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Why Toys Are Important for Child Development

Play and toys support child development. Playing  is what children do. Toys are their tools. When adults shop for tools, quality counts. We want safe ones that work well and enable us to do our best. We look for thoughtfully designed, well-made, sturdy, built-to-last products that we’ll enjoy using over and over again. All this, and more, holds true for toys.

Here’s what I have learned. Play is essential. Quality developmental toys support skill- building and, thereby, enhance play. Consequently children flourish. So what does that mean?

Safety Matters

Safety matters. Sound construction is a must. But that’s not the whole picture. The developmental age of the child matters too. Safety is a collaborative effort. Even the safest toys require adult supervision.

Manufacturers are required to label products that pose a chocking hazard. The most common reads  WARNING: CHOKING HAZARD – Small parts. Not for children under 3 years old. That’s one of six. The others apply to a toy that is or contains a small ball or a marble or, likely the most serious hazard, contains magnets.

Yet another warns that children under 8 years of age can choke or suffocate on un-inflated or broken balloons. That Children with balloons require adult supervision. Safety warnings alert us to hazards. Beyond that we must take into account where our children are developmentally. We do well to remember that some need more time to grow out of the habit of putting everything in the mouth. No blame, no shame. Every child develops at his or her own pace. 

Thoughtful Design and Careful Construction

Thoughtful design and careful construction are hallmarks of the best tools for  play. First and foremost these attributes reflect an understanding of child development and an appreciation of how children acquire skills while playing.

When a toy is well-made, it is not only safe, but also satisfying. It works as intended. That’s important. Just as we want our tools to perform well, children want their toys to meet their expectations. Otherwise play becomes frustrating, and the toy is cast aside.

Building Beakers

ten graduated cups for nesting and stacking

Let’s look at two toys that exemplify top-notch design and construction. These are Building Beakers and Lock a Block. Made by Ambi, both are classic early childhood toys that engage infants and toddlers in skill-building play. Moreover both are toys that support child development.

The manufacturer recommends Building Beakers beginning at 10 months old. A true developmental toy, these cups offer new ways to play as the child develops new skills. At first, I suggest offering only the smallest and the largest cups. That invites putting one inside the other, turning the larger cup upside down and watching the smaller one fall out. That’s filling and spilling, an activity the toddler will repeat over and over again.

What’s happening here? The child is experimenting. Observing when-I-do-this-that-happens. Confirming the cause and effect through repetition. Developing fine motor skills: grasp and release  while filling and wrist rotation as the child spills. When we offer words to describe such attributes as color and size of the cups, we’re encouraging language development.

Features  Make A Difference

Rolled Rims

Rolled rims are an important feature of Ambi Building Beakers. On the one hand, they make separating nested cups easier. On the other, stacking becomes more successful. When a toddler is learning to stack, eye-hand coordination, grasp and release, and dexterity are only beginning to develop. Obviously stacking is challenging. Quite often the adjacent block slides off as the child attempts to place another on top of it. The rim helps hold the beakers together and makes the stack more stable.

Raised Patterns

Each cup also features a unique raised pattern on its base. These invite both visual and tactile exploration. Pressing the cups into sand, play dough or clay creates patterns and encourages creative expression. Furthermore recognizing patterns is a pre-reading skill.


Sand and water provide further opportunities for play. In the sand, the cups become molds. Two pinholes in the bottom of each beaker add another dimension to water play. The graduated sizes allow young children to explore how the cups are alike and different. All the beakers are round, but each is a different size. Small or large or big or little, short or tall. These are important math concepts learned through play. 

Lock a Block

shape sorter toy with lock and key

Lock a Block – an inclusive toy, if ever there was one – is my favorite shape sorting toy. Because all children like saying, “I did it.”  Note the high contrast between the bright white top and the color matched raised rims outlining each opening. That makes “hitting the target” easier. Dropping a shape into its slot not only requires shape discrimination. It also takes eye-hand coordination and the ability to grasp and release the shape. Developing fine motor skills takes practice. Success motivates.  Lock a Block is a must for the blind and visually impaired. As well as for those with fine motor challenges.

Furthermore, three dimensional shapes drop more easily into place than shaped dowel pieces that require precise fitting. Again motivating the repetition that leads to skill-building. This shape sorter toy includes two each of three shapes, a plus that encourages one to one matching games. Furthermore naming the colors and shapes encourages cognitive and language development.

In First, Then Out

Retrieve shapes through a door on the front of the box. Permanently attached key fits smoothly in the lock and turns easily. As the key turns, the lock clicks. Following the sequence of steps required to get the shapes out involves problem solving, memory, and concentration. Eye-hand coordination, grasp and release, and wrist rotation  increase with each repetition.

Thoughtful design makes toys adaptable and versatile. More inclusive and engaging. Children naturally enjoy playing with toys that  work well. A delighted “I did it!” not only announces success but also shares the joy of achieving a goal. As they play, children build competence and confidence. Through play, children acquire the skills they need to reach their fullest potential. Toys support child development by enhancing play.

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Why I Avoid Licensed Products

architectural building set fosters creativity

Babies As Billboards

Here we are 17 years into the 21st century. The only constant is change and that comes at an increasingly maddening speed. Since becoming a grandmother a year ago, I’ve discovered that almost every aspect of “bringing up baby” is different now. What distresses me most is the proliferation of branded products for young children. Customers pay a premium for these products, merchandise that promotes brand identity. The beneficiaries of branded products are companies, not those buying the products.

Leading brands of disposable diapers feature licensed characters. Babies become billboards, re-enforcing brand identity, advertising specific products. Do we really want babies commercialized in this way? I don’t. Fortunately non-licensed brands of equal quality and at lower prices exist for those of us who prefer diapers advertisement free.

Once Upon A Time Before Widespread Licensing of Toys

Toys have suffered a similar fate. Once upon a time, Lego designed products for unscripted, open-ended play with themes reflecting general interests of its audience. Never miss open house at the neighborhood fire station? Select from individual fire trucks to a fully equipped fire station. Although designed for building specific play props, bricks used to build a fire station could also be used to craft something altogether different. Build a cityscape complete with streets and vehicles, even an airport, design and build skyscrapers, housing, school, and parks. Add a neighborhood landmark. Children built whatever came to mind and created their own story lines as they played.

Sets included diagrams for building the item pictured on the box, and that was what children usually built first. Gradually the pieces from one set joined those from others to form a sea of multiple and varied building components which served as a catalyst for open-ended, creative play. The search for just the right piece sharpened visual discrimination.

Licensed Products Script Play

Now Lego holds numerous licenses, and play is more apt to reflect related story lines than to evolve from the imagination of children. The toy comes with a script. Yes, the child is free to adapt the toy to fit other narratives, yet by its nature a licensed product limits creativity. Using his imagination to spin his own yarns is more creative than following a script.

How Non-licensed Toys Benefit Children

Toys that invite children to “put on their thinking caps” and engage in a process of experimentation, discovery, and problem-solving allow children to follow their muse and reap the rewards. They gain competence and confidence as they acquire and refine skills in comprehension, language, and mathematics, eye-hand coordination, fine motor control, and spatial awareness. Creativity, executive planning, and problem-solving blossom as children design and construct ever more advanced structures.

Texo = Open-Ended Building

While numerous open-ended design and construction toys are available, a particularly versatile one is Texo, an award-winning 3-dimensional building system from architect, author, and designer Lester Walker. This building system allows children to progress gradually from basic color and shape sorting, matching, and identification to simple puzzles and stacking of interconnected shapes and finally to advanced architectural models. Plastic rods and solid wood planks coupled with the geometric precision of molded plastic connectors enhance the design and construction potential. Imagination dictates what gets built. And creativity blossoms.

In the forward to the activity guide accompanying Texo, Walker shares his vision. Form and function are the foundations of architecture and design. Children learn at an early age about these principles through playing with blocks and construction toys and through their natural curiosity which leads them to explore, replicate and shape their environment. Texo – which is Latin for weave, twine together, plait, construct, build – is a toy I’ve designed to help children gain a richer understanding of form and function through a scaleable toy, one that at its most basic level is about stacking, sorting and sequencing, and grows in its complexity as a child grows, becoming something they can use to explore principles of architecture, design and engineering. Enjoy!

Play is, by definition, an enjoyable experience. Freed from scripts, children create their own as they explore possibilities. Providing the children in our lives with ample opportunities for open-ended play and watching them flourish benefits and delights both sides of the equation.

 PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

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Read Across America

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss! Your books have had quite an impact these past 80 years. Your wonderfully whimsical words and drawings continue to delight and inspire the young and the young at heart. You encourage us to “think and wonder, wonder and think.” We’re better off when we do.
Your message is clear, “the more that you read, the more things you will know.”
So when the National Education Association wanted to create excitement about reading, they choose your birthday for an annual event called Read Across America. Designed to motivate kids to read more, the first celebration occurred on March 2, 1998. Now, all across America, schools hold assemblies and guests visit classrooms to read aloud to the students. I’ve even heard that some principals have dyed their hair green. I’m wondering if any cafeterias serve green eggs and ham. Now that would be a scream!

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Children Learn While Playing

Girl with green hoodie and bubbles

Play is essential. Children learn while playing, and we adults do irreparable damage to children when we ignore this truth. By play, I mean self-directed, open-ended exploration and discovery. When playing, children use of what’s available, decide what they want to do, and put their energy into doing it. When a challenge arises, they assess the situation, re-think possibilities, and go from there. During play they develop creativity, problem solving, and executive planning skills. Playing with others, they learn vital social skills: how to articulate their ideas, to listen to others, cooperate, compromise, respect.

PlayopolisToys has pinned article after article to our Pinterest board Children Learn While Playing offering research demonstrating the value of play and lamenting its decline. Among these pins is a reprint of a speech by child development specialist Nancy Carlson-Paige, the author of Taking Back Childhood. An educator with 30 + years experience teaching teachers, she sums up her dismay over current practices that leave children little time to experience the benefits of unstructured, “free play”  by saying, “…never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that we would have to defend children’s right to play.” Yet we do.

In “How “twisted” early childhood education has become – from a child development expert,” Valerie Strauss, writing in The Washington Post, reprints the speech Carlson-Paige gave when accepting the prestigious Deborah Meier Hero in Education Award. Read what she had to say. If you’re a proponent, your passion for play will be validated.  If you’ve never given much thought to the issue, you’ll find plenty to think about.

Then settle in and find out what children learn from traditional open-ended play with blocks and bubbles, puzzles and play dough, and so much more.

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Creative Wisdom

Creativity involves exploration, observation, and risk-taking. That’s what “thinking outside the box” means. Setting aside fears of making mistakes and embracing process. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Not every process will deliver the desired outcome, but the process itself will yield useful information. “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.”

Being creative means remaining undaunted by difficulty and disappointment and open to exploring other avenues. Such a response builds resilience and confidence, qualities that everyone needs when facing challenges. Consider the preschooler who explained to her teacher that “Art isn’t about making mistakes. It’s about using your mistakes to make something even cooler.”

She understands the creative purpose. She considers an unexpected outcome an opportunity, not a failure. This resilience empowers her to accept the results of her initial efforts and move forward towards an “even cooler” success. We all can learn from her.




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What Being Creative Means

When we say someone is creative, what do we mean? Artistic? Certainly artists are creative, but what does that mean? Likely we’re talking about divergent thinking – what we mean when we say someone thinks “outside the box” – the ability to solve problems. Creativity is an essential ingredient in successfully navigating our way through life.

So, how do we encourage creativity in ourselves? Open-ended play – having fun, amusing ourselves, engaging in an activity for pure pleasure, not to “get a job done.” For adults that could mean turning off our devices and losing ourselves in an activity that allows us to experiment, discover what happens if we do this or that, and devise solutions when problems arise.

Quilting comes to mind. Imagine reading directions, carefully measuring and cutting pieces, only to find, while fitting those pieces together, that you’d forgotten the ruler had an extra 1/4” on one side and one end that’s not on the other. Now not all pieces fit together properly. Negative thoughts arise. Frustration reigns. Fun exits.

But wait. Consider the possibilities. After all, you have invested substantial money and time. Abandoning the project not an option. Remember the adage, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Take a deep breath. Pull on your “thinking cap.” Allow yourself to be creative. Be open to the unexpected. Play around. Gradually you’ll feel yourself having fun again. Be amazed.

And end up with a one-of-a-kind original design that makes up into a beautiful quilt. Having “been there and done that,” I promise being gentle with yourself and embracing possibilities when something goes awry increases creativity. Like our muscles, we have to exercise our creativity to achieve optimum health. Developing creativity and problem solving skills reduces stress and enhances our quality of life.

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Allowing Ourselves to Become Artists

Recently I had the pleasure of attending “The 30-Minute Museum,” an art exhibit showcasing the work of nine college students who had completed an intensive five-day course in the visual arts. As an artist, an art teacher and an advocate for children, the instructor, Larry Garf, developed, “Foundations of Teaching Art,” primarily “for classroom teachers who deeply understand the importance of the arts in the lives of children, but who don’t feel comfortable teaching art.” He knows that, in this time of shrinking budgets, most children will never experience an art teacher in public school, making giving classroom teachers the tools they need to incorporate art into their curriculum all the more important.

Drawings from the Right Side of the Brain, the required text, served only as a reference for students wanting to further explore the processes of seeing and drawing. All art instruction was hands-on. The instructor taught a technique, gave an assignment, and each student made it her own. From drawing a cartoon figure to more complex pen and ink drawings, from pastels to water colors, from puppet making to paper sculpture and pop-up books, each student learned basic techniques, took a deep breath, banished doubt, and allowed her creativity to unfold. Everyone  learned to cast aside anxieties and allow themselves to experience, even enjoy, the creative process and come up with a satisfying result.

The final assignment was for each student to teach a newly learned technique to a “non-artist,” someone lacking confidence in her ability to draw. I volunteered, and you know what, my cartoon figure turned out better than I would have ever expected, and my daughter-in-law gained confidence in her ability to teach what she had learned. She plans to use the techniques in a therapeutic setting, believing that we all can benefit from engaging the right side of our brains. I couldn’t agree more.

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Re-purposing Pumpkin Seeds

With Halloween behind us and Thanksgiving on the horizon, gourds, pumpkins, and other squash are in plentiful supply. What can we do with the seeds we laboriously scrap from inside of pumpkins before carving or baking a pie?

Nutritious Snack

Pumpkin seeds are delicious toasted, and make a nutritious snack. Making use of the seeds instead of discarding them shows our children the value of pumpkins~beyond jack ‘o lanterns and pies. This becomes another way we demonstrate our commitment to reducing waste. We’re getting the most we can from the products we buy just as we recycle, re-purpose, and re-use.

Secrets to Success

The secrets to success, or so I have read, are using seeds from sugar pumpkins and boiling before toasting. To boil, add seeds to salted water, figuring four parts water to one part seeds, and 1 1/2 teaspoons of sea salt per cup of water. For one cup of seeds, add four cups of water and two tablespoons of sea salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 10 minutes. Drain.


Now you’re ready to toast. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss seeds in olive oil, using two tablespoons of olive oil per cup of pumpkin seeds. Spread the seeds in a single layer on a cookie sheet and bake on the top rack until the seeds start to brown. This takes from 10 to 20 minutes, depending on what you like. Remove from oven, and cool completely on rack before eating. Some people crack open the outer shell and eat only the tender inner kernel. Others prefer the crunch of pumpkin seeds with the shell on. Apparently the seeds from sugar pumpkins are the best for eating with the shell on. You be the judge.

Art Projects

Admittedly not everyone wants to boil, toast, and eat pumpkin seeds. If you’re one who doesn’t, think art projects. Instead of dumping the seeds in the garbage, simply wash and dry them. While the seeds are drying, grab a pail and take a walk in your neighborhood with your child.  Children adore collecting, and acorns, pine cones, twigs, pebbles, and shells are popular collectibles.

When you get home, put out paper or cardboard, glue, and pumpkin seeds, add the treasures gathered on your walk and watch a collage take form as your child experiments and expresses his creativity. Substitute play dough or clay for the paper and glue and watch what your child does then. Some children like the natural look; others like to add color and glitz. For those, put out paint and glitter for embellishing. Art projects at their best are child directed, open-ended play experiences. So anything goes.

If you go the art projects route, please e-mail us pictures of your child’s creations. We’d like to show our readers what happens when children incorporate natural materials into their art explorations. It’s magical.

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Physical Activity Enhances Creativity

Recently I read that research shows physical activity enhances creativity. That’s yet another reason for getting up and getting moving. The arrival of autumn with its cooler, crisp, sunny days invites us to get outdoors and be physically active. Rain gutters need cleaning. Falling leaves need raking. Summer gardens need tilling and mulching. If you live in a place with mild winter tepmeratures, now’s the time for planting a winter garden. All these activities get our bodies moving and our creative juices flowing.

Taking a walk is my favorite year round outdoor activity, and autumn my favorite season for walking. After the high heat of summer, the cooler, crisp air is invigorating, and I cannot resist its invitation to come out, walk around, and take notice of all the changes the season brings. For one, I have to walk earlier. Since the autumnal equinox, our hours of darkness have increased, and soon “falling back” will find us shrouded in darkness even earlier in the day.

For another, trees are taking on their fall colors and leaves beginning to fall. I like the sights and sounds of these transitions~ the reds, oranges, and yellows brightening the leaves on the trees and the crunching of fallen ones underfoot. This is the perfect season for taking walks and spending time with our children celebrating the season through creative use of natural materials.

Grab a pail and take a walk. Gather interesting objects along the way: acorns, nuts, leaves, bark, sticks~anything that captures your attention and imagination. Afterwards use what you found to be creative. Glue, trace, rub, paint.

For rubbings, use a variety of different leaves and an array of bright colors. Place a leaf on a smooth tabletop and cover it with a sheet of thin paper. Take a crayon and rub the paper. Do this with a leaf from each species. This activity provides an opportunity to talk about similarities and differences, not only among the leaves but among the trees themselves~their bark, their height and girth. Naming the leaves and labeling the rubbings enhances the experience and may lead to a trip to the library to learn more.

For more nature inspired seasonal crafts, stay tuned. We’ll be sharing more ideas in the weeks ahead. We’re always eager to hear from our readers, and invite you to share “recipes” and pictures of your favorite seasonal creative activities for children.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

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Art Walks

Fall is in the air, bringing us renewed energy after the high heat of summer. Now, briefly, we have time to indulge in arts and culture. At least that’s what happens around here. Our city sponsors Art Weekend~three days, six events, all free. How cool is that?

On ArtNight, participants enjoy an evening of art, music, and entertainment as 14 prominent arts and cultural institutions swing open their doors. Foodies, history buffs, artists and art lovers, musicians and music aficinados spend Saturday exploring the Art of Food, ArtHeritage, ArtWalk, and ArtRhythm. On Sunday ArtPerformance presents a cultural dance festival featuring dances from around the world. There’s something for everyone to enjoy.

Adjacent cities and towns have sidewalk art shows and arts and crafts street fairs that find people outdoors enjoying the beautiful weather and admiring the creativity of the artists and craftspeople showing their creations. You never know who you will meet or what you will discover.

Our own Heidi Floren is a fine artist who has exhibited her oil paintings at ArtWalk and shows year round at Heidi Floren Gallery. Indulge yourself: take a virtual stroll through her gallery and savor the beauty.

Heidi Floren oil painting of water lilies

Creativity takes many forms, and encouraging children to experiment and discover what happens is essential. Offering multiple avenues of exploration enhances the creative process. Think about the many ways a child can experiment in the process of expressing an idea. One might draw a stick person with a crayon, marker or pencil. With each medium, the product will be different. She might bend and shape Wikki Stix, pipe cleaners, or Brain Noodles into a person. Although the process is similar, the products will be different. She might roll out play dough or clay, slice thin strips and fashion a person. Again the materials are similar, and the products different one from the other. Imagine the possibilities. Immerse yourself in the joy of creative expression.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play