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:

With this doll your child would never sleep again

edison dollJust found this post on global toy news.  has successfully dredged up a nightmare of dolls-gone-by into the open: Edison’s phonograph doll. Released in 1890 this doll came with tiny records prepared with spoken passages for your dolly to ‘say’. I have to say I have never heard a creepier rendition of ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’ in my life. What’s more is that this doll (according to Gottlieb) cost the equivalent of what would be $250 (just over £160) today.

This made me wonder about the many, many higher priced toys on the market that end up as cultural oddities in later years. Things like Kota the ride on dinosaur by Playskool, which was pegged as the ‘next big thing’ about three or four years ago but which simply disappeared. If I remember right (and we never stocked it so don’t quote me on this) but as awesome as Kota is I’m sure he was priced at nearly £300 when he first came out in the UK. In terms of functionality and the potential time a child will play with it until it becomes boring, then even at £150 this toy is alarmingly pricey, given that it’s basically a ride-on Furbie.

Perhaps toy buying has changed though; in demographic terms I think you’d be hard-pushed to guess at how much an individual might spend on toys for their kids. Obviously those earning more can afford to spend more but to be honest that’s not what you see.

In many ways it seems to have a lot more to do with the type of childhood the parent had, their aspirations for their own children, and the type of relationship they have with their child. Throw into the mix the cacophony of different child-rearing philosophies regarding how much, or how little, play a child should participate in and it becomes anyone’s guess as to how much a parent will be spending on toys.

I’m not going to try and put ballpark figures down here, nor would I want to point out what different parents spend in the shop (it’s hardly for me to say) but I will point out that working in a toy shop can blow your expectations out of the water when it comes to how you think different people spend their money.

That said I’m amazed that anyone ever bought one of Edison’s dolls. Whether it’s the slightly skewed, vacant stare, or what looks like a pair of fangs (image at the start of this post is Edison’s doll), this doll seems designed to haunt your dreams. The soulless squeal of it’s voice is especially disturbing as it begs for God to watch over it. Enjoy your nightmares:

jack-reusen-cover-front2Oh and if you need cheered up don’t forget to pop along to www.jackreusen.co.uk to find out about Jack and his adventures with his friend Thea (a girl who turns into a polar bear) in a world of magic and mystery (books aimed at children aged from six years to adult).

Getting to know yourself

big movie tom hanks playing with toysPlaying is weird for adults, we do it with children when we have to, some of us enjoy it (I clearly do or you wouldn’t be hearing from me as much) but some adults genuinely feel very uncomfortable with play. However, strip away the shield of a child/children and we all start to look very similar.

I have a confession to make, when it comes to play which is unsupervised by a child, I personally get a bit uncomfortable. I’m not saying I can’t do it, I’m not even saying I can’t have fun with toys, I’m just saying it feels a bit weird. So lets think about this.

I work in a toy shop, I’ve been around toys in this kind of environment from when I was fourteen years old till eighteen then since I was twenty two until now. Obviously I played with toys as a child and I was still making Lego sets at about twelve years old, so apart from four years at university and a couple of years between stopping playing with toys and my first job in a toy shop, I’ve basically been around toys for my entire life. Put another way, toys have played a huge role in my everyday life for pretty much my entire time on this planet and even I feel a bit strange picking up a toy and playing with it when there aren’t any kids around.

I have no alternative frame of reference but I’m guessing that if someone who has had unsupervised access to toys for their entire life can feel a bit peculiar playing in the absence of children then there’s perhaps little hope for other adults out there. The thing is that culturally we see toys as the things of childhood. To play with an actual, bona fide, child’s toy is to use a well-recognised cultural object out of context. Children are the guardians of the toy, to use one, one must typically have a child as one’s guide or one risks feeling ‘silly’.

There are people I know who seem to be exceptions to this rule, the great majority of these are mothers but I do know a few non-mothers among them. These are the kind of people who can pick up a puppet and strike up a conversation with another adult (no kids in sight), or who can hunker down with some toy trains and shout out a big proud ‘woowoo!’ in a shop full of ‘grown-ups’. So why do the rest of us have trouble?

1415469969384_Image_galleryImage_Harry_Enfield_as_one_of_hI’m inclined to think it’s got a lot to do with how we define ourselves, or at least it relates to the character we consider ourselves to be. As a teenager I was happy to live in the fringes, be seen as weird etc. but as an adult (and especially as a parent) I have to admit that I’ve become a bit more…normal (for want of a better word). I want a good life for myself and my family and being too unusual can get in the way of job prospects and friendships with other families, so I play my part as an ordinary guy.

To be honest I’ve played ordinary for a long time now, for so long that the hippy-dippy, weirdo pseudo-communist of my teens is hard for me to relate to. In short I’ve purposely become ordinary because ordinary is easier. Teenage John was was a bit of a mess, he had goals but no drive, and so many interests that he had a hard time keeping track, he slept entire days away and took friendships for granted. The sad fact of the matter is that I’ve produced a self-imposed bubble of ‘normalcy’ around myself to avoid becoming him, and one thing that ‘normal’ adults don’t do is play with toys (unless they’re playing with children).

So back to play and what it can tell us about ourselves, for me play exposes my attitudes regarding normalcy in adults and perhaps this is the real heart of what makes me uncomfortable. I lets me see what I’ve done to myself (for what are admittedly good reasons) to become the man I am today. I love playing with my children, and relish in pretend play when I’m with them but on my own or around solely other adults I doubt you’ll see me playing like that.

I know that play is a beneficial part of any person’s encounters with the world (I’ve discussed this before) and it makes me a little sad to realise that I’m the one responsible for my feeling of discomfort when playing alone. However, simply recognising this isn’t sufficient to let me enjoy toys in the same way I did as a child, or in the same way I do when I’m with my own children.

Thinking about how you feel about play (and toys) can have a profound effect on the way you view yourself. For me I recognise that I’ve gotten a little boring as I’ve ‘grown-up’ and that’s not very easy for a ‘toy shop guy’ to admit, but it also lets me see that who I am has been my choice and there’s no reason that I have to accept any part of my character. Perhaps this is simply a silver lining to a very small issue.

I still love toys when playing with with my children and I think toys and play are absolutely vital components of a healthy childhood (and adulthood). I’ve simply had to admit the peculiar fact that when push comes to shove, as an adult making decisions on how I’d spend my own time, I’m unlikely to choose playing with toys as a top activity. The next step is figuring out why I’ve produced this self-imposed exile from this little corner of the world of imagination and play.

Sorry for the downer today people, feel free to share your own revelations about yourself that you’ve discovered through play. Lets hope there aren’t too many boring old fuddy duddys like me out there. As always thanks for reading, All the best, John

Teach your child to pick up the pieces

LEgo-city-collapseHuman beings fail, this is a fact, and to be honest of all the times in your life that failure happens it perhaps happens most frequently as a child. We call this trial and error, we see it as an important step in acquiring any new skill, but what about the skill of accepting failure, digesting those negative emotions, and starting all over again?

kragle legoRecently I received a comment on my post on kraggling Lego (kraggling = gluing it together), the commenter  pointed out that kraggling may be defensible if it avoids the devastation a child can feel at seeing a play set demolished. Basically their argument was that kraggling can prevent heartache. I get where they are coming from but this comment brought some ideas to the fore that made me realise what it is that I truly love about Lego: it allows for utter, unadulterated, and truly epic, failure or loss. You can spend hours working on a Lego set only to see it crumple in seconds. Sometimes the devastation is wreaked by a sibling and sometimes it comes as the result of a catastrophic accident as you try to place that last piece on and push just a little too hard.

The key thing for a child to realise is that no matter how much blame is thrown around (either at themselves or at a friend/sibling) no amount of words will put that model back together. If they’re lucky the model was made following instructions then all they have to do is follow the steps again and their model will be restored, but if it’s a full on self-made master-builder-style creation then it may be gone forever. What better primer to grief can you expose your child to?

89292-will-ferrell-elf-NO-gif-MQ21Loss is hard, it’s something that can tear a human being apart, we like to think that there is nothing quite like the grief of losing a loved one but perhaps the small losses we experience as children when our creations are destroyed or ruined (for whatever reason) provide us with the early beginnings of the coping mechanisms we use to deal with losses that come in a much larger and more deeply emotional scale.

Another issue that broken Lego sets expose children to is the fact that blame and even punishment can sometimes be entirely futile. When something has been destroyed, no amount of talking, recrimination, or punishment will bring it back. Of course we feel vengeful when something important to us is lost due to the actions of another, it’s a normal, healthy, human reaction to this kind of event. However, it’s important that we develop the ability to distinguish between recrimination and reparation.

Sometimes, as with theft, we can simply receive something of equal value back but with destruction like this the only option is recrimination, there just isn’t a suitable reparation. This is still the case even when a child breaks their own Lego creation (accidentally or otherwise). Life does not have ‘rewind’ or ‘undo’ buttons (much as we’d love it to) and our kids need to be exposed to this, it’s a harsh lesson that can be less harsh if learned early. In the comfort of a loving home (or other learning environment) a child can experience the reality of the impermanence and transience of the human condition with the assurance of strong emotional backup from their parents/carers.

One of the saddest things about this learning stage is that it isn’t recognised by a lot of people as anywhere near as important as it is. When your child first breaks a Lego set (or other toy) right then and there they start to develop coping mechanisms which will shape the way they deal with loss throughout their life. If you want this to be a positive learning experience (since there’s nothing else positive going to come out of a broken toy) then you need to be ready for this and help steer them towards healthier reactions to loss.

This brilliant little guy comes from Andrew Bell's 'The Creatures in My Head'

This brilliant little guy comes from Andrew Bell’sThe Creatures in My Head

My dad used to have a wee catchphrase that annoyed the hell out of me as a kid: “Dinnae sit in a puddle and greet, (translation: don’t sit in a puddle and cry); all you’ll get is a wet bum.” In short, when life knocks us back, we need to get up and deal with it as best we can. Perhaps this isn’t the perspective you yourself take on how we should deal with setbacks and losses but, the thing is, unless you involve yourself in your child’s experiences of these events (and this means exposing them to situations where they’ll encounter this kind of event) you can’t influence the coping mechanism they’re going to develop as a result.

What do you think? Is childhood the wrong stage to expose kids to permanent loss and the transient nature of human experience? Should we shield kids from this kind of experience until they’re more mature, or do these experiences themselves help us to develop towards maturity? As always I welcome any opinions readers may have, feel free to share in the comments section below or strike up a conversation with me over on twitter, All the best, 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

That drum is too loud for kids! The nanny state strikes again

xian-drum_tower-boy_at_big_drumI’m all for looking after children and making sure that their play experience is as safe and worry-free as possible but do we really need regulations that think so little of a parent’s own common sense? As of the thirtieth of September a new testing requirement will come into force for toys sold in the UK, this one is about sound (I found out about this in Robert Hutchins‘ article in Toy News). I’ve worked in toys for a fair portion of my life and I’ve yet to encounter any harm coming to a child as the result of a musical/noise toy, more so I’ve not even had a customer complain about the sound levels of a toy, not once, in over fifteen years, not once. This isn’t to say damage can’t be done just that anecdotally I haven’t come across any. I should also point out that there are already safety regulations regarding acceptable noise levels in toys.

So lets look at the ‘why’ of this change to legislation over toy safety, is there legitimate cause for concern? According to the US environmental protection agency, sounds over 85db (decibels) can cause damage and they recommend ear protection in environments where sound at that level might be encountered. So what noises might count? Well a washing machine apparently runs at 75db falling short of the need for ear protection and normal human speech falls somewhere between 55db and 65db so lets just take this in for a second. The new regulations include a range of toys designed to be used at a fair distance from a child’s ear so apparently we now need to test if these toys can produce sounds louder than a washing machine.

John Crane Washing Machine_A_SS-1I have never encountered a toy that can produce more noise than a washing machine. Even a toy drum (probably the noisiest toy I can think of), though it may be hard to talk over, is not even close to the volume of a washing machine. Even a washing machine is 10db shy of causing problems for your ears, so these ‘dangerous toys’ must be pretty impressive, somehow producing sounds which approach the same volume as heavy city traffic (85db) or a petrol-powered lawn-mower (95db). I have no idea what these new toys (that must have prompted this new addition to toy safety testing) must look like and I’m not sure I want to know.

You can be safe in the knowledge that no-one involved selecting the toys we sell at Fun Junction would ever choose to stock a toy that could rival city traffic or a petrol-powered lawn mower in terms of volume level, whether they passed safety testing or not. If nothing else we’d be stuck listening to them throughout our day (we get previews of all our ‘noisy’ toys all the time, as kids play about and sample the toys on the shelves, it’s part of the job).

Noise exposure (we’re talking things as loud as a nearby airport here) has also been found to produce cognitive impairment and memory problems for children. You can check out this paper from the health protection agency in the UK from 2010, the content on p63 (p73 on the pdf) deals specifically with the effect of noise on learning and memory. So apparently hearing loss isn’t all we have to worry about in relation to load noises around children, the impact of sound on a child’s development isn’t to be taken lightly.

EarphoneThis is something to be careful of and I’m not going to ignore the fact that proximity to your ear will also change the effects of noise exposure, as the US environmental protection agency‘s ‘Sound Thermometer’ shows a walkman (maybe we should just call it an MP3 player now, ‘walkman’ seems a bit out of date) can produce 105db of sound directly into your ear. With this in mind then of course we need to be wary of the kinds of sounds children are exposed to (not just their raw background decibel level) but I’m not sure if further regulation was necessary in the case of toys that don’t utilise headphones/earphones.

Even a few feet away from your ear the sound from small headphone speakers on full blast can start to resemble a whisper (15db-25db) so there is a high level of relativity when it comes to the way sound meets the ear. Holding a toy phone directly to your ear means that in order to be safe the speaker will have to produce a lower volume than you might otherwise find (e.g. on a toy where close proximity to an ear is unlikely). Toy companies which produce close to the ear toys already have to meet regulations regarding proximate decibel level but this new change to safety regulations means that things like toy drums etc. will have to be tested in new ways.

chimp in a suitI’m not advocating that we ignore the potential side-effects of noise on a child’s ears but it’s important to remember that the people buying these toys are responsible adults. I wouldn’t buy a toy phone for my kids that was louder than my own phone and I certainly wouldn’t buy any toy loud enough to drown out our washing machine. One of the duties of a parent is to look out for our child(ren)’s safety, surely we can rely on parental choice and already existing controls on the volume of sounds in toys. The only positive thing I can see coming about as the result of this new regulation is that the regulators will have more to do and there will be more money to be made.

From what I’ve heard normal safety testing can cost between £1000 and £10,000 per toy type (if any significant change is made to a toy, or importantly if regulations change, it will also need to be retested). (N.B. Please let me know if I’ve got these costs wrong). As with anything the cost goes down the more you get, with this in mind smaller companies already have a hard time factoring the cost of testing into their toy whilst still making the retail price reasonable. Further regulation will only hinder these companies more. I’ve lost count of the number of local toy makers we’ve had to turn away because we legally can’t sell an uncertified toy product in a toy shop. The only way these people can sell their (often fantastic) toys is to market them as ‘craft’ or ‘gift’ items and even then things can be tricky for them.

It’s a sad world and it’s getting sadder, I can only hope that this madness will end soon and small companies (and even start-ups) might get a chance to sell their toys as toys. What do you think? Is regulation like this important and unavoidable or do you think people could get by without it (or at least with the regulation relaxed significantly)? As always I welcome any views/perspectives, feel free to comment in the box below or pop over to my twitter page and chat about it over there. Thanks for reading, all the best, John

When parents stop being heroes

The IncrediblesNow don’t freak out, I’m not sitting judging every customer who comes into the shop but I do notice trends in the kinds of things people buy and I can’t help but notice a slow change in the kinds of toys children are asking for. A common theme that still comes up when children are choosing toys is that a lot of them like get toys to do with a parent’s job. The strange thing I’ve noticed (and the topic of this post) is that this trend is waning, from an earlier and earlier age children are less inclined towards the traditional hero-worship of their parents’ jobs.

BamBamFirst off the job thing has probably been done since little Ug junior got a club just like his daddy’s and went through a stone-aged world trying to bop unsuspecting pre-historic creatures on the head. Nowadays there are more subtleties, I’d imagine, in the kind of jobs parents do. For years the definitions and responsibilities of different jobs have been changing, there are new technology-based jobs that never existed before and a growing industry of information processing and content creation which make it harder for parents working in these fields to explain their job to their child. When this happens you either find that the child ends up mimicking a simplified idea of what their parent(s) do for a living or they give up on the whole thing and get into superheroes and other non-ordinary characters (like Barbie and characters from cartoon shows).

This is before you even get into how exciting or boring the parent’s overall job is. I work in a toy shop, exciting right? Well yes, sometimes, the toys are exciting but I’m not sure how exciting they find the shop work so when my kids get tired of playing shops they’ve got a mummy that works in a swimming pool, a grampa who’s a farmer and another grampa who’s a ‘fixer’ (my dad ran a handy-man company then went into fixing up properties). Out of all of these my kids are pretty much sorted for emulating jobs but when families that have more unusual/difficult to explain jobs come into the shop I have to admit you see a lot more super heroes and other fantasy jobs getting looked at.

I can’t help but wonder what this feels like for these parents. These parents probably emulated jobs as kids but now their own jobs are so hard to define that their children just give up on the early-years hero-worship of their parents’ profession and plunge right into the avengers, frozen, spider-man, batman, disney prinesses etc. etc.

the thinkerI had a small taster of how difficult job explanation can be when I was doing research for my MPhil. Back then Logan was only four and he just didn’t get what I was writing about. He often got upset when daddy had to go to the library to write for the day or when I had to head through and teach in Edinburgh. Far from something he wanted to emulate, for the most part I think he kind of resented my work. There were of course times when he would sit at his toy laptop and do his ‘writing’, he clearly wanted to understand what I was spending my time doing, he’d often choose to do his ‘writing’ when I was working at home. I loved it when he did this,  but at the same time his interest would wander and fairly quickly he’d be back to being a zoo-keeper, an animal doctor or a palaeontologist. The thing was, even if he managed to understand the nature of my work, at the end of the day it just wasn’t very exciting.

Perhaps that’s the tricky point so many parents are having to deal with, underneath all the difficult explanation lies a job that is quite simply boring (at least in the eyes of the average pre-schooler). With this in mind perhaps it’s better leaving a hint of mystery around what they do for a living, at least the mystery itself can make the job seem a little more exciting.

Do you have an unusual job, or just one that’s hard to explain to your kids? How have you gone about describing it to them, do they try to emulate it? Feel free to share in the comments area below, chat to me over on twitter or if you’re feeling particularly nice you can subscribe to get e-mailed my new blog posts as and when they come out (box off to the right). As always thanks for reading, Cheers, John