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Toys: Weighing Junk vs. Keepers

By Lisa Russell

Kids deserve real stuff to play with, not pretend things. Why give a child a plastic stethoscope that doesn’t really allow him to hear his amazing little heart beating? Why a plastic thermometer that always reads “102” degrees when the human body changes temperature constantly -- isn’t it amazing that our baseline normal body temperature can range several degrees? We want a child to discover that! And imagine how his eyes will light up when he discovers that his internal (mouth) temperature is different than his underarm temperature. (Let’s hope that’s as far as the exploration goes!)

Don’t tell me how to play!
My main toy-choosing criteria is “Does the toy tell you how to play?” I look for toys that encourage creativity and allow my child to express himself and solve problems. Visit any preschool and you will find that the most-used toys are the ones that fit those criteria.

When I taught pre-school, we’d rotate to different activity centers throughout the day. The hottest activities were the giant blocks and the felt board animals and the arts and crafts table. A few kids liked to zone out on the computer games, but those games discourage social interaction and physical/kinesthetic/spatial learning, which is a very important part of child development in pre-schoolers.

The Barbie dilemma
Was it Montessori or Waldorf that recommended dolls without faces, so that the children could use the doll to express any emotion? I do agree that the perpetual smiling cheerful face of Barbie might express an unreal cheerfulness, but we found the dolls without faces to be very creepy. A child who can imagine that Barbie is upset can imagine that she’s frowning.

We play with a lot of Barbie in our house. I have four daughters, and I just had to accept that Barbie would be a part of our life. I tried to fight it and decided I’d rather put the energy somewhere else. The Barbies in our house are all moms, the Skippers and Kellies are sisters and we even have a few “baby sister” Barbies. They’re not all made by Mattel. They are moms and grandmas, they drive their Corvettes and VW bugs to school, to soccer practice, to Girl Scouts and to Grandma’s house but never to the mall. Most of the Barbies work from home (and get annoyed when their kids interrupt them on the computer!). There are a few Kens in the mix who always pop into the game to say “I’m going to work. I love you … Goodbye!” Occasionally they come home from work and smother Barbie with kisses.

Our Barbies are almost always naked. My kids find it annoying to try to stick their arms into the teeny sleeves and tights. Besides, it isn’t about the clothes, it’s about the conversations. They’re forever planning what the Barbies will say to each other and where they will go. Sometimes the Barbies will sit unattended for hours -- but they’re not “ a mess.” They’re sleeping or reading or waiting for someone.

I have decided that our Barbies are just a way to express my kids’ growing field of social reference. My six-year-old once asked why all Barbies were shaped the same. I told her that Mattel was unimaginative and that they just mold all the bodies in one factory and stick different heads on each time they make a new one. “Imagine if we were all shaped like that,” I told her. “They don’t even have nipples!” she laughed.

So I’ve made peace with Barbie. I do admit to throwing away her shoes the minute I find them on the floor (they’re choking hazards). I admit that I deliberately bought a doll house the Barbies wouldn’t fit into. And I admit that I erased the Working Woman Barbie CD program from our computer. Barbie is welcome in my house -- as long as she follows my rules!

Plays well with children
Some of the most creative gifts our family has enjoyed include:

a set of 25 die cast Hot Wheels cars for my second daughter’s second birthday (She’s almost 7 and still asks for one of those rugs that they drive on.)
a box full of funky clothing and jewelry from a second-hand store
a box full of used kitchen utensils and oven mitts, plastic dishes and silverware
a box full of cardboard tubes from some sort of printing machine
a box full of fabric scraps (my five-year-old sewed herself a dress, and I let her wear it in public!)
a bunch of books the local school district library was discarding
games (board games, card games … especially in the wintertime when we’re stuck inside more often)
outdoor play stuff (badminton sets, tennis balls and rackets -- our rackets are wooden, $1 rackets from the thrift store, which work just fine because we don’t know the rules and play for fun -- jump ropes, baseball bats and balls, lawn bowling, horseshoes …
gardening stuff (real tools, not the plastic ones that break the minute you put them in the dirt)
arts and crafts supplies (beads, paints, wooden things, doll hair, confetti, kits…)
a “doctor” set with syringes (not the needle kind, the squirting kind you use to rinse an extracted tooth or give vitamins to your dog), a stethoscope, a blood pressure monitor with instruction card that tells how to read it, a first aid book, Band-Aids, an Ace bandage and a hot water bottle.
a bunch of old (ugly or gaudy) Christmas decorations, vases, tablecloths, etc.

Here are a few companies that sell toys that you might not throw away.

Dick Blick Art Supplies
Fun Tapes
Radio Flyer wagons

© Lisa Russell

Lisa Russell runs an eclectic homeschooling and parenting web site at



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