Learning Express Toys

  • The Preschool Rat Race

    Once upon a time, parents worried about their kids’ college applications. For many of today’s young moms and dads, however, the preschool application process has become an all consuming parental anxiety. Before becoming a mom I was under the impression that, as long as kids weren’t still wearing diapers by kindergarten, parents were excelling at the whole child-rearing thing. Oh how wrong I was. Forget about college-prep courses, nowadays we need to be prepping our little ones for kindergarten. Allow me to explain.

    “You know, kindergarten just isn’t what it used to be,” says the energetic, rosy-cheeked preschool teacher leading our tour. All of the other parents on the tour nod in understanding to this statement, but I am completely in the dark. I smile and nod eagerly anyway, and accost the teacher after the tour so she can elaborate on the topic. She enlightens me. A generation ago, kindergartners worked on the things that today’s preschoolers typically learn to master: i.e. shapes, the alphabet, and numbers. For today’s 5-year-olds, kindergarten is not just singing and colors but an academic experience. It’s the new first grade, or even second. This makes the preschool years vitally important, she continues, because the foundation for formal schooling must be laid.

    And so it begins. The rat race. Now that I’m paying more attention, I hear signs of the preschool rat race all around me. One mom I meet boasts that her still-in-diapers daughter can read, thanks to a system that her mother-in-law bought off a television advertisement (Ha!). Another dad in my circle nonchalantly mentions (with great frequency) that his preschooler is taking Spanish lessons. There’s even one mother who proudly shows off her preschooler’s advanced iPad skills, saying it’s a good thing to get an early jump on this technology stuff. We’re behind already, and he’s not even three yet! My happy-go-lucky toddler can’t speak Spanish, can’t use an iPad, and for goodness sake, he can’t read a word.

    The horror! He’s already doomed to be rejected from Notre Dame!

    Ok, I’m a solution-oriented person. What’s my plan? How am I going to play this game?

    My answer – and mind you I am feeling pretty good about myself for having an answer – is playtime. Even more specifically, intentional play. Although kindergarten may change over the years, the old adage that “children’s work is their play” remains true. In my view, parents can help children learn through their play. If we teach them skills and lessons in a fun and magical way, we nurture within them a lifetime love of learning.

    A friend of mine with a background in early childhood education helps me sharpen the idea of intentional play. I’ve noticed that when she plays with her toddler, she’s incredibly focused on seizing little opportunities to teach him. She’s not hovering or pressuring, but instead she asks casual questions along the way as he plays. In one instance, she finds a way to help boost his emotional intelligence; as he crashes one car over and over into another (as some boys do constantly!) she asks how one car feels after being crashed into again and again. And then (and here’s where I need to get better) she patiently waits for his answer. After her toddler replies, they have a little discussion about the topic.

    My friend calls this process of questioning, waiting patiently for a reply, and then discussing, “noodling.” As opposed to catching catfish with your fingers, this kind of noodling means letting little ones work something through and giving them the time and space to really think about the question, come up with a conclusion, and then chat about the matter. I’ve found that I am pretty good about thinking of questions during play, but I am far too quick to give an answer when my son doesn’t respond immediately. I’m vowing work on my patience and to make time for purposeful noodling every day!

    The wonderful thing about intentional play is that you can squeeze the idea into almost every conceivable activity you do with your little one. It’s important to have creative toys and books around to help facilitate playtime, but the mundane chores in life are also great opportunities to teach and play with your child. Folding the laundry can be a math lesson, as you take a towel and fold it in half, and then again in quarters. Cooking together is a great way to help your kid sharpen fine motor skills: cracking eggs, stirring batter, sprinkling spices. There are hundreds of ways in one house to play and teach. The answer that most helps me to dissipate the stress of the preschool rat race is to work more intentional play into our day – not to rush out and sign my child up for violin lessons or to schedule a daily vocabulary flash-card drill. I want to help my toddler play and be happy, and learn a ton along the way. So, I’m sticking with intentional play as my answer. That and getting my kid into the best preschool I can find.

    Speaking of that, I better get back to researching schools and working on applications. They’re due soon, and what if we don’t get a spot at our first choice?? And another thing, shouldn’t I be signing him up for some sort of sports camp? There are kids his age already on teams! If he doesn’t start now, he’ll never become an All American! Arrrggggghhh. Ok, so maybe escaping the grasp of the preschool rat race is easier said than done.

    Bye for now!

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  • Let’s Get Crafty! The Bling Block Jewelry Kit by Alex

    Every once in a while, we like to get crafty at the Learning Express Toys home office. This week, we thought we’d try out the Bling Block Jewelry Kit by Alex to see what it’s all about.

    This fabulous little set includes 24 blocks and 50 silver-colored beads, 1 block ring, 30 sticky gems, satin cord, elastic string, 4 earring hooks, 5 jump rings, a beading needle and easy instructions.

    We made three great pieces of jewelry out of the kit – check out what we came up with!

    LEGO ring The Ring:

    This is by far the simplest accessory in the kit to make.

    Just pop in whatever color block you desire (they come in half sizes and full sizes) and then just bedazzle with a few gems!

    Toy otter wearing Lego earrings

    The Earrings:

    The earrings require you to assemble three different components: the bead, the jump ring, and the earring hook. Just put the jump ring through the holes in the bead, put the jump ring through the earring hook, close up the jump ring…and ta da! An earring is formed! Then add some dazzle and you’re done. Doesn’t Cecilia look fetching?

    Lego beaded bracelet

    The Bracelet:

    The Bracelet: Though it was the most time consuming accessory to bracelet was by far our favorite part of this whole kit. First, you take two pieces of elastic string and attach them to the inside of one of the blocks, as pictured. Next, you string a colored bead on each side and then add another block. You keep going until the bracelet is big enough to fit your wrist – or in this case Cecilia’s neck!

    Toy otter wearing LEGO beaded necklace
    Cecilia is thrilled with her new accessories, and we've found a new favorite way to spend our afternoons!

    Talk to you again soon!

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  • Spotlight On Reading: Resolve to Read a Series in 2012

    “It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading.” - Katherine Patterson

    Little House on the Prairie Book Cover Ah, the new year! Presents have been opened, Santa (and our store owners) finally get some time to relax, and we all tell ourselves that this is the year we will actually stick to our resolutions. While committing to a liquid diet or recording your expenditures in an ultra-lame budget spreadsheet may quickly become a thing of the past, resolving to read regularly with your children is one resolution that can really endure for the long term—especially if you find the right series of books to get stuck into.

    Back in the day, my younger sister and I were completely obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. The series boasted an impressive nine full-length novels, all of which constituted our bedtime reading for a good three or four years. Despite knowing every plotline (and many of the actual lines) by heart, we steadfastly refused any other bedtime stories—and even forced our mother to fire the beastly babysitter who insisted on skipping the “boring bits”. So rude…and hello there was NEVER a dull moment on the prairie.

    Desperate to wean us off the series, Dad brought us home his own very favorite childhood book: Lassie Come Home. The story of one collie’s trek over many miles to be reunited with the boy she loves proved nowhere near as interesting as the adventures of the Ingalls girls—and the book was quickly discarded to the back of the book shelf to gather dust. However, he was not a man to be thwarted by a couple of seven year olds.

    Come bedtime, Danny B. took to including his favorite dog Lassie in the Little House books. “Mary and Laura clung tight to their rag dolls and did not say anything,” he would read, before adding, “And then LASSIE jumped into the covered wagon and stole their rag dolls and ran off into the woods with them!” We screamed and cried in protest, but night after night Dad would incorporate Lassie in all of the Ingalls’ family exploits. He was there when poor Mary went blind, there on Laura’s first day of school, there when the family’s crops were attacked by a swarm of killer grasshoppers….as you can imagine, storytime became utterly infuriating. Eventually, we became so sick of Lassie that we agreed to choose another series entirely as long as Lassie never EVER showed up again during our bedtime reading sessions. Dad kept mostly to his word, though the vile creature did make an occasional appearance in Mary’s secret garden and at Anne’s beloved Green Gables.

    I share this story with you today because I think it highlights the way in which a truly great series can instill and nurture a love of reading in your children. Maya Angelou once wrote, “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.” I think a series, often more than a book that stands alone, makes reading one of those enduring needs. Characters grow and develop over a prolonged period, and children have the chance to return again and again to the fictional place they’ve come to love. Today I’ve compiled ten great series (for a variety of ages) that I believe are very much worth sharing and reading with your children.

    Series We Love 
    Llama Llama by Anna Dewdney Ages 3 and Up

    This infectiously fun rhyming read-aloud series follows Baby Llama through the trials and tribulations of bedtime, grocery shopping, and the first day of school. “Llama, Llama red pajama waiting, waiting for his mama. Mama isn’t coming yet. Baby Llama starts to fret!”

    The Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Ages 4 and Up

    A classic essential for any child’s bookshelf –Brother Bear and Sister Bear have lots of lessons to teach little ones!

    The Brown Bear Series by Bill Martin Jr. Ages 4 and Up

    Beautiful, colorful collages set off this delightful series featuring Brown Bear, Polar Bear and Panda Bear and everything they see and hear.

    Junie B Jones by Barbara Park Ages 6 and Up

    Super sassy Junie B. Jones is one hilarious five-year-old. Her adventures in kindergarten will have you and your little ones in stitches and are sure to make young kids crave their daily dose of reading.

    Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner Ages 7 and Up

    This beloved series tells the story of four orphaned children, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny Alden—who create a home for themselves in an abandoned boxcar in the forest. A real treat!

    Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder Ages 8 and Up

    Need I say more? Every child should get to know the Ingalls family! The prairie is rife with adventure and the series is sure to become a bedtime favorite.

    Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery Ages 9 and Up

    First published in 1908, this series tells of the orphaned Anne Shirley and her adventures on Prince Edward Island. Anne’s spunk, imagination, and talent for troublemaking will quickly endear her to young readers.

    Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling Ages 9 and Up

    An obvious choice for literary-loving muggles of all ages—how could Harry Potter NOT make this list? We absolutely adore this wizarding series.

    Redwall by Brian Jacques Ages 10 and Up

    “In our imaginations we can go anywhere. Travel with me to Redwall in Mossflower country.” In this enduringly popular series, author Brian Jacques creates a world where animals can speak and adventure is always on the horizon.

    The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins Ages 12 and Up

    At the moment, The Hunger Games is just about the hottest series around. The trilogy chronicles Panem nation’s annual Hunger Games, in which twenty four children are selected to fight to the death in a brutal televised battle; all but one will perish. Readers will root for Katniss Everdeen as she fights, against all odds, for her life.

    I very much hope you and your family will try out a few of these series—and should you ever find yourself able to recite entire chapters of Little House in the Big Woods in your sleep, just remember there’s always the “Last Resort Lassie” trick at your disposal. It works like a charm, and I’m sure the Ingalls girls would be delighted to be reunited with that horrible, horrible hound.

    Be sure to look out for our next Spotlight on Reading post, where we'll be taking a look at the book-oriented events that our stores hold throughout the year!

    Talk to you again soon!

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  • Toy Review: The Doodle-Track Car Set

    Greetings, Learning Expressions readers!

    This week on the blog we’re putting the spotlight on the Doodle-Track Car product by Daydream Toy. The Doodle-Track car is a craft activity and race car all wrapped into one and can provide hours of interactive online and in-house entertainment. Keep reading to find out how it shakes out using the Learning Express 3F’s of toy quality—form, function and fun!

    Doodle Track Car

    Form

    The Doodle-Track set has four essential in-the-box components—the Doodle-Track Car, a washable marker, stick-on decals, and playmat track. One of our favorite things about the Doodle-Track is that it also has an interactive online component. Kids can go online to http://www.doodletrackcar.com/buildatrack/index.html and make a customized race track of their very own— complete with traffic signals, trees, and shops! The track can be printed out and, if you have enough paper in your printer, can cover your whole playroom floor. Take a look at the track we created online!

    Online Doodle Tracker

    Function

    The magic behind the Doodle-Track Car Set is that the little race car will follow any line that you draw!_ After the race car has been decorated to your satisfaction and given 2 AAA batteries, you’re ready to go. The car can meander around the playmat track or go for a ride on the race track you create online. All you need to do is draw a line with your marker (or with any black marker or crayon) and the Doodle-Track car will follow any twist or turn you put in its path. Feel like taking the car off-roading? Just get a large blank sheet of paper and create any route you want—the car will follow your marker wherever you want to travel! Check out this video to see the car in action:

    (video)
    Fun

    The Doodle-Track Car Set is an incredibly addictive little toy. Kids can get creative decorating the car and designing customized race tracks, and can then enjoy hours of interactive fun getting the car to go anywhere they (and their truly magical marker) decide it should go. We’re not sure how the technology works behind this little vehicle, but it’s pretty amazing to watch.

    We also love that this toy has an online component – kids increasingly want toys to have an online and “real life” presence and making a customized racetrack online is rewarding, engaging, and a whole ton of fun.

    Happy doodling! Talk to you again soon!

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  • Northern Ohio and Michigan Stores

    We operate 3 stores in the area, and hope you’ll stop by and visit us at one of the stores soon! ~Gary and Molly Fitzpatrick

    Maumee, OH

    308 Learning Express Toys of Maumee

    Sylvania, OH

    sylvania

    Ann Arbor, MI

    228 Learning Express Toys of Ann Arbor