Anxious to keep your kids away from drugs? Gangs? The WB? When it comes to building family unity, there's nothing like building a robot together. Or flying a large gas-powered model airplane. Or turning your guest room into a scale-model replica of the Southern Pacific railroad crossing in the Oregon Cascades. Sure, you'd be a dweeb. So what? Your kids already make fun of you.
Children love motorized entertainment, and if you and your family enjoy sustained interest in a hobby for years to come, that's not only good for America, it helps you spread related costs over time. If you invest wisely in easy-to-use, start-up materials now, you won't kick yourself later for wasting dough, and your impatient offspring won't experience common turn-off frustrations and delays in their fun.
In the world of electronic toys, LEGO has cleverly layered its product lines to lead consumers, stage by stage, from the innocence of classic snap-together bricks for preschoolers (excellent for teaching basic engineering) to the dark madness of complex robotics for middle-school kids and beyond.
LEGO Mindstorms is a very impressive, user-friendly robot-building line capable of enthralling parent and child alike. The essential set is Robotics Invention System 2.0 ($200), which yields a variety of software-controlled, tabletop critters capable of performing sundry tasks (drawing or simple construction, for example). Add the Ultimate Builders Set expansion kit ($60) to broaden the possibilities and the very cool Vision Command ($50) to add digital image-recording eyes to your wired monsters. Save $60 by purchasing all three products in one package called Robotics Invention System Deluxe Kit ($250) from www.lego.com.
For kids 9 and up, LEGO has Spybotics—affordable ($60), agile robots that travel on wheels and download and implement mission programs. You can exchange customized programs with other enthusiasts via the Web. Limited shelf space makes it hard to find LEGO robotics at local stores. Find everything at www.lego.com, but look for deals with price-comparison searches on www.mysimon.com.
What evil force compels parents to keep playing with Rokenbok construction sets long after their kids have gone to bed? Perhaps it's the mesmerizing motion of a monorail riding its curvy route, or the remarkable trucks traveling purposefully up and down tiered platforms, or the fascinating distribution of little red and blue balls through mechanized workings of piston plants and conveyors and sorters.
Rokenbok is an ingenious combination of motors, remote control, and hands-on construction of the supporting infrastructures for buildings, bridges, and train tracks. The products are simple to use but sophisticated in design. Gradually add on to the system (watch for sales!) until you've got a wonderfully sprawling field of play. Rokenbok bolsters confidence in kids as young as 3, though it tends to enchant all ages and easily engages the whole family in marathon sessions.
Lay the foundation by buying one or two starter sets ($100 to $200), which you can check out at www.rokenbok.com. Locally, Rokenbok can be found at Toys R Us (everywhere), Top Ten Toys (104 N. 85th St., 206-782-0098), and Treetop Toys (17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park, 206-363-5460), among dozens of other locations. Excellent deals can sometimes be found online.
This online store carries its own, wide-ranging series of affordable robots for three levels of age and skill. Most are computerized and programmable, require only household batteries, and can be assembled without a hassle.
Take the Jungle Robot ($27), which traverses hand over hand like an orangutan and walks on the ground like a gorilla. A condenser microphone and printed circuit board control walking and climbing functions, and when you want to get the big ape going, just speak sharply. The more sophisticated Spider III ($60) is a six-legged, intelligent robot that simulates the walking action of a spider and can detect (with an infrared beam) obstacles in its path, altering its direction accordingly. Loads of fun, especially when you put this dude in a maze.
Also available are Fischertechnik's admirable construction kits, "realistic, innovative systems" of working machine models using interlocking blocks, motors, sensors, lights, computer controls, and software. These items get pricey, but on the low end there is the very satisfying Universal set ($80), with 450 pieces and 24 easy-to-read assembly plans that do wonders with everyday technology for the 8-and- up set.
Welcome to hell. Model trains have a seemingly infinite number of manufacturers, scale sizes, types of track, engine strengths, and accessories. Unsuspecting first-timers can be easily overwhelmed by too many choices, causing them to spend money on the wrong equipment for start-up needs.
Here's what you do: Buy any HO gauge train set from Life-Like Products ($40-$170). HO is a good scale for beginners, easy to handle and examine, substantial in feel, but modest in space requirements. Life-Like's engines and cars look great, and the company's patented Power-Loc Tracks are superior to the more familiar Bachmann E-Z Tracks. You can easily lengthen your train's route with extra track while also picking up good-looking, inexpensive tankers, freight cars, etc., from manufacturers like Atlas and Chooch.
Soon you'll have a handsome set that won't easily fail, and your family can more casually explore the baby universe of electric trains. Buy locally from American Eagles Inc. (12537 Lake City Way N.E., 206-440-8448) and North End Train Center (12333 Lake City Way N.E., 206-362-4959), or online at www.internettrains.com.
There's nothing like it: operating a powerful model plane, truck, helicopter, or boat via radio control (known as r/c). You can scout r/c products in regional hobby shops, like Galaxy Hobby (19332 60th Ave. W., Lynnwood; 425-670-0454), but for the big picture, spend some time investigating www.ehobbies.com.
Never cheap, r/c models can cost up to $4,000, but you can get in on the action for much less. Thunder Tigers' gas-powered trainer series ($100), for example, is the company's most popular line of airplanes, designed for beginners, easily controlled, and with a realistic appearance and tricycle landing gear. Another nice model is the Cox Electra J3 Cub (length: 21 inches, wingspan 29 inches), which has been discounted 33 percent on ehobbies.com (making it $100).
Planes are fun, but a model helicopter is somehow more intriguing—and costly. JR's Ergo 46 3D ($450 in an unassembled kit) packs an unusual amount of power for its frame and features a low parts count, a self-aligning clutch system, belt- driven tail rotor, and easy maneuverability. (You'll need a few accessories—gyro, five-channel radio—to make it fly.)
THERE ARE OTHER FANTASTIC high-tech pastimes to rally your progeny, among them rocketry, astronomy, and wacky electronics fun (potato-powered clocks, simulated volcanoes, etc.). In the end, however, all that matters is this profoundly simple truth: The family that plays together stays together.