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Preschool Education: Essential Activities and Toys for your Home

November 28, 2011

You can hardly believe that your toddler is now a full-fledged preschooler! What are the most advantageous activities and toys for your growing child?  Kindergarten isn’t far off and you want your children to be prepared but still enjoy being a kid.

The good news is that preschool education doesn’t have to be stressful or expensive. With so many flashing, beeping, electronic toys available, we believe that the classics still take the cake. Whether your child is in a preschool program or you’re doing preschool education at home, here are four overlapping developmental categories to consider and what we feel are the best toys and activities to promote growth in each domain.

Fine Motor Skills

Help your kiddos continue working on hand-eye coordination. This quiet and focused activity is calming and fun.

  • Try puzzles, large bead stringing, artwork, cutouts with child-safe scissors, and modeling clay.
  • Toy Recommendations: Large or small wooden blocks are great for building, sorting and more.  Also check out puzzles of 25 pieces or less.  Geometric stackers and other manipulatives encourage development of many skills: stacking, sorting, matching, relationships, and spatial learning.

Emerging Literacy Skills

Start them loving books early and soon they’ll be teaching us new factoids! They already have taught us so much about love and patience but the lessons will only go on from here.

  • Read books, especially high-interest subjects for your child, alphabet/number preparation, and flashcards. Talk with your kids as often as you can – give them a play-by-play as you navigate the grocery store, sing songs with them in the car, play “I Spy” while you’re waiting in line – to help develop their language and conversation skills.
  • Toy Recommendation: The durable and attractive Teach and Play Tiles are a fun and informative way to learn letters and words.  We also recommend every family have at least one set of alphabet puzzles and number puzzles in the house.  Children gain familiarity with the shapes, names, and sounds of the letters before they even think about reading, so when the time comes to start “officially” learning to read, it seems easy!

Gross Motor Skills

Wow, are our kids really energetic or are we just getting old?  Maybe both!  We find that our child needs at least two concentrated energy-burning sessions per day to sleep well at night.  Build a positive relationship to exercise early in life!

  • Climbing, running, jumping, dancing, gymnastics, obstacle course, imitation games (Red Light-Green Light, Freeze Frame).
  • Toy Recommendations: Try the fun and easily changeable Scoot 2 Skate or help your child learn to pedal on the Classic Red Tricycle.

Concepts and Themes

Major cognitive shifts occur for preschoolers between ages 3 and 4. At this age, they begin to use symbolic thought, the ability to mentally or symbolically represent concrete objects, actions, and events (Piaget, 1952). Make-believe and role-play here we come!

  • Learn about familiar themes such as transportation, family, weather, and construction. Compare and contrast. Visit the zoo and the museum.  Provide a well-stocked dress-up box with role-playing costumes and castoffs from your closet.
  • Toy Recommendations: Let your kiddos cook you dinner using the Swing Door Kitchen and an assortment of play food.  Encourage imagination (and get ready for Halloween) with the multifaceted 3-in-1 Costume SetDollhouses and play vehicles allow further exploration of family and community life – the world preschoolers know best!

Your preschooler is growing and learning every day through play and interaction with you.  With a few carefully chosen toys and a little understanding of how children learn, you can enhance your own child’s early education in a fun and positive way!

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Eco Friendly Gifts: 9 Ideas for Families

November 1, 2011

Girl opening Christmas giftsThe holidays always seem like a time of wonderful excess – lots of food, love, gifts, hospitality and good cheer.  But when my kids were little, I found that they can also be full of lots of stuff that seemed contrary to our attempts to live a greener, more eco-friendly life.  Wrapping paper, anyone?  So over the years, we’ve had lots of chances to examine our holiday gift-giving traditions and see what we wanted to keep, jettison, or modify to better align with our green efforts.  Here are 9 of our best ideas that you might like!

1. No Wrapping Paper  Several years ago, I decided I wasn’t going to buy any more wrapping paper.  I’d use what I had in my closet, and after it was all gone, I’d figure out another way to wrap gifts that wasn’t so obviously wasteful.  Well, I still have lots of that old wrapping paper left because we’ve had so much fun coming up with other ways to wrap! See our previous post with our favorite ideas for wrapping paper alternatives.

2. Give Experiences, not Things      We realized that if we felt like we had too much “stuff” then our friends and family probably did too.  Think about concert or theater tickets, dinner parties, a day at the zoo or beach, tennis or art lessons.  What do your friends like to do?  What could you do together?

3. Give a Global Education  Send a Kiva gift card (or choose your favorite micro-lender), then your friends can select a recipient for the donation and follow the progress of someone in need in a distant part of the world.  Children can learn so much about macro- and micro-economics, politics, family life and their own life through programs like these, it’s something you should do for yourselves too!  You can start with as little as $25.

4. Give One Instead of Many  Give a family gift instead of a separate present for each member.  You might give a family game, event tickets, a scrapbook of a vacation you took together, or a jigsaw puzzle of a favorite place or theme.

5. Give Something Really Useful    An emergency kit, membership in the AAA, a solar charger for a cell phone, first aid kit for the car, something we all maybe should have, but don’t!

6. Give of Yourself   Give homemade jam, home-baked treats, meals for people who need help – new baby, recent surgery, an elderly relative or neighbor – or your time to help with errands or household chores.

7. Give a Garden   Do you garden?  Offer your time and expertise to help another family start a small vegetable or herb garden.  If you’re not close by, or don’t have the time to help personally, put together a starter kit for them with basic tools, gloves, seeds, and a reference book to get them going on one of the best family projects around!

8. Give Fewer, but Better Gifts Choose high quality, well-made gifts for children.  After the cheap junky toys have broken or lost their appeal, a great play kitchen or a solid set of wooden blocks will still be generating ideas for hours of imaginative play.  When your child outgrows them, just pass them along to a cousin or friend – no additional packaging, shipping, or manufacturing needed.

9. Don’t Give   A few years ago, we agreed that our generation (our siblings and all the spouses) just wouldn’t exchange birthday or holiday gifts.  We do buy gifts for our parents, and all the children, but it’s so much easier this way and allows us to spend a little more on the kids.

So get creative and see how much you can give with the smallest footprint!

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Introducing Tegu Magnetic Wooden Blocks!

October 24, 2011

Every now and then, a new company comes along that is really doing things right.  Tegu is working to make a difference in the lives of real people and doing something good for the planet at the same time.  I met the founder of Tegu, Chris Haughey, at Toy Fair in February this year and was immediately drawn to his story.  In 2006, he went on a business trip to Honduras and came away with both a love for the place and people, and an awareness that its people were living in profound poverty, with not much economic or educational opportunity to improve their lives.

The Vision

Out of that experience, he developed a vision to create a business that would have a “transforming effect on the lives of Hondurans.”  Four years later, Tegu’s wooden magnetic blocks were introduced!  Not only has the product been extremely successful, Tegu has established a fully independent factory outside Tegucigalpa, the capital city, and partnered with a local school to improve education.  They are paying employees a living wage, and prioritizing long-term career growth and development rather than simple task-based jobs, and “bringing world-class employment standards to Central America.”  These are truly good things.

The Environment

Wood is the most sustainable material available, when harvested responsibly.  Tegu works with local Honduran cooperatives – certified by the Forest Stewardship Council – who individually hand-pick each mature tree for use.  Along with reforestation efforts, this ensures that the local Honduran forests stay healthy to continue to support the local people.  And it just makes sense that working for the sustainability of the forests also means continued availability and quality of their raw materials.

Magnetic wooden blocks are sized just right

Open-Ended Play

These blocks are really revolutionary!  The magnets are super strong, so all sorts of interesting structures can emerge.  They snap together with a satisfying “click” and the repulsion is so strong the blocks can scoot along the table.  We’ve spent hours here in the office messing around with them and our kids all are hooked.  These blocks embody a style of play that we believe is healthiest for kids – play in which the kids get to make up their own story and don’t have everything spelled out for them.  We encourage parents to give their kids some unstructured time each day, with simple toys made from natural materials, and then just get out of the way for awhile.  Give them time to think, to discover for themselves, and to experience their own minds.

And of all the toys you could purchase for your child, we think wooden blocks are an essential toy no child should do without.  Think of all the skills that develop through block play:  comparison, sorting, estimation, recognizing shapes, fractions, understanding basic building techniques, language development (smallest, larger, shorter, longer, heavy, outside, and so much more) – these are the foundations of learning and happen in a completely natural way when kids discover them for themselves.

And finally, we adults have found them to be addictive as well, so you might consider buying a set for a cool grown-up!

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The Tegu Story from Tegu on Vimeo.

Kids Activities: The 4 Essential Corners of the Playroom

October 12, 2011

Whew! Was that a tornado whizzing through your living room or just your toddler as he gleefully abandons his previous diversion and rushes to search for another? It’s wonderful but tiring to keep up with those little kiddos who still need so much from their caregivers but increasingly benefit from independent, educationally rich activities. Creativity and learning are inextricably linked for toddlers in their everyday play. What can you do to keep them entertained and learning without leaving the house?  Here are four corners of your child’s “playroom” (let’s face it, they’ve taken over the whole house!) we recommend you try to spend some time in almost every day.

1. The Toy & Book Corner

Every kid-house has a toy corner, we don’t know about yours but ours gets pretty wild by the end of the day.  Sitting a toddler down in a comfy Laguna Chair or the Artists Rocker Chair (with you close by to read those wonderful books!) in a special book corner designed to help the child become immersed in the joys of simply browsing through a pile of high-interest books.

2. The Art Corner

When the book corner gets old, have no fear! Just wander over to the art corner where your toddler can sit down with you or by herself at the Art Table & Chair to do some artistic explorations with crayons, paints, stickers, glitter… whatever the ol’ art cabinet has in store! If the definition of creativity is “making new connections between experiences and information” then learning through artwork is a great bridge between knowledge and creativity.

3. The Activity Corner

Well, the art corner was fun for a little while but now your toddler is ready for something else. You probably figured this out by now, but your toddler (25-36 months) generally has an attention span that lasts 5-8 minutes! Try a toddler game with your little one. The brightly colored Primary Puzzle Train gets your little one using fine-motor skills and recognizing shapes, not to mention the spontaneous dialogue and storytelling that the puzzle can inspire. Open-ended games and activities are fun, intelligence-building and creative. Bust out the puppets, stuffed animals or dolls and stage a play in the Storytime Puppet Theater or the super-fun Kydz Castle. Toddlers aren’t too little to enjoy an impromptu performance and will probably surprise you with their inventiveness.

4. The Music Corner

Still have some energy left? Turn on the music and dance over to the music corner! Listening to music with your toddler gives him a chance to work on balance and movement and is a true joy-builder.  Your little one will soon have musical preferences and will enjoy choosing a genre of music. With or without the accompaniment on your stereo system, you can also encourage your child to play along, on the divinely drum-able Solid Drum or the totally playable Oval Xylophone.

Don’t be too disappointed if you don’t make it to all four corners of your toddler’s indoor play options in a single day.  Keep providing your toddlers with a rich array of experiences and they will continue to happily learn and grow!

For more ideas, sign up for our email newsletter and connect with us on Facebook – what kid activities do you consider essential?

Eco Friendly Gifts: Wrapping Paper Alternatives

October 3, 2011

My husband’s aunt, now in her 80’s, is one of those people who actually unwraps her gifts so carefully that she can re-use the paper.  She irons it (really!), folds it neatly, and saves it for another time.  She also gasps in (mock) horror when someone else rips open a package and flings the paper aside.  She jokes that it’s because she was brought up during the Depression, but then, she has probably never had to buy wrapping paper in her whole life!  Her frugality seemed a little extreme, but it made me take a look at our own approach to gift wrapping.  While I love to see beautiful presents under the tree, there was so clearly a disconnect between using all that wrapping paper – most of it unsuitable for recycling – and our attempts to live a “greener” lifestyle.

So a few years ago, we started coming up with eco-friendly ways to wrap gifts, and here are some we like best:

  • Wrap in the colored comics from the Sunday paper. (Does anyone still get the newspaper anymore?  We do!)
  • Wrap baby presents in a baby blanket.
  • Include a scarf or shawl in the present and use that for wrapping.
  • If you love the paper on a gift you’ve received, open the package carefully, save, and re-use the paper!
  • Cut open a brown paper grocery bag and decorate the blank side with paints or markers.  This is a classic preschool activity; try red and green handprints and footprints, or potato stamps of stars, snowmen, or other seasonal themes.
  • Hide unwrapped presents somewhere in the house and play “hot or cold?” to find them.
  • Wrap a kitchen gift in colorful kitchen towels (either seasonal or to match the recipient’s kitchen).
  • Make your own Furoshikis (Japanese wrapping cloths) out of inexpensive fabric.
  • If the gift is in a plain box, just use markers to decorate and write a gift message.
  • Buy some inexpensive fabric ribbon to use instead of curling ribbon or stick-on bows.  The fabric can be saved, pressed if necessary, and re-used.  Be sure to cut nice long pieces that can be doubled on smaller packages; they’ll be much more versatile!
  • Save and re-use gift bags (no stickers – tie on a gift tag that can be removed).
  • Give gifts that don’t need wrapping.  We’ll be exploring that idea in another post, so be sure to subscribe to the blog!

How do you reduce your C(hristmas)-waste?

Waiting Room Toys: Creating a Great Play Space

July 25, 2011

The pediatrician, the bank, the car dealership – what do they have in common?  Customers usually have to wait awhile!  Providing a warm, friendly reception area for families while they are waiting for your services can go a long way toward creating a positive customer experience, so here are some questions you can consider to help make a functional, fun and inviting play space.

  1. How much space can you devote?  If you have a large area available, consider a small playhouse or play kitchen.  These can really engage kids for a longer time, and give them a sense of a place of their own.Outdoor Cottage Clubjouse by Kidkraft offered by Heirloom Wooden Toys
  1. Just a small corner?  A play cube can hold the attention of several kids at once in a minimal amount of space while a wall-mounted toddler toy can make use of a hallway or where floor space is at a premium.  A seating area with furniture for kids works well if you provide books or coloring supplies.Anatex play cubePathfinder Wall Panel by Anatex offered by Heirloom Wooden Toys
  1. Any small, removable parts?  Most toys are recommended for certain ages, and these recommendations are generally based on safety as well as developmental levels.  Look for toys rated for very young children to ensure there is no choking hazard, and never include toys with marbles or other small round objects.  Bead mazes and play cubes solve this problem neatly as there are no loose parts!  Inspect your toy collection regularly for loose or broken parts that may create a safety hazard.
  1. Are the toys easy to clean?  Kids aren’t known for being super sanitary all the time; in a doctor’s office especially some may be carrying nasty germs.  Clean the toys periodically with an antibacterial wipe or spray, and provide hand sanitizer for kids and parents.
  1. How will you keep the corner tidy?  If you have a collection of smaller toys, consider adding a well-made toy box or other method of toy storage to your play area.  (Make sure the toy box has special hinges that won’t pinch fingers or let the lid slam down.)  Then put toys away during the day so your corner looks fresh for the next round of munchkins.Mission Toy Box by Guidecraft offered by Heirloom Wooden ToysSort it & Store it Bin Unit by kidkraft offered by Heirloom Wooden Toys
  1. What’s your budget?  Keep in mind that a nice assortment of toys can be a bit of an investment, and that some of them may “walk away” from time to time.  Be prepared to replenish your toy corner to keep things fresh as well as to replace missing items.
  1. What’s your message?  If your business is green, make sure your toys reflect that.  A car dealership?  A collection of toy vehicles and a parking garage will complement your showroom nicely.  Interior designer?  A lovely dollhouse and Fraction Action Board by Guidecraft offered by Heirloom Wooden Toysfurnishings let the kids play along as you work with the parents.  Get creative and you’ll be surprised at what’s available!Designed by you Dollhouse by Maxim offered by Heirloom Wooden Toys

With a little consideration, you can easily create an interesting, engaging play space where kids can happily spend some time while waiting for Mom and Dad!  If you need help selecting toys, feel free to give us a call at (866) 202-8073.  Our knowledgeable staff will be happy to help!

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How Kids Learn With Toys: A Horse and Buggy Story

July 20, 2011

By Guest Blogger Samantha from Have Sippy Will Travel

Children learn in many different ways, and sometimes the most surprising interests will emerge.  Here’s a story of one little boy’s “course of study” in transportation, history, religion, culture, biology, engineering, animal husbandry and much more, facilitated by one simple wooden toy.  The best educational learning toys can help spark questions and enhance understanding of all these subjects without even being labeled “educational!”  What do your kids learn with the help of their toys?

My Son is Obsessed With The Amish

We’ve been spending a lot of time in Amish Country lately.  The Amish have a life that is simpler than many of ours, more old-fashioned.  My son, who is 3, has really taken a shine to Amish Country, and always has a lot of questions for his momma when we are there, and for days after we get home.  What kind of machine is that?  How many babies do cows have?  How do they get all the corn inside?  Why does it look so different when I eat it?

Horses & Buggies vs. Cars & Trucks

The Amish use horse-and-buggies or carriages to get around, and this is also amazing to my son.  He has become very, very interested in horses, and what they do, and all the uses for a horse on a farm, and off it.  We bought him the Melissa and Doug Horse Carrier a few months ago, and he just loves it.  It is a classic wooden vehicle that comes with two horses.  It is pulled by a truck, but that’s OK – it’s the carrier and the horses that caught his attention.  I took him to a local (modern) horse stable, and let him see how people ride the horses, feed them, where they sleep, and one of the owners was nice enough to show him how he transports his horse.  That carrier looked more like this toy, but metal, of course.

A Million More Questions

My son had a lot more questions for me:  Why don’t Amish use cars?  How come they have different carts?  I know he is young to take it all in, but I love toys that help facilitate learning, and will give him a platform for all this information to really sink in later.  He understands that Amish is a religion, that the carriers take the horses where they need to go, and that the horse pull farm machines for the Amish and used to for all farmers.  The horse carrier, my son, and I have spent quite a bit of time at the library with books about farms, horses, and the Amish.  Soon we will all visit a working Amish farm, where we will be able to see how everything works, and why.

Meanwhile, he will enjoy his Horse Carrier, and visits to the library with momma.

Is Your Kid Into Vehicles?

1.       Wooden train sets are a classic way for kids to explore the world of transportation, as well as the geometry and spatial reasoning necessary to build a track.  Many are compatible, so you can combine hand-me-downs and new components to create fabulous set for not too much money.  In our experience, it works best if you start small and add on as your child grows.

2.       Toy construction vehicles can help kids learn about how things get done – digging, lifting, cement mixing and more.  Combine a toy with a related book, like Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, for an enhanced experience.  This is great if you have a construction site near your home or school – make a point to watch the progress, note what vehicles are needed and what jobs the workers do.

3.    Farm vehicles, with or without a stable or barn and some critters, can help kids learn about food production, biology, nutrition, animal care and so much more.  Like Sam did, take your kids to a local farm or even a petting zoo to deepen their understanding of farm life.

4.    A sturdy wooden sailboat is a fun way to start to understand the physics of sailing.  Take it to a swimming pool, pond or just the bathtub and explore!  Round out their education with some knot tying and a walk around a marina, if there’s one nearby, to look at all the different types of boats.

5.    Though it obviously won’t fly, a wooden biplane can introduce kids to the history of flight.  What’s different about this plane compared to a modern jet?  What makes the engines go?  Look up photos or old film footage of early planes and see how far we’ve come.

Toys that teach while they inspire hours of imaginative play are, for me, the best investment.  Children who have time to play, explore, and imagine perform better in school and in life, and are in general happier both while in their childhood and as adults.  I try to give him the gift of learning, but I like to keep in mind that he is a kid – and he just wants to play!

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