Thursday, August 19

Treasure Hunt

Treasure hunts are one of my favorite kid memories. I can't say I went on many planned treasure hunts, but I do recall many many hours of hunting in the backyard and neighborhood for some kind of unique find.

I was trying to think of a fun activity to get the kids outside a bit more in these last days before school starts. The good old treasure hunt came to mind and I wanted to share with you a couple of ideas you might want to use with your own kids in the waning days of summer.

For the younger kids: Give them a list of finds and tell them to go out in the backyard to find their treasures. When they have completed the list offer a little reward. Here are some simple treasures most everyone has in their backyards.
1. needle from a pine tree
2. pedal from a flower
3. a small rock
4. the longest piece of grass they can find
5. a bug
6. a piece of mulch
7. a toy they left out
8. something that a bug might eat

and some ideas that take a bit more work but are well worth it
9. 10 plastic easter eggs filled with little trinkets around the house
(this is great for more than just Easter!)
10. bury a few little trinkets (army men, marbles or some such thing)
and put little toothpicks with flags on top of them

For the bigger kids the ideas get a little more sophisticated and the backyard then becomes the entire neighborhood (or a nearby park). They might need to refer to an encyclopedia or the internet to find some of these.:
1. pedal from a black eyed susan flower
2. leaf from an oak tree
3. a part of a coniferous tree
4. a worm
5. a pill bug
6. a seed or a seed pod
7. moss
8. a piece of litter

and these require a little more work on your part:
9. bury a few treasures in the garden with a rock or toothpick on top
10. hand your child a camera and add these to the list.. a picture of.... a birds
nest, an animal with 4 legs, a frog or toad, animal tracks

Monday, August 16

Free Range Kids

I came across this website and found the concept/movement interesting and a bit inspiring. In summary, this is about letting our kids learn on their own by giving them freedom. Perhaps as parents we have gotten so overprotective that we are in fact limiting our kids abilities to learn by doing, to learn from their mistakes.

I noticed in my own neighborhood differing ideas of allowed freedoms for kids. I am not talking here about the freedom to watch TV and play video games. In our own house those are freedoms earned, and sparingly. Rather I am referring to the freedom of kids to ride down the street unsupervised, or even to the next neighborhood. I have to admit I am on the more liberal side in this subject. I remember my own childhood days where I roamed the neighborhood from sunup to sundown, back in the fields, in the woods, up at the lake, riding my bike (on a very busy street). I will admit that it sends chills up my bones at the thought of my kids (at 10 and 13) to ride up the busy street that I was allowed to at that age. However, in my defense the street I am referring to has gotten much busier. I have, however, let my kids ride up a very busy street... that has a sidewalk. Safety is of grave importance of course, but freedom is important too. I am giving my kids freedom to learn, play, and explore the world around them. YES they have to let me know where they are and where they are going, but I am not necessarily going to look over their shoulders every minute.

Read through this website a bit and me what your thoughts are. Should we give our kids more freedom or not???

Thursday, June 24

Water Play for All Ages

Getting kids to play outside when summer temperatures rise can be tricky. (Isn't it funny how we spend the long Ohio winters wishing for summer, only to complain it's too hot to go outside in the summer?) But if you're anything like me, you don't want your kids hibernating indoors with the air conditioning and video games. Let's face it, playing in the sprinkler isn't much fun after the age of five, either. So we've tried to come up with a few water games using Water Blaster Water Cannons to get all ages--even teens-- active outdoors this summer.

If you haven't seen a water cannon, you really need to check one out. Made in the U.S.A., water cannons are easy to use and clean. Just point it in the water, pull the handle back to fill it, and push the handle in to spray the water back out. The faster you push it it, the faster and farther the water comes spraying out. Check out this VIDEO to see them in action. Once your cannon is loaded try these fun activities:

  • Bucket Blast: Have a friend hold a bucket at one end of the yard while you stand at the other with your canon and a bucket of water for refills. Load and fire 5 times to see how much you can get into the bucket. Then switch and you hold the bucket while your friend tries. This game would also work great as a relay event. Each team member could take a turn loading and firing into a bucket to see which team lands the most water in its bucket.
  • Bubble Blast: One person blows bubbles and then stands back and keeps score as another person tries to blast as many bubbles as possible with water. Switch roles and compare scores!
  • Wet Tag: Whoever is it "tags" people by spraying them with the canon. Can you tag everyone before running out of ammo?
  • Wet Laser Tag: Every person grabs a cannon and loads. If you get hit, you're out. Use a big bucket full of water in the middle of the playing field as a refilling station. Can you be the last one standing?

Do you have a Water Blaster Water Cannon game or activity idea? We'd love to hear it! You never know, we might give you a prize if we like your idea!

Sunday, June 20

New Toys, New Ideas from the Providence RI Toy Show

I just got back from a toy show especially for independent specialty toy retailers in Providence RI. See this video for more information. It was a lot of fun. I ordered lots of new toys (coming soon) and got some great ideas for how to make our store even better. -- Michelle Sahr

Wednesday, June 2

What Family Games Teach Kids

After all of the hot, sunny weather during Memorial Day weekend, I was thankful for the thunderstorm that crashed down on us out of nowhere. Not only did it break the humidity, but it gave us the perfect excuse to stop doing yard work and head inside from some family fun. My husband popped the popcorn, I poured the drinks, and we quickly settled into a game of Sleeping Queens with our three kids.

As my son was slapping a knight down to steal one of my queens, I was struck with how much kids learn from playing games with adults. I'm not talking about learning numbers or letters, or even following rules and being a good sport. Sure, these are valuable things to learn, but they can be learned other ways, too. I was thinking more about what kids learn from games played with parents, as opposed to their peers. In short, I was thinking about how parents can help develop their children's self-esteem by playing games with them.

So back to the queen my son stole from me. He was literally squealing with delight as he slid her out of my grasp. At that moment, he felt as powerful and competent as an adult. He knew he was preventing me from winning, and he knew it was a fair play. Rarely in our world do roles get reversed such as this where adults and kids have equal power. Games can allow a framework where kids get to experience what it feels like to be more powerful and in control to some extent. What a boost to self-esteem and confidence!

While my son was having a great game, one of my daughters was not. Round after round, she only picked number cards, instead of the power cards needed to collect more queens. She lamented how the cards weren't being "fair" to everyone. It was a great opportunity for us to talk about how sometimes, no matter how hard we try, things are out of our control. We can "fail" or "lose" without it meaning anything about who we are or how well we played the game. When she's older, there are sure to be projects that crumble and opportunities that slip through fingers. I hope these early lessons in games help her cope gracefully and optimistically with such setbacks with her self-esteem fully intact.

And lastly, I think family games can teach kids a great deal about their family's priorities and values. Playing with your kids shows them they are a priority, that face-to-face talking and laughing are worth making time for. Is there any lesson more important than that in developing a child's self-esteem?

Thursday, May 27

Outdoor Family Fun for Memorial Day Picnics

The smell of hotdogs and burgers is in the air. The long Memorial Day weekend is almost here. And so far, it looks like we're going to have sunshine. But if the thought of spending a hot afternoon in Uncle George's backyard with nothing to do but listen to Aunt Marge complain about her bunions has you dreading the weekend, we're here to help. Here are a few fun ideas that all ages can play outside.

1. Boochie: This bean bag and ring toss game is great fun for all ages. Pick your color and put your special score-keeping, instruction-giving wristband on. As you click your wristband to keep your score, it tells you how you have to toss your items: between your legs, with your eyes wide shut, etc. Toss yours the closest to the Boochie to score a point. The first one to 11 wins. Great, active fun that is simple enough for a 5 year old and challenging enough to keep adults entertained. Different wristbands have different challenges, so switching them up will keep interest high for a long time!

2. Water Cannon: If you don't mind getting a little wet, bring a water cannon (or 3!) to the family picnic. All you need is a bucket of water to go with it, and let the fun begin. Shoot at each other, or set up fun targets to see who is the sharpest water shooter. It's easy to load and easy to empty. Just keep it away from the grill so those burgers don't get ruined.

3. Stomp Rocket: Okay, I know I've talked about these before. But they really are that fun! No one can resist stomping on the launch pad to see how high he can make the foam-tipped rockets go. Kids can't seem to help chasing them either. Just be sure you're far enough away from the potato salad to avoid a messy landing.

Hopefully, at least one of these ideas will work for you and yours so you don't get stuck rubbing Aunt Marge's bunions. Enjoy the holiday weekend! And look for us with Mrs. Fisher Cat in Hudson's Memorial Day Parade!

Wednesday, May 12

Silly Bandz: What Makes a Toy Craze?

Toys come and go. But when some toys are hot, boy do they go! Just a few years ago at My Little Red Wagon, we had waiting lists for Webkinz. Before that it was Beanie Babies. Now, we're fielding dozens of calls a day for Silly Bandz.

This latest craze--shaped rubber bands that kids wear as bracelets and trade--has me scratching my head, to be honest. I never would have guessed that rubber bands could create such a frenzy. Yet they clearly have mass appeal. We see all ages coming in looking for them, even teenage boys.

So I find myself wondering what makes a toy become a "craze." To answer that, I did a little research. The first toy craze in modern history I could find was...drum roll please...Crayola crayons! In the early 1900's, their box of 8 colors for a nickle was all the rage. Apparently, Crayola struck the right balance with this product. It was simple, affordable to many, and appealed to kids and parents alike.

Many hot toys have followed Crayola's recipe for success. Most must-have toys over the years can be placed in two categories: dolls and building toys. In the doll category, Raggedy Ann (1910's), Madame Alexander collectibles (1920's), G.I. Joe (1960's), Cabbage Patch Kids (1980's), and Tickle Me Elmo (1990's) all sent parents to stores in droves. As far as building toys, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and Erector sets are still selling to this day. Play doesn't get any more basic than pretending with a doll and building with sticks. And let's face it, if these products didn't appeal to adults on some level, I doubt the throngs of moms and dads would have been fighting in the aisles to get their hands on some of these products during the height of their popularity.

When compared to these other hot toys, Silly Bandz definitely fits with the formula for a toy craze. They are nothing new. They are just a new twist with a price that appeals to parents ($2.99-$5.99). And I'll go out on a limb and say that parents like the innocence of them. After all, what is more innocent than rubber bands shaped like unicorns and footballs? Moreover, in an age when kids seem to spend more time texting behind a screen than talking to each other in person, the trading of these bracelets returns us to a simpler time. Perhaps they remind us of trading Star Wars cards with our friends on the playground in the 70's. Perhaps they are a welcomed reprieve from high tech, pricey video consoles and games. Whatever the reasons, they are hot and hoping to be around as long as Crayola crayons.

Wednesday, April 21

Sort and Share: Getting Rid of Toys

I have three kids and a small house. My house is maybe 1,100 square feet if I count the dark, creepy space in the basement behind the hot water tank where spiders like to hang out. In other words, I don't have extra storage space for toys. So each spring, we do the sort and share to keep our toy population under control.

Basically, sort and share is dividing all the toys into four piles: 1. keep 2. give to a friend 3. sell 4. donate. Of course, the first year I did this drill with my kids, everything kept getting put in the "keep" pile. But with a little coaching and talking, our other piles grew. Here are the ways we help our kids think about each pile to make getting rid of toys a little easier.

1. Keep Pile: In order to go in this pile, the toy must be played with on a regular basis. If we keep it and no one plays with it for 6 months, I'm allowed to donate it as I see fit. If it's a seasonal toy, we put it in the appropriate box in the garage for that season.

2. Give to a Friend: This pile is the next easiest to get kids to build. It's less threatening than just donating to Goodwill or the Salvation Army because the toys are going to someone they know. We offer toys that we have outgrown to friends with younger children. This puts the emphasis on how big and grown up everyone is getting, rather than giving toys away. Plus, there's always the chance that they will get to see and play with the items again when visiting that friend.

3. Sell: Very few toys fall into this category for us, to be honest. But we do use Craigslist or a yard sale to sell some bigger items. For instance, we sold our old Little Tikes slide and outdoor climbing set. We talk this category up with the kids by pointing out that the money we get will go toward a new toy they are all wanting or a special outing as a family.

4. Donate: This category is a great opportunity to talk to kids about others who are less fortunate. But it still isn't easy for most kids to pack up a toy in a plastic bag and drop it off at a donation center. We helped our kids ease into straight donations by looking for places that were more connected to them. Toys that are in great shape can be donated to the library, a doctor's waiting room, a church nursery, or day care center. Soft cuddly friends can even be dropped off to animal shelters.

If there are toys you're not sure about, create a holding tank. Put them in a box and place that box out of sight. If no one asks or looks for an item in that box for 3- 6 months, you'll feel better about donating them. If someone does indeed go looking for a specific item, you'll be able to pull it out. And if you only successfully get rid of a couple of items, that's okay, too. Each time you do a sort and share, it will get easier for everyone involved. Eventually, your toy population will be under control enough that you won't have to store any boxes in that creepy space with spiders.

Friday, April 2

Outdoor Fun: Give a Jump Rope a Try

I'm afraid to write it. Living in northeast Ohio, I'm aware how the weather can change from sunshine and singing birds to blowing swirls of snow before I finish this post. Yet I'll go ahead a say that spring seems to be on its way! It's time for running and playing outside again.

We get a lot of folks in the store this time of year looking for fun outdoor activities. We have plenty. We have stomp rockets, Beam-os, and kites (oh my!). All of these are fun, active ideas for outside play. But the often overlooked toy is a jump rope. In fact, when I suggest a jump rope, many people literally wrinkle their noses as they ask, "Any other ideas?" Okay, I kind of get it. A jump rope is anything but a new concept. But I'd like to make a case for getting your kids a jump rope or two this season.

1. Jumping rope is great exercise. Ten minutes of jumping rope is equivalent to running one mile! But it's not as hard on the knees as running.

2. If you add music and/or rhymes to the jumping, it's now building the brain right along with those leg muscles. The added rhythm and coordination involved in jumping to a chant or beat gets the brain working more in tune with the body.

3. It can be played alone or with friends. Taking turns twirling and jumping is a great way for kids to play together and encourage one another. A single-length rope is great for alone practice time and speed building.

Still not convinced? Maybe the jump rope rhymes below will inspire you to try. Have a rhyme of your own you remember? We'd love for you to post it! Pictures of your kids jumping? We'd love to see them to help inspire others! Happy jumping!


Down in the valley
Where the green grass grows
There sat ______(girl's name)
Sweet as a rose
She sang so long and she sang so sweet
Along came ______(boy's name)
And kissed her on the cheek.
How many kisses did she get that week?
(count & jump until you miss)

Apples, peaches, pears, and plums
Tell me when your birthday comes.
(Jump to the months until you come to your birthday month and then count to your date.)


Cookies in the jar, candy in the dish;
How many pieces do you wish?
1, 2, 3, 4, . . (count & jump until you miss)

Teddy bear, teddy bear turn all around (spin as you jump)
Teddy bear, teddy bear touch the ground (touch)
Teddy bear, teddy bear tie your shoes (jump on one foot while you "tie" one shoe)
Teddy bear, teddy bear read the news (hold hands up like your reading paper)
Teddy bear, teddy bear go up stairs (alternate feet while jumping)
Teddy bear, teddy bear say your prayers (hold hands in position and close eyes)
Teddy bear, teddy bear turn out the light (reach hand up to flip the switch)
Teddy bear, teddy bear spell "good night"
G-o-o-d N-i-g-h-t (try to jump and spell as fast as you can)

Cinderella, dressed in yella
Went upstairs to kiss a fella.
Made a mistake,
Kissed a snake,
How many doctors did it take?
1, 2, 3,...(Count & jump until you miss)

Wednesday, March 24

What's in Your Easter Eggs?

It's almost time for that little bunny to hop into our homes and leave goodies in baskets. And if your kids are anything like mine, they love searching for the plastic eggs filled with treasures that said bunny will hide. I don't mind this delightful game, but it is a challenge. I don't like it when the Eater Bunny fills the eggs with just candy But the challenge to find fun, inexpensive, small items that will fit into those eggs requires some help. Here are some of the ideas that I've come up with. I'd love to hear from others out there: What's in your Easter eggs?

1. marbles
2. polished stones (I separate a bag into several eggs)
3. sticky stones
4. Japanese puzzle erasers
5. robot erasers
6. caps for cap bomb dropper
7. refill rocket balloons (roll a couple up per egg)
8. coins
9. stickers
10. hair clips/bows
11. fun socks (it's a tight fit, but if you roll a kid's pair tightly enough, you can get them to fit)
12. fun underwear (a three pack will fill 3 eggs! We have TTE undies in stock!)
13. play tattoos
14. ice cream lip gloss (so cute, comes in the shape of an ice cream cone!)
15. Chinese jump rope
16. glitter popper (one of those rubber toys you turn inside out and wait for it to pop!)
17. mini kaleidoscope
18. shark teeth
19. arrowhead
20. mood ring

Friday, March 12

Understanding Toy Age Ratings

At Lake Wobegon, "all the children are above average." I love this line from A Prairie Home Companion because it states what we all believe about the children we love. As we should, I might add! But we need to guard against letting this opinion influence our choice of toys too much. We might think that Johnny is ready for the 3+ toys because he's so bright, but we might want to reconsider.

We all know that all toys come with an age recommendation. Still I get many questions about why one toy gets a rating for under age 3, while another is for 3 and above. Indeed, it is this age group that I see people struggle with the most. The under 3 toys can seem "too easy" or "to baby-ish." And the above 3 toys seem more appealing because the child can "grow" with it. While the temptation to buy up an age is understandable, it's not always the safest choice.

First I would like to clarify that all toys for kids under age 12 go through vigorous testing. All toys must be made with non-toxic paints, inks, and fillers. There are significant, differences, however, between toys approved for the younger age groups. The CPSC lists in more detail the criteria for the different age ratings, but to simplify, there are two main differences between toys for the under 3 rating and those for the 3 and above. To be approved for children UNDER the age of 3, the toy must:

(1) be unbreakable to a great degree, even with some abuse. (Think about Johnny dropping it repeatedly or banging it on the table.)
(2) contain NO small parts or pieces that could become lodged in the throat. No exceptions. If one piece is small enough, then the rating must be raised to a higher age.

In contrast, toys for 3 and above just have to label that they contain choking hazards. Toys can get this rating for containing just one piece, either externally or internally, that could get lodged in the throat. Likewise, if a toy can shatter into small pieces when broken, it can require this higher age rating. The ratings at these ages have little to do with the abilities of the child, in other words.

So should people never buy a 3+ toy for a child under the age of three? Only the parents can decide their comfort level for sure. But each individual toy and child should be taken into consideration. One strategy would be to remove the tiny pieces from the set until the child is older. This tactic is common with sets like Calico Critters and play foods which appeal to all ages but contain small pieces. Another approach would be to keep toys in question out of the child's reach. Then they child has to ask for assistance to play with it. Puzzles and building toys work well with younger children when they are supervised while exploring them.

We hope this information helps keep all our above average children safely and happily playing.

Thursday, March 4

Birthday Gift Ideas for $15 and Under

This time of year always starts to feel like "Birthday Party Season" to me. Now that Christmas is far enough behind us and the snow is starting to melt (even if just a little), people are throwing birthday bashes again. Indeed, I wrap many gifts on Saturdays and Sundays for families in route to the party.

A customer said to me last weekend, though, that she was embarrassed to ask for my help because she could only spend $15 on a birthday gift. She also commented that she was sure we wouldn't have much in that price range. I was happy to show her how many options we have for gifts $15 and under! And for the record, I think that's a generous gift amount for classmates. Just think, if your child gets invited to 5 parties in the year, that's $75! We understand how quickly gifts for friends add up!

So I thought I'd share a few examples of fun gifts for $15 and under.

1. Stomp Rockets ($14.99): Great active fun for boys or girls! The soft foam rockets fly into the sky when a kid stomps on the launch pad. Fun alone or with a friend. For ages 3 and up.

2. Potato Spud Gun ($3.99): This gift can be fun to give an older boy. Get two guns (it will be more fun to play with a friend), a few potatoes, and wrap them up in a box together. They will never guess what's inside! Best for ages 5 and up.

3. Water Flutes ($14.99): My kids love these! Kids can make music in the tub! A great gift for the 3-7 crowd.

4. Pass the Pigs ($14.99): What a fun spin on a dice game for kids 8 and up! Instead of rolling dice, roll little pigs to get your score!

5. Various Stamp Sets ($11.99): Choose from dinosaurs, horses, and others. This gift works for a large age range since it is open-ended and creative. Younger kids will enjoy making pictures to hang on the fridge, while older kids can use them to make cards, book marks, etc.

6. Porcelain Tea Set ($14.99): A nice, classic toy, beautifully painted with pink butterflies.

7. Silly Bandz ($4.99): These are the new craze. One pack has 24 uniquely shaped rubber band bracelets. Shopping for a dinosaur lover? Get the dinosaur pack with a small Schleich dinosaur ($6.99). Shopping for a girl? Get the spring mix and a few Japanese puzzle erasers ($1.25) to go with them.

8. Butterfly Mobile Craft Kit ($13.99): This beautiful craft project will add sparkle to a kid's room for years to come! For the 7 and up crowd.

9. Metal Locking Toy Cash Box ($14.99): It really locks with a combination and key. What a great place to store one's diary, eraser collection, or anything else special. Ages 5 and up.

10. Rocket Balloons and Pump ($12.99): I'm not really sure why these are so fun, but they really are! Use the balloon pump to fill up the rocket balloons, pinch the bottom, count off, and let them go! The balloons whistle and whirl around on release. Great fun, active play indoors or out as kids chase and retrieve the balloons. Refill packs of balloons are only $5.99. Ages 5 and up.

We also have games and large sticker books and infant toys in this price range. So don't be embarrassed to ask us! And we'll happily wrap it for free so you can get to the party on time.

Friday, February 12

Sneak Peek: Playmobil, Legos, and Toy Fair 2010

I love this time of year at the toy store. Why? Because February means Toy Fair! Toy Fair is where all the companies bring out their new and exciting games, toys, and gadgets. It's always fun to look and see what we think will be hot, and what will be a flop.

But this year, I'm not excited about a "new" toy. I'm sure Michelle will be posting some awesome pics straight from Toy Fair of new toys that I'll want for my kids. But for now, I'm really excited about some old classics that we have decided to start stocking and continue stocking.

The first one is Playmobil! I know some of you may have heard that we aren't going to sell it any more. The truth is, we were thinking about not. But so many of you seemed disappointed that we've decided to bring it back! If you're a fan of Playmobil, you know what exciting news this is. Those of you who aren't fans yet should check it out when we get the first shipment in sometime in April. It's made in Germany, and it's adorable. The tiny pieces work on kids' fine motor skills, while the delightful details build their imaginations. I think it's my all-time favorite toy. I buy it as much for myself as my kids.

The other classic that we are going stock is Legos! You heard right! We won't be getting these in until April either, but I can't wait. And we're going to be getting the bulk Legos--the kind that can be taken apart and built again in countless ways, instead of just small kits that build one specific item. It will be a small shipment at first, so if you want some then, I wouldn't wait. The next shipment will come in before the holidays.

And the last sneak peek I'll throw out there (this one is not definite yet) that I'm excited about is Monchhichis! Come on, you parents must remember that commercial from our youth: "Monchhichi, Monchhichi, oh so soft and cuddly!" (If you want the full blast from the past, you can watch the old commercial here.) We are considering the ones in fun costumes, though, not just the plain ones. Take a look at these cute examples shown at Toy Fair last year. (Please, Michelle, you have to show us a cute Monchhichi from this year if they are there, even if you decide not to stock them!)

So what do you think? Playmobil, Legos, Monchhichis...are we on the right track to bring some classic fun back?

Friday, February 5

Keep Kids Active Indoors in the Winter

Keeping kids active during the winter months can be a real challenge. True, there are days of sledding and snowman building. But there are also many, many days of weather too cold to be outside for more than 15 or 20 minutes. So I've been searching for ways to get them active indoors that don't involve them jumping on my bed. Here's what I've found so far:

1. Super Skipper: We love this toy at our house! An electronic base plays music as it twirls a jumping stick around. It has 3 speed settings, so it's easy for each child to set a pace he is comfortable with. It's also nice because more than one child can jump at a time, and no twirler is required! If the child successfully jumps the full cycle of the level, a little celebratory music plays. This toy truly has given my three kids hours of active, jumping fun in the house.

2. Sack Races: For little ones, let them use some old pillow cases as potato sacks and hop from one end of the room to the other. Make it more challenging by making an obstacle course with pillows and stuffed animals.

3. Chinese Jump Rope: This type of jump rope is really an elastic band. The idea is that two kids loop it around their ankles to make a rectangle with it. The third child does the rhymes, jumping into the box, out, on, etc. as fast as she can. Then, the rope gets raised a little higher, and a little higher each turn. We recently brought one of these to a play group with kids ranging in age from 4 to 12. All of them were laughing and playing. If you don't have three kids around, you can loop the rope around the bottoms of chair legs for your little jumper to have fun.

4. Treasure Hunts: You can make these as easy or complicated as you like. The idea is to get them searching high and low, upstairs and downstairs, for little clues and treasures. For younger kids, you can pick a letter of the day and have them search in the house for items that begin with that letter. Each time they spot one, they can run back to you to report it while you write it down. Older kids might enjoy a riddle hunt. For this version, write just a word or two that hints at a place in your house to find the next clue. For instance, "hot dogs" might make them go open the meat drawer in the fridge. There they would find a clue that says "surf" for surf the web and a clue next to the family computer. At the end, there could be a tiny prize (a fun eraser, a new coloring book). Remember, the prize isn't the point; the hunt is the true fun!

5. Create a Road: Get a roll of painter's tape (Note: don't use regular masking tape as it will be too hard to remove cleanly) and let your kids tape out a course for their toy cars in the kitchen. It will provide hours of fun for them laying out the course under the table, around the legs of chairs and then driving their cars along it.

Do you have some fun ideas to keep kids moving indoors? We'd love to hear them!

Friday, January 29

Blocks and Bean Bags: Destined to Sit on Shelves?

There are some toys that seem destined to sit on the shelf in a toy store. They don't have glitzy packaging; they aren't associated with any TV character; they don't have any flashing lights or battery-operated coolness. So they just sit on the shelves.

I'm thinking of two toys in particular: blocks and bean bag squares. When was the last time you saw a child write these items at the top of her Christmas or birthday list?

Yet research--along with our own "guts"--suggest that these are the very toys our children should be playing with. There are many benefits of block play. According to the experts in the book Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, children learn language, mathematical, emotional, and cognitive skills from block play. The same is true, they note, of other open-ended play toys, such as dolls, play kitchens, and I would add bean bags to the list.

But still, we parents find it hard to ignore our child's wish list for the latest "in" toy and buy him blocks and bean bags instead. Why? I think there are two answers to this question. 1. ) Marketers are evil geniuses. Heck, when I finally saw a Zhu Zhu pet commercial, I almost believed it was the most fun thing I had ever seen. I wanted a hamster to love with no poop to clean up! and 2.) We have forgotten to think like a child. We have forgotten how to look at these simple toys and see all the possibilities. This skill is what the marketers use against us. They show children the possibilities. The Zhu Zhu pets are shown navigating tube mazes, making loving noises, making children laugh. In short, the commercial shows kids how to play with the toy.

We can use this tactic to some extent with our kids. We can "market" these simpler, open-ended toys to our kids. We can do this by offering them the toy and getting on the floor and playing with them when they seem stuck. We can encourage them to try new ways to play with their toys.

So in that spirit, I'm offering some ideas that have gotten my kids engaged in play with these types of toys, and I invite you to add to our list.

1. Use little animals or cars with the blocks. Building can become even more fun when you're building a house for a hippo or a garage for a Mustang.

2. Use small balls with blocks. A big part of block fun is the destruction after the build! Experiment with different sizes and weights of balls and roll them into the tower.

3. Use bean bags to get kids active inside. Make a trail of bean bags and have your child hop on one foot from start to finish trying to pick each one up. If there's more than one child, they could race to complete it first.

4. Set up laundry baskets at different places and distances from a marked spot in the house. Have kids try to toss the bean bags into the different baskets.

5. Have kids try to walk while balancing a bean bag on his head. Try balancing on top of one foot while walking.

6. Make a tic-tac-toe board on a piece of cardboard or poster board. Have players try to toss 3-in-a row.

7. Hide the bean bags and let your child find them all.

Once you get your child interested in these types of toys, step back and let her make up her own games with them. And then maybe, just maybe, the top of her list might surprise you on the next gift-giving holiday.

We'd love to hear your ideas of games to play with blocks and bean bags! Post them below!

Thursday, January 21

Getting Kids to Play at Home

"I don't understand why he plays when we come here, but not with his trains at home."
"We have these toys at home, and she never touches them. Here, she won't leave it alone!"

We hear such statements from parents almost daily. Their little ones come into the store and happily begin playing with the Thomas table or the magnetic ice cream set in full force. This behavior isn't surprising in and of itself; what baffles folks is why the children play at the store and not at home.

I remember discovering this phenomenon with my oldest when she was 2 years old. She delighted in playing at the store or the library. I knew it couldn't be the toy selection, because the toys were almost all the same ones we had at home. So what was it? For us, getting my kids to actually play with all the toys we had bought was designing play spaces in the house that mimicked the set-ups we saw out and about.

1. Designate play stations in your house. Assign each corner a specific type of play and leave those toys out of boxes in those areas, ready to go. We are lucky enough to have a room in the basement to dedicate to play. One corner has the kitchen set and play food. Another corner has the train table. Another corner has blocks and other building toys. These spaces give the children a sense of organization and purpose. Everything is out and ready to go, calling them to come play.

2. Make clean up fast and easy for your kids. At the toy store, they get to play and leave the trains on the table. Do that at home! We have the kids put all the tracks and pieces that have made it to the floor back on the table, but that's it. If kids know that a lengthy clean up is going to follow, playing won't be as free and enticing. Play food goes back in the play fridge; blocks go back in the box.

3. Put bins of other toys that might be incorporated naturally into the other play nearby and within reach. For example, our box of Schleich animals is over by the building blocks. That way, the kids can build homes, etc. for the animals. Likewise, the dolls and their supplies are near the play kitchen area so a tea party is easy to put together.

4. Avoid big, deep storage boxes that are mixed with many different types of toys. I know at first glance, a big box to throw everything it at the end of the day sounds fast. But it doesn't encourage good, quality play time. Kids have to dig through and dump everything out to find the one toy they are looking for. They are likely to get distracted and forget what they went looking for. Instead, get individual bins for each type of toy. We use clear bins with locking lids. The kids can see what's in there, and they can't shut the lid if they just try to jam everything into one bin.

5. Only make the kids clean up one time a day. Our "tidy time" is 4:00 P.M. Yes, it will be shocking how messy the areas are at different times of the day. But why drive yourself a little crazy and interrupt good play by constantly putting every little toy away. And in my experience, when kids get used to the routine, they start to self-monitor the messes they leave behind. My kids have learned that the less they leave out when they're really done, the less time it takes to tidy up at 4:00.

I'll admit that my house on any given afternoon--especially during the winter--is not as tidy as those pictures in magazines or on television. I'm fine with that, though. I'm happy that my kids are really playing and imagining throughout the day.

Thursday, January 14

The True Cost of Family Board Games

I'm not a big fan of winter. Limited play time outside and limited daylight hours leave us searching for something to do with the kids indoors a lot of evenings.

I've always enjoyed playing board games, but I have to be honest. The price tag on many games has made me reluctant to buy them. Most games are $25 to $35. All I could think was, "Wow, that's a lot of money to risk on something we might only play once." I've changed my attitude lately, though. And here's why.

We went to a movie over the holiday season (thanks, Grandpa, for the Christmas money!). I was shocked how expensive even a matinee was! For our family of five, tickets alone were $35! We got a bucket of popcorn and a drink to pass and share, so our total was over $40. This was for a little over an hour's worth of entertainment.

During this hour, none of us talked to each other. None of us interacted beyond requesting a sip of rootbeer from the community drink. Did we enjoy ourselves? Sure we did. And we did talk about the movie on the way home. But it was expensive and didn't really feel like "family time."

We also got invited to go bowling. Wow! Really? $3.00 a person to borrow shoes for an hour? Plus $3.00 a person per game?! We were at $30 quickly again. The same was true for an afternoon of ice skating and a couple hours at an indoor inflatable playground. Some fun was had, but it's not something we can afford to do on a regular basis.

So my conclusion? I'm not going to balk at the cost of a family game any more! Even if we only play it one evening, we're not any worse off than if we had tried one of the other activities. Plus, in our experience, we always give a game at least three tries to really "get it." Each time, we'll at least have spent the evening talking and laughing as a family. We'll also have had access to our fridge and snacks that aren't outrageously priced. And there's always the chance we'll find a game we look forward to playing time and time again, like Dicecapades. I'm guessing if we broke it down into cost per play, this game costs us about 25 cents a play at this point. Family fun doesn't get much cheaper than that!