Learning Express Toys

  • A Toy Review for You: Loopdedoo

    Greetings Learning Expressions Readers!

    Loopdeloo loom kit

    Over the past few weeks, “Loopdedoo” chat has started circulating around the home office. Come to find out, this oddly familiar word is not a reference to the frustratingly addictive children’s song “Here We Go Loop de Loop,” but rather a tool for making fabulous twisted accessories. Frankly, I just assumed one of my coworkers had spread the catchy ditty around the office in an attempt to catch colleagues humming under their breath on the way to meetings.

    No  sooner was I becoming acquainted with what the Loopdedoo was than I was being asked to evaluate it based on our “form, function, and fun” toy review model. My initial “Oh, awesome!” was quickly replaced by an “Oh no!” as I recalled my earlier attempts at bracelet-making, which, not to be dramatic, were basically a demoralizing amalgamation of twine, tangles, and tears. But you know what? After I suspended my fear of fine motor craft kits and wrapped my head around the basic techniques of the Loopdedoo, I made a bracelet that I actually wanted to wear! And the fact that I made this Loopdie without speed dialing Sandie (resident Learning Express arts and crafts guru), makes the Loopdedoo my all-time favorite jewelry-making kit. It also makes me feel confident that your child will soon be looping and loving it!

    Form:

    Extra embroidery thread in many colors for Loopdeloo kit

    The sturdy Loopdedoo package contains 18 skeins of vibrant embroidery floss, one Loopdedoo spinning tool, two alligator clips which can be used for making longer accessories such as belts, and instructions. The Loopdedoo features kid- powered looping knobs and a convenient drawer for storing materials. The tool seems very durable and there is an extensive array of thread colors ranging from black and white, to hot pink, to sea foam green. The full-color instruction booklet presents the various looping styles and offers step-by-step guidance with many illustrations. The only tool you’ll need that’s not included is a pair of scissors.

    Function:

    Demonstration of loom technique on Loopdeloo

    Instructions prompt users to choose one of four looping styles. Each style requires a different technique and the styles are presented by level of difficulty. Naturally, I chose the easiest style listed, the “Color Block.”

    The booklet breaks it down into more detail, but before you can start turning the knobs and “looping” your bracelet there are some setup steps:

    1. Choose your desired colors, bundle them together, and double knot them around one of the hooks on the Loopdedoo.

    2. Wrap your thread bundle around the opposite hook and back to the original several times to create the “core” of your bracelet. The more you wrap, the thicker your bracelet will be.

    3. If you wrapped three times (which I did) you’ll need to measure fouradditional lengths for your looping thread (the thread wrapped around the core to make those eye-popping patterns). One length is the distance between the two hooks.

    4. Cut the thread after you’ve measured the amount you’ll need for looping.

    Confused yet? Well I was for a few minutes, but setting up the Loopdedoo is much easier than it sounds the first time you read the instructions. The package says that you can create a bracelet in about ten minutes, and after you conquer the learning curve, a ten-minute bracelet on your second try is not far-fetched.

    Fun:

    Demonstration of wrapping technique using Loopdeloo and finished bracelet

    As I started spinning the thread around the core, I started smiling. My bracelet emerged quickly and smoothly, right before my eyes. I started feeling more creative as I established a color pattern. The Loopdedoo did most of the wrapping work for me; I just had to make minor positioning adjustments as I went along. And discovering those little tricks to success is actually part of what made this project so much fun.

    Because the Loopdedoo is kid-powered, crafters feel a real sense of connection to their jewelry (a machine isn’t automatically spinning your bracelet, you are spinning it). And there’s an undeniable sense of pride that goes along with cutting your first Loopdie from the hook and sizing it on your wrist. Kids can create cool, wearable pieces of art. The Loopdedoo is also a perfect sleepover activity. One child could be choosing her bracelet colors while another starts spinning. There is a dazzling array of thread colors which makes Loopdedoo a perfect craft for boys and girls alike. Boys may be more interested in spinning backpack pulls and bracelets with their favorite team’s colors and girls may opt for patterned bracelets and necklace designs.

    So there you have it, readers, an arts and crafts product that leaves even inexperienced users beaming with accomplishment instead of sulking over mangled balls of string (not that I’ve ever experienced that firsthand).

    Happy Loopdie-making!

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  • Reading With a Wild Thing: Therapy Dogs, Children, and Literacy

    Greetings Learning Expressions Readers,

    As many of you are no doubt aware, yesterday marked the passing of beloved children’s book author Maurice Sendak. Made famous by the likes of Where the Wild Things Are and The Night Kitchen, Sendak baulked at the assumption that children should be condescended to in literature. “You cannot write for children...they're much too complicated,” he observed. “You can only write books that are of interest to them.” Whoever his intended audience, Sendak’s books have captured the imaginations of young people for generations.

    Illustration of giant monster resting near water surrounded by trees with a sailboat in the background from the book "Where the Wild Things Are"

    Perhaps fittingly (or unfittingly, as Sendak might have argued) the first week of May also marks the national celebration of Children’s Book Week.  Established in 1919 to celebrate the transformative power of reading, Children's Book Week is now the longest-running literacy initiative in the country. With this in mind, it seemed appropriate to focus this week’s blog on children and literature. While in the past we’ve brought you recommendations on classics we love and not-to-be-missed children’s series, this week we thought we’d focus on something a little more, well, wild.

    Light brown puppy in a person's arms

    Now before I go any farther, I have to admit to you that I have spent a lot of time over the last couple of weeks daydreaming about dogs. Why, you may wonder? Well, a mere four days ago my husband and I became proud puppy parents for the first time. In the days before picking up our mutt Maggie, I researched just about everything there is to know about puppies. I found myself losing sleep over questions like, What is the most nutritious puppy food? How often will she need to pee? What if she doesn’t like me? Will she agree to wear a sweater on special occasions? Well, when it came to brainstorming this week’s literary themed blog, I had puppies on the mind. To my surprise, the connection between children, reading, and dogs was not such a crazy association after all.

    The word “therapy dog” often brings to mind visits to elderly. However, therapy dogs are also used to help children. All over the country, children struggle to read—and many feel self conscious about reading aloud to others. But what if kids could read to a totally unobtrusive, non-judgmental listener? And if dogs are man’s best friend, why can’t they be a child’s best reading buddy?

    Boy lying on floor reading book next to dog

    This was the very question that dawned on Sandi Martin, a board member of Intermountain Therapy  Animals, back in 1999. Martin speculated that the benefits that therapy animals have demonstrated in hospitals and schools might translate well to the reading environment. From there, Sandi and the ITA team went on to develop R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) which now has human/dog teams working with children all over the world.

    Last week, we were lucky enough to chat with Lesley Pulsipher, the International R.E.A.D. Coordinator, and learn a bit more about the program. “Dogs are great listeners, and children enjoy reading to dogs because they never feel judged,” Pulsipher told us. “They don’t have to worry about the dog laughing at them if they make a mistake or correcting a mispronounced word. They aren’t told how fast or slow to read. It is their time and space to read with the dog on their own terms.”

    And who better to ask about the benefits of the program than the kids themselves? Seven year old Jesse said of the program, “Last year in grade 1, I didn't know how to read. It didn't make me feel very good about myself. After I started to read to Chelsea I felt good. I like to read to her because she helps me with words and she's a good listener. Now I can read a lot of different books. That makes me very happy. My favorite thing I like about Chelsea is that she does cool tricks and barks to say ‘bye’ to me.”

    At Learning Express, we also have a personal connection with the R.E.A.D. program. Clarisse Youmell (former Learning Express buyer and wife of our Creative Director, Dan) is an active volunteer with R.E.A.D. She and her dog, Jack, have helped many a struggling young reader.

    Dog sitting in yard wearing neck scarf

    “In my experience the kids are relaxed and at ease with Jack in a way they cannot be with a person,”  us. “As a R.E.A.D. team Jack is the star. I am there to work on skills - but through Jack.  If the child stumbles or is having comprehension issues I might say ‘Can you read that part again to Jack - he is a little confused.’  I also taught Jack a ‘paw stay’ so that if the child needs to take a water or bathroom break Jack marks the place in the book with his paw until the child comes back.” Like many other volunteers, Clarisse has noticed marked changes in children’s confidence levels as a result of reading to dogs—confidence that extends well beyond their grasp of the written word.

    We couldn’t resist asking Clarisse to share with us her very favorite moment as a R.E.A.D. volunteer. Here’s what she had to say: “During Jack's first session as a R.E.A.D. dog, my husband and I ran into the family of Jack's R.E.A.D. partner at a local restaurant. When the child saw me her eyes lit up and she said ‘Hi Jack's Mom! Please tell Jack I have been working on a new book to read him on Saturday.  I think he is going to really like it.’ That is when I knew the program really worked.  She didn't even know my name and was working outside the program to improve her reading, and she was looking forward to reading to Jack almost a week ahead.  Beautiful.” Beautiful indeed.

    In December of 2011, Maurice Sendak had what would be his last interview with NPR. In their conversation, Sendak told Fresh Air host Terry Gross, "I am devoted to being an artist and a person who reads books for the rest of my life--for however long I have." In the wake of Sendak’s passing, we can’t help but be moved by the fact that children all over the world, with the help of an ever-so-gentle variety of Wild Thing, are discovering the joys of reading for themselves.

    Talk to you again soon.

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  • Summer Brainercize: The Summer Bridge Activities Workbooks

    Greetings, Learning Expressions Readers!

    With summer approaching, back-to-school season is probably the last thing on your mind. However, if you plan to battle what we like to call “summer brain drain”, then now is the perfect time to start thinking about how to keep your kid’s brain active during the summer months. Why, you may ask?

    Illustration of backpack full of school supplies

    Well, come the start of the school year, you’ll ship your children off to school looking sharp in their newest outfits and equipped with a backpack full of freshly minted school supplies (certainly the only comforts on this very worst of days).  Here’s the problem: your kids may suffer from “First Day of School Hand-Quakes”. Allow me to elaborate:

    Third Grade. Mrs. Hawthorne’s Class. Room 306. Ray School Elementary. I picked up my newly sharpened #2 Lisa Frank unicorn pencil (thanks mom) only to find that my hand no longer seemed to recall how to write my own name; it rebelled at the thought and quivered uncontrollably with the very effort. Perhaps it should have come as no surprise, it had been occupied playing Marco Polo and creating peanut butter bird feeders and hurling flaming marshmallows at fellow campers all summer. The closest I’d gotten to writing my own name over the summer months was to scrawl a big “KB” on the bottom of my various paper mache creations.

    Regrettably, things only got worse in Room 306 when we were handed a division worksheet. After Mrs. Hawthorne dismissed my protestations that I had ingested far too much bug spray over the summer months to count past the number 12 (I’d heard the stuff was ridiculously dangerous), I spent the remainder of the afternoon struggling to complete the assignment while ignoring the furious cramp swiftly developing in my writing hand. Honestly, I would have much preferred to be at home with my newly acquired tadpole collection.

    Alas, though my young brain may have been addled during those warmer months, I think we can all attest to the fact that summer is made delightful by way of the simpler pleasures in life: enjoying the outdoors, spending time with family, going to bed grubby and exhausted from the adventures theday has brought.

    •    Summer Brain Drain

    Research from the Johns Hopkins National Summer Learning Association has confirmed that I wasn’t the only eight-year old struggling to wield my pencil come September 1. In fact, research from the last 100 years has proven that students consistently perform worse on standardized tests at the beginning of the school year than they do at the end of the previous school year. Additionally, the NSLA reveals that most students “lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer months”. While students from higher income families tend to show some improvement in reading comprehension over the summer months, those from lower income families tend to lose the equivalent of two months in reading achievement while out of school. These are certainly sobering facts, however I’m guessing the words “summer school” and “math camp” may be met in many of your households with screams of horror rather than of delight.

    •    The Summer Bridge Solution

    Learning Express Toys is invested in solutions that reconcile, rather than compromise, the connection between learning and fun. We are all for firefly catching and camping trips, but so too are we invested in the continual progression of children’s learning. With this in mind, our stores are proud to carry Summer Bridge Activities Workbooks. This series of activity books for grades Pre-K through Eight has a motto that we here at Learning Express love: “School Stops for Summer: Learning Never Should”.

    Each workbook is approximately 150 pages and contains anything from reading, writing, math, science, and social studies exercises. A great feature of these books is that they don’t contain just new information, but review skills from the year before (that may have gotten a little rusty with all that swimming and firefly catching). The three sections in the workbook correspond to the traditional three months of summer vacation, and to achieve maximum results children should complete two activity pages each day. The pages are conveniently perforated so the book doesn’t need to be lugged around – two pages can easily be slipped into mom’s purse!

    Summer Bridge Activities grades 6-7 book cover

    We particularly love that each Summer Bridge book comes with a recommended Summer Reading list, along with recommendations about how much time a child of that age should spend reading each day. Each book also comes with flashcards to help reinforce basic skills, and a certificate of completion to help you celebrate your child’s summer learning success.

    •    The Best of Both Worlds

    Quite simply, the Summer Bridge Workbooks offer the perfect compromise between summer fun and summer learning. The National Summer Learning Association has noted, “The most important thing to be concerned about for stemming or reversing summer learning loss is continual opportunities for learning during the summer months.” Summer Bridge Activities offer just such learning opportunities without depriving your kids of the joys of summer. They can be done at the kitchen table after a long day of capture-the-flag, just as easily as they can be done on long car journeys to Grandma’s. For us, the real beauty of these workbooks is that they keep your child’s brain active and limber while still allowing them to enjoy just being kids. Who wouldn’t love this kind of solution? I know all the Mrs. Hawthornes out there certainly will.

    Talk to you again soon!

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  • Vintage Toy Spotlight: Sophie the Giraffe

    Bonjour, Learning Expressions Readers!

    Sophie the Giraffe Baby Toy

    Every once in a while a toy comes along that is totally timeless. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 1965 or  2005, these toys manage to retain their appeal no matter what the decade— hence their impressive longevity. One such toy is Sophie the Giraffe. Or, as the Francophiles prefer to call her, Sophie La Girafe. Born in Paris in 1961, Sophie has since become a worldwide sensation. She is particularly popular amongst mothers of miserable, teething toddlers everywhere; there’s no gum related pain too terrible that a chew on Sophie’s rubbery little head can’t help but resolve. This week, we set out to discover a bit more about this enduringly popular toy.

    Her History:

    Let’s go back for a moment, shall we? 1961. The French Alps. One Monsieur Rampeau is an expert at transforming sap from the Hevea tree into rubber. In those days, exotic wildlife toys didn’t litter playroom floors. Instead, animal figures tended to be based on farm animals and domestic pets (yawn). Until May 25, 1965 that is. Using his rotational method of rubber molding, Rampeau designed and created a petite rubber giraffe that generations of children would come to know, gnaw, and love. But what to call this little creature? Since May 25 also happened to be St. Sophie’s day in France, Rampeau decided upon Sophie.

    How She’s Made:

    Why tell you, when we can show you? Check out this amazing video!

    (video)

    Why We Love Her:

    There’s something brilliantly simple about Sophie. Lauded “the archetypal embodiment of the early learning toy” Sophie inspires open ended play and is one of those rare toys that manages to amuse without having to entertain. She might not light up or require batteries, but she certainly stimulates the senses of little ones. Here’s how:

    *Sight*

     At the age of 3 months, a baby's eyesight is still limited and he/she can only make out high contrasts. The dark and contrasting attention-catching spots all over Sophie the Giraffe's body provide visual stimulation and she soon becomes a familiar and reassuring object for baby.

    *Hearing*

    Sophie the Giraffe's squeaker keeps baby amused and stimulates his/her hearing. To begin with, the funny sound Sophie makes when she is squeezed helps to stimulate baby's hearing, and then later, helps him/her to understand the link between cause and effect.

    *Taste*

    Sophie the Giraffe is made of 100% natural rubber and food paint, and is completely safe to chew, just like a feeding bottle teat. Her soft texture and numerous chewable parts (ears, horns, legs), make her perfect for soothing baby's sore gums during teething.

    *Touch*

    Touch is the first means a baby has of communicating with the outside world. Sophie the Giraffe's soft feel, like baby's mother's skin, stimulates a physiological and emotional response that soothe baby and promote healthy growth and well-being. Sophie the Giraffe's shape and 18 cm (7 inches) size are perfect for baby's small hands. She is very light, and her long legs and neck are easy for baby to grip, even from his/her earliest days.

    *Smell*

    The singular scent of natural rubber from the Hevea tree makes Sophie the Giraffe very special and easy for children to identify amid all their other toys.

    To top it all off, everything about Sophie is lovingly handcrafted—all the way from her squeaker to her spots. What isn’t there to love about that?

    A bientôt!

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  • Autism: It's Not Just a Word, it's an Adventure!

    Dear Learning Expressions Readers,

    I can remember like it was yesterday, lying in my bed, talking to my husband, tears running down my face onto the pillow. We had just received confirmation - our 20-month old daughter had been diagnosed with autism. And like any good husband should, he listened and said, "She's gonna get better." That night, in that bed, those few moments were just about the only minutes I allowed myself to cry and mourn the loss of having a "normal little girl". The tears were a cleansing release. And acceptance followed right behind. I accepted the diagnosis, but would not even consider accepting the bleak future that had been written in all the publications I had read. I pushed up my sleeves and set on a mission to learn everything I could about what made this little girl tick. I was determined to give her as many opportunities to be happy as possible, while also minimizing her stress and anxiety. After all, isn't that all we want for our kids, to be happy?

    Adult therapist holding toddler in lap and holding toysKiki had no language, which lead to constant frustration and seemed to be the trigger for all her  always related to the story of Helen Keller and her tantrums before her teacher Annie came along and taught her to communicate. So language was our top priority. Through mirrored glass, I watched every Speech Therapy session and studied the therapists. I imitated how the therapist held things up to her eyes if Kiki wanted something, in order to encourage eye contact. I learned to speak clearly, in short, simple, sentences. I labeled our entire house with words, describing everything from “door” to “step” to “bed”. I learned simple sign language to visually reinforce what I said, words like "drink" "more" "help" "eat" and "finished".

    I became a behavioral detective. I observed and studied her behaviors; I learned what made her excited and giddy; I learned what ticked her off. Just behaviors. I had to get her to look at me I even learned to talk like Barney, saying her name just like the purple dinosaur! Those early days from 20 months to 5 years old were learning-rich years, I knew that from every baby book I read - the first few years in any child are the most important. We could not afford an in-home program. We could not afford hired-staff, nannies, mother's helpers or any additional support. We had to learn them ourselves and do it all ourselves.

    When I look back now, I have so much respect for that frustrated little child. All she ever wanted was to be a part of our world. She learned at a much- slower pace, on her terms. We got down to her level, down on the floor with her. We were patient. We waited for any sign of improved communication or understanding. Flash forward now - she's 17 years old, a sophomore at our neighborhood high school. She is active in Special Olympics, and her high school choir and leadership class. And guess what? She still has Autism, but Autism does not have her! Autism gave us so many gifts - patience, tolerance, acceptance, and the purest love, from the purest heart, in our girl, Kiki. I would not have made it through those early years without the support from others. I asked so many questions and I read so many books. Since April is Autism Awareness Month I would like to share a few things I learned along the way, that helped make the journey a little easier during those early, most challenging years.

    Kiki posing next to sign saying "Kiki 4 Junior Class Rep" and giving a thumbs up

    1. Never give up. If it's not working, step back and try a new approach. Sometimes when we are working to correct or remold a behavior, it can take years! (for example, a nose picker.....I had to place a box of tissue in front of her over and over, for years......ultimately she learned to use a tissue as opposed to her preferred finger)

    2. Get your child around as many typically-developing children as possible, especially if your child imitates his/her peers. Try to empower the other children. Support your child by shadowing, engaging and encouraging the other children to join in. Bubbles at the park or playground are a great way to do that! Our yard was always the party-playground yard, we always had slip 'n slides, baby pools, bubbles, anything to encourage the other kids in the neighborhood to come over and play!

    3. Do not assume that your child is not listening. They hear. They feel. They are SO intuitive. They FEEL our tone, our frustration and the frustrations of others. Speak calmly without emotion when you are most frustrated. We verbally praised her for everything she did right. So funny now, when I get into the car and buckle my seat belt, my beautiful daughter gives me praise, "Good job putting your seat belt on mom". Those are paychecks to me. We are the number one role model to our children. Label and define everything you do as you are doing it, as if you are on a tv show, labeling and explaining your daily tasks. Give your child constant color commentary, they are listening.

    4. Sensory Sensory Sensory stimulation, they need it. Provide lots of sensory experiences, every day. If they like to spin - get a tire swing (we installed one in our garage!). Fill Rubbermaid tubs with rice and beans and let them play in it like a sandbox. Hide letters, animals, and toys inside it, and use it to meet their sensory needs while you work on language!

    5. Use visual strategies - make picture stories or videos to teach basic self- care skills. We used neighbors and babysitters to make little 2 minute videos of "How to brush you hair." Kiki loved seeing her teenie-bopper babysitter making this silly video, but guess what!? She memorized it, played it over and over and learned SO much! (Bathing, dressing, sharing, asking, so many social skills and self care skills!) Use photos to label their emotions and feelings. Be animated when you read their favorite stories and be sure to focus on the feelings.

    6. Educate, inform and empower the teachers, kids and parents in your child's class. Do not be afraid of the word Autism, it's just a word. Knowledge is power. Empathy, tolerance and acceptance come when others understand the behaviors your child may be working through in class. Be honest, our kids can have some serious meltdowns. Autism is not a scarlet letter. I would wear an A on my chest like a badge of honor. Your child's typical peers are the best asset your child will ever have. They grow up and become little advocates and make the world a better place. I have faith in them, praise them and thank them for being good friends. All children love positive praise!

    Handwritten note reading: "Dear Kiki, thank you so much for everything you have done in student government this year! You are such a bright young lady and I wish you only the best in your future. You always are so positive in class and you always put a smile on the faces of the people around you. I hope you have an amazing summer you deserve it. Smiley face. Love always, Emily."

    Thanks for reading!

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