RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Chocolate and toys are the ingredients for today's personal health news. December 25th is a time in many homes where the kids open all their gifts, and by mid-morning, many of the new toys lie broken or ignored. Well, if you want your children's play to last longer and mean something, there are things you can do differently. NPR's Allison Aubrey found out what to do from the people who know kids best.
ALLISON AUBREY reporting:
When 25,000 early childhood educators got together at the Washington Convention Center, there were no Game Boys or talking electronics in sight. The loudest ruckus in the exhibition hall came from tables of preschool teachers who were playing with wooden blocks.
(Soundbite of convention attendees)
Unidentified Woman #1: OK. You think it's going to go all the way around?
Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, absolutely.
Unidentified Woman #1: All right. Ready?
Unidentified Woman #2: Ready?
Unidentified Woman #1: Are you ready? Here goes. Ready?
(Soundbite of blocks falling)
AUBREY: This table turned their blocks into dominoes. Another group built a castle.
(Soundbite of laughter and cheers)
Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah, way to go. OK, this is cooperating...
AUBREY: Blocks have a lot of play power because they're open-ended. Educator Walter Drew says blocks can be transformed into anything.
Mr. WALTER DREW (Educator): So you apply your imagination to it, and it stimulates our brains to think creatively.
Ms. RHONDA MEYERS(ph) (Educator): We know that when you allow children to play in an open-ended atmosphere with not a lot of limited time that their play becomes more complex.
AUBREY: In a classroom setting, teachers think of themselves as scaffolders, helping children build their ideas.
Ms. MEYERS: In other words, the children experience a problem, and you're engaged in play with them. `Well, what do you think we might do? If it hadn't gone all the way around the table, what could we do to change that?' And then you maybe gently guide them to that next idea.
AUBREY: Educator Rhonda Meyers says parents can do the same thing at home. Whether it's with blocks, Tinker Toys, LEGOs, these open-ended toys empower kids to create something different every time they play. The key to holiday gifts, say educators, is to strike a balance between open-ended toys and the heavily advertised high-tech electronics that so many kids ask for.
Ms. MEYERS: Children can be engaged and interested in anything that marketing tells them is great and exciting because we know that's what marketers do. They learn what draws children.
AUBREY: The parents' job is to be just as smart. Only a handful of toys end up on retailers' hot lists, but child development expert Stevanne Auerbach, who calls herself `Dr. Toy,' says there are lots more to choose from.
Ms. STEVANNE AUERBACH (Child Development Expert): I'm looking for diversity in products.
AUBREY: Each year, Auerbach evaluates some of the newest toys and ranks them in terms of affordability, educational value and creativity. She says parents can do the same by asking the right set of questions.
Dr. AUERBACH: Is the toy safe? Is it fun? Is it appropriate for my child? Is it well-designed? Is it durable?
AUBREY: When the answers are hard to come by, when you're trying to figure out whether the latest Xbox game is too violent, there are Web-based resources. The Children's Technology Review, for instance, evaluates interactive media products.
Once the gifts are bought, educator Elaine Page(ph) of Seymour, Connecticut, says parents should carve out chunks of unstructured time to interact with their kids.
Ms. ELAINE PAGE (Educator): The key word is to play with your children. Don't watch them play, join them.
AUBREY: Child development expert Norma Kwan-Ong(ph) says if parents are too rushed and stressed during the holidays, kids will take note.
Ms. NORMA KWAN-ONG (Child Development Expert): Children can read us very well, and they've been learning to read us before they could speak. And they see what matters to us. So I think the look in our face, the feeling that we pass on with our body, is so strong.
AUBREY: So slow down, says Kwan-Ong, and give your kids the gift of time.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.
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