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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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How Do We Decide What’s Best for Our Child?

children playing with bubbles

We all strive to do what’s best for our children. Question is, what does ‘best” mean? Does one size fit all?  Should we consider each child and choose options that best fit what we know about that individual and how she learns? Or go with the flow?

Once we decide what’s best, how do we evaluate the “rightness” of our decision over time? After all, nurturing children isn’t a “set it and forget it “ proposition. It’s one that requires vigilance and willingness to re-evaluate. What we thought the best choice could turn out not to be or to be for less time than we thought.

Beyond that is a plethora of information and opinions. Consider currently prevailing pressure for more academic learning at ever earlier ages.  What’s to be gained? What’s being lost? What are the consequences, both short-term and long? These are issues we need to confront as we weigh what’s best for our children.

Someone who has, both as parent and professional, is Angela Hansom. As a pediatric occupational therapist she focuses on activities of daily living. For a child that includes play. But what happens when children as early as preschool find themselves trading play for a more structured, academic approach to learning?

As a guest blogger for Valerie Strauss’ The Answer Sheet in The Washington Post, Hansom shares her experiences. “The decline of play in preschoolers-and the rise in sensory issues” outlines what she sees as the consequences of society’s push towards structured enrichment activities and academic achievement as early as preschool over early childhood as a time for child directed, open-ended play.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

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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.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

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How to Choose The Best Toy

Looking for the Best Toy?

 Customers sometimes ask me to recommend the best toy for their child or grandchild, particularly if the child has a special need. Many begin the conversation by sharing a diagnosis. While valuable, this information only addresses one aspect of who the child is. To answer the question, we need to think beyond gender, age, development, or disability. That’s because we all have preferences, and those make all the difference.

We Buy What Appeals to Us

 Just think about ourselves. When we’re shopping, we bring our preferences with us. Think about a sweater. I might find one that seems perfect in every way, except one. The fiber, style, and fit are exquisite. The price, the lowest it’s ever been. The only drawback is the color. It’s a lovely color and the height of fashion, but it isn’t one that makes me look my best. Perhaps I could convince myself it’s not all that bad. In fact, it has much to offer, considering the price. Who doesn’t appreciate a bargain?  And it will keep me warm. That’s the main reason for buying a sweater, right? Yes, but… And here’s the reality in that three letter word. I’d end up not wearing that sweater, except if I was freezing and had absolutely nothing else to keep me warm. What we buy has to appeal to us if we’re to use and enjoy our purchase.

Kids Choose Toys That Appeal to Their Sense of Play

 Children are the same. A toy has to appeal to a kid before she’ll give it her attention. Something about the toy has to invite play, and once the child begins playing, the toy has to prove its worth. The child decides if it merits her time, if the toy offers enough value to hold her interest. Young children like repetition. That’s how they develop skills. Their toys need to be safe, well constructed, and durable, able to stand up to persistent play. Being easy to clean counts too.

Kids Learn Through Play        Array of flannel covered crinkle paper for babies

 Kids also like to explore and discover. Through play, infants begin to understand cause and effect and learn about their environment. Small enough for tiny fingers to grasp, Baby Paper is made of soft flannel with an inner layer of crinkle fabric that makes the sound of paper being crumpled when touched. Babies typically find that appealing and repeat the action that produced the original sound, learning through repetition about cause and effect, about their ability to make something happen.

Observe Kids at Play Before Shopping For Toys

 We make our best decisions when we’ve observed the recipient at play and know her preferences. When choosing toys, select from those you think will appeal most to the child and mesh best with her current abilities, emerging skills, and developmental goals. This is true for all children, with or without special needs. Toys are tools for play. When a child finds a toy intriguing and engages in play, learning occurs naturally and joyfully.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

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What Creativity Looks Like

bottle tree with chandelier on top

We talk about the importance of children developing creativity and problem-solving skills. What are we saying? Being creative means thinking differently, being imaginative, inventive, innovative. Its expression relies upon persistence, problem-solving, resourcefulness. Creativity and problem-solving skills are intertwined. Whether artistic or scientific, the creative process is fraught with challenges. A mind open to possibilities, exploration, experimentation, tinkering, and plain hard work are all required for creativity to blossom.

That’s why open-ended, experiential learning and self-directed play are essential. Kids need opportunities to use their imaginations, experiment, discover what works, what doesn’t, revise their plans, and work out the kinks. Adults too benefit from taking on creative challenges. Find a craft that appeals and give yourself permission to explore its possibilities. In other words, learn to play. 4184534267_e2b4206548_z

Creativity knows no boundaries. Fanciful, playful expressions abound, many off the beaten path and well worth a detour. Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch in Oro Grande, California, on old Route 66, is a magical place, a testament to the creativity of one man, Elmer Long, who built his first bottle tree in 2000. He says he doesn’t know how many he’s built. Doesn’t count them. Those who do, count over 200. Elmer says he has another 100 in his head. Building a bottle tree, he says, is easy. Only takes welding. Then he pauses and adds imagination.

From the age of six, Elmer and his father went camping in the desert, often visiting long abandoned 19th century ghost towns where they’d search the dumps, finding buried treasure, including glass bottles. Thus began his collecting of ordinary objects and bits and pieces that he uses in extraordinary ways. Besides bottles, Elmer collects old insulators and builds trees in an unbelievable array of styles.

He often incorporates objects that evoke memories. One tree topper is the Lionel train engine he received for Christmas when he was three years old. Other bottle trees feature everything from telephones and typewriters to machinery and tools. Helmets inside which birds have built nests, rifles and interesting bits and pieces, all with stories to tell.

Imagination, inventiveness, persistence, problem-solving skills, and resourcefulness combined to create the unique artistry of Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch. Passion fuels the process. Open-ended, self directed play fosters creative expression by developing the skills required to give original ideas their wings. Play is essential. For everyone. Everyday.

 PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

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Observing Play Preferences

Play, at its best, is self-directed. As a result, children develop personal preferences while engaging in a variety of different types of play. Observing children engaged in spontaneous play allows us to learn what they like to do. Knowing this, we can provide opportunities and props that support and enrich their preferred play experiences and show that we’re paying attention and respecting their choices.

Because children develop at different paces and are drawn to different activities, kiddos of the same age display markedly different competencies even when all are developing within typical ranges. One 12 month old may be so fascinated by the different ways to open and close the fasteners on a lock box that he has no interest in walking. Another is on his feet happily exploring his environment from a new perspective.

The first child’s passion requires figuring out how the locks work and using his fingers and hands. Mastery incorporates cognitive, problem solving, and small motor skills, perhaps beyond developmental expectations. The second delights in having gotten the hang of walking and focuses on learning more ways to move his body. Mastery requires developing gross motor skills – balance, coordination, and strength. When learning anything new, our focus and concentration are on the task at hand. Mastery requires trial and error, repetition, and time to process what we’re learning.  Once we’ve achieved one goal, we’re ready for another. Personal needs and preferences often dictate what we choose.

Through observation, we also learn what a child shies away from, and this gives us valuable insights too. Observing your child when she’s playing spontaneously is the best way to learn her play preferences. Take note of what she does most often and what toys or other objects she incorporates into her play.

Does she enjoy artistic pursuits, music, or dance? Fantasy? Imaginative Play? Is she drawn to activities that involve analytical thinking – sorting, classifying, categorizing? Does “puzzling” over spatial relationships intrigue her? What about building with blocks? Does she prefer fine motor activities or gross motor ones? Does she like sensory play?

Observing a child at play not only gives us insights into her preferences, but it also reminds us that play is essential. Children learn while playing. The more children engage in self-directed play, the more experiential learning they do. Kids naturally learn how to learn through play. So encourage children to play.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

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PlayopolisToys Celebrates Inclusive Play

kids + Magformers


Play is any activity that gives us pleasure and so captures our attention that we become one with the process. The act of playing gives us a sense of well-being and accomplishment. Our worries melt away, and we’re enriched by the experience.

Play is essential. Interacting with toys that invite open-ended, self-directed play, children develop skills and learn at their own pace. Play also builds bridges among children with different abilities. PlayopolisToys values inclusive play and sells developmental, distraction, and sensory toys that meet the diverse needs of all Citizens of Play.

Explore PlayopolisToys. You’ll find kid-approved toys endorsed by professionals and parents alike for their proven benefits.

 PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

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Play Is Essential

PlayopolisToys is an inclusive place where all citizens of play, children and children at heart, including those with special needs, find engaging toys that delight the senses, invite exploration and discovery, and build skills. We’ve created a Pinterest board, Play is Essential, brimming with quotes, research, even two videos that support this belief.

When speaking of play, we’re referring to open-ended experiences emerging naturally from a child’s interest. It’s self directed, non-scripted, and creative. When children become engaged in play and are allowed time and space to “take it to the limit,” they grow their minds and their bodies, becoming creative and imaginative problem solvers. They develop cognitive, language, emotional, and social competencies as well as fine and gross motor skills. And they enjoy the process. They’re excited about what they’ve learned and eager to learn more.

Children delight in play and learn through play. They learn because they play. Childhood is a time of exploration and discovery, figuring out how the world works, and acquiring skills. The best play occurs when children have opportunity to assess possibilities and decide what to do. Freedom to choose allows children to pursue personal interests. Excited by possibilities, they delve deeper, become more involved, and gain insight and knowledge.

Provide opportunities. Observe. You’ll be amazed.

quote from Plato

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play


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Sense in Play

The word sense is fascinating for all its meanings. Sense refers to more than the five ways we perceive external stimuli: touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. Sense is also a feeling, as in an awareness or intuitive knowledge. We say someone with the ability to see the humor in any situation and make people laugh has a sense of humor. With a hurricane building force as it approaches landfall, coastal residents likely experience a sense of foreboding.

Other uses of sense reflect cognitive and problem solving skills. Think of the ability to assess and respond rationally to circumstances, as in “he had the good sense to come indoors during the storm.” When we express our opinions or present information coherently, we’re said to make sense. After explaining the need for emergency preparedness in a straight forward, easy to understand way, we’re will likely to hear someone say, “that makes sense.”

When someone has been behaving badly, we may be called upon to “bring him to his senses,” to point out the error of his ways and support his efforts to regain control of himself. We want people to “stay in their senses,” fully aware and in control. “Taking leave of our senses” is quite serious. We all want to be sane.

Children and adults alike take in information through all our senses, processing and storing what we learn for future use. Interacting with others and the environment, children develop and test theories, drawing conclusions based on experience and observation. They plan and problem solve, demonstrating by their perseverance the adage, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” They develop self confidence, resilience, and a can do spirit.

Open-ended play involves sense in every meaning of the word. Self directed, open-ended play builds skills and encourages outside-of-the-box, creative thinking. Children become so absorbed in the process that they lose track of time. Play is fun. Play enriches. Play is essential.

 PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

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Block Play

Having written about the importance of limiting exposure to branded products because these come with a script that defines play and limits creativity, I want to show what happens when preschoolers engage in block play. This is classic, open-ended, self-directed play.

With a variety of wood blocks at their disposal, these preschoolers are free to choose what fits their vision. Being creative involves assessing a situation, considering what might be done with what’s available, formulating, and carrying out a plan. When working with others, the process becomes collaborative. Everyone needs to articulate ideas, collaborate, and cooperate to insure a successful outcome.

block play

Here the children have arranged hollow blocks and embellished their structure with unit blocks in different shapes and sizes. In the process, the children explored shape, size, and weight, directionality, spatial relationships, and balance. Some blocks are stacked horizontally, others vertically; open-sides are visible on some, solid sides on others. Working as a team, the children have faced challenges, solved problems, delighted in the process, and relished the outcome.


Unit blocks offer the widest variety of shapes and sizes and invite elaborate building and patterning. To create this structure, the children experimented with symmetry and balance as the crossed arches atop the center ones depend upon careful placement to remain in place. Successfully installing the top element required patience, well developed eye-hand coordination, and motor control.

 PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play