Cool, Cool Castletown Play Mat

You may know of PlaSmart from such toys as the PlasmaCar (a.k.a., COOL COOL CAR!). Turns out they make a host of other toys, too. In this post, my kids and I assess the Castletown Play Mat.

The mat measures 78″ by 46″, which is generally big enough for three kids to play on but not so huge that it dominates your living room.


Action shot
Action shot


The mat can withstand cars, trucks, LEGOs, and probably even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s highly durable. And its “coated EVA foam” means that when Ms. Three-Year-Old spills milk on it or Daddy spills coffee on it or Mommy spills wine on it (just kidding, honey), it will wipe up easily. Come to think of it… maybe I should just leave the mat on the carpet all the time to act as a stain guard!

It rolls up pretty easily, too, so you can store it in a corner of the room or throw it in the car on the way to a playdate, if you’re so inclined.

Here’s a closer look at the pattern:


Castletown Smart Mat


As you can see, the pattern repeats but seamlessly links together–a fact that was not lost on my children, each of which had their own farm to focus on as they shared the mat.

Especially if you roll the mat up when you’re done and store it somewhere, bringing it out generally gets my kids’ attention, even though they are not babies anymore. I could see this mat being perfect for a one- or two-year-old, but even my eight-year-old enjoys flying his dragons over the castles and farms and breathing fire on them.

The roads are the perfect size for whatever plastic or metallic cars you’ve already got at home. DUPLOs and Playmobil also work well with the mat–really, any toy you have can find a nice home here.

The first few times we used it, it was hard to get it to lay flat without curling up a bit, but that phenomenon has gone away with additional play and use.

You can find the play mat (with some other design options) here. PlaSmart has lots of other toys, too. They are on Facebook and the Twitter.



Thanks to the good folks at PlaSmart for the review sample, provided for review but with no expectation as to the content of this post.

Alpha: The NATO Alphabet for Kids (and Their Parents)



With Isabelle Arsenault’s Alpha, I finally have a tool to keep the NATO phonetic alphabet in my head. That’s more useful to me than you might think, not least of which is because I really do have to spell both my first and last name quite often when talking to various phone reps. (A… B as in Bravo… R… A… M as in Mike.)

It’s first and foremost a children’s book–though also a good visual aid for learning what is also known as the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet.

The book’s cover is actually a fine way to judge its contents in this case: It is the clever illustration–a paper airplane–for Delta.




The next spread, Echo, has a child at school throwing such an airplane at the child sitting in front of him.

Each letter of the alphabet receives a two-page spread: the word at left and an illustration at right. Some illustrations you might have guessed–like the couple dancing the Foxtrot. Others are more subtle and creative–like Hotel, which is the Monopoly hotel piece. Romeo and Juliet share a ghostly motif that ties the two images together, separated they are by some pages (and… uh… other impediments).

The letter under consideration has its own color, so that with even younger children you could focus just on A, B, C, D, and so on. Of course, my eight-year-old can appreciate that this section of his Dangerous Book for Boys now has some visual reminders to help him with his NATO alphabet.

There’s no storyline to follow, of course. But it’s been an interesting (and visually pleasing) read for each of my three kids, from three up to eight years old.

The sewn binding and high-quality paper will find approval with parents who want a book that will withstand a few throws across the room. (From the kids, not the parents.)

Alpha is a smart, nice-looking, and useful take on the classic children’s abecedarian.

Find Alpha at Amazon here, or at Candlewick Press’s page here. See Isabelle Arsenault’s page (with lots of images) here.



Thanks to Candlewick Press for the review copy, given with no expectation as to the content of the review.

Children’s Book Review: The Little Snowplow

The Little Snowplow


We need the little snowplow in our neighborhood. Last winter we saw more than 100 inches of snow pile up. The kids loved it, and we parents sort of did, but it made getting around a challenge. And it got old fast.

Enter the little snowplow:

On the Mighty Mountain Road Crew, the trucks came in one size: BIG.

That is, until a new snowplow joined the crew.

“You’re such a little snowplow,” the big trucks said.
“Leave the heavy lifting to us.”
And off they roared.

My five-year-old was enraptured at this point. And what young child wouldn’t identify with the little guy in the story? Each night he does his “reps” (raising and lowering his plow ten times). He pulls blocks of concrete. “Just in case.” Had he been training for 2015 in Massachusetts, he would have been oh-so-glad for all the hours he put in.

Then a blizzard hits–more than the little snowplow can handle, and the plow driver has to call for backup. In the end, against the odds, the little snowplow turns out to be a real hero, with his place secured among the Mighty Mountain Road Crew.

Most grown-ups will see the story coming–the motifs are familiar ones. One thinks of the setting and improbability of Katy and the Big Snow, with echoes of The Little Engine That Could, and a scene reminiscent of Little Blue Truck. The story ends with the little snowplow ready to bed down, though the “He could hardly wait for sleep” ending felt a little less satisfying than expected.

Still, The Little Snowplow is engaging. It’s an important idea that one can succeed even though small or dismissed by others. The message of the book is a good one, and the story moves along nicely. My three kids are all fans of the book.

The Little Snowplow is Lora Koehler’s first children’s picture book. Jake Parker illustrates the story. And the illustrations are great. They’re colorful, clear, and absorbing. They really make the book. There are enough of them, too, that a non-reader can easily enough make his or her way through the story. (See a few more illustrations here.)

I don’t even want to think about winter coming soon, but I’m sure we’ll continue to reach for this book when the snow comes–and we are reading it now, even with potential blizzards months away.

Find The Little Snowplow at Amazon here, or at Candlewick Press’s page here.



Thanks to Candlewick Press for the review copy, given with no expectation as to the content of the review.

Children’s Book Note: Almost an Animal Alphabet

Almost an Animal Alphabet


Our family has read a lot of alphabet books in our day–now I’m working on letters with Kid #3 (!). We read through Almost an Animal Alphabet the other day, which she sincerely enjoyed. (The Yeti is my favorite–and, I think, what makes it only almost an all-animal alphabet.)

The illustrations are creative and fun, and the book is both educational (as you’d hope) and funny. Check it out via POW! Books here, or here on Amazon.

The Family Bathroom: An Ode

Parent: Do you need to go poop or pee? I’m about to go to the bathroom.

Child: No.

Parent: Are you SUUURE? I’m going to take a shower.

Child: I don’t need to go poop or pee.

Parent: (Goes to bathroom, starts water, dares to relax)


Parenting Pro Tip: Vegetables are “Power Food”

"Tomato je" by Softeis - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Tomato je” by Softeis – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


If AC/DC was too much for you, here’s another small victory in parenting in the K-J house recently: we now call vegetables “power food.” (I.e., they make you more powerful, which of course is totally true.)

Not only that, but “power food” goes on the plate first, and the kids sit down to eat it before they eat the rest of the meal. An appetizer of sorts.

So far this lovely idea my wife had has been working like a charm. (Finally! They eat their veggies… mostly.) I raise my carrot stick to her in appreciation and celebration.

Parenting Pro Tip: Use AC/DC to Help With Brushing Teeth

AC_DC logo


Here’s a free parenting pro tip: sing the chorus of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck antiphonally with your child to help them keep their mouth open. Then you can brush their teeth and gums the way the dentist tells you to.

You say: “Thunder!”

Your child responds: “Ah-ah-ah-ahhhh-ah-ah!”

You say: “Thunder!”

Your child responds: “Ah-ah-ah-ahhhh-ah-ah!”

Repeat ad infinitum, or until your child’s teeth are clean.

It’s been working like a charm here in the K-J house all week. Here’s the song if you need a refresher.


That Time My 2-Year-Old Daughter Gave Me a Writing Tip in Scrivener

Our daughter is in the Terrific/Terrible Twos stage.

The terrible: she does things like write on the new kitchen floor in permanent marker. She leaves tons of tiny fingerprints on the MacBook and almost pushes the TV off its stand because she thinks they are both touch screens. She changes her own diaper and *tries* to flush its contents down the toilet herself. (Okay–this last one isn’t all bad–potty training, here we come!)

The terrific: sometimes, when she presses random keys on the laptop keyboard, instead of making the computer freeze, she discovers new tips. (Far more terrific than that, of course, is the fact that she is an amazing and wonderful human being.)

The other day she saw this little guy in the toolbar when I had Scrivener open for some work I was doing:


Scrivener Compose Icon


She tried to tap it (no Scrivener for iPad… but soon, I hear!). Then between the two of us, we clicked it and Scrivener went from this view:


Scrivener Screenshot
Click or open in new tab to enlarge


to this one:

Scrivener Composition Mode
Click or open in new tab to enlarge


Yes, Scrivener can go into full screen, but this is something a little different–a composition mode where you can just write. You’ll see at the bottom (a toolbar which goes away if you want it to) that I can still pull up essentials like the footnote window on the left. Or I can move all that out and just focus on writing.

I’ve used Scrivener for more than a year now and don’t think I’ve ever clicked on “Compose.”

So… thank you, two-year-old daughter, for helping your dad learn more about a program he uses all week, and for simplifying my workflow!

Want to check Scrivener out? (I recommend it, and offer my thanks to the folks that make it for the review license.) Here you can download a free trial, for Mac or Windows. (It’s a generous trial period, too.) You can read more about Scrivener’s features here.

F.F. Bruce’s Atlas for Young Readers

Bruce Bible History AtlasLast week we received a kindness in the mail from a new friend in Israel–F.F. Bruce’s Bible History Atlas.

My 7-year-old son, who had been looking forward to receiving it, came home from school and smiled widely when I had him open it.

He ran outside to share the good news with his younger siblings, who were running around with sticks and dressed up as a spaceman and ladybug, respectively. He was excited.

His first excited question to me when he came back into the house was, “Where is the battle page?” We have again been reading about the Maccabees recently in The Sacred Bridge (though, of course, I had to for now edit out the forced circumcision portion of that narrative!), so he was eager to find the Maccabees and Hasmonean era in Bruce’s atlas, which we were easily and quickly able to locate.

The atlas covers all of biblical history–both Testaments and everything in between.

The kind folks at Carta publish the Bruce atlas, as well as The Sacred Bridge. Their product page for Bible History Atlas (one of many fine atlases they offer) is here.