Learning Express Toys

  • The Good, the Bad, and the iPad

    Dear Learning Expressions Readers,

    Last year, my husband and I embarked on our very first long distance vacation as a family. Pulling out of our driveway on the way to the airport, with our boys dozing in the back seat, we felt completely confident about the upcoming four- hour flight to Los Angeles. After all, we had pulled out all the stops in order to make this journey a success. For starters, we had filled our carry-on bags with all kinds of rare and fabulous treats. I had stocked up on items usually banned in our house (lollypops, chocolate milk, and Poptarts to name a few) and our bags strained at the seams with all of the never-before-seen toys and books I had purchased in the days before our departure. We had even sprung for the extra seat for our toddler even though it was well before his second birthday, and he could have sat on our laps. Heck, I even followed the trusted advice of my mommy friends and dosed my oldest with Benadryl exactly 20 minutes before departure in an attempt to conk him out. We thought we had this whole flying-with-kids-thing down no problem.

    Alas, it was not to be. As soon as the door of the plane shut on that ill fated day, the trouble began. Moments after the announcements started, our toddler lost it. And I mean lost it. Not just your standard toddler emotional breakdown, but rather a continuous, blood-curdling shriekfest of epic proportions. This was the tantrum of all tantrums. As we fumbled with every new toy, treat, or book to try to appease him, I thought for sure we’d be kicked right off the plane before it even left the gate. But miraculously, or perhaps unfortunately, the flight attendants ignored us as they walked by preparing the plane for takeoff.

    The other passengers shot us death stares (no doubt wishing they’d taken the earlier flight) but we were otherwise left alone in our miserable situation. As the plane jolted forward, the tantrum continued. Suddenly my son began retching and heaving, and it suddenly dawned on me what was about to happen. Throughout his life, when my oldest gets really, really upset, he has been known to projectile vomit. No, no, no. Please God, not here, not now.

    Unanswered prayers. The vomit came hard and fast. He threw up all over himself, the window next to him, the seat in front of him, and his father to the right of him. The plane continued to climb higher and higher and our co- passengers continued to look on with mingled horror and disgust. I was spared for a few minutes, until the little one strapped to my chest began vomiting in solidarity with his older brother. It went down my shirt, in my ears, and all through my hair, producing what we fondly refer to as “vomit dreadlocks”.

    Needless to say, it was a not a flattering look for me.

    The rest of the flight was no better and consisted of more screaming, more death stares, and suffocating vomit fumes all around. In other words, it was four hours of pure hell. After that, my husband and I vowed not to fly with the children until they were at least 12 years old. But of course, some months later, family obligations necessitated another trip out West. Had you told me in the wake of our first family vacation fiasco that flying with our boys would soon be hassle free, I would have shaken my vomit dreadlocks in despair and refused to believe you. Yet since discovering my secret weapon (aka the iPad) it’s entirely true.

    Child's hand using Spot the Puppy app on an iPad

    Because the iPad has the power to avert all sorts of catastrophes, it enjoys V.I.P. status in my house. My kids are obsessed with the iPad “books,” most notably “The Monster at the End of This Book” by Sesame Street. Perhaps even more than the TV, the iPad has the power to keep young children sitting and staring for long periods of time. Study after study for decades has shown that reading often to your kids is the best academic advantage you can give them. The experts seem to agree that it’s more important than your parental education level or socioeconomic status when predicting future success in school. So we’re supposed to read to them as often as possible, I get that. But do the books on the iPad (or the Kindle Fire, if you’re so inclined), count?

    I posed this question to two parent educators of my early childhood development class. These women both have degrees in child development and are up on all the current research, as mandated by the state of Minnesota, to teach their courses. Both explained that since the iPad and similar technologies have only been around since early 2010, there’s hardly any research out there. Experts have not reached a firm consensus on whether iPad book time counts as actual book time. So far though, the research that my teachers have seen suggests that iPad book time counts not as reading time but as “screen time,” i.e. it’s lumped into the same category as watching TV and playing video games. And accordingly, since it’s screen time, it should be limited as much as possible.

    Two iPads showing children's app RedFish

    I’m disappointed, but I can’t say I’m surprised. The ebooks are filled with animated characters, sound effects, music, and activities such as drawing and coloring. The ones I’ve seen really are much more like a children’s computer game than a children’s book – that’s why they are so powerful! A recent study by the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative (cited here in The New York Times) says that reading ebooks is not as educational as reading traditional books, and furthermore, use of these ebooks might even impede our children’s ability to learn!

    The study found that parents interact totally differently with their kids when reading ebooks than they do when reading traditional books. Parents reading traditional books out loud tend to interact and converse with their children constantly, such as asking questions like, “What do you think will happen next?” and “Is little Billy feeling sad because he lost his ball? Remember how you felt when you lost your ball?” Instead, when reading books over the iPad, parents tend to put all their focus on how best to use the device, for example, “Be careful. Push this button and hold it like this. If you touch it here, Grover will pop out of his hiding place.” The study found that this inherent difference made children slower to read and comprehend a story.

    I searched and searched for another study contradicting these findings. Unfortunately though, the only positive ebooks studies I could find were aimed at much older children and compared using iPad textbooks with traditional textbooks, which wasn’t relevant to my questions about the iPad’s impact on early literacy. Although I have discovered the iPad to be a potent weapon in the fight against travel fiascos, I must admit that even before I started researching the subject I did worry if my kids’ love for the iPad books would somehow make real books seem less magical. With all the amazing bells and whistles in every children’s iPad book, I can see how overuse of the technology might be setting my kids up to become lovers of video games rather than lovers of reading. That weighs on my conscience a bit and helps me use our iPad only in moderation. On ordinary days, old-fashioned books will be the rule. Sometimes though, desperate times call for desperate measures. Next time I’m boarding a plane with two little ones I’m not going to be worrying about laying a foundation for literacy. I just want to keep everyone’s lunches in their tummies.

    Bye for now!

    katherine signature
  • Children and Chores

    Greetings, Learning Expressions Readers!

    Illustration of children raking and mowing the lawn

    A few weeks ago, Learning Express mom blogger Katherine Riolo shared with you some parenting advice from the veteran parents in her life. One nugget of wisdom (from her Aunt D.) really got us thinking. Aunt D. wrote:

    "If I could go back, I would have given my children more chores around the house. At the time, I wanted to protect them from having too much work at home. I thought they already had so much schoolwork and, hey, they only get to be kids once. But, I was mistaken. Having chores helps kids develop work ethic and self-esteem, and it’s their way to contribute to the family. If you can find a balance between letting them be carefree kids while also letting them take ownership and responsibility for certain things, it’s a beautiful thing.”

    If you asked the average kid, I’m pretty sure they’d tell you that chores are just about the least beautiful thing in the world. Growing up, our house was a cacophony of “I’ll do it laaaaaters”, “but Mommms,” and the occasional housework-induced tantrum when my mom discovered the hideous concept of a “chore chart”. We put dish soap in the dishwasher, chipped paint work while vigorously using the vacuum, and knocked trinkets from shelves while dusting in a desperate effort to prove we were just too young to be trusted with responsibility of any kind. And you know what? It really seemed to work.  With three children bent on terrorizing her by way of her new fangled chart, Mom eventually let the thing gather dust and allowed us to go back to being kids. Just the way we liked it.

    Though at the time this felt like a real victory, with hindsight I can recognize the value of what poor Mom had been trying to teach us. In fact, research increasingly shows that giving children chores actually has a positive, far reaching effect on the rest of their lives. University of Minnesota professor Marty Rossmann determined that, “the best predictor of young adults’ success in their mid-20s was that they participated in household tasks when they were three or four. […] By involving children in tasks, parents teach them a sense of responsibility, competence, self reliance, and self worth that stays with them throughout their lives.” A 2006 study in the American Journal of Sociology even showed that “pitching in at home has become a crucial marriage preservation skill for young men. […] After controlling for other factors, US marriages tend to be more stable when men participate more in domestic tasks.” Who knew?? Your toddler will be a more successful 20-something and a better spouse if you just get him/her to clean up those toys now and again.

    Photo of girl putting dishes in dishwasher

    Interestingly enough, if chores are introduced at a later age then the collaborative housework methods will often backfire…as per the Blanchflower household circa 1995. Responsibility through household tasks must, therefore, be integrated long before a child may seem ready for such things—starting as early as two or three. In her article “Chores for Children” author Annie Stuart writes, “We hold back too long because we think they ought to be ready first. But that puts the cart before the horse. The learning is in the doing.” By ingraining good habits at an early age (and not underestimating what kids are capable of) parents can help children foster a positive attitude toward work and help them understand that even the smallest members of a family have something big to contribute. And hopefully that will drastically reduce the wailed “BUT MOMMMMMS” as they get older. Here’s a great list of age appropriate chores that we hope you’ll find helpful!

    Chores for children ages 2 to 3

    • Put toys away.
    • Fill pet's food dish.
    • Put clothes in hamper.
    • Wipe up spills.

    Chores for children ages 4 to 5 Any of the above chores, plus:

    • Make own bed.
    • Empty wastebaskets.
    • Clear table.
    • Pull weeds.
    • Use hand-held vacuum to pick up crumbs.
    • Water flowers.
    • Unload utensils from dishwasher

    Chores for children ages 6 to 7 Any of the above chores, plus:

    • Sort laundry.
    • Sweep floors.
    • Set and clear table.
    • Help make and pack lunch.
    • Weed and rake leaves.
    • Keep bedroom tidy.
    • Answer telephone.

    Chores for children ages 8 to 9 Any of the above chores, plus:

    • Load dishwasher.
    • Put away groceries.
    • Vacuum.
    • Help make dinner.
    • Make own snacks.
    • Wash table after meals.
    • Put away own laundry.
    • Sew buttons.
    • Make own breakfast.
    • Cook simple foods, such as toast.
    • Mop floor.
    • Take pet for a walk.

    Chores for children ages 10 and older. Any of the above chores, plus:

    • Fold laundry.
    • Clean bathroom.
    • Do laundry.
    • Baby-sit younger siblings (with adult in the home).
    • Mow lawn.
    • Clean kitchen.
    • Change bed.

    If you’re struggling to convince your (perhaps older) kids of the merits of housework, don’t forget that it’s never too late to instill in them a habit of serving others. Consider volunteering with them or finding a way to get them involved in community service in your local area. They might find doing the dishes at home super lame, but cooking meals in a soup kitchen can be a humbling experience for even the coolest teenager.

    Talk to you again soon!

    kathryn signature
  • Spotlight on Reading: Unlikely Friendships Book Review

    "A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature."

    ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Unlikely Friendships Book Cover

    Every once in a while, a book comes along that people everywhere just can’t stop talking about. You find a book you love, a book that’s spoken to you in some splendid sort of way, and you can’t wait to press it into the hands of everyone you know. “Read it. You’ll love it. Trust me,” you insist. Or, at any rate, that’s what I insist to family members when forcing my painstakingly selected novels into their hands come Christmas day…despite their annual protestations that they’d been hoping for a video game or a pair of earrings, and they don’t even like reading.

    dog lying on grass with cat and small birds

    Well, today I’m delighted to share with you one book that will most certainly be in the stocking of every  member of my family this year and, for once, I think they might actually appreciate it. After all, how can you not melt at the sight of a baby chick snuggling with a pit bull? But it’s not just me who’s a huge fan of this book, it’s the Learning Express customers who keep purchasing copies just as fast as our owners can stock their shelves.

    Written by National Geographic journalist Jennifer S. Holland, Unlikely Friendships is a heartwarming collection of tales about the surprising bonds that sometimes exist between the most improbable pairs of creatures. Through an astonishing array of photographs and accompanying stories, Holland skillfully documents the curiosity that is the “lion and lamb” phenomenon. In these pages, bobcats dwell with fawns, cheetahs coexist down with cows, and one stray mutt proves that (in her case at least) elephants are a dog’s best friend.

    Elephant standing with dog Chimp cuddling with cat

    “To me, friendship is as simple as seeking comfort or companionship from another to improve one’s own life experience,” writes Holland in the Introduction. “And in all the cases that follow, the animals involved are arguably better off—more confident, physically stronger, in higher spirits—after finding each other than they were before. […] Perhaps the need for a good friend is not just human after all.” By the end of this book, I am certain you won’t need any more convincing.

    And just when you thought this book couldn’t get any cuter, along comes a brand new version for kids. Later this month, Workman will be releasing child- friendly chapter books that each feature five true stories of animal friendships. We got a sneak peak at these little books and can’t wait to get them out in our stores. Here are just a few reasons why we can’t stop talking about them at Learning Express.

    Unlikely Friendships: The Leopard and the Cow and Unlikely Friendships: The Monkey and The Dove book covers

    Though kids can certainly fawn over the images in Holland’s original book, many need parental assistance to read the corresponding stories. In these new versions, the print is enlarged and the writing simplified into short sentences that children can easily synthesize.

    We particularly love that, in each story, Holland not only explains the bond between the animals, but also takes every opportunity to teach her young readers. In the Lion and the Oryx she writes, “In the animal kingdom, all animals are either predators or prey. Predators are animals that hunt and eat other animals. Prey are the animals that get hunted by predators.” Included at the back of each book is an Animal List that elaborates on each featured species in the text.

    We also appreciate that Holland respects her young readers enough not to side step the often harsh realities of the wild. “Eating other animals is a lion’s natural instinct,” she explains. “An animal’s natural instinct is what makes it do certain things to survive.”

    Interior book page featuring photo of a dog and cat together and a page of text

    While many children’s books polarize good/evil and right/wrong in order to drive home certain lessons, Holland reveals the value of the uncertain and the inexplicable.  In the chapter “The Dog and the Cat” Holland writes, “Everywhere the old dog went, Libby was there to guide him. No one knows why Libby became Cashew’s seeing-eye cat. No one knows whether Libby actually understood that Cashew could no longer see.” And you know what? I can’t help but think there’s something extraordinary, something beautifully curious, in that unknowing. “All that is clear,” she finishes, “is that Cashew was a very lucky dog to have such a loyal friend in Libby.”

    So there you have it, readers! I very much hope you’ll learn more about these remarkable creatures and seek out Unlikely Friendships and Unlikely Friendships for Kids at a store near you soon.

    Read them. You’ll love them. Trust me!

    Talk to you again soon.

    kathryn signature
  • Somebunny’s Coming to Town: Ideas for an Eggcellent Easter

    Greetings, Learning Expressions Readers!

    I’m not sure about you, but we’re getting pretty excited about Easter here at Learning Express Toys. Perhaps it’s the snow thawing or that extra hour of sunshine, but I am mighty tempted to bedeck myself entirely in pastels and start bedazzling every egg in sight. However, that is certainly not the only way to entertain oneself this season. Whether you’re planning an Easter Egg hunt, making an Easter themed craft, or whipping up some delicious bunny-inspired treats, the Easter season has something fun for everyone. Read on for our favorite cheer-inducing Easter activities!

    Make Easter Inspired Crafts

    There are tons of adorable ideas out there, but here are three crafts you and your children are sure to love!

    Whip Up an Eggcellent Treat

    Themed food always makes for a magical holiday. Check out these great recipes for Easter-inspired yumminess!

    Adorn an Egg

    Easter wouldn’t be Easter without breaking a few eggs and spilling a bit of dye! Except if you’re Martha Stewart, of course. Don an apron and get decorating!

    Visit the Bunny Buffet™

    Every year we set up a fabulous banquet for the Easter Bunny and friends at Learning Express. When shoppers buy $25 worth of toys and gifts from the buffet, they receive an Easter bucket for free, personalized with the name of their choice. It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3!

    Graphic explaining Bunny Buffet process: Choose your bucket, fill with $25 worth of toys, receive bucket free

    Thanks for reading, and Hoppy Easter to you all!

    Talk to you again soon!

    kathryn signature
  • Toy Review: ZOOB and the ZOOB Inventors' Contest

    Inventor's Contest LogoGreetings, Learning Expressions readers!

    If you’ve taken a look at our Facebook page lately, you’ll have seen that we are currently celebrating ZOOB Week! For those of you that don’t know, ZOOB is a building set with a difference. Rather than remaining static, ZOOB pieces move after children put them together; this innovative design allows youngsters to manipulate and play with their creations after their builds are complete. ZOOB products are popular picks at our Learning Express stores because they integrate learning and play—allowing for creativity, experimentation, and discovery.

    Children have been sending their unique creations to the ZOOB website for the past eight years. Now, for the first time ever, kids get to design their own ZOOB product. The ZOOB Inventors’ Contest lets children submit their own designs, then people from around the world will vote and the company will incorporate the winners’ inventions into a special 2012 product. The product will feature pictures of the kidventors, their creations, and the stories of what inspired them. Pretty cool, right? We certainly think so! As part of ZOOB Week, Learning Express stores will be hosting ZOOB-A-THONS  for aspiring kidventors throughout the country. During ZOOB-A-THONS, stores will provide children with all the ZOOB pieces they need to build. In keeping with the Inventors’ Contest rules, each creation may have up to 100 ZOOB pieces total—with a limit of 20 of each color. At the end of the ZOOB-A-THON, each child’s invention will be submitted to the contest. Needless to say, all our fingers are crossed that a Learning Express customer will have his/her build featured on a 2012 product!

    Bags of different colors of Zoob pieces

    But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s see how ZOOB shakes out using the Learning Express 3F’s of toy quality—form, function, and fun! Today we are reviewing the 125-piece ZOOB set, however you can also get ZOOB in many different sized sets, from 15 pieces all the way up to 500 pieces. In fact, on Wednesday we’ll be giving away a 500-piece set on our Facebook page!


    This part is pretty simple! ZOOB consists of five differently shaped pieces that you can build with. We love that the 125 piece set comes with a reusable storage box so we can easily keep track of your pieces and use them again and again. You’ll also find that each ZOOB set includes how-to guides designed to help you get started (and the people who make ZOOB include just the right number of models—enough so that kids can learn all the ways the pieces go together and get some experience with 3-D modeling, but not so many that kids won’t use their imaginations to invent their own creations).

    Close up photo of Zoo pieces of different shapes and colors


    Though there are only five ZOOB pieces, you can snap them together in 20 different ways. The original inspiration for ZOOB came from the nucleotides that make up DNA. Based on the way things connect, move and transform in nature, ZOOB captures dynamic movement, unlike traditional “stacking” or “hub & spoke” construction sets. ZOOB also appeals to boys and to girls, which is something we really value at Learning Express. Best of all, the fact that ZOOB moves once put together means that kids can interact and play with their creations long after they’ve finished the building process.  ZOOB is one of those rare toys that allows for both directed and open-ended play. If you’re in need of some inspiration you can turn to your handy instruction manual—but if you’re already feeling inspired you can free form build to your heart’s content!


    This is always my favorite part. And who better to help me demonstrate ZOOB than my eight year old blogssistant nephew, Charlie? This week, I gave Charlie two ZOOB related tasks: complete a “directed play” build (from the instruction manual) and complete an “open-ended play” build that adheres to the Inventors’ Contest guidelines.

    Zoob pieces connected in a circle with spokesHere is Build #1: Directed Play

    The Crown (aka my new “Thinking Cap”)

    Zoob pieces arranged into piles on a table Here is Build #2: Open-Ended Play

    The Rocket Ship

    In keeping with the rules of the Inventors’ Contest, Charlie put aside 20 pieces of each color to use. Then, he let his imagination run amuck. The result? An awe-inspiring rocket ship.

    Rocket ship made of Zoob pieces

    So there you have it, Learning Expressions readers! I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit more about ZOOB and I very much hope that you’ll be able to attend a ZOOB-A-THON at your local Learning Express Toys this week!

    Bye for now!

    kathryn signature