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TODAY

Saturday, February 23

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If you think back to your childhood and all the toys you had, chances are the ones you probably had the most fun with were the simplest toys. Were they brightly colored wooden blocks? Maybe it was that yellow ball you loved so much? Or perhaps your favorite was a plain stuffed doll you played with until it fell apart? Your favorite childhood games most likely worked without "C" batteries! In some regards, it seems that times haven't changed, for even though we live in a society that is surrounded by electronic gadgets and we have gizmos pouring out of our ears, young children still gravitate towards less complicated, natural toys.

With so many toy choices available, what should a parent buy? While it might be easy to buy cheaply manufactured mainstream plastic toys with mechanical parts promising to entertain for hours, the end result might not be what you expected. Toys with busy lights and sounds might keep small children intrigued for a while, in the end they end up losing interest quickly. The toys become "boring" and find their way into the garbage or storage, discarded and forgotten. Many parents, however, are now seeing the value of natural toys over battery-operated ones.

Parents have found that while some natural toys may cost more than plastic ones, they are worth the price. What your children get in return are beautiful artisanal products made by hand. What's more, children can feel a connection to the world through their toys. The blocks, play furniture and wooden cars they entertain themselves with came from a living tree, their capes and dress up gown from cotton. The texture of natural toys is different and unique and children know this; beautiful things are being made from a beautiful natural world. Additionally, natural toys are usually produced under environmentally friendly conditions with fair treatment to workers.

Besides the aesthetic and environmental reasons for choosing natural toys, natural toys also engage children more thoroughly. Since the toys do not "do all the work" for children, the children actually use their imagination. According to Drs. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, authors of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, evidence suggests that children who play with open-ended toys are better problem solvers and can think "out of the box." These children are not passive, they are creative and spirited and are definitely not sitting there pushing a button waiting to be entertained, they are actively creating the entertainment themselves.

In the sprit of natural living and play, there are many toy companies which focus on toys that are unstructured, made of natural materials and multi-purpose that encourage imaginative play and interaction with the world. These stores offer you an alternative to mass-produced, cheaply made products that seem to dominate many toy stores. Here are a few of my favorites which I order from:

Nova Natural
Nova Natural has been around for almost 20 years and offers beautiful, natural products which, according to their philosophy, "further the child's inner development... without the limiting, predetermined play which can come when toys are too formed or too fixed in their function." They sell classic, traditional toys and products — made mostly out of wood. You can see the fine craftsmanship in all of their items. My favorites for infants and toddlers are a wooden bowl and cherry wood spoon (each under $10) and a push along wooden car, in red, for $18.90. For older kids, they have an awesome knight's "helmet" made out of cardstock and a simple wooden sword, each item less than $20.

For Small Hands
For Small Hands is a catalog that features many Montessori-inspired toys and activities. Many of the items sold in For Small Hands are the same items found in actual Montessori classrooms. I love this catalog. There are a ton of real, child-size work tools and items: tiny brooms and mops, glass pitchers, vegetable cutters, gardening hoes, rakes and shovels. And there are many gifts under $10 — some as low as $2.95. There are also several science items like bug viewers and catchers, ant farms and magnets.

Hearth Song
Hearth Song was founded in 1983 by Barbara Kane after reading a magazine article on "superbabies" and the pressure put on parents to raise "genius" children. Kane states on the Hearth Song web site, "I started Hearth Song to make a statement reinforcing what parents themselves know is true, right and healthy — that childhood is a very special time." Items sold in Hearth Song truly reflect that.

If a child you know loves doll houses, this is the place for you. Hearth Song has a lovely Victorian style doll house and furniture that you and your kids will enjoy playing with. Hearth Song also has many art and craft activities for older children, such as sand sculpting, basket weaving, perfume making, flower pressing and an architect kit. They also offer sewing machines and many musical instruments like guitars, lap harps, calypso drums and more.

Magic Cabin
Magic Cabin was founded by stay-at-home mom Sara McDonald, who began by selling Waldorf-style dolls at craft fairs. As her dolls grew in popularity, she started a 12 page, hand-drawn catalog. From that initial catalog grew the current catalog which features, what McDonald calls "Childhood's Purest Treasures." Magic Cabin's philosophy is that "the words 'batteries not included' do not appear in our catalog because our toys are 'kid-powered.'"

Remember, when choosing toys for young children, it is best if the toys are simple (less is definitely more), wooden, one or two colors, challenge your child's imagination, and can be used for many years down the road. Buy for your children, what your 5-year-old self would have loved!

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About the Author(s)

Alejandra Valera is a new mom and writer. If there's a baby- or kid-friendly place, product or event you think she should cover, email her at .

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