The brick debate

lego messToday I want to talk about one of the biggest issues that faces any parent. That’s right, we’re not going to talk about learning right from wrong, or the importance of sharing; today we’re going to talk about LEGO block organisation.

Here is the key question: do you sort by block shape and size or do you sort by colour? There seems to be little common ground to be found between these two positions (unless you do both, but that seems a tad excessive for all but the biggest Lego collections). Whenever I ask other parents they seem to polarise and there are clearly two very set camps on this issue. Of those who actually sort their children’s Lego (a lot don’t), you get one side opting for the easiest method for to sort (colour), and the other camp opts for the easiest organisation method for building (by size). I fall into the camp of thinking that blocks should be organised by shape so that when you’re making something, regardless of the colour of the blocks, you’ll at least have exactly the pieces you need to create the model you want.

However, for some, this seems to be a strange position to take. My wife insists that Lego be sorted by colour and even the Lego shop in Glasgow seemed to follow this system, sorting Lego blocks by colour (to an extent). That doesn’t make sense to me, and I’d love to hear anyone’s comments below to explain why organising by colour instead of the shape of the block is a useful strategy. Aside from making it easier for the person putting the Lego away (it is easier to discern colour differences than shape differences I suppose) I can’t see the point.

Maybe I’m missing something here; perhaps it’s easier to organise them and find the right block if you know which colour you looking for. However, when you’re packing about 10 to 20 different LEGO boxes into a drawer (all with very different colour pallets), then for me the easiest way to organise them would be by shape. That way you can follow the Lego instruction books, and even if the blocks are the wrong colour, then at least they’ll be the right shape, and after all isn’t this what you really need to be sure of  ending up with the model you want?

This is a quick wee post today about something that’s been bothering me for a while. This has basically come to a head because I’m about to put together some organisation boxes for my son’s Lego. I’m really hoping to get some feedback here so that I can make sure he has a perfectly organised collection of Lego blocks (well until his wee brother upends the boxes that is 😉 ) and any advice you have would be appreciated.

As always thank you for stopping by, and I welcome any comments you have below, all the best John.

P.S. Just had a look and ‘the brick blogger‘ seems to cover the bases well (and seems to confirm my suspicions)

Oh and if you’d rather have your Lego sort itself, then that seems to be an option too (though you’ll need to have the Lego MINDSTORMS EV3 Discovery Book (robotsqaure has a discount code for you if you follow the link). Here’s a video of the sorter in action:

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A quick tip for cleaning wooden railway pieces

I just uploaded this to my youtube account and thought I should share it here too. I originally found this tip in the comments of another website and it’s proved to be really useful and it has a great finished effect (without having to use chemicals). Hope it helps someone else too:

 

Everything’s more exciting when you whisper

treasure-chest‘Shhh keep really quiet and come and see this!’ Even if you’re just getting your kids to head through and eat their tea, somehow it just gets so much more interesting when you treat it like a big secret.

You can’t do this too often or it loses its magic. You also have to make sure that the ‘secret’ is actually something special or your kids are just going to think you’re nuts (‘shh look, I found a chair!!!’). However, this little trick is a handy thing to keep in your back pocket for times when your kids just aren’t doing what you ask. For example, if you get creative with what dinner looks like then you can sneak them to the dinner table and show them the crazy culinary creation.

Whatever you choose to do you get to take them on an adventure. Everything gets more interesting and it’s never a bad thing to look like a guide in the eyes of your children. A lot of the time as a parent your position of authority takes a ‘bossy’ or even ‘disciplinary’ tone. There are times when this is unavoidable and even necessary but being a guide offers parents a chance to retain authority whilst removing feelings of conflict.

Playing at being a ‘guide’ can offer a welcome break from having to be ‘the boss’, whilst at the same time managing to stay in charge. You definitely shouldn’t over-use it but every now and then it’s nice to not be the bad guy when getting your kids to eat their tea, head to bed, or even do their homework.

Have you ever used something similar to this to get your kids on-board with something that ordinarily causes conflict? How well does it work for you? Do you have other tricks that allow you to stay in control without having to be ‘the boss’? As always, I welcome any comments/suggestions, feel free to comment below and you can catch me over on twitter any time by following this link. Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

Is it good to be bad?

by Zotto1987

Image by Zotto1987

Do you miss something if you always play the ‘hero’? My eldest son is obsessed with superheroes, so much so that it’s basically the only thing he’ll play at the moment. The down side of this is I often have to be a bad guy and a fairly inept one at that, I’m constantly having to back-track on my bad guy antics as I’m informed that the bad guy ‘can’t run that fast’ or that ‘they aren’t that clever’, or ‘that strong’.

Thwarted at every step by a superhero with the power to change the very fabric of reality, my bad guy is doomed to failure, but should he be? Am I missing the opportunity to teach my son some hard lessons in a safe environment? Sometimes the bad guys win, sometimes being ‘bad’ is a matter of interpretation, sometimes the ‘hero’ is simply the one who gets to tell the story. History favours the winners after all.

There are some big life-lessons there, possibly more controversial than the birds and the bees, death, and the difference between real and imaginary all put together. These are realities that even most adults have trouble with. We tell ourselves that karma will catch up with bad people, or that they’ll be judged by a deity but often we’re looking at their behaviour through a lens.

karma-quote-funnyIt’s easy to see good and bad as black and white but I’m not sure it’s either useful, or helpful, for us to think about the world in that way. To be fair a lot of us recognise the grey area between good and bad but even that has its limits, to really get to grips with the way motivation works we have to understand that few people choose to do something that they themselves truly consider to be bad.

Some people get annoyed with police presence, with surveillance cameras, parking attendants and with other features of an organised society. When you hear someone put the police down or say that they ‘hate’ police officers it can be hard to understand, in some ways it’s easy to assume that they have something to hide or that they have villainous motivations. However, these features of society all include a human element behind them and you can see why someone might be mistrustful of this degree of power being offered to a select group of human beings. Sometimes, with as little as the press of a button, a person’s liberty can be compromised and it seems fair to worry about the type of person standing with their finger on that button.

Supermanredson

You can get it over on play.com

DC comics released a fantastic spin on the Superman storyline called ‘Red Son’ in which Superman’s ship lands in soviet Russia rather than in the good ol’ US of A. Instead of a Kansas farm he grows up on a soviet ‘Kolkhoz’ (collective farm) and joins the communist party to become an upholder of communist ideals (whilst being the antithesis of them at the same time). He helps Russia to take over the world, creating a working (if hyper organised and fairly corrupt) communist world society. The last bastion of freedom (yep, you guessed it, the USA) is headed by president Lex Luthor.

Now Lex Luthor’s mistrust of Superman looks well founded, his efforts to take down the man of steel are understandable, reasonable even. No one man (or woman I should add) should have that much power and Lex Luthor knows it. In essence Lex Luthor becomes the good guy simply thanks to a change in our perspective.

Should I use pretend play as a way of demonstrating not just the ‘greyness’ of morality but also the relative nature of how we judge goodness? Perhaps I’m over-philosophising my parenting again but I can’t help but feel that it’s important for my sons to grow up aware of the fact that people’s motivations for action can differ significantly from their own.

Sometimes it may be very difficult to understand why some people do the things they do and we don’t live in a world where those with darker motivations wander around telling people that they are ‘baddies’, ‘villains’ or ‘evil’. They think they’re doing the right thing, or at the very least they don’t think that what they’re doing is ‘that bad’. If my sons learn anything from me I want it to be that good people can do bad things, bad people sometimes do good things and that often neither type know which one they are.

I’ve a feeling that my ‘baddie’ persona is about to get very interesting. As always thanks for reading and feel free to chat with me over on twitter. Are there any pearls of wisdom that you really hope your children can pick up from you? Do you think the black/white perspective on morality is something that should be maintained through childhood? Are kids unable to recognise the subtlety? Let me know what you think in the comments bellow or (if you can fit your comment into 140 characters or less) pop on over to twitter and get the conversation going, Cheers, John

Skully and the story fire

wpid-imag0603_burst002_1.jpgIf you’re looking for a good way to get inside your kids minds then you’d be hard pushed to find something as good as story-telling. Just sit them down and tell them a story (it honestly doesn’t have to be great) then once your turn is over pass the story-telling duties on to your child. It’s amazing to hear some of the things they come out with, whilst listening to just one story develop you can see the beginnings of a witty sense of humor whilst at the same time get an idea of what their worst fears are/might be rooted in.

I don’t do this every night with the boys or anything but it’s good to throw it in on a night where everyone’s kind of been doing their own thing (TV/games/solitary play/housework). You just put a half hour to an hour to one side and use storytelling as a means of touching base and feeling connected and listened to.

wpid-imag0605_burst006_1.jpgThere’s of course the issue of siblings interrupting with their own ideas of what should happen with each others’ stories and this is where I bring in props. Typically we use the ‘story fire’, this is a simple little battery powered fire that Logan got in a Playmobil  caveman set. The great thing about this one is that the fire starts to dim on a timer so you can limit how long each turn takes to save siblings getting bored, plus it puts a fire under your butt to get something good out quick. (You could of course use a large egg timer or something similar to provide the same effect as the ‘story fire’)

Another prop we use is ‘Skully’ (no connection to the X Files), the difference with Skully is that he can talk, so the boys can experiment with voices and make him into a narrator-type-character or simply use him as a participant in their story-telling. Skully has developed into a character who likes to talk about ‘spooky stuff’ (which gives me a wee insight into what makes my boys scared) and he also likes to add comic elements to a story.

I’ll admit that I contributed to this persona but it’s really fun to see the boys experimenting with humour, and especially fun watching them attempt to emulate some of the darker humour that Skully sometimes demonstrates when he’s helping me tell the story.

Have any of you experimented with story telling as a means of getting kids talking and expressing their thoughts/fears/sense of humour? I’ve found the story fire and Skully to be great ways of letting my kids feel heard and giving us all a chance to be creative and have some fun together. Have you come across any other ways to help kids feel heard? As always I welcome any comments you have and don’t forget you can keep up with this blog (or just chat about toys) by popping over to twitter and following me there, thanks for reading, Cheers, John

Toy Awesomeness Part 2: Timelessness and Quality

Brio Two-Way Battery Powered Engine red and yellow wooden railway

For this train (and other brilliant wooden railway items) follow this link

How to make a great toy part 2: Timelessness and Quality

Timelessness is hard to build into a toy, it has a lot more to do with how disconnected from popular culture the toy is and vitally how good it is at what it does. Luckily quality is something you can put into a toy. If your toy isn’t linked to a popular show, character, or (as is becoming more common nowadays) a popular app, then it’s important that the toy speaks for itself by being genuinely good at all things it’s supposed to do. For example, if it’s a toy phone it should ring, speak and perhaps even record voices for playback.

wind-up jumping frog, classic and simple, a great toy

wind-up jumping frog, classic and simple, a great toy

Children are pretty forgiving when a toy has a character they know on it; they’ll often overlook a lack of features or features that are less-than-brilliant, solely because they like the character on the toy. But do you really want your toy to be defined by a sticker or other added image, instead of the toy itself, especially when you consider that character brands often (though not always) come and go in popularity. If your toy doesn’t feature a famous character and you manage to get it working as a simple yet extremely playable manner, then you’re in with a chance of timelessness.

Put simply when you detach from branding and simply strive for a solid, robust and extremely fun product you might miss out on the highs associated with linking to a character but you’ll also avoid the lows. For example, the very fact that your toy doesn’t have a ‘Moshi Monster’ (or something else high in the public consciousness at the time) will make it immune to the fortunes of the Moshi Monster brand.

hama beads lions setPlaymobil motorised crane 5254Perfect examples of this kind of toy are: Wooden Railway systems, Hama beads, Playmobil, Wow toys and Games Workshop sets (Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000).

johnny jungle plane by wow toys   warhammer 40k 40,000, ork boyz

What particular toys do you value for their quality/timelessness? Are there any cynics out there who think that everything goes out of style eventually? Feel free to pop a comment in the box below and share your thoughts. And for more toy awesomeness click here. Cheers, John

For your enjoyment here’s some fun with ascending tracks:

Toy Awesomeness Part 1: Multiple Play Levels

game about human biology for five 5, six 6, seven 7 eight 8, nine 9, ten 10, eleven 11, twelve 12 year olds and upHow to make a great toy part 1: Include Multiple levels of play

A key component in any good toy is finding a way to ensure that adding more people will somehow amp up the play. Sometimes this is as simple as adding a player to change (for example) a game/puzzle from a solitaire challenge into a competition. However there are other important ways in which a toy can gain something special by the addition of extra players.

For example, consider how different even a fairly basic colouring book can become when you add a parent (or another older individual). Suddenly the child gets the chance to learn new artistic skills that they may not have tried before, on top of this they’ve gained a contributor that can add features to the picture that the child may not have been able to accomplish themselves (‘Daddy can you put a dragon in flying over the house’).

If a toy lacks this, it becomes more solitary, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with solitary toys it’s just that the toy designer has missed an opportunity. With little to no extra components being added to the physical toy/game/puzzle etc. a whole new playing experience could potentially be opened up by simply paying attention to who else might join in when the toy is being played with, and designing the toy with this in mind.

Perfect Example:Anatomix‘ (pictured at the top of this post), this is a game about the human body by Green Board Games, which has two levels of challenge; the basic game is aimed at kids aged 5 and up but you can also add in a quiz component aimed at taxing the minds of children aged 12 and up.

What toys/games/puzzles have you come across that hit a new level when you add more players? Are there any other features that you think add something special to the playing experience a child has from a toy? As always comments are more than welcome, ether on here or over on my twitter account. Thanks for stopping by at John The Toy Shop Guy, if you’d like to receive future posts in your e-mail inbox you can enter your details in the ‘subscribe’ box to the right of this post.