Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle
March 1, 2010
She calls herself “Dr. Toy.” An educator and advocate for toys as tools for learning, Stevanne Auerbach has written 15 books, including “The Toy Chest: A Sourcebook of Toys for Children” (Lyle Stuart, 1986) and “Toys for a Lifetime: Enhancing Childhood Through Play” (Universe, 1999).
Auerbach, 71, grew up in Queens, N.Y., and lives in Berkeley with her husband of 15 years, Ralph Whitten. She has a daughter and 14-year-old grandson in Reno. Auerbach spoke in the Berkeley warehouse where she keeps her vast collection – a dense, piled-high labyrinth of file cabinets and boxes containing books, antique toys, toy-manufacturers’ catalogs and toy-show memorabilia.
I grew up during World War II, and we didn’t have toys. I made dolls out of clothespins. I used my imagination, made a lot of things out of cardboard and paper.
I started out as a teacher in New York City. I always felt that children need more in education than just books. They need varied materials to learn as well. There are multiple ways of learning: Some children learn best with auditory stimuli. Some need tactile. Others need to explore.
Children learn best through the process of play: When they’re engaged by a toy, they’re developing communication skills, eye-hand coordination, understanding and relating with other people. When they play games, they’re learning to share, taking turns and making discoveries.
I started going to the International Toy Fair in New York in 1984. I wrote my first book on toys, and while researching the history of toys at the Smithsonian Institution, I had this idea of creating a hands-on museum where children could play and test new toys and also see exhibitions of historic toys.
We opened the San Francisco International Toy Museum in 1986. We had dolls from every country on exhibit and other rotating collections. It gave me the opportunity to observe children at play and see what children did with toys. After the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, no one came to San Francisco for six months, and sadly, we were forced to close the museum in 1990.
Today I’m a consultant, and through my Web site, drtoy.com, I evaluate toys and give annual awards: the 100 Best Toys, Best Green Toys, Best Classic Toys and Best Vacation Toys, and special features like Bay Area Designers and Good Products Under $10. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have fun. Jump ropes, Hula hoops are all under $10. I’m the only one reviewing products who has a Ph.D. in childhood development. Now I’m looking to create a center for the study of toys and find a new “Dr. Toy” to take over my mission.
I have a set of criteria. The toy has to be well made, safe, durable and well designed. It has to interest children, be fun to use and affordable. I’m much more interested in products that encourage kids to do things and get them involved and engaged – like jump ropes, balls and puppets.
I think we make a mistake thinking, “Oh, toys are just for kids.” We have to expand the audience for play and understand the importance of play. I’ve seen pictures of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the two principals at Google, playing with Lego. There are people who collect dolls, model trains, antique toys. Seniors need to play board games and puzzles to keep their minds active, avoid Alzheimer’s and have fun.
Once you scratch the surface, every person has their favorite toy and memories of playing when they were children. When I speak to a group, I ask them to first close their eyes, go into their imagination and remember back to when they were a child.
I have them draw their toy and describe their experience, and they get so excited. They remember playing with their parent, brother, sister or friend; they recall what happened to them as a child. They still want those toys around, but sadly most have disappeared. It makes you wonder: If they remember so quickly from childhood, decades later, then how important are the toys we give your children today?