Tuesday, October 20, 2009

'Tis the season: the best toys to buy for young children

Being in the toy business (at my day job I build playrooms for children living in homeless shelters) I often get asked for advice. What's the hottest toy this season? What would make the perfect gift? Which toys are worth the money?

While my specialty is toys for early childhood (infants through six-year-olds), this advice applies to toys and games for all ages.

Rule number 1: Ignore the "it" toy of the moment.
Next year (or next month) it won't matter if little Susie has the newest Zhu Zhu Hamster, because it will be forgotten or broken. Focus, instead, on toys that will keep your child stimulated and are constructed to last longer than a season.

Rule number 2: Know your audience.
A budding baker would prefer a set of toy pots and pans to a trendy toy that doesn't grab his or her interest. If you're not close to the child, you can still choose a "classic" gift like wooden blocks or hand puppets that will make an impact.

Rule number 3: Follow your heart.
Choose a toy that you loved as a child or one that catches your eye and it's bound to be special. You don't have to spend the morning after Thanksgiving bundled up outside Toys "R" Us waiting to buy The Next Big Thing. Follow your heart when choosing and you'll be successful.

Here are some of my favorite toys and brands of toys. These are IT&O-tested and kid-approved; they are sturdy, tons of fun, and in many cases educational. Some are even sustainably-made and good for the earth. Read on, toy buyers!

Melissa & Doug

Melissa & Doug started out in the garage at Doug's parents' house and has grown into one of the most successful toy companies around. Their products are high-quality, featuring many well-constructed wooden toys. In times when children are inundated with cheap plastic toys, the feeling of warm, solid wood is a comforting alternative. Some of my favorite products by Melissa & Doug? Puppets, puzzles, and wooden toys.

Green Toys

Green Toys says that they believe that "the world would be a much better place if everyone said 'please' and 'thank you', cell phones didn’t ring during movies, and all toys were fun, safe, and made from environmentally friendly materials. Since it’s probably no use holding our breath for those first two, we’re concentrating on the toys."

Made from recycled plastic and other environmentally-friendly materials, Green Toys are classic toys that are great for kids and great for the planet. I'm personally a big fan of the tea set (since in addition to it being planet-friendly, it's one of the few tea sets around that isn't plastered with images of Disney princesses or glitter), but all of the company's toys are wonderful, durable, and more pleasant than stuff made from cheap, destructible plastic.


If you're looking for high-quality games, look no further than Cranium, the makers of super-popular games for everyone from preschoolers to adults. The games are silly, lots of fun, and allow people of different ages and abilities to play the same game without anyone feeling as though he or she is too advanced or too far behind. These games are guaranteed to bring you a lot of joy and laughter. (Classic Cranium is my favorite Cranium game for adults!)


Please do me a favor and don't buy Rose Art crayons and supplies for your kids! It pains me to see kids scribbling around with cheap, waxy crayons, when Crayola crayons are so durable and inexpensive in their own right. Stick with the classics here. My favorite? A big box of crayons in many colors.

Buying toys that are well-constructed will serve the children in your life better than plastic pieces of junk that will be forgotten in a few days. Feel free to share your own toy recommendations in the comments!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Common sense overrules suspension of six-year-old

In a rare win for common sense, first grader Zachary Christie's suspension was lifted yesterday following a meeting of the school board.

It's about time that common sense won out over zero-tolerance policies that make zero sense. The Christina School District, where Zachary is a student, has dealt with similar cases, including the expulsion of a young girl last year after her grandmother sent her to school with a birthday cake and a knife with which to cut it. (She was, coincidentally, not reprimanded until after the teacher used the knife to cut the cake.) After the girl's case, a state law gave school districts flexibility on punishments that included possible expulsion (the girl's expulsion was eventually overturned), but failed to affect cases that led to suspensions instead of expulsions. Thankfully, Yahoo! News reports that the district may be working on more changes to the school's code of conduct.

I'm in good company on my quest for common sense. Yahoo! News reports that Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services agrees with my sentiments. "When that common sense is missing, it sends a message of inconsistency to students, which actually creates a less safe environment," said Trump. "People have to understand that assessing on a case-by-case basis doesn't automatically equate to being soft or unsafe."

Today's score?
Common sense = 1
Ridiculousness = 0

Monday, October 12, 2009

Six-year-old suspended for eating with camping utensil at school

I used to teach at a high school with high rates of teenage pregnancy, drop-outs, and general misbehavior. The administration tried a variety of tactics to keep kids on the straight-and-narrow, including the introduction of ID badges, police officers in the hallways, and a number of other interventions. The school also had a very strict policy regarding threats to students or the school. A frustrated student muttering, Gosh, this is so boring I could kill myself, led to an automatic removal from class accompanied by a psych evaluation.

If a psych evaluation seems harsh, consider the "zero-tolerance" policies adopted at many schools across the nation. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that six-year-old Zachary Christie was suspended for bringing a Cub Scout camping utensil to school because the tool contained a fork, spoon, and a knife; the knife violated the school's zero-tolerance policy on weapons. In addition to the suspension, Zachary (who takes school so seriously that he often wears a suit and tie to his first grade classroom) faces 45 days in a reform school.

Watch the video here.

The New York Times reports that school officials argue that it is difficult for schools "to distinguish innocent pranks and mistakes from more serious threats, and that the policies must be strict to protect students." I disagree.

While basic policies must remain in place to keep children safe, basic common sense must take precedence when dealing with young children. Has anyone considered the harm being done to poor Zachary, who is without the benefit of formal education or social interactions with his peers for 45 days? Has it occurred to anyone that the children in his classroom might benefit from a lesson and an explanation, rather than seeing a well-behaved classmate suddenly removed from school? Did anyone think that young Zachary might be so excited about Cub Scouts that he just wanted to share his enthusiasm with friends? Be sensible! The poor child is six years old and hasn't shown any disciplinary problems. Treat him with respect and make sure that the punishment fits the crime (if indeed bringing a Cub Scout tool to school can be called a "crime").

There's no denying that some children bring weapons to school with the intention of causing trouble. There's also no denying that we all want to protect our children from violence and that we must be vigilant to ensure that no one slips through the cracks. Zachary, however, slipped through the cracks of common sense when school officials thought it appropriate to suspend a six-year-old for bringing his camping utensil to school. Perhaps next time the school will follow the Cub Scout Law of the Pack, and "give goodwill" to children who obviously meant no harm.