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!