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   Ask Jeanna - Questions about Toys and Books

Q:   My friends with young kids have so many plastic toys.  The kids play with them when they're brand new, but mostly ignore them after that.  When birthdays and Christmas roll around, along come more gifts of toys that will soon be unused.  It seems crazy to me and a waste of money.  What do you think?
A:  What you're describing happens in a lot of households - especially in the United States and in the last few decades.  There are more toys for sale than ever before.  And there are so many dollars spent on marketing to parents, children, and the general public.  Well-meaning adults part with hard-earned cash to buy gifts for children, and many such gifts end up to be disappointing or frustrating for everyone.

Out of all of the thousands of toys for sale, only a really small subset of toys are safe, durable, educational, and "open-ended" enough to maintain a child's interest for several years. That's why it pays to be very selective and to choose toys wisely.

Q:  What's a good way to choose toys for young children?
A:  Along with reading toy product descriptions and labels for the toy's recommended age-group, you can obviously ask other parents which toys proved to hold their children's interest and were durable enough to be used over a period of time by their child or children. 

Another way to get ideas is to visit a good nursery school/early childhood program.  This will give you lots of examples of age-appropriate toys that are safe, durable, and educational.  And you'll see toys and educational materials that children use - day after day - and continue to find interesting. 

Think about blocks (wood, plastic, assorted sizes and shapes) for stacking and building combined with small plastic animals, cars, and trucks.

Think about stacks of paper combined with non-toxic crayons and markers, small scissors, and maybe some shape and alphabet stencils.

Think about a large collection of children's books combined with a few stuffed animals, dolls, and puppets - and a cozy place to sit.

Ideally, add to this a caring parent (or teacher, child care provider, or grandparent) who spends time playing with children to make each activity extra interesting and educational - or who is nearby and "available" to talk in a positive way to (and with) young children.

Q:  I'm about to have my first child, and I know I'll get lots of gifts from family and friends.  Some of them have asked me what I'd like or can use.  I could use some ideas.
A:  Once you have the basic items that your baby will need (like a safe car seat, safe crib, and diapers), you can think about other types of gifts.

My advice - Let your family and friends know that you would LOVE receiving gifts of children's books.  Let them know that you'll enjoy looking at the books and that you might even "practice" reading to your baby.  Let them know that you plan to read to your child every day and you'd love to build a special home-library of children's books.

In other words, let them know that a picture book or two would be such a special gift that you and your child will enjoy for years to come.

You might even want to add that you're planning a family tradition of "books-make-great-gifts" for birthdays, Christmas, and other special holidays.

In this way, you'll acquire wonderful board books and picture books.  Your child will see beautiful illustrations, hear your voice read with great expression, learn new words, and discover wonderful stories. 

Some of these stories will become childhood favorites.  Some of these stories will be read many, many times until your child can basically tell the story to you from memory.  Some of these stories will help your child understand his or her emotions and help your child imagine far away or imaginary places and people. 

Some of these stories will provide real-life information about the weather, rocks, animals, trees, going to the doctor, or starting school.  Some of these stories will make your child giggle or laugh, and some of these stories will make your child chime in to rhyme words or to point at interesting pictures.

And some of these stories will - in just a few years - be read aloud to you as your child practices his or her new reading skills!

Q:  My youngest child goes to day care and my oldest child is in kindergarten.  I wish there were more books in each of their classrooms, but maybe it doesn't make a difference.  Does it?
A:  I'm a big believer in "the more the merrier," meaning the more good books there are for children, the better.

However, with child care and school budgets being what they are, it's unlikely that many more books will be in your children's classrooms unless you and other parents get creative.

Here are some ideas to consider -

Talk to other parents in your child's class or program.  Do they agree that it would be great to have additional books in the classroom for children to read and enjoy?  They'll probably agree.  If yes, ask parents if they will join you to help make this happen.

Parents can help in a variety of ways.  You can each donate a book your child has outgrown.  With your child's teacher's O.K., you can also each bring a book to your child's classroom that your child is willing to share for the day or week. 

And you can see if parents will donate modest amounts of money to buy more children's books for the classroom.  (Twenty parents who donate 25 cents/week cover the cost of a new paperback picture book. Twenty parents who donate one dollar/week cover the cost of several paperback picture books or one hardcover picture book or chapter book.  Over the course of a school year, the number of new books will really add up.)

Also ask your children's teachers whether books can be borrowed on a regular basis from the library to supplement the books available in the classroom.  Perhaps library books, which obviously have to be handled with care and returned on time to the library, can be used by your children's teachers for group story-times. 

If your children's teachers like the idea but lack the time to borrow library books on a regular basis, perhaps several parents could offer to take a teacher's wish-list to the library (or ask the children's librarian for suggestions).  Parents could take turns borrowing and returning these books - and the result would be lots of good books in your children's classrooms for your children and their classmates.

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