Playful Perspectives: Toys that interact online

Playful Perspectives is a new feature wherein your intrepid Toy Box Mommy (that’s me) and The Toy Guy jointly tackle a topic to give you twice the insight and perhaps slightly different takes on an issue.

Once upon a time, there were toys. They required children to put their hands on them and use their imaginations, and they were very good. There were also board games and games like marbles, which required children to interact and think, and they were also very good.

Eventually the internet came along, and then after it had invaded pretty much everyone’s homes, it provided online kid-appropriate games, and they were good, too. (My children are particularly fond of Chuzzle.)

Now we have toys that used to require hands-on and imaginative play which now require logging on to the computer and doing things online in order to “play” with them. Webkinz, Bella Sara and Test Tube Aliens come immediately to mind, for example. It’s a trend that’s expanding and isn’t going away anytime soon.

Me, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I love it when my kids resort to more “old-fashioned” play, preferably the kind that has them running around, getting exercise, and tiring themselves out. On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of truly educational and fun, clever online options which are absolutely wonderful for today’s net-savvy kids.

But I do think it’s time for kids to get a taste of their own medicine, too. So I’d like to suggest a few new toys to the big toy manufacturers.

Webkinz Barbie. When you take this Barbie out of the box, she whines that she hasn’t been allowed to play Webkinz in days and her monkey needs more kibble. Set her at the included desk and she logs on and ignores everything you say. Periodically she shrieks with glee and tells you she just won a bundle playing Cash Cow. Your child must log in to Webkinz and add her as a friend to get her to respond to them at all, and then she will play online with them but respond “that’s boring” to any game suggestion that takes place outside of Webkinz. Suggested retail price: $19.99.

Test Tube Pokemon. Each tube of glop must be fed a steady diet of tiny plastic creatures before morphing into a new breed of Pokemon right before your eyes. Holding the hatched creature up to your computer screen when logged on to the command center site allows your pet to learn how to say its name over and over again in a series of increasingly annoying high-pitched whines. Depending on the message sent to it, your creature will either disappear under the bed or become wedged in-between the seats in the car within one week. Suggested retail price: $4.99 (so that you’ll buy a bunch of them).

Heely Island. These magnificent wheeled shoes allow your child to skate along most any surface, as well as logging on to a mystical world where they can skate into other children at full speed without fear of grounding. Instead, some children will form gangs, while others will be voted off the island and sent away on an iceberg. Great for building social networking skills! Suggested retail price: $1500. Tell them to start saving their allowance now.

Yes, once again I wonder why I haven’t been snapped up by the toy development industry. I clearly understand the business and have a unique visionary perspective.

What do you think about the recent spate of internet-tie-in type toys? Love ‘em? Hate ‘em? And don’t forget to go check out The Toy Guy’s take!

Playful Perspectives: Age-appropriate play

Playful Perspectives is a new feature wherein your intrepid Toy Box Mommy (that’s me) and The Toy Guy jointly tackle a topic to give you twice the insight and perhaps slightly different takes on an issue.

This is a great topic for us to do the whole dueling perspectives on, because the Toy Guy is, well, a toy guy, and me, I’m a mom. He knows all about play theory, and I know about vacuuming up teeny tiny pieces of Legos and Polly Pockets. My relationship with how toys and kids best work together is really on a need-to-know basis. Did it make my son scream in frustration? Not appropriate! Did it cause my daughter to ask me to define a word I’d rather she not know yet? Not appropriate!

We’ve all had the experience of picking up a toy or book labeled with a recommended age range and thinking to ourselves, “Ha! Junior is old enough for this, no matter what they say. He’s advanced, you know.” So far as I know, there’s no Toy Police who will come after you for allowing your 7-year-old to participate in a game designed for ages 8 to Adult, after all.

I think the key—as with so much in parenting—is to use some common sense and pay attention. Common sense means things like realizing that letting an 11-year-old have a 12-and-up game is a very different concession than letting a 2-year-old have something labeled for ages 3-and-up. Safety first and all of that, naturally. Also please try to remember that it’s not a contest, here. Your child can be positively brilliant and still not ready for “older” toys, regardless of that mammoth IQ. Unless you popped out a middle-aged human, certain aspects of development and maturity simply cannot be rushed. Besides which, kids should be kids! Even the bright ones need to practice the skills that seemingly simple toys afford.

Paying attention is the corollary; if your little Shakespeare is flawlessly reading all the words on the page but has zero comprehension of what she’s saying, well then, perhaps it’s time to step back into something a bit less complex. And it should go without saying that children will beg and wheedle for whatever they perceive as cool, and regardless of the age of your child or the toy, if they are playing in a way that concerns you, it’s okay to say no (even if “everyone else’s mom says yes”). You’re the parent, and if you’re tuned in, you know your child best. Trust your gut.

What do you think? And don’t forget to go check out The Toy Guy’s take!

Playful Perspectives: Free play

Playful Perspectives is a new feature wherein your intrepid Toy Box Mommy (that’s me) and The Toy Guy jointly tackle a topic to give you twice the insight and perhaps slightly different takes on an issue.

Summer is coming (the lovely little ice storm my area of the country was hit with yesterday notwithstanding). To some parents, summer is a time to look forward to; the kids are off school, the days are long and lazy, and everything is a little bit better. For working parents, it may mean more of the same, with modified childcare arrangements. But for many parents, it may mean the return battle cry we least like to hear: “I’m boooooooored!”

There’s only one thing worse than that, you know. It’s a child asking to [insert electronic activity here] when it’s a beautiful day outside.

I’m not a Luddite by any means. My kids watch television, play games on the computer, and even have some hand-held electronic games. But I’m a firm believer in time-and-place rules. At my house, you don’t watch TV when you could be out riding bikes. Hand-helds are great travel toys, but when I say “go outside and play” I do not mean go sit on the porch and play Super Mario. (Though I might mean go sit on the porch and read a book, which may be a slight contradiction of terms, but I’m the mommy and I make the rules.)

I think most parents would agree that, ideally, you want your kids outside getting fresh air and exercise when possible. The question becomes which toys foster their natural creative instincts and which ones can only work in a set way.

Come summer, I’m all about the classics. If a child dares to come tell me he/she’s bored, I rattle off a list of suitable implements to alleviate said boredom: We have bikes, scooters, jump ropes, hula hoops, sidewalk chalk, bubbles, and—our personal favorite around here—assorted bug-catching paraphernalia.

On a good day, I’ll catch the kids in an elaborate game of their own devising. Our driveway will be transformed into an elaborate obstacle course for caterpillars, perhaps, or they’ll set off on a treasure hunt. (Word to the wise, though, never fall for “Close your eyes and put out your hands.” Just sayin’.)

This is not to say that I don’t see the time and place for those other activities. Or that I don’t see great ways for kids’ own creativity to take off within a more structured game. I am all about a great travel toy when the need arises, for example. Low-tech though it may be, when my kids were small we were all about Colorforms for the car or plane, and I loved listening to them come up with adventures based on their pictures. I’m just saying that in general I think that if we step back a bit—particularly when the weather’s nice and we can get out of the house—kids will make their own magic, given the chance.

And then all I have to do is swoop in with the sunscreen and popsicles every so often. Everybody wins!

What do you think? And don’t forget to go check out The Toy Guy’s take!

Playful Perspectives: Ben 10 bicycle gear

The Toy Guy jointly tackle a topic to give you twice the insight and perhaps slightly different takes on an issue.

Given the current craze for all things Ben 10, I suppose that this news should come as no surprise:

Cartoon Network Enterprises (CNE), the global branding and merchandising arm of Cartoon Network, has signed with Huffy and Bell Sports to bring Ben 10 branded bicycles and safety equipment to store aisles in time for the summer rush.

Huffy will produce a line of Ben 10 inspired bicycles for the United States and Canada. The bikes have a special handlebar “disk changer” that comes with several changeable character discs, allowing kids to personalize their bikes with their favorite Ben 10 alien heroes.

Bell Sports will develop a full line of helmets and protective gear including knee and elbow pads as well as wrist guards.

On the one hand, I wonder if this is character-branding gone a bit too far. Does Ben 10 have something to do with bicycles? On the other hand, when kids have a special favorite they want it on everything, and I do applaud the application of appealing characters to something inherently active instead of, say, another video game. If this gets a reluctant cyclist out there to play with the disk-changer (and then, hopefully, take a spin around the neighborhood), I’m all for it.

Long ago and far away, when I was but a small girl and dinosaurs roamed the earth, I received my first big-kid bike during the bicentennial celebration year. It was—of course—red, white and blue with stars. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. And as for imaginative play to go with it… well, my brother and I were especially fond of playing Evel Knievel on our bikes, so my patriotic wheels were perfect. (We needn’t discuss the fact that the most I ever managed to jump was perhaps a stone or the end of a two-by-four; we were imagining, darn it.)

I guess that’s why this part of the announcement bothers me so much:

“Sports and sporting goods are an important part of a boy’s life, and thus a critical category in the marketplace,” said Christina Miller, vice president of consumer products for CNE.

Um, Ms. Miller? Is there a special reason you’re planning to cut your target market in half? The last time I checked, girls were Ben 10 fans, too. In fact, my daughter is a pretty die-hard Gwen fan. (What’s not to like? She’s a quintessential tween with a sassy mouth, quick brain, and a healthy disdain for icky boys.)

For a cartoon that’s been so awesome about sparking the imaginations of our kids, I’m disappointed at this apparent lack of imagination on the part of this marketing team. The last time I checked, it was 2007. Equality now, CNE. Girls want to fight the aliens, too.

What do you think? And don’t forget to go check out The Toy Guy’s take!