Heirloom Toy Gift Guide // Preschool Edition

heirloom toy gift guide for preschoolers

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In an age of mass production and casual consumerism, it’s easy to go overboard with gift-giving at Christmastime. Not only can toy-loaded Christmases wreak havoc on your home’s organizational system, but they can lead to unhealthy consumer habits for children. Moms these days talk a lot about how to combat the influx of cheap-o birthday and holiday gifts, and I’m always interested in hearing everyone’s methods. Some of my friends ask their children to select some of their toys to donate every Christmas, while others simply wait ’till bedtime and thoughtfully decide which of their children’s toys stay and which ones go. I have mixed opinions on both of these methods, and I feel that neither of them help with the psychological habits of wanting new things and discarding old things. It’s becomes a consumeristic reflex that I personally struggle with, from having grown-up in an era of Saturday morning cartoons and all of the commercials that accompanied them. And I desperately want to protect my children from the same fate.

Obviously the best way to combat the mass consumerism of Christmas, and the resulting toy explosion in your home, is to limit gift-giving to begin with. This is actually very difficult when loving family members want to give children lots of toys, telling parents that they should remember kiddos are only little once, and gift-giving should be more about what the children want than what the parents want. But the problem with this is that while coming from a loving perspective, it’s disrespectful to the parenting choices of moms and dads and also implies that children know what’s best for their psychological development, which in my opinion simply isn’t true.

I’ve tip-toed and misstepped through the past five years as I’ve tried to thoughtfully advise family how to give gifts to my children. I don’t want my home filled with junk, I don’t want my children to develop bad habits regarding consumerism, but I also don’t want to be a super-controlling mom or an offensive daughter-in-law. I’ve watched in awe as friends have asked their parents and in-laws to only give each child one gift, ultimately revising that rule when the one gift turned out to be quite lavish. One of these friends perspective was that she and her husband wanted their children to focus on Jesus at Christmas, not on what gifts they’ll receive. They have similar concerns to mine about raising children in a consumeristic society, but they also have more children than I do, so the amount of toys in their home can quickly get out of control. They dealt with disgruntled parents initially, but since over the past couple of years, their family has settled into a new normal of what is expected from gift-giving at Christmastime.

I think the important thing in navigating gift-giving expectations in a family is to openly communicate about your concerns so that the people involved can understand your motives and be on your team. I’m worried that I offended my mother-in-law by suggesting gift ideas for Lucy when she was smaller. I had other family members ask for suggestions, so I made a list on Amazon, and sent it to everyone with a note that said something like, “If you’re unsure of what to get Lucy this year, here are some things I think she would enjoy.” Lucy was two at the time, so she had no concept of making a Christmas list, but the following year when she was three, I sensed that the impression I was giving Phil’s parents was that I was trying to control my children’s toy collection to fit my own personal taste. (Nobody came out and said anything to that effect, it was just an impression I felt.) An element of that is true— I do want to control my children’s toy situation to an extent. But I don’t think it’s wrong to want nice-looking high quality toys for your children in lieu of discount store plastic do-dads.

Making Nice in the Midwest- Mandi's Living ROom

I think about what toys I have kept from my childhood that still send a rush of pleasant memories and a vivid recollection of ways I developed my mind through imaginative play and developed my interest in learning about history and different cultures. These toys from my childhood were Sylvanian Families (now Calico Critters), wooden blocks, paper dolls from historic eras, the light-up tracing board my dad made for me to design costumes for my paper dolls, Prismacolor pencils, and all things American Girl (I was given Felicity and did work for family to earn money to buy Kirsten and Addy). Those are the toys that stand out in my memories, and rather than collecting lots of random things I saw in commercials and at the toy store, I preferred to stick to the toys I loved the best and expand my collection to make playing with them more interesting. I think this was something I learned from my cousins, who had excellent attention spans and great parents guiding their learning and playing. So every birthday and holiday I asked for something to add to a particular collection of toys, whether it was Sylvanians, American Girl clothes, or art supplies. Heck, I even had lots of books on my wish list as a kid! I’m not saying my childhood should be the prototype, and I want my children’s experience to be exactly the same, but there are certainly elements I’ve distinguished as ideal, and it would be foolish of me not to want the same for my children.

All of that being said, we love to give gifts, but we have focused on quality instead of quantity. I’ve stopped giving gift suggestions to family unless they specifically ask me (and they often do), but it can be awkward to suggest items that are pricier than the junk you can find at big box stores. If someone wants to take Lucy to the toy store, I always recommend a local store in North Canton called Toy Kingdom. This store in particular stocks high quality items and difficult to find brands like Playmobil, Plan Toys, Calico Critters, and many more. It’s always a good thing to support local businesses, but I also enjoy shopping online, so I keep a link list handy in case someone wants to shop that way as well.

This year I am making Lucy and Juniper a more child-friendly dollhouse type of toy (I’ll share that project in a week or two!), some well-made vintage Strombecker furniture (in a larger scale than the dollhouse I made, which is currently in storage until Juniper is older) as well as a couple of mini American Girl dolls to introduce them to the world of historic American Girls. The list at the top of this post includes some toys we have given the girls in the past that they love playing with (like the train track, wooden ark, Calico Critters families and convertible, and wooden kitchen toys), but I’ve also included some high-quality items that the girls will be getting this year as well as other things I quite like and am saving as ideas for future Christmases.

Making Nice in the Midwest- Mandi's Living Room

What’s your Christmas gift-giving strategy? Do you ask your family to limit what they give your children, and have you ever asked that family give experiences rather than gifts? We have that in mind for next year, actually!

Mandi Makes a Podcast Playlist

I’ve been a podcast listener since the first time I owned an mp3 player. Stories that draw me in make it easy to forget how many miles I’ve walked (Oh look, the kids are asleep in the stroller!) or how many miles of trim I’ve painted in our new house (Wait, it’s 1AM already?!). So many people have asked me about my renovation playlist, and while I am the avid listener to very specific genres of music, it’s really my favorite podcasts that have gotten me this far in my quest to transform our 1980s house into my dream home.

I wanted to share some of my favorite podcasts with you, as well as specific favorite episodes from each one. Some of these may be a bit cliché (This America Life, what can I say— I love it!), and admittedly I don’t often try new tv shows and radio shows, because I really know what I like and don’t like wasting my time. So if you have any new suggestions, I promise I’ll give them a look!

RadioLab is the perfect podcast for those who enjoy exploring their curiosities, from the human mind to the human immune system, from social constructs to social injustice, from Cuban punk music to the American judiciary system— the way the RadioLab team researches and compiles each episode is thorough and engaging. This podcast perfectly combines entertainment with learning opportunities, and just might be my absolute favorite! It was impossible to narrow down my favorites! So I’ll share my top six. (And I would share more if I wasn’t afraid of overwhelming you.)

Worth / “This episode, we make three earnest, possibly foolhardy, attempts to put a price on the priceless. We figure out the dollar value for an accidental death, another day of life, and the work of bats and bees as we try to keep our careful calculations from falling apart in the face of the realities of life, and love, and loss.”

The Buried Bodies Case / “In 1973, a massive manhunt in New York’s Adirondack Mountains ended when police captured a man named Robert Garrow.  And that’s when this story really gets started. This episode we consider a string of barbaric crimes by a hated man, and the attorney who, when called to defend him, also wound up defending a core principle of our legal s

ystem.  When Frank Armani learned his client’s most gruesome secrets, he made a morally startling decision that stunned the world and goes to the heart of what it means to be a defense attorney – how far should lawyers go to provide the best defense to the worst people?”

Patient Zero / “The greatest mysteries have a shadowy figure at the center—someone who sets things in motion and holds the key to how the story unfolds. In epidemiology, this central character is known as Patient Zero—the case at the heart of an outbreak. This hour, Radiolab hunts for Patient Zeroes from all over the map. We start with the story of perhaps the most iconic Patient Zero of all time: Typhoid Mary. Then, we dive into a molecular detective story to pinpoint the beginning of the AIDS, and we re-imagine the moment the virus that caused the global pandemic sprang to life. After that, we’re left wondering if you can trace the spread of an idea the way you can trace the spread of a disease. In the end, we find ourselves faced with a choice between competing claims about the origin of the high five. And we come to a perfectly sensible, thoroughly disturbing conclusion about the nature of the universe … all by way of the cowboy hat.”

Remembering Oliver Sacks / “When Radiolab was just starting out, Robert asked Dr. Oliver Sacks if he could help us, maybe send us a few story ideas. Over the years he has shared with us stories of chemistry, music, neurology, hallucinations and more, so much more. Because Oliver notices the world and the people around him with scientific rigor, with insight, and most importantly, with deep empathy. ?When he announced a few months ago that he had terminal cancer and wasn’t going to do any more interviews, we asked him if he’d talk with us one last time. He said yes?. So Robert went, as he has done for 30 some years now, to his apartment with a microphone, this time to

 ask him about the forces that have driven him in his work, in his unique relationships with his patients, and in his own life.”

Nazi Summer Camp / “Reporter Karen Duffin and her father were talking one day when, just as an aside, he mentioned the Nazi prisoners of war that worked on his Idaho farm when he was a kid. Karen was shocked … and then immediately obsessed. So she spoke with historians, dug through the National Archives and oral histories, and uncovered the astonishing story of a small town in Alabama overwhelmed by thousands of German prisoners of war.  Along the way, she discovered that a very fundamental question  – one that we are struggling with today  –  was playing out seventy years ago in hundreds of towns across America: When your enemy is at your mercy, how should you treat them? Karen helps Jad and Robert try to figure out why we did what we did then, and why we are doing things so differently now.”

Playing God / “When people are dying and you can only save some, how do you choose? Maybe you save the youngest. Or the sickest. Maybe you even just put all the names in a hat and pick at random. Would your answer change if a sick person was standing right in front of you? In this episode, we follow New York Times reporter Sheri Fink as she searches for the answer. In a warzone, a hurricane, a church basement, and an earthquake, the question remains the same. What happens, what should happen, when humans are forced to play god?”

I feel like this podcast might be the “Parenthood” of podcasts, which makes me slightly hesitant to put it so far at the top of my list of favorites, but hey! I’m not here to be cutting edge, just to be honest about what I enjoy listening to. And while my friends would chat about how they laughed and cried during the most recent amazing “Parenthood” episode (may it rest in peace), I would be over here asking if they had caught the most recent “This American Life” episode. Yep, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and your heart and mind will be a bit more open after each show that Ira Glass hosts.

Tell Me I’m Fat / episode 589 / “The way people talk about being fat is shifting. With one-third of Americans classified as overweight, and another third as obese, and almost none of us losing weight and keeping it off, maybe it’s time to rethink the way we see being fat.”

It Says So Right Here / episode 509 / “Everyone knows you can’t always believe what you read, but sometimes even official documents aren’t a path to the truth. This week we have stories of people whose lives are altered when seemingly boring documents like birth certificates and petitions are used against them. And a family wrestles with a medical record that has a very clear, but complicated diagnosis.”

Prom / episode 186 / “While the seniors danced at Prom Night 2001 in Hoisington, Kansas—a town of about 3,000—a tornado hit the town, destroying about a third of it. When they emerged from the dance, they discovered what had happened, and in the weeks that followed, they tried to explain to themselves why the tornado hit where it did. Plus other stories that happen on Prom Night.”

My Pen Pal / episode 246 / “Stories of very unusual pen pals, including a ten-year-old girl from Michigan who befriends Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.”

You may be seeing a theme, here. I love hearing peoples’ stories, and The Moth is such a fresh way to experience them! Story tellers stand up on stage and have a few minutes to tell their stories to a live audience. Sometimes it’s about a childhood experience, overcoming obstacles in life, or a fun story about adolescent phone calls with an actual rock star. Every podcast is such a fun, refreshing listen!

School Night / A teenager does a newspaper review of an Iggy Pop album and gets a surprising response.

The Pieties of Perspiration / Adam Gopnik battle liberal guilt with his son in a sauna.

I love listening to Fresh Air to get a glimpse into the hearts and minds of my favorite actors, musicians, and writers, but also to find out about interesting stories and people that are completely new to me. Giving people a space to tell their story and ask the questions we all have, or some that we haven’t considered, interviewer Terry Gross recently celebrated 30 years of on-air experience with Fresh Air. Here are some favorite episodes of mine that come to mind, but don’t neglect to scroll through the archives to see what jumps out at you! There’s a lot there to love.

Aziz Ansari– On “Master of None” and How His Parents Feel About Acting

Lynsey Addario– Twice kidnapped, photographer returns to war zone: “It’s What I Do”

Peggy Orenstein– “Girls & Sex” and the Importance of Talking to Young Women About Pleasure

Jeff Guinn– “The Road to Jonestown” Nearly 40 years later, Jonestown offers a lesson in demagoguery

If you’re interested in the human psyche and how it affects our personal lives and our society, or maybe you want to hear about some interesting true stories where differing personalities and ways of thinking dictated the plot, you must give Invisibilia a listen! It’s compelling, engaging, and kind of feels like a happy medium between RadioLab and This American Life.

Reality / “How is it that two neighbors can look out their window at the exact same thing, and see something completely different? This is a question many people in America are asking now. We explore it by visiting a small community in Minnesota, called Eagle’s Nest Township, that has a unique experience with the reality divide: some of the people in the town believe that wild black bears are gentle animals you can feed with your hands, and others think they are dangerous killers. This divide leads to conflict and, ultimately, a tragic death. So, is there a “real” truth about the bear, or is each side constructing its own reality? In part two we look at attempts to escape these self-made constructs. We follow one man’s epic experiment to break out of his reality bubble. And one woman’s epic-in-its-own-way experiment to break out of her species bubble!”

Flip the Script / “In this episode we look at situation where someone flips the script – does the opposite of what their natural instinct is, and in this way transforms a situation. Usually when someone is hostile to us, we are hostile right back. The psychological term is “complementarity.” But then in rare cases someone manages to be warm, and what happens as a result can be surprising. The episode starts with a story about a dinner party in DC, when an attempted robbery was foiled by… a glass of wine and some cheese. Then we travel across the pond, to Denmark, where police officers are attempting to combat the growing problem of Islamic radicalization with… love. And finally, we talk to a man who attempted to flip the script on one of our most basic animal functions: finding a mate.”

Do Listen Twice is a ten episode series created to promote the film Don’t Think Twice. This American Life Host Ira Glass teams up with comedian Mike Birbiglia to present his favorite stories that Birbiglia has told on the podcast over the years. This series had me laughing out loud while staining lumber for hours alone in my dining room.

Okay, so if you were on the internet at all in 2014, you’ve heard about this true-crime podcast. If you never listened to season one of Serial, what are you waiting for? The story explores the details of the murder of teenager Hae Min Lee and attempts to explore the possible innocence of the young man Adnan Syed who was convicted of murdering his ex girlfriend. I never got into season two of Serial, but season one consumed my podcast listening during the fall it was released!

From the creators of Serial comes the podcast series S-Town, which begins as a true-crime story about a possible murder cover up in a small Alabama town, but develops into an interesting look at the life of an eccentric recluse who befriended radio journalist Brian Reed and polarized the people in S*** Town, Alabama.

You Must Remember This is a podcast that explores the lives, scandals, and forgotten history of Hollywood’s golden age. Basically, this podcast was made for me!

I began listening to Snap Judgement last year, and was intrigued by the Halloween episodes. I also loved the recent one about the one-legged wrestler that I caught during a Saturday afternoon trip to the hardware store. It was definitely a parking lot moment. (All of you NPR listeners will appreciate that. Ha!) 

Malcom Gladwell explores history from angles other historians have forgotten or have left hidden through time in this podcast, Revisionist History

A friend recommended I listen to this podcast after we had been talking about myths and legends that we really hope were real. I loved listening in on the meandering conversations about The Mothman on Astonishing Legends, and my imagination is still running wild!

How to Create an Idyllic Childhood Summer

Radio Flyer Giveaway

When I think about my childhood summers, I think about never-ending games of Capture the Flag, sharing swiftly melting popsicles with the neighbors, catching lightning bugs in a jar with holes poked in the lid (did that even help those poor things?), solo bike rides around the neighborhood with no hands on the handlebars, discovering creepy earwigs crawling on my sleeping bag during campouts on the back porch, chlorine-crusted hair that still smelled of campfires in the morning, watching neighborhood pick-up baseball games from the roof of my dad’s Oldsmobile Cutlass. I know my memories are colored with the nostalgia of an idyllic childhood, but I can’t help but mourn the loss of a carefree childhood that perhaps my children will never enjoy.

Gone are the days when parents simply tell their children to “go play outside and be home by dinnertime.” I am old enough to remember hearing all of the neighborhood moms calling their children to come home for dinner. But that will never be me. I feel like if my kids are outdoors, it’s my duty to vigilantly watch their every move, maybe not hovering, but certainly engaging with them and looking out for their safety. It stresses me out to the point where they don’t tend to go outside as much as they probably should. But I worry about child abductors, broken legs, stray balls begging to be caught, and heck, even bee stings.

Did my parents think about those parental concerns as much as I do now? Maybe they did, but perhaps they felt safe enough, knowing their neighbors well enough that they felt comfortable giving us a little more independence each Summer. Either way, I lived for those hot, carefree days, and I often wonder if my children will be able to experience a similar childhood. Lately I’ve thought maybe I should just let go of the pressure to recreate something similar for them. After all, we live in different times.

Radio Flyer Giveaway

Now that Phil and I are using most of our spare moments to renovate our new house, I worry even more that my children are missing out on some kind of idyllic image of what I want their childhood to be. Maybe I’m too worried about personal productivity and my children’s safety, and therefore am missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as a mom. Am I being too hard on myself? It’s not as if I have them plopped in front of the tv while I mindlessly scroll through apps on my phone. But I do try to be aware of how we spend these days of their childhood, as fleeting as they may be.

My own parents worked on home renovations during much of my childhood, and my dad was always building furniture in his garage workshop. (Now you know where I get it from, eh?) But I don’t remember missing out on fun family experiences. Did they purposefully set aside time to put down the hammer and power drill to get out and bond as a family? I’m pretty sure the answer is yes! How else would I have such great memories with my family as a kid?

I know that I’ll never be comfortable just telling my kids to “go outside and play,” unless I can see them easily from where I sit or work, but that doesn’t mean my kids won’t have special memories of Summers as I did. It just requires a little more planning, I think. And hey, I like planning, so I’m pretty confident I’m up to the task!

Recently I made a list of all of those things I mentioned earlier that made my childhood summers feel magical, and I realized I don’t actually need an idyllic Pleasantville-style neighborhood to make any of them happen. They just require making space in our lives, which means knowing when to quit working on house projects so we can spend time with our kids, without phones or other distractions.

Idyllic Childhood Summer

So what does our Idyllic Childhood Summer list look like? It’s not a list to make me feel stressed about completing it or failing as a mom, but it gives us some fun ideas of things to do together as a family, building our relationships with our kids and gifting them with memories that I hope they’ll always cherish. And if we don’t get around to everything this summer, hey! There’s always next year, right?

  1. Help Lucy learn how to ride a bike
  2. Have as many picnic dinners as possible
  3. Go berry picking
  4. Take the kids to the beach
  5. Catch lightning bugs
  6. Enjoy a campfire and make s’mores with friends
  7. Go to the fair and let Lucy go on as many rides as she wants
  8. Make popsicles to share with friends (Did that already!)
  9. Go camping with friends (probably will just be in one of our yards!)
  10. See fireworks
  11. Pool days
  12. Play dates at the park

Idyllic Childhood Summer

Radio Flyer Giveaway

Idyllic Childhood Summer

We recently got Lucy a Radio Flyer balance bike to help her gain confidence riding a bike without needing training wheels. It’s been difficult to motivate her to try something more challenging than a trike, but The Radio Flyer travel agency has given us some fun ideas to motivate her to get outside and learn to ride, engaging her creativity as we imagine fun destinations she can get to from within the comfort of our neighborhood park! But only on her Radio Flyer balance bike. :)

enter to win

When I think of timeless, nostalgic toys, Radio Flyer is the first brand that comes to mind. The classic children’s toy company was started in 1917 by Antonio Pasin, whose dream was to “bring joy to every boy and every girl.” Today Radio Flyer is still admired for their attention to quality and consistency in quality and design. Some things really do never change!

To celebrate their 100 anniversary, Radio Flyer is giving away one toy daily until June 30th. Check out the Stars and Stripes Giveaway and enter to win! The prize changes every day. Share your own family’s Radio Flyer adventures on Instagram and tag them with #radioflyer100 for an extra chance to win.

Idyllic Childhood Summer

Radio Flyer Giveaway

Did you have a red wagon when you were a kid? We used ours to transport supplies for fort building and other neighborhood adventures. Maybe I should add a Radio Flyer wagon to our summertime list, eh? Oh, and be sure to check out Radio Flyer on Facebook and Instagram for an extra dose of nostalgia!

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Radio Flyer. The opinions and text are all mine.