What to Play?: Build Your Own Entertainment

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

User Designed & Constructed

It is cold outside. Infrequent snow fall downtown has left little snow for sledding this season or to properly build snow people. What to do outside? During a recent play date I bundled up my children and said, “Outside. We all need some fresh air.” A short walk around the neighborhood would get the bodies moving for a few minutes. It happened again. Just a few minutes of “what to do?” stares and mumbles had them thinking and planning.
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What to Play? T’is the Season of…Silly Walks!

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Silly December Walks

monkeys, dogs, cats, snakes, alligators, hawks, chickens, bunnies, ninjas, marshmallows, horses, giraffes, elephants, sharks, butterflies, otters, ants, spiders, gorillas, bumble bees, lions, octopi, snails, bugs, reindeer, pigs, fairies, dinosaurs, snowmen, penguins.

Another busy month is here with a school vacation that provides hours and hours for free play. Pick three animals. Air, land or water. Now walk, fly or crawl like that animal in the snow, down the grocery isles or while picking up the living room before holiday guests arrive. No talking. No giggling. Not even a whisper. Simple. Easy. December family free-play.  Read the rest of this entry »

What to Play? Make Your Own Toys!

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Getting back to creative basics, and making your own toys!

DIY toys stimulates creative free play. Make this cup & ball with materials you have at home! (Photo credit: Carrie St. John)

While looking for some DIY toys and games for my summer campers to make or design and to inspire play, I found a great book at Gabriel Books in Northampton, MA. John has amazing finds in his $1 box on the sidewalk. I am guessing these are the books he considers duds. Not his best sellers. They take up valuable shelf space. I frequently find good things in that box. I have never had it in me to be a tag sale person or thrift shop hunter but I love to stop and check on old books. This find, Easy-to-Make Old-Fashioned Toys by Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., is dated in style and illustrations. It was published in 1979. I was 8 years old. I am dated, too. Read the rest of this entry »

Holidays & the History of Toys

toy history

While toys are a constant theme throughout childhood, during the holidays the purchasing of toys happen more than any other time of year. Looking forward to the arrival of Santa, many children fantasize about all of the new exciting playthings they might receive as holiday gifts while parents are inundated by internet advertisements, big box sales, e-mail offers, and specially printed catalogs bombard us with lists and lists of things that we could buy for our children.

During the holidays, when we are more aware of the commercial toy industry than ever, that it can be empowering for children to consider the history of toys and the role that they play (and have played) within our society. This theme can be explored on many different levels with children of all ages, and learning about the history of toys can help children to gain perspective on the toys with which that they themselves play. In addition to serving as a lens through which to consider American history and culture, a study of toys can help children to reflect on the role that toys play in their lives – helping them to recognize their preferred activities and unique learning style. Read on…

How to Choose Non-Commercial Toys that Promote Creative Free Play this Holiday Season

TRUCE Action Guides: Toys, Media & Children

TRUCE is a national group of educators deeply concerned about the impact of children’s entertainment and toys on their play and behavior. Their goal is to raise public awareness about the negative effects of violent, sexualized, and stereotyped toys and media on children, families, schools, and society.

It’s Black Friday and many parents have holiday gift buying on their minds.  The discussion of holiday buying looms large in our community, with folks chatting about buying local, buying handmade, and buying non-commercial.

Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE), a Massachusetts based group of educators concerned about how children’s toys and entertainment are affecting the play and behavior of kids, has a few guides available on media and play that will help aid parents in making informed decisions and choices when it comes to toys that promote creative free play:

Toys, Play & Young Children Action Guide

This guide will help parents and educators promote children’s creative and constructive play, and make informed choices about toys, and work with others at home, school, and in the community to support positive play.

In this guide TRUCE highlights that toys have high play value when they…

  • Can be used in many ways.
  • Allow children to be in charge of the play.
  • Appeal to children at more than one age or level of development.
  • Are not linked to video games, computers, TV, or movies.
  • Can be used with other toys for new and more complex play.
  • Will stand the test of time and continue to be part of play as children develop new interests and
  • Promote respectful, non-stereotyped, non-violent interactions among children.
  • Help children develop skills important for further learning and a sense of mastery.
  • Can be used by children to play alone as well as with others. Can be enjoyed by both girls and boys.

TRUCE invites parents to copy and distribute their guides to help spread the word in your community.  Download this guide here:

TRUCE: Toys, Play & Young Children Action Guide (pdf)
TRUCE: Toys, Play & Young Children Action Guide (Spanish pdf)

Infant & Toddler Play, Toys & Media Action Guide

Want to provide your little one with experiences that will enhance healthy play and development? This guide will help you understand why quality play is vital for your child’s growth and what you can do to support it.

In this guide TRUCE warns parents to  “Beware of BRANDING! Children’s media characters are often used by marketers on toys, clothing, and foods to capture young children’s attention. Why is this a problem? Whenever kids see it, they want it because it’s familiar. These kinds of licensing agreements, which support branding efforts, can lead to unwise buying choices, unhealthy eating habits and nagging.”

Download this guide here:

TRUCE: Infant & Toddler Play, Toys & Media Action Guide (Spanish pdf)
TRUCE: Infant & Toddler Play, Toys & Media Action Guide (pdf)

To learn more about TRUCE, visit www.truceteachers.org.


GIVEAWAY: Eco-Friendly, Locally-Made, Free-Play Toys

Local Artist Creates Toys That Encourage Creative Free Play

Enter to win a fantasy birthday celebration kit that includes these non-toxic limited edition free-play toys by local artist/entrepreneur, Janet Street, plus CD's and a kids birthday party performance by local kids musician, Dennis Caraher. Deadline to enter to win: Midnight on Dec 5th, 2011

We were recently approached by Janet Street, a Northampton artist and entrepreneur who has launched an eco-friendly, open play toy initiative, Easy Keepers, that she is campaigning to fund through Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform that showcases creative projects by individuals or groups who are seeking funding… We were intrigued! I shared Janet’s video that outlines and highlights her toys with my 9yo daughter. Her response, “I’d play with those.” – So we invited Janet to tell us more about her project to share with our readers.

Plus, we’re pleased to partner with her in a fabulous promotion to giveaway a very exciting package of toys and music to one very lucky family! Wait until you see the package she has put together! Along with her husband, local musician Dennis Caraher, they are not only offering a limited edition of her new toys, but also music CD’s and a kids birthday party performance! We’ve gushed about it below, but first we want to tell you about both Easy Keepers and Kickstarter, two really cool ideas!


Easy Keepers are eco-friendly bendable horse toys, created by Northampton artist Janet Street. Janet first came up with the idea and sculpted prototypes in the mid 1990’s but shelved the project until a year ago. With online technology like Kickstarter, and the growing demand for non-toxic, locally-made, creative free-play toys, the time just seemed right to pick back up the prototypes and move forward.

NON-TOXIC: Unable to find an eco-friendly USA manufacturer to make these toys, Janet developed her own process and materials for manufacturing. “My hope is that Easy Keepers will catch on and provide a viable alternative to toys manufactured in China, made of toxic, environmentally harmful plastic, mainly PVC,” writes Janet.

NON-COMMERCIAL: Although the materials are an innovative feature of Easy Keepers, the most important feature by far is the play factor. “It’s a toy that needs no media-driven backstory to dictate what to do with it. No electronics or gimmicks. No overstated “educational” component,” she writes. “My belief is that children want to and need to create their own world of play, using their own imaginations. Toys should be a starting point, an inspiration, for self-discovery.”


Kickstarter is a crowdfunding platform that showcases creative projects by individuals or groups who are seeking funding. It brings together a community of people looking for project funding with people interested in supporting creative ventures. It provides a format for participants to communicate their idea with a wide audience. The site provides an alternative to traditional funding sources, with the main qualification being a compelling presentation of the project. Supporters receive incentives or rewards for their donation, if the funding goal is met. If not, no funds are paid out. If the funding goal is met or exceeded, the donations are paid and Kickstarter receives a small percentage.

“Kickstarter funding will allow us to hire skilled artisans to help make the molds, cast and finish the toys,” writes Janet. “Otherwise, making toys by hand, in small quantities will make it difficult to price the toys reasonably. With the help of our community and new Kickstarter friends, we hope to reach our funding goal by December 5th.”

Want to find out more about Janet’s project on Kickstarter? Check it out at HERE.


Here’s the amazing package Janet and her husband, Dennis Caraher, are offering (valued at over $400):

  • Two limited edition Easy Keepers toys
  • Two Carrying Case Barns
  • One Easy Keepers Gift Certificate
  • Two signed Easy Keepers posters, set of four refrigerator magnets, set of four coasters and bookmark
  • Three music CD’s by Dennis Caraher: I Miss the Mud, Dog Bone Town, Bow Wow Baby
  • Dennis Caraher Music: Kid’s Birthday Party Performance

Win this packet and have the most amazing birthday party for your favorite kid, presents included!


Your chance to win Janet’s collection outlined above is as easy as 1-2-3 (4)!

To enter to win simply:

  1. CONSIDER SHARING ON FACEBOOK by selecting the Facebook icon below;
  3. FULL NAME and where you
  4. LIVE (TOWN/STATE), Must include your town to be eligible.
  5. ACCURATE EMAIL IN THE EMAIL FIELD BELOW (we never share your email address with a third party).
  6. We’ll randomly draw a winner and will share the results below.

IT’S THAT SIMPLE! — Deadline is Monday, 12/05/11 by midnight (EST).

Find out more about Janet Street, Easy Keepers and Kickstarter, check out her project HERE.

Q&A: Where Can Toys Be Donated to Be Distributed Directly to Families


"Family Centers will take them and use them in their centers or give them to families," writes Swansea Benham Bleiche, Director of the Northampton Parent Center. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Alison Webster asks, “Does anyone know where I could donate used, very good condition toys and they would go directly to kids/families?”

  • Shoshona King recommends: Amherst Survival Center
  • Jody Hadden recommends: Try your local womens shelter or homeless shelter. I know the Elizabeth Freeman Center (Great Barrington, MA) takes them – also any daycare center usually will.
  • Alisa Blanchard recommends: Or the Redfield House in Pittsfield, MA.
  • Heather Richardson recommends: Contact your local church and see if they can be donated to them for families in need. That’s where mine are going.
  • Swansea Benham Bleiche recommends: Family Centers will take them and use them in their centers or give them to families.
  • Debbie Richards recommends: Northampton Survival Center 413-586-6564
  • Faith Ann recommends: Forbes Library “Giving Tree” in the Children’s Department (Northampton, MA) get distributed to kids in need.
  • Diane Hinze Kanzler recommends: The Greenfield Family Inn at 128 Federal Street accepts donations of used items in good condition. All items go directly to the families living there. 413-774-6382. It’s important to call first.
  • Alison Platek Webster writes: Thank you all for the great suggestions. Hoping to start a tradition with my kids (oldest is 2) of giving both our toys and new toys each holiday.

Heather Richardson asked a similar question this summer.  Check out recommendations the community offered her HERE.

Review: Henri the Blabla Doll

Breaking Gender Stereotypes with Toys

Henri the Blabla doll breaks through toy gender stereotype. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

This spring I became a Great Aunt … twice!  That’s twice the fun of discovering and giving gifts to new mothers that I would have loved to receive when my daughter was little.  Over the next several weeks we will be reviewing several products for families with little ones made by local mamapreneurs from Western Massachusetts.  Our reviews will showcase local toys, clothes and practical products made here in the Hilltowns.

Along with locally made toys, there are companies making great toys outside of the area too. One such company is Maukilo.com, owned by 70-year-old German toy company, HABA.  With a slogan, Buy once. Play forever., Maukilo.com offers many high-quality European and American wooden and PVC-free plastic toys and games. This is one store I might have registered with had it been around when we were expecting!

I discovered Maukilo.com recently when they sent us a sample of their BLABLA baby doll, Henri. What a sweet doll it is. Designed by Florence Wetterwald, Henri is hand-knitted from natural fibers by Peruvian artisans. Being soft and snuggly, little ones will love them, and their heirloom quality will make friends and family feel good about giving them.

What I appreciate most about this doll is that it’s a boy, breaking away from gender stereotypes often found in toys. Learn some tips that are helpful in avoiding gender stereotypes over at Buzzle.com.  And find out more about Henri at www.Maukilo.com.

Teacher’s Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE) 2009-2010 Toy Action Guide

TRUCE Guide to Toys

The 9th Annual Toy Action Guide produced by TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment), a national organization of educators concerned about the impact of media and commercial culture on children, provides a list of toys and trends to avoid as well as toys of value. It is online free at www.truceteachers.org.

TRUCE recommends avoiding toys that bring violence into rescue-related play, link non-nutritious food to play, lure little girls into focusing on teenage behavior, equate money and shopping with fulfillment and fun, use electronics to overstimulate babies, or promote young children’s interest in inappropriate content.

TRUCE recommends toys that promote dramatic play and manipulative play with small play objects, encourage respectful, non-stereotyped, nonviolent interactions among children, allow children to determine play, and help children develop skills important for further learning and a sense of mastery.

Available TRUCE Guides Include:

Lead-Free Toy? Use Your Cell Phone to Text in Your Inquiry

2009 Consumer Guide to Toxic Chemicals in Toys

Third Annual Consumer Guide to Toxic Chemicals in Toys to be Released for 2009 Holiday Shopping Season by HealthyStuff.org

Despite public outrage and new consumer protections to restrict lead and phthalates in children’s products, the Ecology Center’s latest research of popular children’s toys and apparel still found lead, cadmium, mercury, bromine, chlorine (PVC), arsenic, and other harmful substances on store shelves. This year’s findings show that lead – which has been linked to developmental and learning disabilities – is still being found in many products. However, an analysis of three years of test data shows the number of toys with elevated lead has been decreasing steadily.

The new data – formerly available at HealthyToys.org – will now be available at www.HealthyStuff.org on Wednesday, December 2, along with a wide variety of other products to help consumers make better choices when shopping for their families. This year shoppers can make a personalized holiday wish list that can be sent to family and friends, grab a blog-friendly widget off of the homepage, use the HealthyToys mobile application, or quickly search for toy rankings via SMS texting in both English and Spanish.

In addition to toys, the 2009 children’s product testing includes children’s shoes, belts, wallets, handbags and backpacks. Babies and young children are the most vulnerable to toxic chemicals since their brains and bodies are still developing and because they commonly put toys and other products into their mouths.

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Worst Toy of the Year Award

CCFC 2009 TOADY Award

Barbie Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader Doll by Mattel. $79.99

On February 15, the Toy Industry Association will gather to present their TOTY (Toy Of The Year) Awards. But first, in honor of the industry that has led the way in commercializing childhood, CCFC will present its inaugural TOADY (Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young Children) Award for the worst toy of the year. From thousands of toys that promote violence and/or precocious sexuality to children and push branded entertainment at the expense of children’s play, CCFC has selected five exceptional finalists. Who will win the dreaded TOADY? It’s up to you.

Read more about the TOADY Award and cast your vote over at Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Could Handmade Toys Become Illegal?

Cecilia Leibovitz (Founder, CraftsburyKids.com) writes:

Save Handmade Toys From the CPSIA: A Proposal From the handmadetoyalliance.org:

In 2007, large toy manufacturers who outsource their production to China and other developing countries violated the public’s trust. They were selling toys with dangerously high lead content, toys with unsafe small parts, toys with improperly secured and easily swallowed small magnets, and toys made from chemicals that made kids sick. Almost every problem toy in 2007 was made in China.

The United States Congress rightly recognized that the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) lacked the authority and staffing to prevent dangerous toys from being imported into the US. So, they passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) in August, 2008. Among other things, the CPSIA bans lead and phthalates in toys, mandates third-party testing and certification for all toys and requires toy makers to permanently label each toy with a date and batch number.

All of these changes will be fairly easy for large, multinational toy manufacturers to comply with. Large manufacturers who make thousands of units of each toy have very little incremental cost to pay for testing and updating their molds to include batch labels.

For small American, Canadian, and European toymakers, however, the costs of mandatory testing, to the tune of up to $4,000 per toy, will likely drive them out of business. And the handful of larger toy makers who still employ workers in the United States face increased costs to comply with the CPSIA, even though American-made toys had nothing to do with the toy safety problems of 2007. Toy makers won’t be the only ones impacted by the CPSIA, the thousands of US businesses who offer clothing, jewelry and other gifts for children –in essence– the entire children’s industry will be as well.

The CPSIA simply forgot to exclude the class of toys that have earned and kept the public’s trust. The result, unless the law is modified, is that handmade toys will no longer be legal in the US.

Thriving small businesses are crucial to the financial health of our nation. Let’s amend the CPSIA so that all businesses large and small are able to comply and survive!


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December Updates from CCFC

December Updates from Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood

Click here to visit CCFC

Click here to visit CCFC

Montgomery County Pulls the Plug on BusRadio

Last Thursday, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) terminated their relationship with BusRadio, the controversial company created to force children to listen to commercialized radio broadcasts on school buses around the country. Their decision came a day after CCFC sent a letter urging MCPS to end the use of BusRadio on their school buses. Montgomery County had been using BusRadio on a trial basis. With 96,000 school bus riders, Montgomery County would have been BusRadio’s largest school district.

The events in Montgomery County are the latest indication that when parents learn the truth about BusRadio they want no part of it for their children. We are particularly gratified that local parent activists relied on resources from CCFC and Obligation, Inc in their advocacy efforts against BusRadio.

Commercial-Free Holiday Guide

Check out CCFC’s Commercial-Free Holiday Guide. Download a free copy here. Peter Rothberg from The Nation says,”CCFC’s practical tips for reducing commercialism in family celebrations this holiday season are particularly welcome.”

Help Save Small, Independent Toymakers

In August, in response to the influx of imported toys containing materials hazardous to children, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which mandates testing for all toys sold in the U.S. The intent was laudable, but only large scale manufacturers and retailers will be able to afford the substantial testing fees, which effectively closes the market to all but those able to mass produce toys. As a result, small independent toymakers – the same toymakers that almost never market their products directly to children – may have to go out of business. To urge Congress to protect both children and your favorite independent toymaker, please visit www.handmadetoyalliance.org.

Study: Fast Food Ad Ban Would Reduce Childhood Obesity

A new study conducted for the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that a ban on fast-food advertising to children could significantly reduce childhood obesity. Researchers measured the number of hours of fast-food television advertising messages viewed by children each week and found that a ban during children’s programming would reduce the number of overweight children aged 3-11 by 18 percent, and lower the number of overweight adolescents aged 12-18 by 14 percent. Sounds like a good idea to us.

More information on this study is available at HERE.

Sustainable Holidays: Green Ideas, Lesson Plan, Safe Toys, and More.


eartheasy.comEartheasy: Sustainable Living‘s December Newsletter is full of ideas for a eco-friendly holiday season with the family, including the following:

Christmas Bird Count
Join over 50,000 people across North America in this annual tradition to take a ‘citizen census’ of migrating birds. Or you can create your own count as a way of getting outdoors and learning more about your local wildlife.

How to have a ‘green’ Christmas
Christmas does not have to be a burden on the environment. With a little effort and imagination, we can reduce the environmental impact of the holiday season.

Tips for sustainable giving
Gift-giving does not always have to come at a cost to the environment. Some of the most memorable and personal gifts cannot be found at the mall. Here are some ideas for low-impact giving.

All I want for Christmas are some lead free toys
It’s not just imported toys that carry harmful chemicals, but brand-name, U.S.-manufactured ones too. One organization is helping shoppers identify non-toxic toys.

Free energy lesson plans & activities
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy offers 350 downloadable lessons and activities on energy efficiency and renewable energy, organized by grade level and topic.

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HFVS Toys in the Attic Episode (Radio Show/Podcast)

Listen to Podcast:


Hilltown Family Variety Show
WXOJ LP – 103.3 FM
Northampton, MA
July 17th, 2007 @ 7pm

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  • Steve Weeks – “Hilltown Family Variety Show”
  • Scribble Monster & His Pals – “Pick Up The Toys” [Best of Friends]
  • Owen Duggan – “The Marvelous Toy” [An Elephant Never Forgets]
  • David Weinstone – “I Like Your Toys” [Runaround Kid]
  • Bill Harley – “Barbie’s Head is Missing” [I Wanna Play]
  • Green Chili Jam Band – “Yo Yo Rodeo” [Coconut Moon]
  • The Chiselers – “Playmate” [Rudy’s Rockin Kiddie Caravan]
  • Tim Knuth – “Little Red Wagon” [Wiggleworms Love You]
  • Woody Guthrie – “My Yellow Crayon” [Nursery Days]
  • Nancy Tucker – “Escape of the Slinkys” [Escape of the Slinkys]
  • AudraRox – “All My Toys Are Broken” [I Can Do It By Myself!]


I took my daughter to a Retro Party at the Berkshire Museum last week for their exhibit, Kids Stuff: Great Toys from Our Childhood. The exhibit was a walk down memory lane. All the old toys I remember from being a kid were on display. Visitors had the chance to look through View Finders, get their fortunes told by Crazy Eight Balls, make Slinkys walk down the stairs, do a cats cradle with Yo-yos, toss about Nerf Balls, dress dolls with Colorforms, race Hot Wheels or entangle themselves in a game of Twister. The exhibit is up until September 3rd. It’s worth the effort to take the kids and go. Parents will get a kick out of their old toys being displayed in a museum, and kids will have fun playing with the exhibits.

(c) Hilltown FamiliesAside from the games and toys, the thing I found very interesting was the Retro Food Fare being served, including Twinkies and Ho Hos. The nutritionist in me noted the mounds of artificial confections when we arrived and thought them more as a display from crimes of the culinary culture of the past. Following the party I was dismayed that people had actually eaten them! These were Hostess Twinkies … not fresh baked short cake stuffed with a banana creme filling, as they had originated as. No. These were the kind stuffed with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and/or beef fat. People were gobbling them up. I overheard one guest talking about eating deep fried Twinkies. What? Deep fried Twinkies aren’t an urban legend? I had heard of fried Oreo’s (they were selling them at the Clearwater Music Festival), but this was the first time I had heard of someone actually frying a Twinkie! I later read that over 25,000 deep-fried Twinkies were sold at a county fair in New York. That’s one heck of a load of crispy Twinkies!


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