MULA Stack and Nest Cups

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Priced at under $3, the play and reuse value of these simple plastic stacking cups is just astonishing. Originally bought as a throwaway present, our set is onto their second baby and have become a staple of daily bath-time for all kids.

They stack into a tall tower, they fit together in pairs, some hold water, some have holes, some have a lot of holes, they float, some sink after a while and they fit into a compact package for storage. Each one is unique and serves a different purpose and there’s just enough of them to be challenging for the under-ones to keep track of them all.

We’ve given sets to every family we know and will continue the tradition for as long as they are available. So simple, yet endlessly fun.

-- Robin Green  

MULA Stack and Nest Cups
$3

Available from and manufactured by IKEA

Sample Excerpts:

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Pumpkin Gutter

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The Pumpkin Gutter is a drill bit that’s much much better at cleaning out a pumpkin than a spoon. We’ve used the device to clean out five large pumpkins in one night. It works very well. You can feel the device breaking up the stringy wall parts and other gut items (not sure about the proper anatomical terms for a pumpkin).

I’ve tried using a spoon and a spatula-like thing that came in another pumpkin carving kit. Not only was it very difficult, but it took the same time to finish one pumpkin as it takes the Pumpkin Gutter to complete five. Plus, that one pumpkin wasn’t as clean.

The Pumpkin Gutter removes chunks so quickly, you actually need to be careful while working the pumpkin.

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It’s longer than I expected, but not so long that it won’t fit it in my kitchen drawer. I don’t know exactly what I might use it for outside of pumpkins, but it seems perfect for any larger mixing project.

-- Paul Knuth  

Pumpkin Gutter
$10

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Dakota Products



Pocket Kite

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I’ve collected quite an assortment of logo emblazoned pens, mousepads, stress balls, and other tchotchkes at professional conferences, but far and away the most fun and useful (as in, it gets used) item I have picked up is the pocket kite. The pocket kite is a small sled-style kite that is kept in a small zippered pouch attached to a key ring that also contains a little reel loaded with kite string.

The kite is very easy to fly, but doesn’t have any wooden supports or anything else that could break. The pouch is barely 3 inches across and weighs next to nothing, so it is easy toss into a backpack for a hike. I keep mine in the courier bag that goes with me everywhere. It is really fun to bust it out when unexpected kite flying opportunities arise. Day at the beach; reaching a summit; dull company picnic. Unless you are a hardcore kite nut, you probably aren’t hanging around waiting for a windy day so you can drop everything and go fly a kite. A pocket kite is ready when you are. And it’s cheap, so when it inevitably gets stuck in a tree, it’s not the end of the world.

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-- Toby Plewak  

Stow’n Go Pocket Kite
$5

Available from Uncles Games Manufactured by Toysmith



Magna-Tiles

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Open-ended toys are the best. That’s why construction sets like Lego, or the previously reviewed Kapla Blocks, or Zomes, are perennial favorites. Their simple, durable, reusable parts build an infinite number of complex creations, providing endless hours of play. The best construction systems will last many lifetimes and are generally worth their modest investment, unlike most toys.

Magna-Tiles are the best open-ended construction set for very small kids I’ve seen. Magna-Tiles are plastic tiles with tiny super magnets embedded in their edges. Even a very small child can quickly assemble a structure that won’t topple, since the magnets snap to form when you get them close to where they want to be. They come in a mix of squares and triangles that tend to “guide” construction towards recognizable building forms, which is okay since there are still many options to explore. But this small boost really aids the youngest toddlers who may have trouble with the go-anywhere blocks of Kapla. Also, the tiles are large, too big to swallow, so safe for wee ones.

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We have a set on a our living room coffee table and I notice that adults love to build with them as well since you can erect a cool structure in only a few minutes. Everyone is an architect at heart.

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Magna-Tiles aren’t cheap. With 8 rare earth magnets per piece, each tile costs about $1. They are pretty unbreakable, so they should outlive you. Get the transparent variety — they are like stained glass.

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-- KK  

Magna-Tiles
100 piece transparent set
$110

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Magna-Tiles



Medicus

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The Medicus is a driver with a hinge in it, so that if you swing it in the wrong direction at the wrong time, the hinge breaks and you have a useless broken club in your hands. But swing it the right way and you can actually hit balls with it.

What does it do? Well, at first it made me feel like a goof, because it kept breaking. But I got the hang of it pretty quickly. Basically, it made me turn rather than take the club back with my hands. Most importantly, it gives me the feel (yes, the feel!) of the right move from the top. That’s where most golfers get off track.

Buy the driver and swing it every day. When you get off track on the course, think back to the feel of the Medicus and it will get your in the groove again. It’s helped my swing tremendously. I found the included DVD tutorial worthwhile, too.

-- Phil Reed  

Medicus Men’s Dual-Hinged 7 Iron
$120

Available from Amazon

Maufactured by Medicus

Here’s Phil’s video review of the Medicus. -- es



Perplexus

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This is a cool 3-dimensional maze that is easy to get started and hard to finish. You need to steer a small metal ball along an ingenious obstacle course by rotating the clear plastic globe. There are 100 stations along the way, including some difficult topsy-turvy turns. All ages can get into it. We’ve found the puzzle to be extremely addictive to anyone who gets started. Because it’s like a 3D video game without the electronics, the very physical nature of playing — turning it this way and that — is very satisfying. In addition, the maze is like a sculpture, the design of the route is geekily brilliant, and the elegance of the eternal return of the steel ball within the sphere is a stroke of genius. Perplexus has the glow of a work of art. It makes me happy just to pick it up.

-- KK  

PlaSmart Perplexus
$17

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Perplexus Inventor's website



Eskimold

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This is loads of fun, and a way to get the kids out of the house during the winter. It’s also a way to make a cheap two- or three-person ice fishing house that doesn’t require transport at the end of the season. Any type of snow can be compacted into this nifty device, which will create, quickly, hundreds of perfectly formed, slanted, and stacking igloo building blocks. The Eskimold is different from other snow block kits in that one block edge is concave, the other is convex, allowing them to fit together, almost like puzzle pieces, edge to edge. The blocks also curve in slightly (picture an igloo’s interior walls). The last block on each row has to be trimmed, and a plastic snow knife is included in the kit for that purpose. It works well, since the igloo gradually leans in as it’s built, and the diameter shrinks with each row. A skilled builder could mimic the traditional half-sphere igloo design, and the casual builder (or parent working with kids) will end up with a more pointed, and taller, beehive design, which one can actually stand up in. Unlike the previously reviewed Icebox, the Eskimold is oriented toward play more than serious shelter construction.

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If you have a couple of kids, it works best to get two of them, to avoid fighting between the kids. These plastic buckets are durable, and will last for years. You can make the blocks in advance, if you wish, and let them freeze overnight on a scrap of plywood. It’s simple, but time consuming. We spread it out over two days, with hot chocolate breaks. You do not need to haul the snow to the igloo site (it takes a lot of snow); you can use a shovel to make the blocks a distance away from the site, stack them on a piece of plywood on a sled, then haul them to your building spot. Once you make a block you need to stick it on the igloo, or on a smooth board. If you leave it on the ground, it will freeze there overnight, and you will not be able to use it.

My teenage son actually slept in his own igloo creation one night, and was comfortable in -15 degree F weather. He and a group of his friends used it to make a circular shelter, without a roof, about 15 feet in diameter, and about 5 feet tall, with our metal firepit in the center. This created a nice sheltered bonfire site in the backyard, out of the wind, where they could have adult-free discussions, with food.

-- Dean Knudson  

Eskimold Kit
$22

Manufactured by and available from Tundra North Manufacturing LTD



Hometown Puzzle

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For Christmas this year I gave my parents a personalized puzzle featuring a custom map of the area around their lake cabin. “From any starting point, we’ll create a 400-piece puzzle of a six-by-four-mile area using U.S. Geological Survey maps. A house-shaped piece in the center represents the address you choose. Shows main roads, contour lines, water features, vegetation, and notable buildings. Arrives in a presentation box with space for a personal message.” If you search for a promo code, you can save 20%. (Order by 12/14/2009 for Christmas delivery.)

-- Jason Palmiter  

[We asked our readers what cool tools they are giving to their friends and families this year. Here is one in a series this week of suggested gifts mentioned in the comments that we are highlighting on the front page. Submit your own recommendation in the comments. -- ES]

National Geographic Store Hometown Puzzle
$40

Available from National Geographic



String Saver

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This Band-Aid for tennis rackets saved the day for me during a tournament when I was playing well with a favorite racket, but the strings were frayed and close to breaking. It’s a little tool that lifts the string and inserts and leaves behind a small piece of plastic that sits right at the intersection where the two strings cross, preventing them from sawing across one another and breaking. Extra plastic inserts are stored in the handle.

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If you carry it in your tennis bag you can use it to extend the life of your strings, though obviously not indefinitely. It’s essential if you have only one racket and you don’t want to sit any games out.

-- Phil Reed  

Gamma String Savers
$9

Available from Amazon



Red Ryder

By far the best air rifle for a kid. There is nothing to break and it has a 650 BB capacity. You can fill it once and wander around in the woods all afternoon. All of my nieces and nephews get one when I think they are old enough.

– K.G.

I recommend the Daisy Red Ryder. They’re inexpensive and don’t break.

– Dale C Snyder

Every child should have one.

– Dave Culp

 

Daisy 1938 Red Ryder
$25

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Daisy Outdoor Products