Its holiday season! Well, not quite, but it is time to start planning. The children in your life will start being bombarded with advertising above and beyond their usual daily allotment. For parents, I strongly recommend HBOs Mommy, Buy Me That! This show lets kids debunk commercials and educates children on how to avoid being taken in by slick advertising.
Stock up on large size Ziplock freezer bags. These are great for storing the large number of small pieces that come with toys such as the Playmobil Pirate Line. The bag can be kept near or on the larger toy; this way the small pieces have less chance of wandering.
If a young child develops a special attachment to a particular toy, especially a stuffed animal, go out and buy two more! The toy may some day be discontinued. If the original is lost or damaged, you may avoid irreparable heartbreak by having a replacement. (Ah, I still remember my poor Tweety Bird.) It is also a good idea to rotate the toys to give them even wear. Otherwise, you will need to talk about how aliens kidnapped Piggy and made him better than he was before . . .
Holiday season allows science fiction enthusiasts the unparalleled opportunity to corrupt todays youth by being the radical influence we know we are. For my nieces and nephews, who all participated in a charity readathon this year, my gift list includes books I know their parents are not going to think of:
Some of these books had a profound influence on me, some of them were just enjoyable.
Books work wonderfully as a way to keep down your gift-giving budget. Books also stand out. In a large family many toys will be given, not many books. However, in a small family you may want to give a book and a toy, so as not to be thought of as a geek.
But what about gifts for children too young to read? Or those for whom you are responsible and will, therefore, be supplying the bulk of their solstice loot? What about those eight nights of Hanukkah? What if you as aunt / uncle / friend of the family have disposable income and are looking for something really special? I highly recommend all the items in this month's column, so, read on!
Those of you without children may be surprised at the price of many of these items. Playmobil, Lego, even Fisher-Price, seem like expensive products to those of us who remember a time when stuffed animals cost less than a weeks pay. Today, most worthwhile toys cost upward of forty dollars. If you want a toy to be worthwhile and last, you are going to pay more. Though a difference in price of thirty dollars seems extreme, in terms of time played and value gained, it inevitably makes more sense to purchase the better toy.
In a completely unscientific study covering four states and involving parents whose income ranged between $20,000 to $50,000, I discovered that my buying habits are echoed in the surveyed families. Parents spend about $120 to $150 per child for the holidays, not counting clothes. Parent with less income didn't buy less, they started saving earlier. Most buy one big present and several little ones.
Playmobil USA, INC. is a company that encourages good collecting habits. I play-tested samples of their Pirate Ship, the Pirate Island, and the Naval Clipper.
The Clipper and the Pirate Ships were designed with minute attention to historical details. The toys include lantern hanging places, powder sticks for the Playmobil people to pack cannon powder, cannonballs, historically appropriate blunderbusses and handguns, signal flags, spyglasses, sextons, and more. The people on the ship seem to be a pirate family, with male and female co-captains, an older pirate, and a younger pirate. The sails are cloth. The ships rigging is real you rig it yourself.
This is a gift for the seven- to fourteen-year-old set.Girls over the age of six played with it well. Boys took to it like ducks to water.
The back of the Pirate Ship lifts off to reveal a room with table, shelves, and benches, where pirates meet (and, in at least one play group, fight over who gets to take over the island). The most interesting feature of this toy is also the biggest pain. The rigging adds fun and character to the ship, but continuously needs to be tightened and restrung. You must keep the back sails loose to access the cabin, but you can apply small amounts of fabric glue to the others to keep them from unraveling. Below decks is storage for the longboat or the figures; however, this section is not closed off, so do not use this area to store smaller pieces.
The Naval Clipper is a smaller ship, also historically accurate, and showing the realities of shipboard life. The Clipper has three crew members, a first mate, and a captain. All are barefoot, including the ships dog. The toy includes enough weapons to suspect the crew of gun-running. Boys were more inclined to play with this toy than girls.
The Pirate Island, kept em busy for hours. The Island has secret caves, hammocks, prisoners, chains, flowers, palm trees, treasure, and what looks an awful lot like a bottle of rum. The five pirates have shipwreck-style platters and gourds for drinking and eating. Grownups really enjoyed playing with the toy. Any toy that grownups will play with their kids is okay by me. The Pirate Island is especially good for children who are a bit too young for the more complicated ships.
REQUIRES SOME ASSEMBLY: On the down side, we took about an hour to assemble the Pirate Ship. On the up side, this is an ideal toy to assemble with a child who has watched you put together models. If you are a model making adult, this is a good way to introduce your love of detail and accuracy to a child. The Naval Clipper required slightly less assembly time and is smaller. The Pirate Island goes together like a breeze; it only took fifteen minutes.
Both of the ships actually FLOAT. Water caused no damage to the appearance of either ship. You will never have trouble getting that kid into the bath again; it took two hours to get my kid out of the tub.
Playmobil offers a replacement service for any lost parts. These toys were specifically designed to last through multiple children. I have never seen a plastic toy this quality; the pieces to assemble that you must separate by hand show almost no flak marks. These toys are meant to be handed down, if not generation to the next generation, at least from sibling to sibling.
I was expecting a price of over one hundred dollars; Ive seen inferior quality toys for more. But the Pirate Ship, easily the most impressive toy, retails for $85. It makes a fantastic impression as the one big gift for a child who loves adventure. For the child older than eight, it is a good gift to give with a copy of Treasure Island. If this is the main holiday present for the child, you can ask friends and family to buy the smaller pieces in the Pirate line, which range from five to fifty dollars in price, and solve that "what do I get them" problem.
These Playmobil toys are excellent for any child over five who takes care of toys with small pieces. Playmobil has some of the most interesting and complete playsets available. I heartily recommend any of their products (which cover the price ranges) as excellent gifts.
Playmobil and Learning Pockets toys are available through Constructive Playthings
catalog: 1-800-832-0572 and specialty toy stores across the country.
Now, something just for the girls on your list: The Pleasant Company American Girls Collection. These extrordinary dolls were the initial inspiration for this column.
Each of the five dolls is a girl from the past. Each is supplied with historically accurate accessories. The dolls include:
Each doll has a series of books that sheds light on their daily lives and their place in history. The dolls provide girls a connection to our past. The dolls and the books demonstrate the differences, as well as the similarities, between their lives and our own. Even if the dolls are outside your budget, the books are a worthy gift on their own.
The dolls are amazing. Eighteen inches tall, they have soft bodies. The heads, arms, and legs are vinyl, but have the feel of the bisque porcelain dolls they are patterned after. Their clothes are of excellent quality fabric; the workmanship is collectors quality. The girls in the play-test group were pleasantly surprised by the joint action of the vinyl parts. Arms and legs are sewn into the soft boy, but have a rotational joint that gives the dolls a great deal of movement.
The girls immediately fell in love with the dolls (they were only play-tested with the eight- to fourteen-year-old group). Various play situations occurred; some incorporated the history, some did not. Questions raised by some of the accessories in the catalog led to discussion of everyday life for Addy and Felicity.
I cannot strongly enough state my support for these toys. If our children do not learn about the past, they have no basis for looking forward to the future. By exploring the worlds of the American Girls dolls, girls are indeed exploring Strange New Worlds, with an attention to detail that is not often shown in textbooks.
Addy is the first African-American doll I have seen where 30% of the mostly Caucasian play group thought a doll of color was the more attractive doll. The research for Addy's stories and her accessories was conducted by a ten-member panel of African-American scholars. The author of Meet Addy and Addy Learns A Lesson is also an African-American woman. At no point do these books talk down, degrade, or stereotype. The books are an appropriate gift for any child over the age of seven.
At $88 these may seem like very expensive toys, but many gimmicky dolls are nearly as expensive. A decent baby doll can run anywhere between $30 and $100; the Pleasant Company dolls far surpass the ordinary baby doll. I am enamored of these dolls mostly because they are made for young girls and they look like young girls. They do not reinforce some odd standards of beauty; they dont pressure girls to become "good mother" types. Samantha, Molly, Kirsten, Felicity, and Addy are equals with the girls who cherish them. In the letters Pleasant Company receives, the girls refer to them as their friends.
The accessories are relatively inexpensive. The same suggestion made for the Playmobil toys applies to the American Girls: family members and friends can buy the various school, summer, and winter accessories which range from $15 on up. These dolls are also being collected by grownup doll collectors.
The American Girls introduce a child to serious collecting, with a doll that is meant to be played with. Pleasant Company even offers a doll hospital service that includes limb and head replacement, hair replacement, and body repair. If you send your American Girls' doll to the hospital, she returns with a hospital gown, a get well balloon, and a certificate of health. This is truly a playable collectible.
These dolls are not available through stores; you must call 1-800-845-0005 to order them. It is worth calling just to get on the mailing list for their catalog. Pleasant Company also offers the wonderful baby dolls (appropriate for ages 2 and up) and a bimonthly magazine called American Girl. The magazine has articles about the historical time periods of the dolls, about real-life American girls, and generally fun things to do. It does not discuss boyfriends or makeup and, in the sample issue sent to me, actually talks about good manners in a non-condescending way. It is aimed toward the seven- to fourteen-year-old age group. A one-year subscription to American Girl for $19.95 also makes a great gift.
A note: the Pleasant Company dolls all have Christmas stories attached to them. However, they make perfect Hanukkah gifts, too: the main doll and seven days worth of accessories! If you wish to give them for Hanukkah, I suggest you select either Kirsten, who is a Swedish immigrant, or Addy. Through the dolls' experiences your child will learn about different cultures. The immigrant and slavery experiences both have parallels to Jewish culture that can be compared and contrasted. It is my personal hope that after the excellent job Pleasant Company has done handling sensitive issues with Addy, that their next doll will be an American Jewish Girl.
See: Pleasant Company's American Girl books
Learning Pockets (now called Pockets of Learning) has many toys that are appropriate gifts for the holidays. Of special interest to science fiction enthusiasts are the Castle Camelot set and the Wizard of Oz Storybook House . These soft sculpture toys are vibrant and completely safe to give children as young as one year old.
If you collect movie memorabilia, you may already own some Wizard of Oz items. With the Wizard of Oz Storybook House the child in your life can have something that's like yours, but is just for them. (Maybe this will keep them from asking you to take your Wizard of Oz dolls out of their blister packs.) The soft sculpture people of the Storybook House are little pillows. Characters include the Wizard, Glinda, Toto, the typical cast of four (Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tinman, and the Cowardly Lion), and, of course, the Wicked Witch. The lions mane is shaggy, Dorothy is a blonde, and the Wizard is charming.
This is a great toy for traveling. The Velcro fasteners on the gates of the Emerald
City shut tightly to store the figures inside. Boys played with it in the four- to
six-year-old range, but the six- to ten-year-old boys were only interested in playing with
it in the co-ed group. Girls played with the Storybook House enthusiastically up to age
seven. They would play with it in groups until age nine. I recommend it most for two- to
five-year-olds. Grownups tended to play with it for about fifteen minutes before starting
to make up really weird stories about Glinda and the Wicked Witch teaming up to take over
Oz. The toy retails for $28 to $30.
Everyone played with this toy. They played by themselves. They played in groups. When it was hanging out on my table, grownups played with it.
This toy also travels well. The tourney field creates a sort of box to hold all the pieces while in transit; but make sure it the Velcro fasteneres are secure all the way around. Castle Camelot traveled with my family through three states and to two science fiction conventions. It is great for long plane trips, since it weighs nothing and cannot break. And, the clincher for me, all the little pillow people are finger puppets!
I was expecting this toy to cost $60 to $70. When I found it retailed for $32 to $35, I was astounded at the bargain. As a gift, it is appropriate for anyone seven and under. Eight-year-olds might like it, but the gift might make it seem as if you think they are babies. (NOTE: Castle Camelot is discontinued, but Pockets of Learning now offers Medieval Castle, pictured right.) l
ABOUT COLLECTIBLE KIDS: The Collectible Kids column ran in Strange New Worlds in the early 1990s. It reviewed and recommended children's products that encourage imagination, creativity, a love of learning, a sense of history, and a belief in the future. Plus, any toys listed as "recommended-to-buy" should also be just plain fun to play with. Products were play-tested by actual children. Testing was performed with three different child groups: 1) Coed, ages four through eight, 2) Female, ages eight through fourteen, and 3) Male ages eight through fourteen. Depending upon the toy, a fourth group may be used: Coed, ages eight through fourteen. Following the play-testing, all toys were donated to charity.
ABOUT ADRIENNE REYNOLS: Adrienne Reynolds is the creator and editor-in-chief of "Gateways Past, Future . . . Sideways," a quarterly magazine of character-based stories with a sense of the unexpected. A writing instructor, Ms. Reynolds ran the Fantek Writers group.