Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Holidays!

The shopping is done. The tree is decorated. Presents are wrapped. I'm just waiting for a few board books from Amazon and I can't find the stockings.
Arielle is so excited. So, we made cookies. Didn't Arielle do a great job decorating?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

It's late, but....

Here are a few more toy sites. I'll be doing more store and toy reviews after the holidays, but I do not like to review a site until I've had personal experience with them.

Landbridge Toys - A selection of toys from around the world.

Bambino Sled ($100)

Rabbit & Duck - I just found this site. They have an abundance of European toys, especially wonderful stocking stuffers, and right now they have $25 of a $100 purchase (with code TAKE25).

Selecta Turbina ($8.00)

Selecta Serenello ($6) A whistle is an excellent thing for a small child to have any time you go out. Teach her to whistle loudly if you become separated. My oldest has Asperger's Syndrome and would constantly wander or just forget to follow. Giving him a whistle saved me a lot of time and stress.

They also have Gymnic Rody ($41.90) bouncy horses - somebody asked about these, and I wasn't able to help at the time. They look like fun.

Tiddley Widdley
offers handcrafted toys and toys from around the world. They have a nice selection of Moulin Roty toys.

The activity pumpkin is normally $60, but is on sale for $30.

Tiddley Widdley has started their post-holiday sale early.

KangarooBoo - KangarooBoo is a new site and they asked that I let my readers know of their existence. They have a large selection of toys designated as "not made in China".

Chan Pie Gnon teething toy made of phthalate-free natural rubber ($13.90)

Noddy Car ($12.50)

Friday, December 14, 2007

TV Toys

I recently talked to a mother who wanted to avoid plastic toys, but felt she couldn't because her child was obsessed with "Dora".

I'm not going to debate the value of television here, especially of shows like "Dora the Explorer". I personally have mixed feelings on the subject and do let my kids watch some TV. What I will discuss, are ways to make a child's Dora dreams come true without resorting to plastic toys that don't allow for creative, open-ended play.

Some ideas - starting with my least favorite.

Character Clothing - I'm not a big fan of character clothing, but when Arielle was younger (and a huge Sesame Street fan), she loved wearing her Elmo swimming trunks.

Stuffed Animals - My problem with stuffed animals is that they multiply like tribbles, but at least they do allow for creative play. For her second Christmas, Arielle received several Elmo dolls from friends who knew she was a fan. The Elmo's were her constant companions for a while, and had wonderfully imaginative adventures.

Music - Both The Backyardigans and Wonder Pets have CD's. Sesame Street has many many CD's. We often listen to ours while we are riding in the car.

Coloring Books, stickers, paper dolls - These are so easy to find. Combine the coloring book with a box of brand new crayons.

Tooth Brushes - Arielle loves My Little Pony and the toys literally smell, so I'm sure there is no way they are healthy. However, she is very happy with her My Little Pony toothbrush. We've also had Winnie the Pooh and Elmo.

Props for Creative Play - Best of all, give the child the props so she can pretend to be her favorite character. For Dora, a backpack, a compass and a pretend map.

Haba Compass ($11.99)

For the Wonder Pets fan, a cape and a smooth-edged can to be used as a pretend phone.

Super Fly Kidz Cape ($12.00)

For a Bob the Builder fan, a construction helmet and a play bulldozer.

Fagus Mini Bulldozer ($21.00)

Arielle's helmet was a party favor.

And so on... I gave just a few examples. Props are so much better than a "Talking Dora Doll" who repeats ten phrases over and over. They require imagination. And, when the child moves on to another favorite character, these props can be used over and over again for all types of play.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Search for the Perfect Doll

Everyone has been sick (and oh so whiny) for the last week, so I haven't been writing very much. We are finally getting better, although I still feel like I need a vacation - or a long nap. We have put up the tree and are getting ready for the holidays.

Arielle wishes Santa would bring her a doll. Santa is actually bringing a rocking horse for her big gift, but mom and dad could do a doll.

"What kind of a doll?" I ask.

"A doll that is big like me."

"Oh, no!", I immediately wonder where on Earth I'm going to find a doll the size of Arielle. "Big like you!?!"

"Like me, three years old."

Ahhh... not a baby doll. Whew! But, I guess the gnome doll that is going in her stocking won't cut it.

So, I've spent a few days looking at dolls.

My first decision was what kind of doll - a vinyl doll or a Waldorf doll. I started with vinyl dolls. We have owned a few Corolle dolls, and have loved them. Corolle dolls meet all European safety standards. So, I started at Live and Learn toys.

Live and Learn has a large selection of Corolle dolls at low prices. I was looking for dolls that were definitely not babies. The first doll I considered was the Les Cheries Camille Ballerina Doll ($27.95). Very pretty, but she's supposed to be a 7 year old. Way too grown-up for Arielle.

Next, I considered Corolle's Poupettes ($24.95). They are very friendly looking and easy to dress and undress. And the price is good.

But Arielle said that she wants a long-haired doll.

The only other choices were Corolle's Toddler dolls. But, I really didn't see one that I loved, although Katia ($47.95) was close.

The other brand I considered was Moulin Roty. These dolls are designed in France and made in Spain, and are pretty much perfect in every way -- except the price tag. I could not see myself spending $70 for a first "real" doll for a three year old.

Moulin Roty My Doll: Nanou ($70.00)

Even more expensive are the beautifulZwergnase dolls at Moolka. These charming dolls are designed by artist Nicole Marschollek-Menzner and made in Germany out of vinyl that is free of toxic materials. The clothing is also made in Germany and all fabrics are free of toxic dye residue. Natural materials are used whenever possible. Nice, but not in my budget.

Heidi ($136.99)

Kathe Kruse dolls are another expensive choice, also made in Germany.
Sophie Isabelle ($160.95)

I had not wanted to buy Arielle a Waldorf doll because I'm planning to make one for her this winter. Both my older children received a Waldorf doll after their third birthday, and these dolls are still treasured possessions. But, I decided to consider a cloth doll.

Haba dolls are cute. These dolls are 12 inches tall and have slightly weighted bodies. Their clothes are removable and they are meant for toddlers and preschoolers.

Nelly ($34.99)

I love Aquamarine ($49.95) by Sigikid. Shes very girly and reminds me of Manhattan Toy's Groovy Girls.

The Wooden Wagon has a nice selection of Waldorf Dolls that are handmade in Germany. I like 16 inch Amy ($105.00). Again, too much for my budget.

Kathe Kruse makes a huge variety of Waldorf dolls. Blueberry Forest has one of the best selections around. They range from 10 inch mini dolls to child size dolls.

Kathe Kruse Mini It's Me Garden Fairy Doll ($64.95)

Kathe Kruse Waldorf 34 inch It's Me Doll ($189.95)

The dragonfly doll ($76.95) is very sweet and small, but not what I wanted.

I finally did find just the right doll and it was a Kathe Kruse. The 16 inch "Mary" Sweetheart Toddler Doll ($49.95 at A Toy Garden) has long blonde hair, looks about three years old, has a removable dress and was the right price. And mostly, she just felt like the "right" doll for Arielle.

I'm sure she'll have a happy time enjoying tea parties with Arielle and Army Bear.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Toys for Big Kids

I have a one year old and a three year old, so I tend to write about toys for the 0-6 year old crowd. However, I also have two teenagers and three step-sons, so I'm not inexperienced with school age children. It's getting late for Christmas shopping, but here are some safe and responsible creative toy ideas for older children.

LEGO - Did you know that LEGO has been around for 75 years?!? I remember playing with Lego with my brother, who was the creator of such masterpieces as the LEGO potty (complete with a LEGO poop) and a mini-LEGO bicycle with moving parts. My oldest son, Merlin, has a huge collection, and seems to be following in his uncle's footsteps.

The LEGO Group is amazingly environmentally conscious and see it as their responsibility to minimize the waste and energy used during the manufacturing process, and to avoid using toxic substances that may cause harm to either consumers or employees. They use a special ABS plastic designed only for LEGO, and meet all European and American safety standards. You can read more about LEGO safety here. Lego is made in Europe and can be found everywhere.

The LEGO Holiday Train is half price (now $44.98) on the LEGO website.

LEGO also offers the Belville collection for girls, and Duplo for younger children. The Belville Winter Wonder Palace ($69.99) should appeal to girls who love princesses and unicorns.

K'NEX offer a slightly different building experience than LEGO. Like LEGO, K'NEX are available everywhere and made in the U.S.A. Merlin used to spend hours building moving machines using rods and connectors. Many K'NEX sets have engines and remote controls. K'NEX is currently offering 10% off orders over $100.

Stompin' K'NEXosaurus ($14.99)

Zome is a building toy that is both similar and different. Like K'NEX, Zome is made up of sticks and connectors. Awards for Zome include:
Parenting Magazine: Best Toys of the Year 1995
Parents' Choice: Approval Award 1995
Dr. Toy: Best Smart Toy Product 2005

Zome is very versatile and lightweight, so children can be build in any direction and size is not a problem. This is why Zome is sometimes used by scientists to construct molecular models. But, in our experience, Zome, while possibly more educational than K'NEX or LEGO, was not as much fun. After reading many reading glowing reviews, I bought this for Merlin when he was thirteen. But other than just checking it out, he never played with it.

Zome Pioneer Kit ($19.95)

Geomags are another building toy, this time made in Switzerland. Geomags are magnetic balls, rods and panels that come in a variety of colors including primary colors, metallic, glow-in-the dark, girly pastels and even glitter.

Geomag Pastelle Panels 84-Piece Set($16.99)

Geomag Metal 60 ($14.99)

Geomag can be found at Amazon, ToysRUs and Target. This does have the Merlin "Seal of Approval". The cool thing about Geomags is that because it uses magnets, some sets allow models to be dynamic, so kids can make thins like magnetically spinning tops. However, since these are strong magnets, they shouldn't be played with near small children that might swallow parts.

Fractiles ($9.95-$39.95)
I seem to be on a roll of Merlin's old toys. Fractiles are magnetic tiles that are made of angles based on the number 7. The tiles can be used to make your designs with repeating and non-repeating patterns, such as starbursts, spirals, butterflies, mandalas, flowers, robots, spaceships, etc.

I have had a set on my file cabinet for about ten years. Merlin enjoyed it, and when I wasn't looking a fleet of spaceships or a large robot would magically appear. A small set works well as a travel toy and it can be used on the included activity board or on any magnetic surface. Fractiles-7 are a winner of the Parent's Choice silver honor award.

Just a few more building toys - :-)

Tree Blocks are blocks made out of tree branches cut in 2" increments. The bark is left on, so they have a natural feel and kids know that they are playing with trees. Tree blocks have come a long way since we purchased our set in 1997. When I bought our tree blocks, the blocks were made from damaged tree limbs in orange groves. Now they use the discards of managed paper forests and abandoned apple, hazelnut and cherry trees. Living trees aren't harmed.

Tree Blocks have won many awards, including:
Winner of a 1999 Early Childhood News Director’s Choice Award
Winner of a 1998 Parent’s Guide to Children’s Media Outstanding Achievement Award
Winner of a 1997 Parent’s Choice Gold Award
Family Life Magazine, November 1997, Best Educational Toys of the Year
Parents Magazine, November 1997, Best Toys of the Year

My older children put theirs away when they became teenagers, and Linnea and Arielle are so young, we haven't taken them back out yet. After ten years, most are in good shape although a few have lost their bark. Merlin says his favorite thing about these was that the shapes were unique and varied, while the sizes were uniform, and that allowed him to be more creative.

Tree blocks starter set ($27.95)

Keva Planks are identical maple construction blocks. Every piece is the same. They are about 1/4 inch thick, 3/4 inch wide and 4 1/2 inches long and can be used to build a variety of structures.

Keva Plank sets start at $34.99. They are sold out for this holiday season, but may be available at some museum or educational stores.

Marble Runs - The one Merlin had was made out of thin sticks and didn't stay together. The ones that I've seen recently are more solid. The Wooden Wagon has two options.

The Haba set which has many components, tracks, whirlwinds, jumps, lifts and other parts. It could get quite expensive - although has the option of starting small and adding on over time.

Haba Marble Run Master Building Set ($199)

The award winning Cuburo set ($189) is made of 54 cubes of beechwood that can be combined in endless ways. Add-ons are available for this as well.

Quadrilla is a more affordable marble run system that combines elements of both the Haba and Cuburo system. However Quadrilla is made in China.

This is what the HaPe company says about safety.
"We care for the quality of the products from the very beginning and insist on continuous quality improvement.In 2000, we successfully earned the ISO9001 quality system certification and became one of the first ISO9001 certified enterprises among wooden toy manufacturers in China. We also passed the LGA examination (Landesgewerbeanstalt Bayern).
Our Quality Policy:
All of our products are certified to CE / EN 71.
Our Company is ISO 9001 certified.
We always conduct a 100% quality inspection before shipment -- that means each product is tested eight times.
The majority of our products have passed an LGA examination and have been awarded the GS mark of quality.
60 Inspectors and supervisors examine production after every stage of development. "

Quadrilla is available at Hearthsong. Basic Set ($59.98)

Playmobil Playmobil is another classic that has been around since my childhood. Playmobil is produced in Germany. It is a plastic universe of play - everything from fairytale castles and doll houses to pirates, hospitals and haz-mat teams. There's something for almost every child.

Fire Station with Tower ($69.99)

Warrior Ship ($44.99)

Bunny School ($18.99)

Unicorn Fantasy Land ($39.99)

Le Toy Van makes high quality wooden play sets in Europe. They are hard to find in the U.S., but I did find some on Amazon. They are a nice, though expensive, substitute for plastic play sets.

Papo Surcouf Royal Flagship($89.99)

Fairy Tower ($119)

Ack! Scratch Le Toy Van off the list. See Kristen's comment. I contacted Le Toy Van and here's what they wrote:

Hi Sara,

Thank you for your interest in learning more about Le Toy Van.

The products are made in Indonesia and are tested to ASTM and EN71 standards. They are very high quality and are sold in specialty toy and gift stores in the US.

Please contact me if you have any further questions.


Larry J. Hotaling
Hotaling Imports Inc.
315-363-5594 ext. 225

So the sites that claimed they are made in Europe are wrong. Thanks, Kristen.

How did all the building toys effect Merlin? I'm not sure I can blame it all on Lego, but Merlin is currently applying to colleges for physics and engineering (Proud mama). A little Lego can't hurt.