Meet The Chief Play Officer

playopolis-founder-christina-wallersteinWelcome to PlayopolisToys. I’m Christina Wallerstein, its founder and chief play officer. We sell toys that invite children from birth to age six or so to play. That includes children with special needs and in stressful situations. We know well-chosen toys enrich play and enhance skill-building. Moreover we know Why Toys and Play Are Essential. We delight in sharing what we’ve learned so that shopping for toys is easier for everyone, parents and professionals, family, and friends alike.

Occasionally someone asks what sparked my passion for play. Or why I became a toyseller. My answer is simple: motherhood. Before becoming a mother, I never thought about toys or play. Once our son was born, however, I began thinking and learning about both. One experience naturally lead to another then another.

Through a pilot project for first time parents, we discovered Pacific Oaks Children’s School. In its Infant-Toddler Program, I observed children from six months to two years old exploring their surroundings, figuring out how the world works. While playing, they made a life-altering discovery — cause and effect. Realizing “when I do this, then that happens” is powerful knowledge.

Moreover I learned the importance of simple, sturdy, well-crafted toys. And of giving children freedom to direct their own play. That means allowing children to explore and discover for themselves. At their own pace. So I learned to step back. Observe. Encourage as needed. Engage when invited.

As our son grew, so did my understanding of how play works. Of how essential open-ended, child-directed play is to learning. I watched children interact, cooperate, and collaborate as they played. They devised and carried out plans, encountered obstacles, and worked out solutions. Learned to “use words” to resolve differences when angry.

I learned to appreciate how toys engage and motivate children to master skills. How children gain confidence and competence in the process. How different children approach play and how individual responses to a toy differ. Toys are tools. Preferences abound. Each child develops at her own pace and learns in his own way. Children prefer toys that reflect their personal preferences.

In the beginning I worked with early childhood educators supplying traditional preschools and day care centers and creating toy libraries for agencies. Then our son was determined to have learning disabilities. A creative, visual learner, he preferred hands on experiences. Visual arts and wood-working, block play and construction, digging water channels in the sand. Once again I learned new ways to support play and foster learning by providing appropriate tools.

That got me to looking at how special needs affect play and what toys best support skill-building. I supplied toys when Braille Institute launched its Child Development Services. And later worked with Special Collections on Dots for Tots, a program for children between two and five years old that provides multi-sensory picture books with Braille overlays and a related toy

One experience led to another. I began exhibiting at national and regional conferences on young children with special needs, including vision and autism. My first time as an exhibitor and co-presenter was a conference of California Transcribers and Educators of the Blind and Visually Impaired. That annual conference quickly became my favorite. And led me to participate in Southern California family workshops presented by Birth to Five Vision Network as well as California Deafblind Services.

Sharing information on choosing toys for young children with special needs goes beyond workshops at conferences and teacher in-service days. Most recently Dr. Bill Takeshita invited me to be a guest on his podcast. We discussed Toys and Technology for the Child with Low Vision. The Dr. Bill Telephone Series, a service of Braille Institute, airs monthly and focuses on pediatric eye conditions. Archived podcasts are available on their website.

In addition to looking at special needs, I wondered how hospitalization—often traumatic, always stressful—affects children. That’s how I learned about child life. Focusing on the psycho-social needs of children, these professionals value play for the normalizing experience
that it is. Essential to the wellbeing of all children. Through play, they educate children about illness or injury. Prepare them for surgeries and procedures. And help them develop coping skills. They also use distraction toys during procedures to draw a child’s attention away from what’s going on around him. While focusing on the toy, the child relaxes. That makes a stressful situation more manageable for everyone involved. Supporting child life is important to me. That’s why I’m a member of the Association of Child Life Professionals and exhibit at their annual Child Life Conference.

So that’s how becoming a mother sparked my passion for play and for toys that foster child-directed, open-ended experiential learning for all children. Now Gama to a preschooler, I have an in-house toy tester. Watching her play re-enforces what I know to be true. Play is essential. More now than ever. We all need to play.

When launching our new website, we added a video sharing my thoughts on toys and play. I invite you to watch four year olds playing joyfully. And hear how such child-directed, open-ended play builds skills and supports learning.

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