun little cave community to use with the other Dino families, especially if your child really enjoys playing with dinosaurs. There's even a cave and a tree that the little dinosaurs can hide in The dinosaurs that come with the set are a nice size for little hands and are easy to incorporate into play with other Dino figures. Weaknesses: Given how much fun so many of the Fisher Price play sets can be, this one falls a little short in the creativity department. Many of the children I work with really like to play with the dinosaur figures, but Baby Dino Land is typically forgotten quickly. There's just not that much you can do with it. Maybe if there had been another cave, a door to open and close, or a slide that the dinosaurs could go down it would be a bit more appealing to the toddler set. Price: $24 - $64. Where to Buy: Amazon has a few sellers that still carry this toy.

Lil Dino Triceratops by Fisher Price

Here's the third Dino family in the Fisher Price set. Once again there is an open and close egg, a Mama/Papa, a baby, and some food. Strengths: The same strengths that I've pointed out for the Brontosaurus and T-Rex families hold true for this dynamic duo as well. They are easy to wash and there are no little parts that could really pinch little fingers. Weaknesses: The head on the Mama/Papa Triceratops shakes back and forth and the construction of it does not seem as sturdy as the other adult dinosaurs. The first set of these I bought the head was broken off of the adult Dino in less than 3 hours. I've had better luck with subsequent dinosaurs, but I think that it's worth mentioning. Price: $9 - $25. Where to Buy: Amazon, eBay, other online toy sellers, or even large discount stores, like Big Lots.

Lil Dino T-Rex by Fisher Price

I thought that since I was already on a dinosaur kick that I might as well put up the whole Lil Dino family! The basic idea for the T-Rex family is the same as for the Brontosaurus family. There's a grown-up dinosaur, a baby, and egg that opens and closes, some food, and a little cave person (still missing). Strengths: A great pretend play toy that is really appealing to toddlers. If you have more than one Dino family you can actually link the eggs together and create a dinosaur train, which a lot of children seem to enjoy doing. Weaknesses: None really, both the adult and baby dinosaur are really well built and can withstand lots of vigorous play. Price: $14 - $49 (again the ones that are considered collectibles are much more expensive). Where to Buy: Amazon, eBay, or other online toy sellers.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Lil Dino Brontosaurus by Fisher Price

These are the perfect toddler dinosaurs! A couple of years ago Fisher Price did a series of dinosaur toys that were toddler friendly. Sadly, they are not widely available anymore, but if you do find them I'd suggest you buy them for your little one if they enjoy dinosaurs. Each Lil Dino set comes with a Mama/Papa and baby dinosaur, an open/close egg that the baby fits into easily, a tray of food or the dinosaurs, and one brave little cave person (mine is missing)! Strengths: The figures are a perfect size for little hands to manipulate and there are lots of opportunities for using the figures in simple pretend play schemes. As I mentioned earlier, the egg opens and closes and the baby fits nicely inside, so you can play a great game of "nite-nite" and "wake up". The head on the adult dinosaur moves up and down, so toddlers can help the Mama/Papa dinosaur give the baby a kiss goodnight. Weaknesses: Because the neck on the adult dinosaur is movable it can become loose and then it will just tip forward every time you try to move it into the upright position. This doesn't lessen the appeal of the toy for the child. Price: $14 - $40 (the more expensive ones are the collectibles). Where to Buy: I have recently found the dino sets on eBay and Amazon.

Deluxe Pound & Roll Tower by Melissa & Doug

This is an old-fashioned, sturdy, wooden, pounding toy that can keep children interested for a fairly long time! There's just something satisfying about being able to hit the wooden balls with the hammer, watch them roll down the ramps, and listen to the clicking noise they make as they roll towards the bottom of the toy. I have several other versions of pound-a-ball toys that the children I work with really enjoy, but this seems to be everyones' favourite version of the toy. Maybe it's the sound of wood hitting wood that they like, but most children just keep asking for it again and again when they come to "play" with me! Strengths: First it really is a solid, well made toy that can withstand a great deal of abuse. The balls fit snugly into the holes at the top of the tower so it can be a bit challenging for some children to make them go through the holes, but hey, a little challenge is good for all of us! Weaknesses: There isn't a "catch bin" at the bottom of the ramp so unless you're able to quickly catch the balls when they roll out of the tower you'll probably spend some time on your hands and knees digging them out from underneath the furniture (you can fix this problem by just putting a small plastic bowl at the opening on the bottom of the tower). The wooden hammer can sometimes be a little brutal if more than 1 child wants to play with the toy at the same time. Price: $16-20. Where to Buy: Specialty children's toy stores, Toys R Us, and online toy sellers usually carry this very popular toy. However, you can always buy it directly from the Melissa and Doug website (

The New Language of Toys: Teaching Communication Skills to Children with Special Needs by Sue Schwartz

This is a really good book for parents who are just unsure of what kinds of toys may be appropriate for their child with special needs between the ages of birth and six years. Although Dr. Schwartz doesn't go into a lot of specific diagnosis, she does offer suggestions on toys that would be appropriate for children at different developmental levels and provides a solid rationale for why a certain toy may help to develop a specific skill. The majority of the book provides a review of commercially available toys which is a bit of a drawback because since this edition was published in 2004 there are obviously not a lot of newer toys reviewed. But with that being said, this book will give you great ideas about the types of toys you might want to look for. Something else that I have found to be very helpful about the book is that Dr. Schwartz provides suggestions on how to create homemade toys that can be fun for children at all different developmental levels. She also offers a wide range of tips about the kind of language that would be considered to be developmentally appropriate for children with emerging language skills. Some of the "dialogues" she presents seem a bit complex for children with language needs, but overall there are some really great ideas about supporting language development through a variety of different play activities.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Jamberry by Bruce Degen

This is a wonderfully, lighthearted book to share with a child. It's the story of a boy and a jovial bear who rollick through Berryland together. Jamberry builds quickly in language complexity, starting with "One berry, Two berry, Pick me a blueberry," and working up to "Raspberry, Jazzberry, Razzmatazzberry, Berryband, Merryband, Jamming in Berryland." The text is fast paced and actually has a very "Seussian" quality to it. The illustrations are full of unique and quirky details, for example using crackers and butter instead of lily pads in the pond! It's just a fun book for children of all ages. The publishers suggest that it's appropriate for children between the ages of 4-8 years, but I've had 18-24 month olds just love the book and request it again and again.

Let's Eat by Ana Zamorana

This is a beautifully illustrated book about a family who is expecting a new baby. Every day Mama sends out Antonio, her son, to get the food for the family's mid-day meal. On Monday, Papa can't leave his busy shop. On Tuesday, Antonio's sister Alicia is learning to dance the sevillanas for the summer fiesta. Day after day, when there is an empty seat at the table that Papa built and Mama has filled with inviting food, she sighs, "Ay, que pena! What a pity." Eventually, it is Mama who is missing because it's time for her to have baby the new baby. What children find really delightful about this book is the fact that Antonio has to taken on grown up responsibilities. The text is predictable and reassuringly comfortable for young readers. Children will delight in Antonio's grown-up responsibilities and enjoy the comfortable but unique predictability of the text.The publishers suggest that the book is appropriate for children between the ages of 4-8 years, but I have used it very successfully with 3 year olds. Where to Buy: The book was published in 1999, but it can still be found in major children's book stores as well as through on-line retailers.

What's Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life by Lise Eliot

This book offers a comprehensive overview of current scientific knowledge about infant and early childhood brain development. Starting with a detailed yet review of the growing embryo, Eliot guides readers through the sensory, motor, emotional and cognitive systems as they develop. It's not a "how to month-to-month" guide to raising a child, but it offers really interesting information about the importance of breastfeeding and discusses what IQ measure really tell us about child intelligence. It's an interesting book if you want to learn more about the "science" of development, but if you're looking for suggestions about games to play, books, to read to your baby, or what foods to avoid, this isn't the book for you.

Jungle Friends Jumbo Knob Puzzle by Melissa and Doug

Puzzles are always popular toys with toddlers, and this is a great example of everything that is good about puzzles for little hands! Strengths: There are a lot of good things about this puzzle. First, there are only three single, simple shape pieces that need to be put in the board to complete the puzzle. Second, each piece has an extra large knob on the front of it, which makes the piece easy for little hands to pick up. Third, each piece corresponds to a matching picture so the child is given a visual cue about where the animal could potentially go. Finally, the puzzle board and pieces are constructed out of a light but sturdy wood that makes the pieces easy to handle but impossible to bend or break. This also means that they are pretty much indestructible if a child decides to chew on the toy for a little while! Weaknesses: Although the shapes of the pieces are very simple, they can still sometimes prove to be a bit challenging for younger children. This is why it's a good idea to start with really simple shapes like circles or squares when children are about 12 months of age. Price: $5 - $8. Where to Buy:
Melissa and Doug toys are so popular they can be found in most toy stores, at many online retailers, and of course directly through the Melissa and Doug website (

Baby Beach Band by Infantino

This is a soft sided band set that lets babies bang, shake, and rattle without potentially hurting themselves with an instrument that has a harder surface. Strengths: The soft instruments are comprised of different textured fabrics: that crinkle, shine, and squish under little fingers. Because there are four basic instruments (five pieces) there is a lot of variety in the types of play that babies can engage in. Weaknesses: Because of the soft sides the drum can become a little misshapen if you stick into the bottom of a toy box. Where to Buy: It's really difficult to find this toy anymore, but I have seen acouple of them on eBay.

Amazing Animals Stable Friends Tote by Fisher Price

This is a wonderful, portable, and fun filled toy little stable that whose two horses and one chicken are just the right size for a toddler's hands. The mama horse has textured hooves, and when you bend her head she makes, neighing, whinnying, and clip-clop sounds. Strengths: The three animals and basket of apples can all be used for interesting pretend play scenarios. These toys can also be used easily with the other Amazing Animals farm play sets. Weaknesses: It can be difficult to get all three of the animals and the apple basket to fit inside of the stable if you want to get the doors to stay closed. The chicken (that sits on the nest in the back corner of the stable) often falls out of the window, so you need to keep a close eye on it if you take the toy outside. Price: $25 - $30. Where to Buy: This toy is no longer widely available in the regular retail outlets like Toys R Us, but you can find it online at Amazon and eBay.

Brightlings Matchers by Leap Frog

According to the manufacturer of these toys, they are supposed to help young children learn about shapes and colour matching. When the child finds two parts of a matching set, the toy is supposed to glow, twirl, or chime as a way of reinforcing the child's actions. Unfortunately mine never really worked this way. I would get some light, sound, and movement, but certainly not the kinds of effects I thought would happen based on the packaging of the toy. Strengths: They are cute little figure that fit nicely into a toddler's hand and they can easily be used with the Brightlings Exploration Station (i.e., dropping them down the chute). Weaknesses: If your child really likes a "big effect" when playing with this type of toy, they won't get that reinforcement with this one. The play value is limited because the toys don't really operate in the way they are supposed to (or at least in the way I was expecting them to). Price: $12-$17. Where to Buy: I have only been able to find these online in sites like Amazon, eBay, and

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Counting and Sorting Farm by Manhattan Toy

Each of the soft pens have a number painted on it and the same number of soft stuffed farm critters inside: 4 cows, 3 pigs, 2 sheep, and 1 chicken. The pens for the cows, sheep, and pigs all have doors that can be opened and closed, while the chicken sits securely in the little nest on top of the stack. Strengths: The animals are really cute and when the doors of the pens are open, you can see what animal is supposed to go inside, so the sorting/counting aspect of the toy is really simple. Because the animals and pens are made from a soft cotton-like fabric (the pens are made of cardboard and covered with the fabric) it's easy to do some spot cleaning when the toy gets dirty.Weaknesses: I like the soft sided construction of each of the pens the animals go in to, but they don't stack well and it's difficult to get then to stay on top of one another. This has proven to be very frustrating for some of the younger children I work with so the toy is often abandoned quickly. Price: $18 - 20. Where to Buy: Manhattan toys can usually be found is specialty toy shops as well as through a variety of on-line retailers.

Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt

This is a classic interactive book for infants and toddlers. They can play peek-a-boo with Judy, wear mama's ring, feel daddy's scratchy beard, smell the flowers, pat the soft fur on the bunny, and then look at yourself in the mirror. Face it, it has it all for the under 2 year old set. The pictures are simple and the text is relates directly to what is pictured on each page. It's an easy book for children to follow and quickly becomes a favourite of most youngsters that I use it with. My only concern is that the binding in a fairly light weight, plastic spiral piece, and the pages can pull off of it very easily. Where to Buy: Given the longevity of this book, it was originally published in the 1970's, it's pretty easy to find in most stores that carry children's books and toys. There are actually several different versions of the book, but the original is the best!

Little People Lil' Pirate Ship by Fisher Price

This is a friendly pirate ship with lots of things for little hands to do on deck! You can shoot the cannon, rock the hammock, lift up the sails, turn the steering wheel, climb into the crow's nest,push the plunger to make the bird squawk, open up the end of the boat so the pirates have a place to sleep, and even make someone walk the plank! Strengths: The toy is well constructed and can withstand lots of enthusiastic pretend play. The figures are a nice size for little hands and it's easy to expand the size of your crew with additional figure sets. Weaknesses: There is only room for one pirate to go to sleep in the bed on the ship and sometimes the hammock can fall off if it is rocked vigorously. But overall, this is a great, sturdy toy that provides lots of chances for pretend and social play activities. Price: $50-$60. Where to Buy: I found my ship about a year ago at a store called Big Lots (and paid about $25 for it), but recently I've only seen it through online retailers like Amazon, eBay, and Overstock.

The Original Roller Coaster by Anatex

You can find bead roller coasters in most doctor's offices, waiting rooms, and other places children gather. This is because these colossal mazes of wood, beads, and wire keep little hands and minds busy for hours. This toy is beautifully crafted with a 12-by-15-inch solid wood base, thick sturdy wire, and wood beads that move easily through the loops and turns of the wire. Strengths: Anatex makes extremely sturdy and long lasting wooden toys. I have had mine for about 12 years and it has been bumped over, sat upon, and dragged across the floor by the wires, and is still going strong. It really can entertain children for a long period of time and it's easy to turn it into a more social toy, where the child must interact with you in order to get it to work. Weaknesses: Sometimes the wires can get pushed out of shape, but the are easy to reshape, so it's not a big deal. The biggest drawback of the toy is that if you choose to use it with younger children who are not yet sturdy on their feet it can tip over easily if they lean on it. Price: $50-$56 (but it's well worth the price in terms of the overall durability and longevity of the toy. Where to Buy: Anatex bead roller coasters can be found in a wide range of toy retailers. Places like Toys R Us, specialty toy shops, and online to sellers all seem to carry one version or another of this type of toy.

Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk by Linda Acredolo & Susan Goodwyn

If you are interested in teaching your baby to use signs or gestures to communicate as a means of supporting later verbal language development, this is a really nice, low pressure resource. The book provides a great rationale for why using gestures and signs can actually support later verbal language development. It also discusses how to use gestures to alleviate frustration in young children who are not yet talking or for those who are just learning how to use verbal words. What's really nice about this approach to teaching signs and gestures is that the authors encourage parents to use both standard ASL (American Sign Language) signs as well as natural gestures (both conventional and ones they make up themselves). There is a great picture dictionary in the back of the book that will help parents get started on their way to using gestures with their infant, toddler, or preschooler.