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‘Dr. Toy’ recommends the best of 2001

David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Tuesday December 04, 2001

The holidays are rapidly approaching and Harry Potter toys are disappearing like magic. But all hope is not lost. Stevanne Auerbach, PhD., better known as “Dr. Toy,” can recommend 100 safe, creative and educational alternatives. 

Auerbach, a Berkeley-based, nationally recognized expert on the power of play, posts a comprehensive list of toys in eight categories – from “audio/visual,” to “creative,” to “socially-responsible” – on her web site, 

Several of the toys she is recommending this year are made by local manufacturers. Woodkins, a series of simple, wooden, dress-up dolls are made by Pamela Drake, Inc. of Berkeley. 

“My First Puppets” soft book, produced by Folkmanis of Emeryville, is a “first book” for toddlers, which includes hand puppets for adults and finger puppets for toddlers on its pages – allowing for parent-child play. 

“Imagination Desk,” for 3- to 7- year-olds, is a small desk made by LeapFrog of Emeryville. It is an interactive toy, which, among other things, includes letters of the alphabet and sounds them out when pressed by children. 

Auerbach says this feature is useful because parents and teachers often do not have the time, or patience, to repeatedly sound out every letter of the alphabet for their children. 

This nugget of advice is just one among many that Auerbach has picked up during a lifetime of study, which began with a degree in education and psychology at Queen’s College in New York City in 1960, included a stint at the U.S. Department of Education in the Johnson and Nixon administrations, and continues today at the Institute for Childhood Resources, a Berkeley non–profit founded by Auerbach in 1975 that maintains the Dr. Toy web site and provides workshops on toys and play for local institutions. 

Auerbach, who received her doctorate in child development and child psychology at Union Institute, the graduate division of Antioch College in Ohio, says that play is vital to a young person’s development. 

“The best learning happens when a child is at play,” she said. “When we force a child to sit still and we stuff her with information, she is not learning very much.” 

Auerbach emphasized that children often engage in the most creative, productive play when they make use of simple toys that allow for the broad use of imagination. 

For instance, a child can turn a simple box into a playroom, she said, filling it with homemade furniture and decorations, and forming doors and windows on the walls. Likewise, a can of Play–Doh can turn into bread or cake during housekeeping play. 

Auerbach said that parents should try to integrate toys, and play in general, into a child’s larger education about the world. If a kid forms a loaf of bread with play dough one day, she said, a parent would do well to take the child to the grocery store and teach that youngster about the price and uses of flour and yeast. 

Dorothy Hewes, Professor Emeritus of Child and Family Development at San Diego State said that Auerbach has made important contributions to the study of play, and has provided a valuable public service by highlighting simple educational toys that do not cost too much money. 

“I think parents and children are being horribly exploited by commercialism,” said Hewes. “Dr. Toy is able to cut through that and see the true value of new toys for children.” 

But Auerbach says that toys are not just for children. She urges adults to use play in their own lives. 

“As we get older, we should not forget how important toys are,” she said. Use a jump rope or a hula hoop to relieve stress, she tells adults. “Even hugging a teddy bear when you’re lonely can be helpful,” she said.