Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy Holidays!

Peace image from
Thank you, readers, for your interest in preschool engineering. It is my pleasure to share my ideas and discoveries with you. With the holiday season upon us I am writing to sign off for the rest of the year. I do not plan any more original posts until January 2014. Never fear! I will continue to pass along fun stuff on my Facebook page and Google+. Plus, you can review my lists and other writing whenever you want in the archives. Here are links to my most recent "Gift Ideas" for mechanically-minded toddlers and preschoolers:

- Favorite Picture Books with Awesome Machines
- Kitchen Gadgets
- Apparel
- Around the House
- Gears for All Ages
- Top 5 Play Dough Toys
- Top 5 Slow Toys
- Top 5 Songs
- Top 5 Truck Books
- Stocking Stuffers
- Top 5 Apps
- Top 5 Working Trucks


Monday, November 25, 2013

Preschool Engineer Apparel

Want to give your kid a shirt with gears on it? I have designed two lines of Preschool Engineer apparel at The "Original" line has printing on the front side that says "Preschool Engineer" with three gears surrounding the text. The "Do Not Disturb" line has the same front that the Originals and on the back it says, "Do Not Disturb - Preschool Engineer at Work," with gears in between the phrases. (See the pictures below for how they look on my preschool engineers.)

There are two ways to shop for Preschool Engineer goods and apparel. The least expensive way is to go directly to my storefront ( I have only marked up the apparel by $1. The other way to shop is from the Cafepress marketplace ( searching for "preschool engineer." Then you will get the price that Cafepress collects for the goods but I still only receive $1.

To see how I spend the money see my "Philanthropy" page.

[Disclosure Statement: This post contains affiliate links. If you click and purchase, I receive a small referral fee at no cost to you. To see how I spend the money see my "Philanthropy" page. ]

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Treasure Hunting (Shopping)

We celebrated Mikey’s birthday with a friends and family and cake and play. At the end of all the excitement, there were (inevitably?) some returns that needed to be made.  I am not a shopper and when I do shop I usually avoid big stores. The argumentative side of me says I should support small business and steer clear of stores that take advantage of and exploit consumers, underpaid workers, etc. The real reason I avoid big stores is more visceral.

I like shopping in boutiques. When I walk into a small toy store I am not assaulted by stimuli. Somehow small toy stores seem to be quieter, more peaceful, and more inspiring than big stores. Most of the toys are made of natural materials, lovely colors, and make me feel relaxed just holding them for inspection.

Unfortunately, I have not had the delightful experience of boutique toy shopping in almost two years since I moved from Montana to Arizona. And returning a broken-out-of-the-box toy to a big store is sometimes inevitable. So there I was, dwarfed by towers of brightly colored boxes of toys…trying to find my way.

The broken toy was the last one in the store so it could not be exchanged. Instead, we got to look for something else to treasure. And that seemed like what our time in the store could be – a treasure hunt. I spotted treasures here and there: a clever wooden rattle here, an adorable animal there. Mikey had a harder time spotting treasures so he defaulted to an obvious choice for a preschool engineer – a new truck.

With the new Tonka Bulldozer in the basket we started toward the register. But my parents were with us and wanted to get something little as another “treat.” Of course, I am at a point in my life where I know when to pick my battles so I reluctantly agreed to go treasure hunting a little longer for something new for each child. My mom headed us back to the “educational” part of the store and I wondered what distinguished toys as “educational.” It seemed like there were fewer character/brand toys. The Octonauts had their own place elsewhere as did Dora, the Avengers, and other popular TV personalities. There were more “science” toys and Melissa and Doug seemed to have taken up residence in the “educational” section but it was unsurprisingly hard to find something just right.

Watching Mikey seem lost and uninterested and my mom bewildered by the selection it occurred to me that we needed something more specific than “educational.” I stepped in. “We are looking for something mechanically interesting,” I said. Scanning the stuff I quickly found a water toy with a funnel and some spinning wheels. It was mechanical and shaped like a crab so Mikey loved it. It was under the price point so my dad seemed satisfied. My mom seemed skeptical but she was outnumbered. We finally could leave so I was starting to feel relieved.

Upon reflection, I began to wonder how people shop for toys. Since I’m not a shopper, I shop online. Since I ruminate I usually do research before buying a toy. I look at “must have” lists, lists of toys that have won awards, and top selling lists. I think about the child who will be playing with the toy and his or her age and preferences. I consider the parents of the child how annoying the toy might be. I pay attention to how the toy makes me feel. Is it a treasure? Could it be one?

Seriously? Can I really put in all the effort to just buy a toy? No, not every time. That is why, at the end of the day, I rely on a framework for shopping. More than, “Is it educational?” I choose something more specific like, “is it mechanically interesting?”  or “are the puzzle pieces designed for good fine motor work?” or “does it inspire creativity?” or “is it magic?”

Don’t have time to create a framework to drive your shopping? Yeah. Sometimes I don’t either. And sometimes I just want to surf around and get excited and/or feel inspired by the possibilities. That is when I rely on “boutique” Internet stores to have done some treasure hunting of their own. has exclusive selling privileges for some toys in the US. For example, when I saw Blu Tracks on their site I did a quick search to price-compare and saw that Fat Brain is the only place that sells these European racetracks to US residents. What other treasures will I find on Bella Luna has an extensive collection of Waldorf toys – those things that are natural, simple and beautiful. If I could walk into a storefront that carried these treasures then I would…and I used to in Montana at Walking Stick Toys.

Indeed, sometimes I shop just to support that small business where I had beautiful visceral shopping experiences. I made new friends, discovered Sarah’s Silks, and sometimes rested mid-day to nurse my first-born baby.  I never had to return a gift from Walking Stick Toys but I would have been delighted for a reason to visit the store. It was filled with magic.

[Disclosure Statement: This post contains affiliate links. If you click and purchase, I receive a small referral fee at no cost to you. To see how I spend the money see my "Philanthropy" page. ]

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Grader Toy Truck Review

I think there is a reason Tonka is so successful and it has to do with the quality of the toys they make. Again and again I am impressed with the toy trucks that are added to our fleet. The Grader is no exception. 

To be honest, I didn't think we would ever find a toy grader. After watching the twenty trucks video and singing the song a million times and seeing them through the window of our car when we pass worksites, I was determined that this specialty truck might come in a collector size but certainly not a playground size. I was wrong and I'm glad I was wrong.

The Tonka Grader is sturdy. The blade moves up (so it doesn't gauge holes in your lawn) and down (to plow sand). It also makes awesome tracks in the sand because it is easy to push and has great wheels. The hardware that holds the blade is simple and solid. Like all our Tonka "Retro Classic" steel trucks, this thing is ready for the wear and tear of serious play.

If you are trying to decide what blade might be a great addition to your child's construction site team, I say skip the Tonka Bulldozer (a fine toy but hard to maneuver with track wheels and the blade down) and go for the Grader instead!

p.s. For those of you who don't know what a Grader is, I've embedded the Twenty Trucks song and video below...

[Disclosure Statement: This post contains affiliate links. If you click and purchase, I receive a small referral fee at no cost to you. To see how I spend the money see my "Philanthropy" page. ]

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Around the House

This is not a list of toys. This is a list of cool stuff for your home that would inspire a mechanically-minded person. It is a collection of stuff I've found on my travels (both virtual and real) that I thought I would pass along for you to enjoy.

Belt Fans. Belt driven ceiling fans are just plain cool. I wrote an article about how we discovered them at a brewery in Michigan back in July. Take a look...if you're redecorating then this could be a unique, super fun way to add mechanical wonders to your home.

Timberkits. I don't even remember how I found this wooden Caterpillar Machine...probably surfing YouTube with my preschooler. These are assemble-your-own toys so you will have to have a patient child but they are pretty cool mechanical fidgets for enjoying on a desk. All the machines having moving parts that go when someone moves a crank. Some have a cool marble run that goes on and on while you crank. There is even a motor attachment you can buy if you don't want to hand crank for minutes at a time.

Kinetic Sand. Wow. Look what I found at! 98% sand, 2% I don't care because it is the most interesting material that I have seen in a long time. Watch the video, below, to see how this sand holds shape without being "wet sand" and pours without being dried out. Listed for 3 year olds and up I can't help but think, "I want this for ME!"

Mobile. This is another one for adult (ages 8+) assembly but it is a beloved mobile in our home. It is colorful and designed to balance in a way that is more interesting than most mobiles that I've seen in stores.

Wall Stickers. Roommates is a highly distributed line of wall stickers for decorating your child's space. They have a handful of themes including vehicles (pictured below). I also found some gear decals (pictured below) at Trading Phrases. A cool thing about the Trading Phrases can choose the color of the gears!

Roommates - Vehicles
Trading Phrases - Choose a Color

[Disclosure Statement: This post contains affiliate links. If you click and purchase, I receive a small referral fee at no cost to you. To see how I spend the money see my "Philanthropy" page. ]

Monday, November 18, 2013

Most Used Kitchen Gadgets for Preschool Engineering

In his FoodTV show "Good Eats" Alton Brown taught adults all about cooking from a very STEMy perspective. The science that underlies how heat plus food equals cooking was included in every episode. He talked about anatomy of cows. And, most interestingly for a preschool engineer, he discussed the technology of the kitchen. Alton Brown is who I think about when I see my kid experimenting with kitchen tools. This list is comprised of the kitchen gadgets that my child uses in his play.

8. Can Opener. It has a crank and gears and sharp blades that turn. I like to let my kids use a can opener to cut orange rinds, banana peels, and anything else that seems to fit in there. Good for fine motor work, experimenting with what tools are best for which jobs as well as some lessons on materials.  (Mind you, I have my own can opener that I can always find because the children's can opener often goes "missing.")

7. Egg Beater. I'm not talking about an electric egg beater. I'm talking about a handheld, "old school" egg beater. One with a crank and some gears. Santa put one in Mikey's stocking last year and it is used in the mini pool in the yard, in sand, and in the bath tub. Mixing materials and colors with this tool is great pre-STEM work.

6. Funnels. Keep your eyes peeled at a second hand store. Funnels always seem to turn up. Otherwise you can toss this set of three into your Amazon cart for ~$4 to eek up to the $25 price point to earn free Super Saver Shipping. Our funnels are used and abused in sand, water and the mud in between. One is a "house" for a pet "worm." If you want to stray from the kitchen section and get a bonafide toy funnel then check out the one at Fat Brain Toys, pictured below, or the funnels that are integrated with water wheels, also pictured below.


5. Salad Spinner. Salad spinners will tickle a preschool engineer because they harness the power of centripetal force. Our has been used to dry rocks, socks, make painting, and as a fish bowl to make the stuffed fish "swim." Personally, I was glad to hand over my cumbersome and hard to store gadget to my preschooler. When you shop consider what your child might with a crank or a button? The possibilities seem endless.


4. Baster. A baster is so cool for a mechanically-minded preschooler. It is a pipe AND he or she can use it to create a vacuum to suck things up. These are simple water tools to hand over to your child. right along the lines of a baster, you can consider a transfer dropper. I include a link, below, for a pack of six glass ones but for the same price you can get 100 plastic ones! I'm trying to reduce clutter so I'd opt for six but with 100 you could consider them pretty disposable.
Transfer Droppers

3. Measuring Cups. Want to upgrade yourself from your old trusty but plastic and dinged up measuring cups? Give them to your kid and get yourself some nice new stainless ones from Williams-sonoma. (Laughing out loud.) Measuring cups are yet another open-ended toy. They can be used for scooping and dumping any number of things - water, sand, rocks, beads, broken crayons, you name it! They can also double as bathtubs in pretend houses or miniature planters for landscaping.

2. Tongs. Anything that makes the tongs different from the next set and valuable to a chef will appeal to your child, too. CHeck out my list on Amazon or go to this list at Montesorri Services. The possibilities for grabbing are endless. Plus, a new set of tongs will make your kid feel like a brand new robot. ;)

1. Whirley Pop. The whirley pop is the thing that my husband and I most dislike but it is my son's favorite kitchen gadget. It has a crank, an observable bevel gear, plus a spinning thing inside. Ours has mixed everything imaginable and, most recently, was a "rock polisher" like the one Mikey saw on Dinosaur Train "Treasure Hunt." So, hey, you can buy one and make some popcorn and know that when the novelty of a popcorn popper wears off the preschool play can begin.

[Disclosure Statement: This post contains affiliate links. If you click and purchase, I receive a small referral fee at no cost to you. To see how I spend the money see my "Philanthropy" page. ]

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Favorite Picture Books for Spotting Awesome Machines

Any kid who is into machines will be excited to discover the treasures depicted in the books listed here. Amazingly, Dr. Seuss draws a lot of really awesome machines so he dominates the list. We all knew he was a guru of rhyme but who knew he was so creative with machines?!

Look a Book. This is a great new "I-Spy" book. For preschool engineers there is one page dedicated entirely to a robot factory! Lots of fun...a book I'm happy to return to for I Spy games. The writing/rhyming isn't bad either. "Look! A Book! A Hook! A Cowboy Cook!"

The Lorax. A super axe hacker? Plus a thneed factory? This is one of my all-time favorite books for so many reasons... And now it is one of my child's favorite books, too.

The Sleep Book. My kid wants a "Who's Asleep Counter" and we are building draw bridges because of this book. A great Seuss read AND some cool machines to discover.

Demolition. You may know that I'm not wild about Sutton's writing but I have to admit that the pictures of awesome machines in this book are pretty cool. A crusher, a chipper, and an excavator with a claw join the usual suspects (bulldozer, loader, dump truck) in a demolition project.

Cars and Trucks and Things that Go. In classic Richard Scarry design, this book has it all and then some. If you can convince your kid that there is no story and just enjoy the pictures then this should be a home run for anyone interested in cool machines.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Pre-Coffee Play

There are mornings when our preschooler can't sleep. Sometimes growing pains make his legs ache. Other times a cold prevents him from breathing easily. Whatever the reason he just can't get back to sleep. The same discomfort that won't let him sleep also makes him dependent on us for company. We all sit, nearly comatose, on the floor waiting for our minds to catch up with our vertical bodies.

One such morning, we all sat down to play. Coffee was brewing and my eyes were only half open. In front of me was a new construction toy that looked cool on the box. The pieces were notched to look kind of gear-like. The examples of things we could create looked neat. But pre-coffee I was not inspired. Nor was the toy intuitive enough for me to want to pick up and fiddle with it. What I needed, I thought, were Magna-tiles.

I asked my son to pass the Magna-tiles and I slowly clicked them together to create some sort of container. Then I sat and watched my husband, also pre-coffee, sit and work with the new toy at my son's request. Together they made some cool stuff but, still, I was not inclined to pick up some pieces and make something of my own. It made me wonder about the magic that seems to be inherent in some toys over others.

Later that day I was asked to review a purchase I had made at At first it seemed like a typical reviewing experience. I was asked to write whatever I wanted to explain how the toy works and how the children play with it. But then I was asked to rate aspects of the toy I have never been asked about before. As I worked down about a dozen qualities of the toy I recognized that FatBrainToys was attempting to measure the toy's "magic." The survey included "Intuitive Use" and "Elicits Imagination and Creativity." Now I had found a seller of toys that understands and seeks to discover "magic" toys!

“Magic” toys seem hard to find. However, all I need to do is to have a framework from which to work. Then when I see a toy I can ask myself, “could I do something with that pre-coffee?” The answer will guide me. Of course, my other option is to depend on specialty stores to do some of that discriminating for me.,, and, most recently, are among my favorite places to shop online.  They seem to have found a divining rod for finding magic toys to sell in their stores!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Gears for All Ages

We're always on the look out for toy gears. Over the last couple years I have spotted and/or purchased a handful of gear toys. It turns out that there are toy gears for all ages!

6 Months Old. For the teeny tiny preschool engineers there is a cool rattle with gear-like action! Check out the Schylling Ambi Twin Rattle.

12 Months Old. Sometimes I am reluctant to look at Melissa and Doug stuff just because I like to oppose mainstream stuff. But they deliver time and time again with some great toys. They make a few of these gear puzzles for 12 month olds - a caterpillar, trucks, and butterflies.

3 Years Old. Lakeshore Learning Materials makes some awesome Magnetic Spinning Gears. They are listed for 3 year olds but my 1.5 year old can successfully put two of these on the refrigerator and get them to engage and spin. The magnets are just the right strength for children to easily get each gear on and off a magnetic surface and the spokes of the gears easily engage. It has been fun to watch all the spontaneous gear-work that happens with these toys. Here's a sure the child you buy these for has a magnetic surface to try them on. If his or her parents have a new fancy 'frig then they might not stick! You might want to throw a magnetic board in the cart for good measure.

4 Years Old. Learning Resources makes a few "Gears Gears Gears" sets but our favorite is the Monkey Gears. Like the other sets, the monkey gears come with green bases that snap together (the snap is tight so your kid might need a hand) and a bunch of gears to build a great big machine. What makes the Monkey Gears stand out is that it has a horizontal auger-type gear that, when attached properly, spins; and, as it spins a monkey will move across the bar. The moving monkey is a cool mechanical phenomenon of how a screw works!

Adults. Ok, this one is for you. Kinekt Design makes a pretty sweet-looking piece of jewelry for adults. It has an actual moving gear integrated into a band!
So there you have it. A list with a variety of types of toy gears. I hope you find one that suits your preschool engineer! Let me know if you have other gear toys that are a hit with your child!

[Disclosure Statement: This post contains affiliate links. If you click and purchase, I receive a small referral fee at no cost to you. To see how I spend the money see my "Philanthropy" page. ]

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Top 5 Play Dough Toys

Playing with play dough does not require toys. This material is in itself a wonderful sensory experience. If you make your own at home then just the act of creating the dough - measuring and mixing flour, salt and water, kneading it, and coloring it - is enough of an experience for a preschooler. Especially a preschool engineer who will be happy to try and figure out how the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients go together to create the perfect texture for rolling, smashing, cutting and so much more! But one walk down the Play-Doh aisle at a store and your kiddo will be intrigued. Cranks, levers, and circular cutters will take playing with play dough to a whole new level. Here are some of our favs:

5. Wheel Tools. Whether it is a rolling pin or a pizza cutter, a preschool engineer will be keen to see the rotational translational motion of these tools and their power. Plus, each of these kinds of tools are made in a variety of shapes so that rolling them leaves interesting tracks in the play dough. Have fun picking one, or two, or three. Check out this pack of four wooden pins by Creativity Street or a set of tools including a straight-line pizza cutter and a wavey-line pizza cutter by School Smart. Melissa and Doug have a great looking combo, too!

4. Lever. The "Play doh Fun Factory" is a classic for a reason. It is a simple machine, much like a garlic press, but you can change the shape of the play dough "noodles" that come out. My kid gets frustrated sometimes when he is trying to roll out a "noodle" by hand and this tool satisfies his need to avoid his fine motor work and his other, apparently more pressing, need to get the play dough ready to use in the Gravel Yard, Brick Mill, or Ice Cream Shoppe (all listed below).

3. Top Crank. The inventor of the Play-doh Gravel Yard was probably a preschool engineer at one point of his or her life. It has a crank on top that presses down a plunger through a shaft. At the bottom of the shaft are little holes for the play dough to come out; play dough emerges as little pieces of "gravel" shaped remarkably to match the gravel in my back yard. The play dough gravel can be dried to make rubble or used soft in any number of other creative enterprises. For instance, these little pieces of play dough double as chocolate chips when we "bake" with play dough. All in all, a great little tool for a preschool engineer.

2. Side Crank and Funnel. The Play-doh Brick Mill makes the #2 spot over the Gravel Yard because it can double as a water toy. Used with play dough, the dough goes in the funnel and the crank turns two patterned rolling wheels. The dough emerges below as a long flat piece of patterned dough...much like a brick sidewalk. In our house, a lot of the fun of this toy has been in exploring how other materials work. Luckily, the toy is easily disassembled and reassembled for getting "unsuccessful" experiments cleaned up.

1. Gears, Crank, Slide, and Syringe. The Play-doh Sweet Shoppe Candy Cyclone is super fun. It has so many elements that appeal to a preschool engineer that I don't know where to start...oh, wait, yes I do. I'll start with the gears. Three auger gears placed adjacent to each other turn when the child turns a crank. By feeding play dough into the top of the globe and between the augers, balls are massaged and dropped onto the ramp below. The ramp, shaped as a twirly slide, then lets the balls roll into a reservoir for retrieval. Gears powered by a crank are enough to make a preschool engineer's heart thump. That these make little balls that can be used in a variety of other tools or in other creative play makes life even better. Plus, there is a syringe for pressing long thin noodles and a stamp for smashing balls into new shapes. This is sold as a "make your own candy"toy but I think there is something more powerful than candy at work...a fabulous machine.

[Disclosure Statement: This post contains affiliate links. If you click and purchase, I receive a small referral fee at no cost to you. To see how I spend the money see my "Philanthropy" page. ]