Let’s face it: A set of wooden blocks just doesn’t have the wow factor that a flashing, singing electronic whatzit has.
And that’s pretty much what the mainstream toy industry is counting on. Major toy manufacturers pour their advertising dollars into promoting trendy, electronic toys, notes Gary Green, owner of The Toy Box in Asheville.
“That kind of puts the traditional toys out of favor,” he explains.
But low-tech and classic toys have a lot more going for them than may meet an adult’s jaded eye.
In her handbook on how to choose good toys, Stevanne Auerbach (aka “Dr. Toy”) suggests evaluating a toy for its active, creative and educational features. Blocks—along with other low-tech favorites like balls, dollhouses, puppets, puzzles and board games—all fit the bill, she writes in Dr. Toy’s Smart Play/Smart Toys (Educational Insights, 2004). And no less of an authority than the American Academy of Pediatrics recently advised its doctors to “emphasize the benefits of ‘true toys’ such as blocks and dolls” that require children to use their imaginations.
On that front, Asheville mom Elaine Sargent says she’s found that her 12-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter exercise more creativity with “open-ended” toys, the kind that can be used in a variety of ways. At her house, a dark-blue scarf could be a cape—or an ocean.
But back to that trusty set of blocks: Green notes that they teach math basics, problem-solving skills and that most elusive of qualities in children (and many adults)—patience.
“Those kinds of things are what you need to succeed in school and the world,” Green offers.
The Toyland Express
Here’s a by-no-means-exhaustive look at some local independent outlets where you can find a low-tech toy to love.
• Asheville NC Homecrafts offers huggable dolls handmade in Western North Carolina. Of special note: old-fashioned “story dolls” that are two (and sometimes three) dolls in one—turn Goldilocks upside down and voila!, the three bears. (1 Page Ave. in the Grove Arcade, Asheville, 350-7556.)
• Dancing Bear Toys is a family-owned treasure trove brimming with mostly low-tech, educational toys. A colorful wooden pull-along zoo? Check. Wild West playset? Ditto. Plus wooden dollhouses, games, craft projects, LEGOs, Playmobil sets and more. (144 Tunnel Road, Asheville, 255-8697; 418 N. Main St., Hendersonville, 693-4500.)
• A consignment shop, Children’s Trading Post is a hit-or-miss proposition for low-tech toys. But I’ve found a perfectly good shape-sorter and a wooden stacking train there, both for the right price. (633 Merrimon Ave., Asheville, 254-5432; Airport Center shopping complex in Arden, 684-5438).
• Enviro Depot, World’s Coolest Toys boasts shelves and shelves of toys ranging from a clacking wooden alligator push toy (which recently got an in-store workout from a pint-sized customer) to plush puppets and a reissue of Fisher-Price’s rotary Chatter Telephone. Two wooden cars and a cool gym ball festooned with jungle animals followed me home. (58 College St., Asheville, 252-9007.)
• Heaven Rains Boys & Girls specializes in high-end children’s clothing, but there’s also a small collection of wooden toys—plus touchable wool playthings, including a colorful fish and a fringed ball perfect for little hands. (1 Page Ave. in the Grove Arcade, Asheville, 252-1484.)
• The Littlest Birds is slated to carry organic plush toys, books, wooden toys and anatomically correct dolls, all for kids up to age 6—plus cloth diapers, carriers and organic clothes for babies and toddlers, reports co-owner Sonja Hernandez. She and business partner Allison Walker plan to open March 24. (647 Haywood Road in West Asheville, 253-4747.)
• Mast General Store in Asheville devotes a corner to old-fashioned games and gadgets: dress-up hats, Curious George gear, paddle balls, spinning tops and more. (15 Biltmore Ave., Asheville, 232-1883; 527 N. Main St., Hendersonville, 696-1883; 63 N. Main St., Waynesville, 452-2101.)
• Monkey Business Toy Shop in downtown Burnsville is filled with kites, board games, craft projects, Radio Flyer wagons, Tinkertoys, jacks, Mr. Potato Heads, wooden puzzles, Etch A Sketches and more, says co-owner Dennis Matelski. (12 W. Main St., Burnsville, (828) 682-9101.)
• Single mom Becca Lane started her Asheville home-based business, Nature Baby, when her daughter, Ruby, was born. Almost two years later, she’s branched out from baby carriers and natural-care products to wooden blocks, rattles, clutching toys and even a wooden kitchen set made by a family in Maine. (By appointment: 350-3603 or email@example.com.)
• O.P. Taylor’s fills two stories on Brevard’s main drag with a dizzying collection of low-tech toys and gizmos—including balsa-wood airplanes, Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys and erector sets. “It’s crazy, man —it’s like going in your grandmother’s attic,” declares owner John Taylor. (2 South Broad Street, Brevard, (800) 500-TOYS.)
• At The Toy Box, kids can try out a wooden train set, a bouncy horse and other hands-on gear. Blocks and wooden toys abound, along with games, books, puzzles, cars, wooden dollhouses and more. My 19-month-old son’s personal favorite: a set of rainbow-hued HABA wooden stacking discs. (793 Merrimon Ave., Asheville, 254-8697.)
[Tracy Rose is an Asheville-based freelance writer and editor.]