Partners for Parenting, Choose Toys Carefully June, 1999
Child's Play Newsletter, Spring and Summer with the Kids June, 1999
Ventura County Parent Play Builds Strong Minds and Bodies December, 1998
The Washington Post, The Doctor Is 'In' August 17, 1998
The Christian Science Monitor, Dr. Toy Tells Parents to Participate March 12, 1998
The Sacramento Bee, Dr. Toy's Playhouse Scene/Family, November 29, 1997
Choose Toys Carefully
By Melanie Maxcey
Appeared in Partners & Parenting June 1999 issue.
By playing with toys or play props, children can acquire essential life skills like sharing, cooperation, problem solving, language and math. But parents and caretakers have to be careful when choosing toys for children, cautioned Jasmine Ng, an associate with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service's Partner for Parenting program.
There are four types of toys for young children: social and fantasy materials like dress-up clothes; music, art and movement materials like drums; exploration and mastery toys like blocks and clay; and total motor playthings like tricycles and swings.
Before purchasing a toy, consider whether the type of toy is right.
"The toy needs to be appropriate for the child's age and abilities," Ng said. "The toy should interest the child, usage instructions should be clear enough for you and the child to understand and the toy should have multiple uses."
Following the age range recommended by the manufacturer helps determine a toy's appropriateness.
Dr. Linda Ladd, Extension child development specialist, said ignoring age recommendations can have serious consequences. Care-givers must make sure a toy is safe, both physically and emotionally.
"The thing we hear about most often are the small parts of toys that get into a child's mouth who is at the stage where they taste everything and the child swallows the toy and the child chokes," Ladd said.
Watch for loud toys that could damage a child's hearing, and remember that a toy designed for an older child can hurt a younger sibling. Watch for cords or strings that can wrap around an infant's neck, sharp points and edges and projectile objects that can injure eyes.
Ladd, who is also a clinical psychologist, added that experiencing continual defeat at the hands of a toy can be harmful for a child's self concept.
"I don't want to keep a child from learning defeat," Ladd said, "but if they experience repeated defeat, it is typical for them to say, 'I don't like that anyway.' Or they may internalize it, 'What's the matter with me that I can't do it? I'm not as good as someone else.'"
Care-givers should also determine whether the toy is worth its price, concluded Ng.
"You want a toy that will stimulate a child's imagination and initiative. Make sure the toy is sturdy and can't be broken easily. Then, ask yourself whether the child will use the toy enough to justify its purchase."
For more information on toys, check the Institute for Childhood Resources' site, Dr. Toy's Guide, at http://drtoy.com. The site lists toys the institute likes with age appropriateness guidelines posted. For more information on toy safety, visit http://www.kidsource.com and use the search function to find toy safety articles.
The Partners for Parenting Program is a joint effort between Extension and the Texas Department of Health. Posted in the 'Livingroom' by News & Public Affairs, Agricultural Communications, The Texas A&M University Agriculture Program.
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Spring and Summer with the Kids -- What Parents Need to Consider
By Jo Loving Gann
Appeared in Childs Play Newsletter June 1999 issue.
Winter is over and we are in the midst of Spring, with Summer not far behind. Children, naturally curious about their worlds, are able to spend more time out-of-doors. How, as a parent, can you best make the transition from cool-weather activities? To get the answer, I caught up with the very busy Dr. Stevanne Auerbach, also known as Dr. Toy, a highly regarded child development and play expert, author of several books, and syndicated columnist. Dr. Toy has written a number of books and articles, and compiled lists of recommended products for children, including "Best Classic Toys 1999," "Dr. Toy's Best 100 Children's Products, 1999" and "Dr. Toy's Best Vacation Products 1998." These lists are helpful in selecting toys that are appropriate by age group, price, and manufacturer.. She is dedicated to education, quality, and lasting value as key criteria in selecting toys for her lists, and it shows in the toys she recommends. She is the author of the best-selling "Dr. Toy's Smart Play: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ* (Play Quotient)," St. Martin's Press, 1998
When I asked about the considerations a parent should make in the transition between the winter and the warmer seasons, Dr. Toy replied that it is "good for children to play out of doors every day in every season. There should be a natural flow from in and outside. The red wagon is always fun to pull along items to play with in the park - balls, sand pail and shovel, jump rope, and even a hula hoop. Taking a long pad and pens for sketching can be a good way for a child to explore observations out of doors and at the park. Reading is always fun under a tree. Take time to find the activities that are right for each season - for example, gathering fallen leaves in the fall to trace and paste on paper helps a child understand the changing seasons."
With the warm weather and end of the school year, many families plan their annual vacation. What should parents think about when vacationing with children? Dr. Toy has compiled a list of recommended Vacation Toys at her web site, (http://drtoy.com/drtoy/98Vacation/98Vaclis.htm ). In addition, her book provides important items for parents to consider when planning the family vacation. Among her recommendations: check with the hotel about facilities and activities for children; involve the childrenin your vacation planning, and use a map as a visual tool. She also advises parents to prepare a "Travel Play Bag." This bag, which can be a backpack, bag or tote, should include items such as art supplies, games, books, and story cassettes.
Dr. Toy's web site (http://www..drtoy.com ) also provides additional information for parents regarding play, toy selection, and advice. For additional information, you can email Dr. Toy at firstname.lastname@example.org If you wish to write to Dr. Toy for a list of best products, include a self-addressed, stamped #10 envelope, and mail to: Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D./Dr. Toy, 268 Bush Street, San Francisco, CA 94104
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Play Builds Strong Minds and Bodies ©
By Tish Davidson
Appeared in Ventura County Parent (CA) San Francisco Peninsula Parent, Family Times (Christiana DE) Atlanta Parent and Todays Parent (Coconut Creek Fl) December 1998 issue
Ding! Ding! Ding! Listen to those cash registers ringing up holiday toy sales. About $1 billion is spent in the United States each year on over 50,000 different toys. Almost seven times more is spent on video games. Two-thirds of all toys are sold between October and December. Clearly, parents are voting with their pocketbooks for play.
Toy companies are interested in products that will sell, sell, and sell some more. To generate sales, they rely more on advertising than on meeting the needs of the developing child. Parents can counteract some of this sales persuasion by understanding why and how children play. This gives them a rational way to direct their toy dollars toward products that encourage constructive activities.
Play is a natural activity, and all children are born with the capacity to play. However all play is not created equal. Stevanne Auerbach, Ph. D. of San Francisco, also known as Dr. Toy, has spent 25 years studying how children play. She is the author of the new book Dr. Toy's Smart Play: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ (St. Martin's $13.95). PQ or play quotient is the ability of a child to play in a way that helps him attain his physical, creativey: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ (St. Martin's $13.95). PQ or play quotient is the ability of a child to play in a way that helps him attain his physical, creative and intellectual potentials.
According to Auerbach, the natural ability to play can be stimulated and guided or discouraged and repressed depending on the toys a child is given. "Through play children practice the basic skills needed in the classroom and in life. Play enriches both sides of the brain - right and left hemispheres. Thus the underlying principal of play, smart play, is that the child will gather essential experiences necessary for her fullest mental development," said Auerbach. Good toys are safe, durable toys that stimulate a child to be active and practice physical skills, be creative and develop imagination, or learn something new. The best toys serve more than one purpose.
Age and Play
Children play differently at different ages. It might seem that infants do not play at all. But they do. "You are your child's first Big Toy," says Auerbach. The way parents talk, sing and touch their babies provides babies their first experiences with the physical and emotional world. Stimulating the senses in an age-appropriate way is one of the hallmarks of a good toy. Babies especially enjoy toys with different textures, sounds and patterns.
Toddlers are ready for active toys. They often turn ordinary household items - pots and pans, rolled up socks, cardboard boxes - into toys. Household items can be supplemented with back to basic toys like blocks, balls, trucks, or bath toys. This is an on-the-go age, so toddlers like things they can move around, sort, ride on, push or pull.
Preschoolers are busy broadening their imagination with let's pretend play. Imaginative play gives them the chance to practice role playing in social situations. As they grow, they also become more interested in arts and crafts that develop fine motor skills.
Lower elementary school children thrive on play with friends. They acquire social skills that let them play board games and other games with rules. Outdoors they learn to ride bikes and roller skate. Children this age may seem wrapped up in playing with friends, but they still like and need adults to play with them.
Upper elementary children develop a strong set of diverse interests. Some enjoy model kits and arts and crafts that require patience and fine motor skills. Others are attracted to sports and outdoor activities. Computer problem solving games are interesting to this age group.
Choosing a toy that is right for the developmental (not chronological) age of the child encourages constructive play. "A product that is developmentally inappropriate leads to frustration," says Auerbach.
Gender and Play
For years toy companies have divided their products into "girls toys" - and "boys toys." Look at the color - pastels for girls, primary colors or blacks and dull greens for boys - and you'll know the intended target. Certainly our culture expects different things from boys and girls. But researchers are children born with preferences that fit our expectations or do they learn them from the social environment?
After studying the research Janese Swanson, Ed. D, founder of Girl Tech, a company based in Livermore, California dedicated to bring girls the world of technology believes that many children's play preferences are learned.
She cites studies that indicate that:
* Until adolescence, girls and boys are very similar in their physical development and physical potential. Differences come primarily from practice and opportunity.
* Until adolescence their reading, writing and math abilities of both sexes are about the same.
* Boys and girls like the same magazines and books until the age of 12.
On the other hand, some studies indicate differences in how each sex relates to the world.
* Boys play more aggressively than girls.
* Girls play more cooperatively than boys.
* Boys prefer games with an element of competition and structured rules.
* Young boys tend to be more active in their undirected "free time" than young girls.
* Children tend to choose colors, toys and activities they think are meant for their gender.
What does this mean for parents choosing toys? Generally "girls toys" encourage children to play quietly while "boys toys" encourage physically active play (Think how kids play with Barbies vs action figures). If parents want their children to get a good balance of activities, they need to choose toys from both categories, including some toys that encourage girls to be more active and boys to be more cooperative. Most of all, parents should choose toys that they are willing to spend time with. "The family that plays together, stays together, and has lots more joy together," says Auerbach.
Dr. Toy can be found on the web at http://drtoy.com . Janese Swanson's summary of research on gender differences in play can be found at http://www.girltech.com .
Holiday Toys to Bring Constructive Play to Your House - (Sidebar to article)
Birth through Age Two....
Activity Arch (Tiny Love $30) Flexible crib arch with hanging toys that grows as the child grow.
Alfa Plush Sea Creatures ($8-15) High quality soft toys - manatee, ray, tropical fish and other hard to find designs, some with rattles.
Dreamakers Musical Pull Toy (Prestige, $15) Fuzzy musical bear ready for bed. Pull the string in his stocking cap and he plays a soft lullaby. 3-in-1
Gym to Walker (The First Years $35) floor gym converts to activity center then push walker through the child's first two years of life.
Ages Three through Five...
All -Terrain Steel and Wood Wagon (Radio Flyer, $130) Extra-wide tires, steel body and hardwood sides make this of the most stable, durable wagon around. A classic.
Construction Truck (Mega Bloks $25) Dump truck full of building blocks allows kids to build up from the frame of the truck.
Don't Bug Me (Great American Puzzle Factory $10). Realistic insect matching game requires no reading. Multiple levels of play for different ages.
Tackabets (Learning Curve, $30) Colorful wooden alphabet letters that will only stack when assembled in alphabetical order. Good for preschools as well as homes.
Ages Six through Eight...
Alchemist Chess Computer (Saitek $) Stand alone chess computer with 64 different levels of play that increase in difficulty as chess skills grow. Easy to use board makes registering moves simple.
Hooloos (Formabilities $8-60) Five different sets of soft pieces let kids create free form hand puppets, soft sculptures and an creatures of imagination over and over again.
Sea Creatures Scuba Quest (Mega Bloks, $20) Plastic oxygen tank contains 300 pieces of construction components and figures.
Snow Globes (Cadaco $6-14) Reusable activity kit allows kids to create then change snow globe scenes on different themes.
Totally Twister (Hasbro $25) An electronic cube with three levels of play that puts a twist on the old Twister party game. Plenty of action. Good game for a crowd.
Ages Nine through Twelve...
Big Screen Microscope (Tasco, $68) 7" screen magnifies object up to 3200 times.
K'Nex Cosmic Invaders Walkers ($19) 165 piece set builds a model that when complete moves under the control of a hand held controller (included).
Lightening Racer (Woodkrafter Kits, $9) wooden model kit with flywheel driven gearbox that races when completed.
Malarky (Patch $30) Family game based on Imponderables books by David Feldman asks questions such as "Why does a "buck" mean "a dollar?" One person knows the answer and the others have to bluff. Great conversation stimulator.
The Doctor Is 'In' ©
By Don Oldenburg, Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post, August 17, 1998 Page B4
Her e-mail inquiries number more than 100 a day now. They arrive from around the world. An Egyptian import-export company wrote her last week from Cairo asking where it might find "thumb size" toys to include in food packaging. An Indianapolis man wrote in search of someone to restore his favorite childhood toy, a Doctor Dolittle "Pushmi-Pullyu." A schoolteacher wanted to know where she could find blank Pogs. When parents of a Dutch child who was upset over losing his rare teddy bear wrote for help, "Dr. Toy" located a duplicate. When a student from India e-mailed that no faculty advisers at the Royal College of Design in London were knowledgeable enough to guide his study of toy design, "Dr. Toy" mentored him through his graduation.
"People write to me all the time," says Stevanne (Dr. Toy) Auerbach, whose books and syndicated column, online resources, toy reviews, parenting advice, and advocacy for children -- not to mention a penchant for self-promotion -- lately have made her the toy expert in demand. Fact is, she receives more e-mails and letters than she possibly can answer. They come from people telling her about new toys they invented, from activists fighting against violent toys, from professional toy buyers, from toy collectors, from the toy industry itself. But the messages she finds most telling come from ordinary adults inquiring about the toys they loved as children.
"I have several thousand questions from parents and grandparents who have a fond memory of a particular toy they had when they were about 10 years old," says Auerbach, who founded San Francisco's first and only toy museum until an earthquake shut it down a decade ago. "They describe the toy and say they need to find one to give to their child or grandchild. They don't know the name of the product. But I remember."
How does she remember? For Dr. Toy, playing's the thing. "People don't always understand how important toys are to children," she says. "They remember their earliest experiences. They can remember so many years later the toy that was important to them. I want parents to understand how important toys are to their children now."
Lest anyone think she's just playing around, the good doctor sometimes prescribes toy time in tougher terms. "If you do not take your child's playtime seriously, there will be dire consequences for your child," she warned in the press release announcing her recent book-signing appearances in Baltimore. "Playing is crucial to a child's emotional, social and intellectual growth. . . . The brain-functioning of our kids is drastically impaired if kids are not given constructive play time."
A former teacher, now a grandmother, Auerbach has been building her credentials and her practice as a leading expert on children's products for nearly three decades. Specializing in child development and parenting education, she is the director of the Institute of Childhood Resources in San Francisco. But the title that goes everywhere with her is the Dr. Toy alias (she does have a PhD). Boosting her media visibility and her marketplace impact of her reviews, it has helped to make her the Siskel and Ebert of toys. She writes a Dr. Toy newspaper column syndicated nationwide by King Features. She is the author of 14 books on child play, child care and toys -- her latest published this year, "Dr. Toy's Smart Play: How to Raise a Child With a High Play Quotient" (St. Martin's Press, $13.95). Next month, she is scheduled to host an hour-long cable TV program about educational toys and products on the Home Shopping Network.
Since going online five years ago, Auerbach has been reviewing toys like a runaway choo-choo train. Annually, she releases reviews of the year's 100 Best Children's Products, the Best Classic Toys and the Best Vacation Products. Several hundred toy reviews are available on her Dr. Toy's Guide Web site (drtoy.com), which she calls her monthly online magazine.
Besides reviews with color photographs of the toys, toll-free telephone numbers and Internet hyperlinks to the toy manufacturer, and toy cross-referencing by the child's age, her Web site includes an easy e-mail form for contacting her, an electronic product-information request form, Dr. Toy's tips on buying toys and child's play, Auerbach's biography, a kid contest, Internet links for children, parents and teachers, and a growing list of how languages around the world say "toy," from the Chinese "wan gee" to the Turkish "oyuncak." While Auerbach doesn't sell toys, she does provide a link to eToy.com -- an online toy store.
"I have tried to keep my Web site simple, so that anybody coming in would not be intimidated by it, so that it would not turn off a new parent," says Auerbach, who maintains she was the first to go online with a site dedicated to reviewing toys.
Indeed, Dr. Toy doesn't love all toys equally -- and doesn't love some at all. She likes most basic toys -- jacks, yo-yos, puzzles, books, the imagination and mastery stuff. She likes computer games that educate children beyond what books can, but bemoans the "endless shooting and fighting" games. Violent toys don't have a prayer of making her best lists -- especially toy guns. "I've been a big advocate against toy guns and violent toys," she says. "When you are 9 and 11, and you are told it is okay to play with guns, then why isn't it okay for them to play with guns at 14 and 15? I say, with 300,000 toys, why would you want to put a gun in a kid's hand?"
Shannon Tobin regularly seeks Auerbach's expertise on products when planning the Children's Interactive Expo, her annual fall trade show in San Francisco that welcomes families to try new interactive computer games. "She understands how kids learn and translates that knowledge into crucial advice for purchasing, parenting and teaching," Tobin says of Auerbach. "In a world full of violent games, Dr. Toy identifies the best-quality products. May we be so lucky to have parents and teachers following her advice."
* Parents who don't have online access can get a free copy of Dr. Toy's "Best Vacation Products" and other lists by sending a SASE (#10 envelope) to Dr. Toy, 268 Bush St., San Francisco, Calif. 94104).
SELECTING THE RIGHT PLAYTHING
Finding the best toys for your children requires more thought and care than just hauling the kids to Toys R Us and letting them choose. Figuring whatever toys were good enough for you are good enough for them doesn't cut it either. "Children learn through toys and through their play," says Stevanne Auerbach, whose professional persona is Dr. Toy. "What they have to play with stimulates their thinking, their logic, their creativity, their eye-hand coordination, their ability to reason. "Playing a board game, for example, teaches them how to get along with friends and how to win and lose. So what we give children to play with has to be not only be safe, but also have qualities that are going to be beneficial to them."
Among Auerbach's tips on how to pick good toys: * Think about what's appropriate for your child's age, skills, needs and interests. Choose a product that fits your child now -- even if he'll outgrow it. Consider how it will benefit your child: Will it help him learn a skill? Will she enjoy it and have fun? Will it hold your child's interest?
* Introduce balance into your child's activities by choosing a variety of toys -- ones that provide physical activity (hula hoops, ball games, and kites, for example), creativity (finger paints, puppets, Play-Doh, and crafts) and learning (books, puzzles, tapes, software, music, and board games).
* Consider whether the toy is well-designed and safe. Any sharp edges? Small parts that might be hazardous to the child or younger siblings? Is it durable? Made to last? Does it have long-lasting value?
* What does the product teach, if anything? Will it help to expand your child's values? Self-esteem? Cultural awareness? Physical skills? Computer skills?
* Will the toy help to nurture childhood? "Having fun together as a family is an important part of the child's play experiences," says Auerbach. So is positive interaction with other children. Does the toy encourage social benefits?
* Does the toy's price match its value?
* Bottom line: Is the toy fun? "Play is, after all," says
Auerbach, "a time to have fun."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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Thursday March 12, 1998 Edition--CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
Dr. Toy Tells Parents to Participate ©
Kirsten Conover, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Send e-mail to:
For Stevanne Auerbach "play" is serious business. As a longtime child-development expert and president of the Institute of Childhood Resources in San Francisco, Ms. Auerbach is teaching parents about the power of play in a child's intellectual and emotionalgrowth.
Her work and research have earned her an alias: Dr. Toy. (She does have a PhD, after all.) Auerbach stopped by the Monitor to talk about her new book, "Dr.Toy's Smart Play: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ*" (*Play Quotient)(St.Martin's Press, $13.95).
"The book is a culmination of my 25 years of listening to parents," she explains. Auerbach is now a grandmother and acknowledges that she wrote the book for her daughter who has a two-year-old.
"Parents have anxiety about being parents. Are they doing the right thing? How do I play with my child? What's appropriate, what's safe?"
One might say that parents' concerns haven't hanged much over the years. But the craving for big information has grown, she notes.
To working women who say they don't read to their children enough, she says, "Make tapes." Recently, a woman lamented to her that her two-year-old seemed to be only interested in pots and pans and what was wrong? The answer: Nothing! Next fill them with water and add a few measuring cups, Auerbach suggested.
Auerbach says she sees two extremes with children these days:They're either not doing anything (sitting in front of the tube) or their life is overplanned: "Overprogramming children is not to their benefit,"she says. And if they're left to their own devices, TV often becomes a substitute for constructive play.
The extent to which Auerbach doesn't like TV is obvious: "Television has mesmerized kids into inactivity, not the mental, physical, and creative activity they need."
What Dr. Toy emphasizes is parental involvement. "Get on the floor with them," she says. The phrase, "Oh they're in the other room playing,"is too often the norm. Yes, children need varying kinds of play and environments, but parents need to be their play tutors too. "The parent is the child's first big toy," she says.
Her book offers tips on how to choose toys for specific age groups, plan activities, and find resources. Parents will appreciate the 160 suggestions of things to do with children, from action-figure play to zoo trek. Parental involvement, engaging products, and a good balance of active, creative, and educational toys serve as the basis, she says.
"If you want your child to succeed in school, you have to increase their PQ during the first five years." Of course, nearly all parents want toys that will entertain and enrich their children, but with 300,000 toys out there, how do you choose?
Auerbach leans back and comments on the annual Toy Fair at the cavernous Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York: "Walking Javits - it's like three football fields - you need roller skates... or a go cart." She likes to seek out toys made by smaller companies that don't necessarily have a large advertising budget. Many good products get overlooked because they either aren't on commercials on Saturday mornings or toy stores don't carry them. Also, parents gravitate toward the large discount toy stores, and really the smaller, Main Street ones tend to carry better products.
To boot, parents are so busy. It's difficult to find the time to test out toys and software.
Even though Auerbach may see herself as a guide (her web site drtoy.com is particularly helpful), she encourages parents to do their own research.
To help facilitate better choice, Auerbach adds that she'd like to see more places where families can try out and rent toys, such as public libraries, toy libraries, and children's museums. "Play centers" - whether provided by schools or community centers - should be available as places for kids to go after school instead of going to empty apartments and houses between 3 and 6 p.m. That way they can use computers, participate in arts, crafts, and theater.
One trend Auerbach acknowledges and supports is "back to basics." Toys such as the yo-yo, jacks, clay, puzzles, simple baby dolls you can wash in the tub, and Slinkies have long been favorites. Baby-boom nostalgia aside, many parents are turning to them because they've stood the test of time.
Playing with a yo-yo for example, increases coordination, introduces the laws of physics, and encourages a sense of mastery, Auerbach says.She recalls the time a few years ago when a parent breathlessly declared, "What am I going to do? I can't find Tickle-Me-Elmo?" Auerbach suggested, "Find your child a puppet - could be any character - then tickle your child and let the puppet tickle you."
Ignite the child's imagination, she continues. "If you want your child to be a thinker and be spontaneous, you've got to give her the opportunity."
Children need varying kinds of play and environments, say child-development expert Stevanne Auerbach. But 'the parent is the child's first big toy,' she emphasizes.
For further information: drtoy.com or write Dr. Toy, 268 Bush St. SF CA 94104
(c) Copyright 1998 The Christian Science Publishing Society.
DR. TOY'S PLAYHOUSE ©
STEVANNE AUERBACH HAS A DIAGNOSIS OF THE LATEST KID STUFF
by Maria LaPiana
You can't see it from the street, this jammed-to-the-rafters space, where Stevanne Auerbach does for a living what many of us only dream of. Hidden in back of a karate studio on a bustling avenue in Berkeley is a crowded, colorful, enchanting place that is part warehouse, part laboratory. Every square inch is filled with things designed to delight the kid in all of us: games and dolls; cars, trucks, trains and planes; puzzles, blocks,balls and plush animals; boxes and boxes of newfangled software. Santa's workshop's got nothing on this joint.
What would make it perfect, says Auerbach, is more room for kids,so they could enjoy her vast collection as much as she does. Most days, this is where you'll find this early childhood expert with a Ph.D. in play. She's a professional and a grandmother who has made toys her life. She's so committed to her work, in fact, that she likes to be called by her alias: Dr. Toy.
Tall and unassuming, Auerbach is 59, but she still loves to play with toys like a kid. She's dressed in gray sweats and black sneakers on this brisk afternoon. Her black flannel shirt is essential attire in the cold warehouse, where you need to sidestep to get past all the clutter to the telephone.Her shoulder-length auburn hair is tousled under a black corduroy cap. She's wearing no makeup, silver earrings and a gold scarf at her neck.
We're talking toys with the good doctor, and she's in her element. She's surrounded by playthings. She has galleys of her new book, and she's eager to discuss her list, her 100 Best Children's Products for 1997, which she released in October.
She looks intense and a little worried, but she smiles often, in snippets. Why toys? Because all her life, Auerbach has been intrigued by the ways in which children learn and grow. Early on, she discovered that play was the Window through which those phenomena could be seen most clearly. She loves toys because they fire a child's imagination. One reason to have toys is to create a childhood that's playful, a childhood that has some magical qualities, says Auerbach. But the magic doesn't come from the objects themselves. Auerbach believes that toys are simply vehicles & and they don't have to come shrink-wrapped to do the job.
In the absence of bona fide toys, kids will make their own, and that's fine by her. Before you get into the actual "things,' they'll play with boxes, Tupperware, bowls and spoons, brown paper, shopping bags. Anything that's available, she says. A good plaything is one that gets a child's curiosity up. It stimulates children to develop language skills, like a puppet would do, developscoordination skills, teaches them something they may not otherwise know, Auerbach says.
Child's play is truly at the heart of Auerbach's work. As an educator and activist for child-care reform, she has spent the last 30 years advocating for children in all walks of life. Her accomplishments are many.
Working for the commissioner of education in Washington, D.C., in the late '60s, she was asked to review the first proposal for Sesame Street. She is Director of the Institute for Childhood Resources, founded as a research organization in San Francisco in 1975. She just completed an interview for a TV special on classic toys that will air on the History Channel. Auerbach helped establish the first day-care center for children of federal employees. And she started a hands-on toy museum in San Francisco&what she calls the highlight of her career. The museum, which had been visited by more than 50,000 children, closed after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
Today Auerbach works as a consultant evaluating all sorts of children's products, from infants' soft toys to software for adolescents. She writes a weekly syndicated King Features newspaper column and has written 14 books (her latest, Dr. Toy's Smart Play will be published by St. Martin's Press in January). Her income comes mainly from her books. She also has a Web site (drtoy.com) on which she lists her top toys for recent years and where to get them, among other things. During the holiday season, the site gets about 40,000 hits a day. She also answers all her own e-mail ) on questions ranging from how to import, design or market a toy, to how to find a toy remembered from childhood. But what may give Auerbach the most credibility as a play professional is the fact that she loves toys and believes with her whole heart that every child should have access to them. "Toys are as valid to borrow as books, she says. "Toys are expensive and kids lose interest. But, every community does not have a toy library, and every community should have one." To that end, after evaluating the toys she gets, she donates most of them to preschools and day-care centers. In an effort to start a lending library, she has recently furnished Habitot, Berkeley's new children's museum, with hundreds of new toys. As a critic, Auerbach is tough. She reviews thousands of toys every year & some sent unsolicited,some requested by her, all free of charge & and compiles a list of only 100 that she feels are worthy.
Along with Joanne Oppenheim of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, who also reviews and rates toys, Auerbach is considered a valuable resource in the industry. Diane Cardinale is a spokeswoman for the 290-member Toy Manufacturers Association. Her industry takes Auerbach and her work seriously. Her interest in toys goes back a long way, and her background gives her list more weight,than, say, something published by XYZ magazine, says Cardinale. The educational toy market & in which Auerbach has a keen interest & is a little vague and undefined, says Cardinale, but it has a crossover quality. When you think of it, every toy is educational, even Barbie, says Cardinale.
Auerbach's criteria for a toy worth endorsing: safety, age-appropriateness; design; durability; lasting play value; cultural and ethnic diversity; good transition from home to school; educational value; learning skills; creativity; improvement in the understanding of the community and the world.
Oh, yeah. . . and it has to be fun. And fresh. "I'm looking for something innovative that teaches kids about something," she says. "But the teaching component doesn't have to hit you over the head. Education is not just reading, writing and arithmetic. It's everything,"she says. Auerbach frowns at all the attention some toys get & especially at this time of year.What is going to be the hot toy?
"I think that's the wrong question to ask," she says. "What's hot today is cold tomorrow." Dr. Toy looks for longevity. She champions the small to mid-sized companies, the ones with tiny advertising budgets & or even no marketing savvy at all.
As parents gear up to hit the toy stores, Auerbach urges them to take a second look at the less 'popular toys out there. But she does not suggest that parents ignore their kids' whining. "You want a child to create some wish lists. It's very important," she says. "You should go to the toy store with them and find out what they really want. It doesn't mean you have to buy it. But if it's what they really want, and even if it's something you don't particularly approve of, they may still need it. They want to be a part of a peer group. It's what they all have, and what they talk about." Auerbach herself does not ignore the giants (the Mattels and the Hasbros). There's always something by the big guys on her list. But, the crush for commercial toys doesn't thrill her. People say "What about Tickle Me, Elmo?' Well, Tickle Me, Elmo is a gimmick. It's doing it. Not the child. It's cute, and it lasts for a little while. It wiggles and giggles. But I'd rather have the child have a puppet &of Elmo & and have him do it." Can kids have too many toys? "Definitely," says Auerbach & "especially if they are the wrong toys. Remember," she says,"this is not about spending a lot of money. And it's not about having a lot of stuff."
Article has color photo of Dr. Auerbach plus information on selected winning products including:
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