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Introducing Dr. Toy: An Interview With Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D

by Leslie Harlib, Senior Editor

Storkzine Guest Gallery, StorkSite

August 11, 1997

Pick up a toy, just about any toy, and look at it. Form an opinion about it. Then, if you want to know more, contact Dr. Toy.Dr. Toy, a.k.a. Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D., is a remarkable woman--mother,grandmother, writer, expert on child development, psychology and education, andone of America's leading authorities on children's toys.

As a teacher, she has worked with children of all ages. She worked with the Federal Government and was instrumental in approving the first grant for Sesame Street through the U.S. Department of Education. She also established the first daycare center for the employees of the Department of Education in Washington, DC., in 1969-1971, and was a key force behind the first comprehensive childcare bill that was introduced by senators Walter Mondale and John Brademas in 1970. (The bill passed in Congress in an unusual accord between Republicans and Democrats, but was ultimately vetoed by then-President Richard Nixon.)

A Bay Area resident since the early 1970's, Stevanne Auerbach also created San Francisco's first--and only--toy museum, which flourished from 1986 to 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake shut it down. Throughout her varied, child-oriented career, Auerbach maintained an underlying passion for toys that eventually resulted in her professional persona of "Dr.Toy."

"Toys are so much more valuable to understanding children than most people are aware of," she told me in a telephone interview. "How children react with toys tells you a great deal about their inner psychological development, their emotional levels, their learning skills."

"What I do," she continued, "is analyze children's toys, for babies on up to older children. I look at what's available from large and small companies, and explore them from three points of view: First, safety. Children need to know they will be safe. Is the product safe? Second, children need interesting things to do and play with. They need to explore new opportunities and be challenged. Will this toy provide them with these opportunities? Third, children need balance and variety intheir play. Parents can provide an assortment of carefully selected toys, books,software, tapes, puzzles, crafts, physical equipment and other items that help them learn while experiencing new-found interests."

According to Dr. Toy, the right products and activities will help children discover new talents and innate abilities without feeling pressured. That means toys need to be age appropriate--not just for the chronological age, but for the developmental age as well. And the item must have a certain level of integrity that will hold a kid's interest for more than the 20 minutes it takes to get the thing out of the package.

From this perspective, Auerbach is a great fan of what she calls 'classic' toys: "Anything over 10 years old, that continues to be loved, and which endures. It has to have that lasting quality. Hula Hoops, Marbles, Yo Yos, Jacks and Balls,Etch-a-Sketch, Slinky; those have been the kind of products that everyone played with they were children. Fortunately, those products are still around so today's parents can experience them with their children."

Though she's published a number of books, including a ground-breaking volume called "Choosing Child Care---A Guide to Parents on Child Care," (published in 1973, it was the first book to address this subject), Dr.Toy is best known these days for her "100 Best Children's Products" reviews, which she publishes in a nationally syndicated King Features newspaper column and on her web site: drtoy.com.

Access one of these lists, and you find the company name, the name of the recommended product, its age-appropriateness, how much it costs, and, best of all, the phone number of the company that makes it. (To find out more information about the item and/or order it directly.) Auerbach also updates these lists seasonally, so parents can get a real sense of what an expert values in the vast array of new children's playthings constantly flooding the market.

So concerned is Dr. Toy about the safety and appropriateness of toys that she has even published--and posted on her Web site-- "How to Choose the Right Toys." Here's the 12-step process she suggests you go through when picking playthings for your child(ren): 

  1. Is the toy fun?
  2. Is the toy appropriate for the child now? To know what sort of toy the child prefers, observe the child at play, or ask other individuals that your child is around (grandparents, child-care or nursery school teacher, or baby sitter).
  3. Will the toy frustrate or challenge the child?
  4. Is the toy well-designed? Does it have any potential hazards?
  5. Is there more than one use for the toy?
  6. Will the toy endure? Does it have lasting play value?
  7. Is the toy appealing?
  8. Does the toy offer an opportunity to learn or stimulate thought? By using appropriate toys, children learn hand-eye coordination, develop attitudes about themselves, their playmates, their environment, and much more.
  9. Will the toy help the child expand his or her creativity?
  10. Does the toy match the package and the package match the toy?
  11. Can I afford this toy?
  12. Can the toy be cleaned? If it can, its longevity is increased.

Auerbach believes that parents must take a more active role in consciously choosing the toys their children play with--because the toys themselves can have such a profound impact on the children.

"Toys always reflect society. For example, in sexual discrimination issues, we can look at some dolls that are not realistic--and certainly not typical--and be glad there are companies coming out with alternatives. With boys, I see a lot of violence in games offered for the computer, which is of great concern to me. Seems to be an over-stimulation of their hormones, and their behavior tends to become more aggressive. When they watch TV, they act out those programs, too. We all need to be concerned about what we give our kids to play with--or look at."

As Dr. Toy puts, "Children are very involved in their play. It's very real to them. We need to be respectful, appreciate it, not criticize them, or take them away abruptly from what they are doing. We need to talk to them if they are willing to share, and read books that reinforce some of the play. It's important to play with them, not just as an observer, but as a participant as well."

"The parent is the child's first big toy and also the child's primary teacher. Parents who are aware understand the importance of play and how children learn through play, so they will always be interested in good products that will help their child gain skills."

Currently, Auerbach has completed her latest book, to be published by St. Martin's Press early in 1998. It joins a roster of her other books, including an intriguing volume called which includes the history of toys in America and is available for $15 through Dr.Toy's non-profit organization, The Institute for Childhood Resources. (If you send her your name along with your cheque, Dr.Toy will autograph your copy for you.)

, or write to her the 'classic' way: Dr. Toy, Institute for Childhood Resources, 268 Bush Street, San Francisco, CA 94104-3524.

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