The Toy Testers test: Orchard toys ‘Baa Baa’ and ‘Pirate Shapes’

This is a new addition to my blog, from now on, along with my regular blog posts, I’ll be posting video reviews of products with the boys (Logan, who is 4 and Alexander who is 2). They had a great time making this one and Logan in particular is loving his new ‘job’ as a ‘toy tester’. Orchard toys sent me a couple of games, both newly released this year: ‘Baa Baa’ which is a colour matching game for 2 to 4 players aimed at children of 3 and up (though as you can see Alexander managed OK with a bit of help), and ‘Pirate Shapes’ which is for 2-4 players and is aimed at 2 1/2 years and up (I thought the 1/2 was a bit odd but seeing Alexander playing it kind of made sense).

Colour recognition game orchard toys

You can find ‘Baa Baa’ here

‘Baa Baa’ looks set to be a really helpful aid in getting Alexander more accustomed to colours, which up to now he’s been having a little trouble with. It was easy to unpack with only a couple of minor difficulties when getting the sheep pieces out of the backing board. As I said in the video though, the pieces themselves were well glued and the damage was to the backing board: as I popped a few of the pieces out some paper from the backing board came off to, not a major criticism and to be honest it’s the only complaint I could come up with about the production quality. In terms of playability it was easy to get started and both the boys enjoyed using the spinner (though it was a little fiddly for Alexander’s wee hands he managed fine). To play you pop all the sheep pieces in the middle of the table (in our case the floor) and you each take a turn at using the spinner, the spinner will land on a colour and from here it works a little like bingo/lotto: if the colour on the spinner is the same as the one on your board you take a piece and fill the space, there is the possibility of spinning an ‘any colour’ in which case you choose your own, also you can only use one colour per space. The winner is the first to fill their board with sheep. As I said in the video, the game may not appeal to kids that are a lot older than Logan (he’s nearly 5), but to be honest big brothers/sisters of 7/8 years+ won’t mind helping a younger sibling to learn their colours. Overall it’s a great early colour recognition game and I’ll definitely be using it to help Alexander get ahead on his colours.

The next game we tried ‘Pirate shapes’ is aimed at a slightly younger starting audience and Alexander instantly took to it. He’s a big fan of puzzles so it was no surprise that he was excited to pop the shapes in place and it was a great game for helping him understand about turns (always a difficult one with toddlers). The game is well made and the boards have a nice robust feel, despite the fact that they’re full of holes the boards don’t seem to show any weak points, though this is hard to be sure of in a first play I’m fairly certain this game will weather well (I’ll obviously update this description if it doesn’t weather as well as I thought). It’s a 2-4 player game for 2 1/2 years plus and though the half year confused me at first, once we got playing it started to make sense: Alexander is nearly two and a half and he’s just starting to show the fine motor and shape recognition skills you need to play this game. Each player gets a board with cut out shapes missing from each picture and the object of the game is to find the your missing shape. There is a circle, a square, a triangle, a rectangle, a half circle and an oval missing from each picture and the missing pieces are place face down in the centre of the table/floor. If someone else turns over a shape that fits into your picture you need to remember where that is and pick it up when it’s your turn. ‘Pirate Shapes’ is simple and entertaining game which will help your child to develop both memory and shape recognition skills. To be honest it could also double up as a selection of shape puzzles for a wee one to do on their own (Alexander wouldn’t leave his board alone for about 10-20 minutes after we made the video).

Anyway that’s our review of ‘Baa Baa‘ and ‘Pirate Shapes‘ by Orchard Toys, we hope you enjoyed it and stay tuned for more from the ‘Toy Testers’ in the near future. Thanks for reading (and watching), Cheers, John

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Tuesday repost: Big toy little toy

Here’s a wee post I did last summer covering jealousy and fairness, and how kids have often got us truly trumped in terms of their ability to appreciate what they have. Feel free to throw in any opinions you have. Cheers, John :

The summer holidays will soon be upon us, which means a lot of kids pouring into the shop with holiday money burning a hole in their pockets. Some have saved a little bit of pocket money all through the year to add to their holiday budget, others are happy to just go with the flow and get something nice to play with on holiday. The scenario gets strained sometimes when different siblings have different approaches but amazingly this results in far fewer tantrums and meltdowns than you might expect. My sister and I used to be like this: instead of getting a sweet on a Friday afternoon when my dad picked us up from school I’d always ask if I could get the 30-40p (yes there was a time when you could get a decent sweet for 30p) to put in my bank at home. A year of this (plus some stashed Christmas and birthday money) and I was all set for something really good on holiday, maybe something big like a new lego set, maybe just a bundle of really cool stuff.

Christine (my sister) was different, like most kids she spent her pocket money most weeks and so when the holidays came along she’d get a few pounds to spend on something she liked, that could keep her amused in the caravan if the weather took a turn for the worse. I’d have to ask her now to make sure, but I don’t think she minded much, the toys I got weren’t the kind of thing she liked to play with anyway. Though she was probably aware that my purchases were worth more than hers she seemed happy enough with what she had.

Adults don’t seem as good at this, we see someone close to us with more than us and we feel jealous, not only that but we often try and find ways of making ourselves feel better, like assuming that there is some admirable personality trait that we exhibit through having less (we’re less greedy, less ruthless etc. etc.). Why can’t we just enjoy the things that we’ve got?  We earned our money and went to the effort of choosing our possessions (let’s assume we pick them because we like them) so they obviously seemed appealing at the time we purchased them. It’s so peculiar that suddenly that nice new TV in your living room looks outdated and small when you go and visit some friends with a bigger fancier one. Your TV is still the nice one you went to the effort of choosing, chances are you picked it because it suits the place it has in your room and it provides you with entertainment, but this seems to fly out the window when you see that new 50″ flat screen.

It would be easy to think that it’s a sign of the times, that everyone is more materialistic nowadays and that mine and my sister’s attitudes towards each others’ purchases is a thing of the past but this is not so; I see kids every day of the holidays come in and do the same thing. I won’t pretend there isn’t the occasional meltdown of ‘they got more than me!’ but these are surprisingly rare and no more common than they were in the toy shop I worked in more than a decade ago.

Just this morning a young lad and his wee sister came in with holiday money, he bought a big lego set (about £30) and she bought a soft toy (about £6) and neither even batted an eyelid at the other’s purchase. They got what they wanted with what they had and they were happy, fantastic. Again I feel like kids have a lesson to teach us (and as a casual aside I wish Christine all the best with her new gigantic flat screen TV).

(N.B. Image nabbed from http://super-dupertoybox.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/marvel-select-avengers-hulk.html, a blog that my friend Adrian might enjoy a lot:P)

Brand Profile: Gibsons Games (and puzzles)

Gibsons logoNormally Tuesdays are my repost day but I feel a bit guilty for neglecting my blog while I was on holiday last week, so here’s a new wee post about a company that we particularly like here at Fun Junction, and one that is a firm favourite with a number of our regular customers.

Blitz underground shelterGibsons games was founded in 1919 on the back of the sale of Henry Gibson’s ‘The International Card Co.’ (which had already become established as a nationwide supplier of postcards and and playing cards) to the ‘De La Rue company’ (the people that print a significant amount of the UK’s , and other countries’, banknotes). From 1919 Gibsons has endured: they made it  through the blitz despite losing all of their manufacturing equipment when their premises were destroyed, but almost more surprisingly they have managed to endure through the turbulent changes in both the way toys are made and in the way children play.

made in BritainTheir puzzles and a number of their games have remained British-made throughout, despite the allure of cheaper manufacturing overseas (Gibsons is also a distributor for the Austrian games manufacturer ‘Piatnik’ so some of their games, being Piatnik games, are made there). What’s more despite the countless options for multimedia play their puzzles and games are still staple components of both child and adult play. A personal favourite of mine is their game ‘pass the bomb‘; a language game with a difference, in which you pass a ticking bomb from player to player as each of you tries to think of a word which contains specific letters that you get from the cards provided. It sounds simple but the added element of your time running out (and the dread of hearing the ‘explosion’ going off to mark you as ‘out’) really ups the stress and you inevitably find yourself lost for words. This is a great game for teaching kids to spell and building their vocabulary but also a fun one for adults to play when you’ve got a few folk round. (They also make a junior version of this in which you reel off as many items associated with a picture card, e.g. the picture card is a garden, you could say ‘rake’, ‘flowers’, ‘lawn’ etc.)

Nursery PuzzleGibsons’ ‘my world‘ range of games and puzzles for pre-schoolers is well thought out, helping kids to get to know and understand their world with themes like ‘my school day’ and ‘my jobs’. The ‘my world’ range also has a feature that really impresses me in its simplicity and cleverness: each game and puzzle has a ‘letterbox’ lid to encourage kids to ‘post’ their game/puzzle away when they’re done. What a fun way to get kids accustomed to tidying up when they’re finished playing.

Gibsons are also responsible for the ‘Jig Map‘ range of puzzles, these puzzles are a great aid for anyone who wants to help their child get a grip on where they are in the world and to help them to recognise other countries not simply by their location but also by their cultural features; by showing pictures of standard iconic symbols of each culture in the images of the relevant countries. A great one for parents and teachers alike.

Their 500 and 1000 piece puzzles for adults (or more ambitious children) feature designs from carefully selected artists with a diverse range of styles: from the tranquil and intriguing plays of light seen in Thomas Kinkade’s work, to the chaotic and fun ‘I love…’ puzzles by Mike Jupp which have a feel reminiscent of ‘Carry on’ films and which feature loads of little comical scenes within them. Whether you crave leisurely escape or entertaining diversion from your puzzles Gibsons has you covered.

Overall Gibsons is a steady staple at Fun Junction, lots of our customers are regular collectors of their larger puzzles and many of their games have been a steady feature of our games section for as long as I can remember. I’d love to hear about your experiences of Gibsons so feel free to post a comment either here or Fun Junction’s facebook page, if you feel inclined you could even post a picture of your favourite Gibsons game or puzzle over there too (it’s great to have pictures on there of people enjoying the toys they buy in our shops). Once again thanks for reading, Cheers, John

A toy is not a thing, it’s an island of happiness

beloved toysI keep telling myself I’ll get round to writing a post about Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti’s project Toy Stories and eventually I’ll write a full post about it but first I want to consider the notion of what constitutes ‘enough’ toys. Many commentators on Galimberti’s work have looked down on the subjects of the more ‘western’ images (see more images later in this post) as horrible examples of materialism gone mad. I disagree wholeheartedly: whilst I can see the temptation to jump on the bandwagon of bemoaning the attitudes of better off parents in providing an near endless supply of toys, I just can’t seem to bring myself to agreement with this notion because anyone who claims to know how many toys are ‘too many’ is in effect claiming to know how many toys are ‘enough’. Can we put a number on that? Is a child with 10 toys less spoiled than a child with 50? What if the financial value of the 10 toys is quadruple that of the 50? The problem is we’re using an adult’s manner of quantification to assess something that can’t be counted.

gabriele_galimberti_5When a toy works; that is when a child takes it into their heart, it fits into a unique band of objects, it is no longer just a ‘thing’ it is gains a value that cannot be gauged by anyone but the child and becomes special in a way that surpasses the sentimental. I’m possibly too much of an adult now to put this thought into words correctly but for that child that particularly perfect toy becomes a key to a world: sometimes this will be a place of comfort and calm where a child can relax and feel truly at ease, sometimes this will be a world of brilliance where the child’s greatest dreams transform into reality, wherever this toy takes them here you will find its value.

In philosophy a distinction is sometimes made between a ‘token’ and a ‘type’ identity. In the case of a book the type is the book as a series of words which can appear any medium (in this case there could be millions of the ‘same’ book), the token would be the particular book lying in front of you (of which there can only be one). Any philosophers reading this will probably criticise my hurried definition, sorry. If you lose your particular book you may be able to buy a new one which comes from the same ‘type’ but this book will obviously be a different token (it’s not physically exactly the same book). I don’t think the same can be said of some toys and sadly too many adults think it is: e.g. a child loses a favourite soft toy on holiday so you go back to the shop where you got it and buy a new one. Unless your child is really young they will know, they may not kick up a major fuss about it but they’ll recognise the switch. If you change the key it won’t unlock the same door, the child will never return to the same world which they did with their lost toy, sometimes this is unavoidable but it is no less sad because of this.

gabriele_galimberti_13When you look at a child with a room full of toys, compare them with a child who has (as far as you can see) only three (or even one), and make the judgement that the first child has ‘too many’ toys you are claiming the right to decide how many worlds a child is allowed to have access to. Of course a child can be spoiled by being given a load of toys but the spoiling doesn’t come from the toys it comes from the idea that somehow these toys can ‘keep the child busy’, when a parent buys toys as a convenient means of keeping their child quiet the toy isn’t to blame for the spoiled child the ‘Laissez-faire’ parent is. If you help your child to engage with their toys and encourage their imagination to grow they simply get to travel through more worlds. No 0ne says ‘Oh they’re too well-travelled’ and I think the same can be true of toys. If the child engages with those toys properly then that’s not too many that’s just enough. Similarly if a child is content with just three toys this doesn’t make them ‘better’ than the other child it simply means that they have fewer keys to use and some must make them work all the harder.

Galimberti’s images of children with less toys tear at my heart strings not simply because of the obvious poverty: on a deeper level they are missing an element of childhood that our ‘wealthy’ children have the potential for easy access to and yet there is dignity and room for joyfulness for these little people. The ‘poor’ children still have toys, they still appear to have been given the time to access other worlds through these beautiful, fragile little keys. The toys look well loved and in some of Galimberti’s images (where the photographer’s attempt to get the child to keep a straight face, in order to keep the images clear for comparison, failed) the children are showing real love and joy in the presence of something beloved.

gabriele_galimberti_4Of course we should bemoan the avarice of our capitalist society but this doesn’t give us a carte blanche to stomp all over the toys that the wealthier children love. It is not our place to (as some commentators have done) demand that the ‘rich’ kids send some of their toys to the ‘poor’ kids, they are not your toys, you have no right to assume that you can gauge their worth with a system based on the exchange of lumps of metal. They are their toys, if the plight of the ‘poor’ children bothers us it is our job as adults to do something about it, not simply by sending them toys but also by being more aware that kids need someone there to play with them and we cannot gauge by the photos just how much of the most valued resource these children receive: time, time to be children, time to explore and importantly time with an adult who cares for them and helps them to do these things. If this bothers us we should do as much as we can to respect the adults who look after these children and ensure that they have some time in their day to play with their kids, Make sure they aren’t walking for 4 hours for safe drinking water- fund a well, make sure that when they do a days work they get paid fairly- buy fair trade, you know the drill.

On the flip side who knows perhaps some of the  ‘rich’ children may lack the most important ingredient to help their toys really work for them as their parents/carers are caught up in the ‘work/life’ balance, barely finding time to make their kids breakfast as they get themselves ready for work and scraping together a bit of time in the evening, just before bed to sit and spend some one on one time with their child.

gabriele_galimberti_3Galimberti’s pictures are beautiful but let’s not turn them into more than they are, of course there is a difference in the quantity but the quality will not show up in a photograph, finally here is an issue that only kids can get a say in, the value of these toys is not a price tag and it never should be. If you would ask the boy in the top picture to part with one of his little dogs, or his scuffed up wee dinosaur, in exchange for 30 new dogs and dinosaurs you aren’t on the same page as me at all. The value of toys goes beyond price or even sentiment as I personally think Galimberti’s work shows. If you think throwing some toys at the ‘poor’ kids will make their life better you’re missing the point, the picture is bigger than that, they need a better life to enjoy more toys, all kids do and better doesn’t always mean more money.

Thanks again for reading, sorry for the lack of a fresh post last week, I’m having a busy time of it at the moment. Cheers, John

Tuesday repost: Colouring in

Sorry for the lack of a post at the weekend, it was a busy bank holiday weekend in the shop. Hope you all made the most of it. On top of this I’ve started guest blogging over at Parents Space and it took me longer than I thought to get set up. I’ll be back on track at the end of this week. For now here’s a wee post I put together a few months ago about a fun wee activity that often gets overlooked: colouring.

This is something almost all of us must have done as kids, strictly speaking it’s not really a toy but it’s close enough to talk about here. There’s something really special about colouring in, it’s really immersive, even if you’re pretty rubbish at drawing etc. you can have some success with colouring. You get stuck in scribbling away and maybe even adding some shading if you feel particularly artistic.

Adults don’t really colour much, some of us have artistic hobbies like painting and sketching but the old colouring books don’t get much of a look in. This is a bit of a shame because I’m yet to find an adult who doesn’t get totally lost in a colouring book once the opportunity arises, hogging the colours and otherwise neglecting the child they were supposed to be helping. The other week I ‘helped’ Logan to colour in a Ben 10 colouring scene and it was great, I’m officially a massive fan of colouring, it’s one of those activities that you can get completely lost in, allowing you you to get into a kind of ‘zen’ state (as someone more new-age than me might put it).

There’s a resurgence (of sorts) in the popularity of colouring in among girls at the moment, thanks to a range of books which come under the heading ‘Top Model‘ made by expert stationary company ‘Depesche’. The basic theme is clothes design (though some books are dedicated to interior design), the books are filled with mostly blank pages featuring a line drawn model waiting to be outfitted by someone’s imagination. The whole concept is just clever, with sticker accessories and stencils to help those who can’t quite produce the look they want by themselves. If you had told me 4 or 5 years ago that a colouring book would be one of our best sellers I’d have been extremely sceptical but Top model products now trump pretty much any other product as presents for girls of 6/7 years+.

Well the girls are on board with how great colouring can be, but what about the rest of us? A colouring book and some colouring pencils (always my favourite but there’s nothing wrong with using pens, crayons or even paint) is a simple and inexpensive product to pick up and, depending on the images in the book, colouring a page can sometimes take more than an hour (I’m currently hunting down a colouring book we used to stock where you copy great art works). In terms of value colouring books are right up there.

I’ll confess I’m a bit of a quantifying junkie: I like to count up everything and sadly this habit even stretches to entertainment. For example an average sit com is about twenty minutes an episode with roughly twenty episodes to a season, that’s 400 minutes a season, a DVD box set is typically about £15 and unless the show is an instant classic like ‘Friends’ or ‘The Big Bang Theory’ you’ll maybe watch it all the way through two or three times, this gives you a maximum entertainment value of 75p an hour (and that’s being optimistic). Then look at colouring books, a personal favourite of mine at the moment is a ‘Transformers’ colouring pack that we sell in the shop at £1.29, and you get 5 A4 sheets, colouring pencils, a door hanger and a bookmark for that. I could take maybe half an hour to an hour colouring and shading each picture and I’d still have the pencils to use on another book. Maximum entertainment value here would be around 26-50p an hour, and a normal colouring book has a heck of a lot more pictures than five.

So continuing on a number of themes from previous posts, colouring is an activity that adults and children alike can (and should) enjoy, it’s good value and it can offer everyone a chance to change pace a bit and just get lost in something for a wee while.

N.B. the image used at the top of this post came from www.clickncolour.com a site that offers interesting designs for people to colour (their prices are in AU dollars)