Educational toys

Educational toys
The Creativity Institute for Creative Toys

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Big Block Thinking

Children's Factory Soft Tunnel Climber
Children's Factory Soft Tunnel Climber

Ten years ago, when we began resourcing toys for our store, I was fascinated to discover the big oversized blocks and foam shapes from Children’s Factory. Now, I grew up playing with blocks, but mostly wooden unit blocks. The biggest size of those was about 6 inches. They were fun for building structures you could use to play with your other toys. You could build a house that would accommodate 5-inch figures or 6-7-inch cars. The larger sizes of these block sets were usually preferred for spanning roofs or just building taller structures.

21-Piece Soft Block Set
21-Piece Soft Block Set
So, imagine my amazement at finding “blocks” up to four feet long - foam shapes covered in vinyl that could be used to build structures that wouldn’t just accommodate a 5-inch action figure, but a child. This was our introduction to Children’s Factory and soft play. Sets of shapes in a scale so large a child can sit surrounded by them, even build a playhouse. When these foam blocks are put together in the right configuration, they create a climber with pretend play opportunities that put the child in the action. They can play house, explore caves, climb mountains and undertake other imaginative pursuits.

Plus, these blocks and foam shapes can be assembled as climbers with the potential for the same gross motor climbing fun of a playground construction, but they’re inside, and they’re soft. There are ramps to ascend, tunnels to navigate, and soft perches for sitting and looking out around the room. Take Children’s Factory’s Soft Tunnel Climber, for example. There’s a tunnel in the middle, a ramp up on one side and two steps up on the other. Early crawlies can explore the perimeter, play in the tunnel and eventually climb to the top, via their choice of steps or ramps.
Children's Factory Tunnel Labyrinth

On the big extreme, there’s the Children’s Factory Tunnel Labyrinth. Four tunnels make it like a quadruple Soft Tunnel Climber. These are great for accommodating bigger groups of kids.

Cozy Woodland Hideout
Cozy Woodland Hideout
Since we’ve been carrying the Children’s Factory line, we’ve seen them add new climber models, as well as new color schemes. While the early soft play pieces from Children’s Factory were bright primary colors with a few pastel variations, one of the recent changes in the Children’s Factory line has been the introduction of soft, earth-tone colors in their Cozy Woodland Collection. Most of their climbers and foam shapes are now available in either color pallet.

Now, the creative and imaginative potential of little unit blocks is still as great as it ever was. Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Geary credit unit blocks with helping to give them a first step in their architectural careers. Blocks, whether huge or small scale, can inspire young minds. But the scale of these larger foam shapes changes the nature of block play, and with it the pretend play and creative opportunities.

Chief Imagination Officer

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Ball Pools: The Pits and the Perks

Kids love ball pits. They can become a wonderful fantasyland, these deep pools of three-inch pressurized balls…where children can cull their creativity to imagine they are floating and diving and flying through everything from super molecules to giant candy.

But the ball pit may be the last place you want to think about food, because there could be a lot lurking in there besides balls. Dr. Erin Carr-Jordan, an Arizona State University professor took some swabs at a number of play center ball pits (1) and found bacteria that would make you rush your kids to the doctor for an inoculation, if not quarantine.
Based on her studies, she determined “playlands are packed with bacteria like Staphlococcus Aureus, Acidominococcus, fungus, and mold which can result in skin infections, food poisoning, STDs -- or worse.” (2)

Currently, no state or federal laws regulate cleanliness at establishments that have indoor play lands.(3) And, based on the study, “most places either do not have proper corporate cleaning and maintenance protocols or they are not being enforced.”(3) So, as parents and grandparents, we have a lot to consider when our kids are chomping at the bit to jump in the pit.

While we can’t offer solutions, we do have options. There are school- and home-size versions of these ball pools that give caregivers control over the cleaning of them as often as they feel necessary. Washing machines on cold settings do the trick. (The balls are pressure-sealed, so heat can cause them to get misshapen or pop.) Children’s Factory and Wesco have a wide range of sizes to fit different budgets, space requirements and capacity (i.e., the number of kids and/or balls that will fit inside one). And whether the ball pit is at your home or elsewhere, playing in it is still as much about interaction as it is about imagination.

So, whether your little one likes to pretend he’s a seal arching through a colorful sea or a rocket ship dodging meteors, if he’s like most kids, he can’t resist ball pools. Deciding whether to let your precious cargo play in public ball pits is a personal decision. One way or the other, consider getting a personal ball pit you can control…

…and always carry hand sanitizer.

Chief Imagination Officer



Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Goofy Olympics

During the Olympic season one year, I came up with an idea to give my bored little ones and their friends something to do. We had our own Olympics. Most of the events were just variations on standard party games, but by representing them in a homemade Olympic format, it turned out to be a bit hit.

We started by calling it “The Goofy Olympics,” so they understood the wacky tone of the event from the beginning. While everyone changed into shorts and t-shirts, I quickly crafted prize medals. Now, here in New Orleans, gold, silver and other colors of aluminum Mardi Gras doubloons are plentiful, so I hot glued these to ribbons. Until I thought of using Mardi Gras doubloons, I planned to cover plastic poker chips or cardboard disks with foil for the same effect, which anyone could outside of Mardi Gras range can access.

To prepare the field, I made borders for lanes out of crepe paper, just stretched across the grass. I soon realize they needed to be secured in some way, so I made little u-shapes out of wire coat hangers and shoved these into the ground to hold the crepe paper in place.

Instead of “pin the tail on the donkey,” it was “pin New Orleans on the Map of the US.” Shot putt became tossing a beach ball into a laundry hamper. Discus was Frisbee throwing at a target (instead of for distance, so we wouldn’t lose it over the fence.) Because my yard’s not that big, speed races lapped back and forth from the fence on one side of the yard to the other. We had slow-motion races, but those were more difficult for the littlest ones to comprehend. They kept running all out. And there was broad jump, high jump, and hop-skip-and-jump jump.

We kept a formal score sheet, so the more eager contestants could keep checking their status. And to add the right atmosphere, we played the themes from “Rocky” and “Chariots of Fire” in the background.

Because our “contestants” ages ranged from about 2 to 8, I had to find ways to equalize the challenges to give everyone a fair chance at a medal. Older kids had to throw off-handed and, of course, starting lines were moved up for the little ones. Some times I’d announce the judging criteria after the event to make sure everyone would win something. The “crawling under two low chairs” event definitely favored the youngest.

At the conclusion of each event, the winners stood on cinder blocks of varying heights to receive their medals while I played the Star Spangled Banner on kazoo (I didn’t look for a recording, because I thought the kazoo would be funnier, which it was.)

So, I spent a few minutes putting together a one-day goofy event for some bored children, and it was a hit that kept them busy until the sun went down. They enjoyed it so much, they asked to do it all over again the next day. Although I was tied up and couldn’t be outside with them all day, I could still keep tabs on things. So, I challenged the two 8-year olds to be the judges instead of contestants and manage it themselves. It worked. The event was another success, and included even a few more kids than the first day. The 8-year olds rose to the occasion, using their imaginations to modify a few of the games and picking up the beginnings of some leadership skills along the way.

So, when are your next Olympics?

Sid Berger - Guest Blogger

Invited by
Chief Imagination Officer

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Which Came First?

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Well, in the career of Andy Warhol, it was the chicken. A chicken was one of the characters in “The Little Red Hen,” a children’s book
that Andy illustrated in 1958 when he was on the art staff of Doubleday.

When you look at the bold colors and whimsical style that he used in these early illustrations, you can find similarities with some of his later techniques. But I can’t say it gave a hint of what was to come. I don’t think anyone expected the breakthrough Campbell’s Soup Can just four years later in 1962. And the rest is history.

Throughout his career, Andy used several themes from pop culture that even the youngest children would recognize and be drawn to – cows and zebras, flowers and bananas, and even Mickey Mouse. I think children would even find Andy’s portraits to be appealing for their bright, vibrant contrasting colors.

After his death, his will established the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. As stated in the will, the mission of the foundation is "to foster innovative artistic expression and the creative process" and is "focused primarily on supporting work of a challenging and often experimental nature."

Andy Warhol’s creative, innovative style broke rules and took chances. As a result, and he became a vanguard of the pop art movement and a legend in the art field.  We salute his imagination and creative genius.

Oh, and Andy Warhol did create paintings of eggs, too, but not until 1982. So, thanks to The Little Red Hen, we finally know which came first.

Chief Imagination Officer

Friday, August 09, 2013

Getting children ready for their first day of school

We originally posted an article on this subject seven years ago. Since then we’ve talked to parents, done research and picked up several more tips on how to make it easier for your little ones to adjust to going to school for the first time.

Leaving the comfortable cocoon of home and taking that first big step into the outside world can be a big, and often traumatic, event for a first-time kindergartener or pre-K’er. While some children begin showing signs of an interest in school in advance of the big day, it's not necessarily always the case with all preschoolers. Some will have a comfort level with some of the new disciplines they’ll be facing, but to others, it will be a shockingly new experience. There are, however, ways you can prepare your children to help them transition into the exciting and wonderful experience that awaits them.

“It’s my turn!”  Many of the difficulties children face in this new environment may relate to socializing with other children. If they haven’t become used to what can be a wholly new concept of taking turns with friends or siblings, you can help ready your child through such basic activities as playing board games. Because one of the standard dynamics of most board games is taking turns, getting a child used to this simple concept can help make their integration into groups a lot easier.

“Sleep? Now?”  If necessary, get children on the school-day sleep and wake-up schedule ahead of time. If they’re not used to getting up, getting dressed and eating breakfast that early in the morning, it can be very disturbing and make the first days unpleasant for everyone. By doing a run-though ahead of time, you can encourage the child to participate in the planning, from deciding where to lay out their clothes the night before to setting the breakfast table before bed.

“But I’m hungry!”  Practice lunch. If bringing their own lunch, let them get used to going through and opening the containers, as well as understanding what parts of the kit to discard and what to repack and take home. If the child will be going through the lunch line, get out a couple of trays and “play” lunch line at home. You could even make a special visit to a cafeteria and talk about how the lunch line at school will compare. Most important, let these experiences be light, fun and anxiety-free.

“Where are we?”  Make a dry run to show them the school in advance of the first day. Show them where they’ll be let off from the bus or car pool and where they’ll be picked up. If your school has an orientation, it’s the perfect opportunity to walk them to their class, show them the rest rooms, lunchrooms, recess and play areas and all the facilities they’re likely to use during the day. If there’s no orientation, make your own. Plan a play date for your child with a slightly older friend who already attends the school. Let them draw pictures related to going to school. Not only will you discover what concerns your child has, you’ll both learn a lot about the school from the more experienced child. It’s a win-win.

We are well aware that every child is different. These suggestions may not be necessary or even beneficial for all children. You have to think about what your child needs and go with your gut. In addition, there are lots of techniques we haven’t heard yet. As we come across more, we'll be sure to post them. We hope you’ll do the same by sharing your own ideas down below.

Here’s to a great new school year for all!

Chief Imagination Officer

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Building blocks - creative play at any age.

My husband and I were talking about blocks recently. I can’t say I remember playing with them, except on one or two occasions when my older brother allowed me. Blocks used to be considered boy toys, as much as dolls were for girls.

Fortunately, we’ve seen major cultural evolution since then, and most parents now realize the value of encouraging kids of both genders to expand their imaginations by building with blocks.

But, my husband had some interesting personal recollections and observations about blocks, and I asked him to share them in his own words.

“One of the first toys I ever was given was a set of wooden unit blocks. These are the same basic wooden blocks based on Frobel’s original unit blocks from the 1830’s. I’m told that these smooth, cool, wooden shapes kept me busy for hours throughout my early years.

“One of the last toys I got, just a couple of years ago, was a set of stone building blocks. Smooth, cool pieces of limestone cut into precision shapes. Now, the stone blocks are considered an adult toy, because one is expected to recreate the castles and cathedrals that come pictured on the enclosed brochure. But the concept behind all of these building blocks is the same: position them together and let imagination take over.”

The Phases
“Because of my own fondness for building blocks, I presented age-appropriate building block sets to my children as they were growing up. And with that came a clearer understanding of what developmental processes are involved at different ages.

“The earliest block sets, intended for infants, were made of colorful foam or plastic. but oversized, colorful shapes designed for babies. The play at the first exposure to blocks consisted of my stacking and them knocking them down, which was fun for both of us.
“Before long, I noticed a phase two of the building block process. Working alone, the child would lay them end to end on the floor, all in a straight-ish line. Eventually, the child would progress to putting a curve or intersection in the line and would then roll a wheeled toy on this newly created roadway.

“In the next phase of development, the child would start stacking the blocks themselves.   Yes, they would still knock it down, but they could stack it back up by themselves. Later the stacks became walls. And as they developed a little more, the walls because fences and then houses.

“And then the child learned that a children’s book makes a great roof on the house. I don’t remember if I showed them this, or they figured it out on their own, but eventually this let them realize, they could build a house with a second story, or more. At this point, they’d get frustrated, because multi-level structures required more blocks than we had…so we got more and more. The house-building phase led to wooden unit blocks like I’d had. We also gave them interlocking plastic blocks and Lincoln logs, which let them build structures that were a little more stable.

The Scale
“One day I cleaned out a closet and, believe it or not, found 30 shoeboxes to discard. The children immediately discovered the building potential of empty shoeboxes. It introduced them to a whole new aspect of play, scale. The scale of those big rectangular shapes was magical. They were able to build structures they could play in.”

Gwynn here again. I must pause to celebrate my husband’s appreciation for creative play. Like myself, his career was focused on the creative side of advertising, and he spent years working with artists, writers and photographers to produce memorable work. In addition, his mother had a knack for making every endeavor a game, and my husband has inherited the ability. What a gift that is!

big foam building blocks
Because of his childrens’ wonderful experience with the shoeboxes, my husband likes to recommend the sets of large blocks we carry at The Creativity Institute. Like those shoeboxes, these blocks are so large that children can make structures they can climb into. Edushape makes large blocks of solid foam, but the largest are the foam shapes covered in vinyl made by Children’s Factory and Wesco Some of the individual pieces measure as long as three or four feet!

I’m pretty sure that block-play helped to nurture my husband’s creative spirit, ultimately leading him toward a successful and fulfilling career in the creative arena. Now, each time I fill an order for a set of blocks, I get a great deal of satisfaction knowing these simple shapes offer exciting creative potential for a young boy or girl with a growing imagination.

Chief Imagination Officer

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Just the Right Play Space!

How do you turn a big room into just the right intimate space for reading to children, and then to a more spacious, supervised play area, and then back into a big room? We are finding that more and more churches, schools and daycare centers are using light, portable play panels to manage these transformations in very economical way. It’s a great way to have several activities going on at the same time, with minimal distraction to each group. And the play panels are fun colors, so they brighten up a room and add dimension.

Children’s Factory PlayPanels have a wide selection and are the popular choice when it comes to Play Panel brands. They are light weight, and can be moved into position easily, put away quickly and stored flat. They snap together - in a snap! - and can be reconfigured in varying shapes, as activities demand. Available in heights of 31”, 48” and 60”, you can create either a low fence to keep the little ones in a controlled area or an adult-size screen to block a field of view.

The biggest change in the Children’s Factory line has been the addition of their “Cozy Woodland” colors to their play Panel line. Now, in addition to the original red, blue, green and yellow play panels, these panels come in soft earth tone colors: sage green, fern green, sky blue, deep water blue, walnut and almond.  So, while the original bright colors can provide an upbeat, stimulating environment, these new colors take it down a notch, for a calming, tranquil setting.

If you have a specific need for extra monitoring of what’s happening on the other side of the fence, there are transparent panels, too. These are perfect for allowing little ones independent play, while keeping an eye on them from the other side. These see-though panels are available in clear vinyl and a see-through colored mesh.

There are also special panels that are actually teaching aids. The Fuzzy Loop panels allow felt and other Velcro objects to be attached for use in learning activities or for children to create their own designs and stories. The Art Display panels have pockets that can be used in a number of ways, such as storing books, displaying the latest artwork or keeping a collection of interesting leaves.

Children’s Factory sells these panels individually and in a variety of sets. Some of the sets have colorful patterns and graphics. Play panels are probably one of the most versatile products we offer, and we love hearing how our teachers and child-care providers are creatively putting them to use. 

Chief Imagination Officer