Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Memo to Santa: Interactive toys are in this Christmas, passive toys are out.
So says Devin McDonald, co-owner (with his life and business partner, Jenny Stevenson) of Mr. Mopps' in Berkeley, one of the last of the old-fashioned neighborhood toy stores.
"Kids love to fill in the gaps with their own imagination," he says. "Just give them an open-ended toy, and they'll take it from there."
Which means out with toys where you all you do is push a button and watch them do their thing. And in with toys that you can actually play with. For instance:
* Do-it-yourself kits such as Make Your Own Friendship Bracelet and Make Your Own Monster Doll (with extra eyeballs in case you want to give him four eyes, or even six).
* Spy kits, which include ink pad, dusting powder & brush (for detecting fingerprints), magnifying glass, mirror and fingerprint files.
* Educational jigsaw puzzles such as Great Inventors, which spotlights some inventors you know (Edison, Guttenberg, Wozniak and Jobs) and some you've probably never heard of (Ts'ai Lun, who invented paper, Bartolomeo Cristofori, who invented the piano, and Aryabhata, who invented the concept of zero).
A pretty good sign of an interactive toy is that it doesn't need a battery.
But there are exceptions. Moon In My Room is a 3-D lunar landscape that you hang on your bedroom wall, a remote control that lets you put the Moon through all 12 phases, and a CD audio tour of the Moon. Way cool.
Then there's the Anti-Monster Flashlight, "guaranteed to scare away any unwanted monsters that might be hiding in your room, under your bed or behind the curtains. Also effective against ghosts, witches, warlocks, werewolves, zombies and clowns."
Meanwhile, doll houses have been re-invented as wooden play sets, allowing kids to construct an arctic polar glacier (with Eskimos, seal pups, a whale, a walrus and a penguin), King Arthur's castle, or a pirate ship with pirates, cannons, cloth sales, a rum barrel and, of course, a plank!
But the best toys of all are the same ones you loved when you were a kid: finger puppets, building blocks, swings, trampolines, hula-hoops, magnetic dart boards, and board games, including Anti-Monopoly. (Remember, this is Berkeley.)
Mr. Mopps' has been a Mecca for Berkeley children for almost 50 years, most of that time under the ownership of Eugene Yamashita. Several generations of kids grew up and brought their own kids and grandkids to his store.
One of them was Devin, who has been a loyal customer since he was a toddler, when his grandmother took him there and bought him his favorite teddy bear, Mr. Choo-Choo (who, by the way, is still with us, residing on the mantle in Devin and Jenny's living room).
When Yamashita retired a couple of years ago, he turned down several higher offers and sold the place to Devin and Jenny because he felt they were the best ones to continue his tradition.
Old-fashioned toy stores like Mr. Mopps' are rapidly becoming an endangered species. But there are still a few left, including The Magic Leaf at Children's Fairyland, the ToyHouse in Montclair, Five Little Monkeys in Albany, Rockridge Kids in Rockridge, Sweet Dreams in the Elmwood, and Toy Safari in Alameda.
Check them out instead of the giant Internet and chain stores this holiday season.