A room of their own…Step 2′s Naturally Playful Countryside Cottage

Step 2 Naturally Playful Countryside Cottage

Toddlers and preschoolers love having spaces that are scaled for them! It’s cozy and has such grown up features as a doorbell, a phone and a kitchen. If you’re shopping for such a cottage (that you can use indoors or out)–take a look at the new Step 2′s Naturally Playful Countryside Cottage. What I love about these types of spaces is how kids play with them differently as they grow.  For twos , the act of going in and out of the cottage is a huge part of the play- it’s much more about exploring the space and enjoying their new mobility–and ability to go move about a space independently.  Older toddlers and preschoolers – armed with more language and ability to pretend–will enjoy spinning their own stories about what they’re cooking, who they’re talking to on the phone, etc.

Our family toy tester pointed out two drawbacks. The photo on the box shows the cottage with flowers in the window box. The product does not come with flowers and there is no drainage hole in the window box for real flowers.  My recommendation – you can add a drainage hole if you’re going to use this outside–or use potted plants. The other comment was that there was no place to sit inside.  While this cottage does not come with a bench or chair, our tester noted that there was space for a child-size chair inside.  The cottage went together well (while the directions say a drill is optional–our tester felt the use of a drill made it much easier.)

One of our testers hard at work!

Pick of the Day: Wedgits Pink & Purple Tote

pinkwedgitsWhen we started the toyportfolio I was pretty annoyed with all the pink building sets. They were all about building a mall or a pony stable– no skyscrapers, no superhero vehicles…just a very limited range of fantasy.  We started the Gender Free Toy List in part to bring attention to this color coded approach to children’s play and toys.  For the most part, I still stand by those early articles.  There is no reason to limit girls or boys to the type of toys they play with.  The Corolle Green Umbrella Stroller is on our list this year for a reason.  And we have applauded Little Tikes and Step 2 for making gender free kitchens that are acceptable for both boys and girls.  (When we started almost all toy kitchens were screaming pink.)

Today we just received the new Wedgits Pink & Purple Tote.  Just like their primary sets, this is an open-ended construction toy that’s just fun.  pinkwedgittwo

It comes with a set of 48 design cards…that are abstract designs (no malls or ponies in sight).  Each card tells the builder how many pieces they’ll need for the creation and then has a picture.

pinkwedgitsthree It’s just this type of experience with spatial relations that we want all of our kids to enjoy.  The cards will give kids a jumping off point for exploring the set– but the truth is, just put this one out on the family coffee table and see what everyone builds.  For a full review of the new Wedgits line, visit www.toyportfolio.com.

Pick of the Day: Crayola Window Crayons

My mother is giving a speech today at the University of Maryland  for her new book, Stanley Hayami: Nisei Son…go mom.  Apart from writing 50 plus children’s books and parenting books, my amazing mother has written this book–based on the diary of a young man who was sent ( along with 120,000 other Americans of Japanese descent ) to internment camps during World War II.  Stanley then served in the Army–and died serving his country.  My mother has taken this primary source and brought his story to life with such clarity and emotion, that people are moved to tears when they “meet” Stanley.  I recently heard her speak at NYU–and again I marveled at how my mother is such a gifted story teller.  I also highly recommend Dear Miss Breed–the story of a dedicated librarian who became an incredible and consistent source of support to so many children and their families sent to camps during WWII.

p91405bAll of this is by way of my saying that my mother and I usually play with window markers and crayons together.  So I’m proud that she’s off giving another speech–but I miss that she’s not here.  I have just tried out Crayola’s new Window Crayons. At first I felt a little awkward coloring on our office windows by myself–but I’ve loosened up…and have created a garden of flowers and grass. Try it, it’s liberating.

If you’re ok with kids drawing on windows/sliding doors–this is a REALLY FUN activity. At only $4.99–it’s a great buy. Comes with five colors.

Gender Free Toys: Do they exist?

Sometimes it feels that for some reason, some group of toy makers, somewhere have determined that girls can only play with pink toys. A new innovative toy is introduced and within one season, there’s always a new “pink” version. Even great classic toys like Monopoly and Twister are now pink-a-fied. Perhaps it’s my formative years in the 70s women’s movement, but why must it be pink? Several years ago when scientific studies indicated that playing with building blocks developed important visual perception skills that helped kids achieve higher math scores — toy makers responded with building kits for girls (a good thing)–pink and lavender (unfortunately), and the themes: build a mall, a stable or a cottage (even more upsetting).

I have nothing against pink. Ok, as a kid I did. Much to the dismay of my mother, I really preferred the Hot Wheels tracks that my brothers played with to the dream dollhouse she bought me (that stood without a homemaker for most of my childhood). I have since apologized for not really getting into the whole “doll” thing either. My worst playdate — being sent to a house where the effusively pink bedroom was chockful of huggables and dolls — both sisters were very excited to play dolls. I never went back. They were well meaning, but it just wasn’t my thing.

As a professional toy reviewer (and mother of two boys), I quickly saw that there was also a problem on the other side of the equation. Boys tend to get two types of presents: things that move and things to build- that’s pretty much it. When we first started toyportfolio.com, a mother was surprised that I suggested a toy kitchen for her son. “Do you want him to grow up and feel comfortable in a kitchen?” I asked. This is where it starts. When my younger son and his friend took their dolls (yes, both my sons loved huggables and dolls) in their strollers to the park, an adult commented loud enough for everyone to hear “only in Greenwich Village”. He then asked the boys (almost three years old) what they were doing. “We’re playing daddys” they both chimed. It was one of my proudest parenting moments. They parked their “babies” and ran off to play on the climbing equipment.

Throughout the years we have kept track of what we call the GenderAgenda in Toyland. Our annual book has a gender-free list of toys and products that bend the gender agenda. We applaud toy kitchen makers like Step 2, Little Tikes and Small World Toys–that have broken away from the stereotypical pink kitchen.

So what can you do?

Buy building sets for your daughter – the more open-ended the better!

Buy a gender free ride-on (they also have the added advantage of being enjoyed by younger siblings no matter what their gender).

Buy your son some dishes and a toy kitchen. Your future daughter-in-law will love you for it.

Buy board games for both – playing games enforces not only reading, math and language skills- it’s an important way of introducing negotiating skills – something we all need!

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Since we didn’t publish our book this year, I thought I’d share our GenderAgenda list with the caveat that with the exception of the Cat In The Hat Game and the Kidizoom Camera, we did not test any of these toys for lead.

ActiviTot Developmental Mat (Tiny Love)
Amazing Baby Sound Balls (Kids Preferred)
Cosmic Catch (Hasbro)
Go Baby Go Stride to Ride Lion (Fisher-Price)
Hyper Dash (Wild Planet)
Cat in the Hat! I Can Do That! (I Can Do That!)
Kidizoom Camera (VTech)
Kitchen Appliances (various makers)
Retro Rocket (Radio Flyer)
Trikke 5 (Trikke Tech)
Word Whammer Fridge Phonics (LeapFrog)
Ultimate Lego Duplo Set (Lego Systems)