Talking with Toy Expert Shannon Eis

Eliza Clark
January 10, 2013

The holiday season has passed, but the season for play and for toys has definitely not. For preschoolers, play is a year-round business. And if play is the work of childhood, then it's the parents' job to give our kids the right tools for their play as they grow and change.

Recently, we spoke with Shannon Eis, noted toy expert, about keeping a young child's toy box up-to-date. Shannon has shared her expertise on play and parenting issues through regular broadcast appearances, including her more than six years working with the Late Show with David Letterman. She has also contributed to CBS Early Show, Martha Stewart, The Today Show, ABC News NOW, 20/20, CNN, E! News, MomTV and many local and regional programs. She has been quoted as a parenting expert in top-tier outlets including USA Today, Associated Press, TIME, New York Times, Washington Post, Parenting Magazine, Reuters and more. Additionally, she's an editorial contributor to CafeMom, iVillage, Time To Play, Yahoo! Shine and others.  Shannon lives in New York City with her family, and is the mother of a three-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl.

Shannon shared her advice on selecting new toys for young children, with great tips on the latest "hot new toys" as well as tried and true classics.  She also has smart advice on paring down the toy box, and on getting kids of different ages to play together.

Savvy: What kind of advice do you give parents who want to get their children new toys for a birthday, holiday or other special occasion?

Shannon Eis: I always say, balance the toy box. Most important is that, especially at the preschool age, you are giving them different types of play experience.  So whether it's big puzzles, tactile play, manipulatives that can really develop the fine motor skills, to something going toward the educational space that's about learning fundamentals, core skills, the fundamentals of reading delivered in a fun way, to some pretend play.  Especially for girls, pretend play is very important, costume play, creative play and craft kits, everything that lets them express themselves through pretend role playing.  So it's really about the types of play, not to give them all the same type of play.  That's what I always recommend.

Savvy: Moving into the toys that are popular these days, it seems like when you look at the lists of "hot new toys," there is always going to be something digital at the top of the list.  Do you advise digital toys for preschool age kids, and if so, what exactly would be appropriate?

Shannon:  You know, it is important to expose them to some of that because, quite frankly, my daughter is in first grade right now and she has computer lab two days a week, and I hadn't even put her on the computer or the internet at home.  I was trying preserve her youth and innocence, but she sees me on it all day and she wants to model that behavior.  Now, at school, she's learning more about computers than I've taught her, so it's interesting that the digital piece is very much a part of their childhood. 

So, finding age-appropriate digital experiences for them is what's right.  Every child should not have a $600 iPad.  But there are different digital experiences, for instance something like the Leapster Explorer which is an educational gaming device from Leapfrog.  It's for preschoolers, children age 4 to 8 primarily, and you buy the software content based on your child's skills and what your child likes, such as Toy Story 3 or Disney princesses or if they're into Dora or whatever their character fascination is, with a curriculum that's appropriate for them.  I like that type or product because it gives you four years of play, so you are making a little bit of an investment but the software gives it a longer life and repeat play value, as we say.  It's really important that if you're going to spend that much on a product ($60) that children are going to pick it up again and again. 

But then there are other digital devices like the V.Reader from V.Tech which is sort of a kiddie Kindle if you will.  It's exposing children to very early literacy, but not necessarily a teaching tool.  So it's a really wonderful tool for children to experience books in a digital format but they kind of need to be reading before they get there because the tool itself isn't going teach reading. 

Whereas there's the LeapFrog TAG system which uses real books that the device interacts with, and the device helps read the words to the child, and helps them understand breaking down phonetics to read a word themselves.  It's a wonderful tool, but the great thing is, you put the technology away and you still have these really great books that just work in and of themselves.  So some parents tend to trend towards that because it has offline and online capabilities. 

At the end of the day, education begins very young, with things that have no digital component.  Wooden blocks are very important, flash card based games are very important, the game Shoots and Ladders, not usually perceived as educational, actually is a game that teaches morals and values and consequences and that's for ages 2 and up.  So there are lots of different ways to look at education outside of ABCs and 123s.  It's really about social and emotional development, and curricular development.

Savvy:  Let's say you want to invest in a great, gender-neutral building set for your preschoolers that they can use for the next five years or more. What would you recommend?

Shannon: For both my children, I love Lego, but it can be very advanced, a lot of small parts, and it can be frustrating if a child is not motor-skill ready for it.  I really love Mega Bloks.  They do these great clear vinyl bags that cost $19 that I have had for both my children.  We use it literally every day.  We open it up, dump it out, and build something every day.  These are bigger blocks for younger hands that are still developing motor skills for manipulative play.  And then as children get older, I recommend getting into Lego because there's a lot more creative play and character play, Harry Potter and that sort of thing.  But for younger kids, I'm a big big fan of the Mega Bloks.  It's a small investment and has a lot of great repeat play.

Savvy: Legos seem to be very boy oriented. How do you keep girls interested in building given that it's so important educationally?

Shannon: You know, what building and construction play teaches is the fact that kids can start from nothing and make something that eventually functions.  So there are a lot of different ways to reach that.  And honestly, for girls, it's not to say there aren't great building sets out there for them, but they tend to apply that kind of skill set in a different kind of play for instance with craft and creative play which girls are more into than boys...  It's the same mechanisms in the mind and in the creative play space but girls exercise it differently than boys.  They tend to gravitate away from construction and toward creative craft play.  But again, they are using the same skill set that boys are using in construction play.  So that's an interesting thing. 

But that said, Lego does a great line called Clickits for girls, all girl themed. They actually use Clickit Lego construction type things to create their own accessories and jewelry.  So it's still construction play and building, and it's using that great locking mechanism, but it's building along fashion lines.  Girls tend to want to build something that they can show off.  Whereas my son wants to build a tower in the middle of the living room, my daughter wants to wear what she makes to school.  So I think that there are a lot of great sets out there like that.

Savvy: When the kids get presents for their birthdays and the like, suddenly you have all these toys and nowhere to put them. How do you talk to kids about getting rid of some of the old toys and making room for new toys, or integrating some things, and phasing others in and out?

Shannon: If you have different age children, some of it you want to keep, that makes sense, ones that perhaps they play with together.  We do a great toy box clean out, and we let them know that, especially around Christmas, that there are other children who need toys. 

But not all toys should be donated.  It something is broken or has a broken part, it's really important to look at product and ask if it's safe to put in the hands of another child?  Or in the hands of your own child. 

As your child ages, you should really be looking at the toy box.  Literally, for the younger ones, every six months their play starts to evolve.  Are they using this any more?  Do they need it?  Is it something that should be donated?  Can it be recycled?  So we do that pretty regularly because we live in a small New York City apartment. 

But just in general, we have conversations about what can we give away to other kids.  So when they make their whole holiday selection and it's got fifteen toys on it, the first conversation we have is, you're not getting all fifteen.  We're not going to pick and choose, this is not a negotiation, but this is what you're wishing for, and we're going to work with Santa to make it all happen.  But what we also say is, if you get fifteen things, where would we put all that?  We'd have to get rid of fifteen things.  So that's how we have the conversation.  We have to make room, or else we have to go buy a big house.  And they get it, and it becomes an expectation for them.  This year I will say was the first time they were engaged in picking things they wanted other children to have because they loved it, or they're just not using it anymore. 

But in general, what I say throughout the year is don't have all the toys out at once.  So we keep one box of toys away, one box of toys open and we switch them at different points throughout the year because they just get bored.  That doesn't mean they want to get rid of it, it just means they're bored with it temporarily.  Bring it out in the couple of months and it's all new again for them.  So we try to do that a few times a year.

Savvy: One thing I notice at this age is that they really love to play with cameras.  Do you like any of the toy digital cameras that are out there, or do you say just give them an old digital camera that you're not using anymore?

Shannon: I'm not a fan of the old digital camera unless you're just totally prepared to have it trashed.  I really like Fisher Price's Kid-Tough digital camera.  It's ergonomically appropriate for their hands, the buttons are easier to manipulate than a grown-up camera is, and the interface it just easier so it's very clear what this button does versus what the other button does, and how to view pictures versus take pictures.  So the Kid Tough digital camera - there's one for video and one for actual digital pictures.  Love it.  It's really made with a child's play pattern in mind.  They're going to drop it, it's going to get wet, it's going to get thrown in the bottom of the car, and it's really really durable.  And kids just love it.  They feel like little mini reporters. 

That said, there are a lot of devices now for kids that have a digital camera attachment.  I mentioned before the Leapster Explorer which is a hand-held video game, it has a digital camera that pops up from the bottom of it so kids can take pictures with it and then on their screen they can manipulate it like kiddie photoshop and create all these different things.  And I know there's a device called the iXL from Fisher Price that does the same thing.  They can take pictures with it and then manipulate their picture as with photoshop and then they can upload them and share with family and that sort of stuff as well. 

So again, the reason kids are gravitating toward that sort of behavior is because they are modeling their parents...  We can take a picture and see it instantly and they want that same experience.  So I would recommend some of the kiddie devices because they just don't need all of that high-end functionality, and it has a very high chance of getting ruined.

Savvy: Taking digital pictures seems like it's a creative, interesting kind of play.

Shannon:  It is.  And the reason I say Kid Tough -- and there are a lot of different products on the market -- is because it's USB connect so kids can take all their pictures and then upload them on the computer with Mom's help and then there is a really simple interface on the computer where they get to manipulate the whole picture.  I think if you're going to get a digital camera for your child it has to have the extended play experience.  For kids, it's not about taking a picture and putting it up on Facebook.  For them, it's about what can I make this picture do, how can I make it silly, how can I make it move or talk or put music to it?  They are just obsessed with all of that and it's wonderful that they know all these tools are at their fingertips, so it's just important if you're going to invest in a digital camera for them - you're talking about $50 or so for Kid-Tough - that it has that great software feature that is easy for kids to use.

Savvy:  Let's talk about dolls.  When you hit elementary school, the American Girl Doll thing begins.  But I'm wondering if you can point to a doll that is great for the preschool age, something that's not quite so pricey but is also really appealing?

Shannon: There is a new doll line called My First Disney Princess.  There's a doll baby and a doll line.  They are almost the same size and scale as the American Girl doll and they each are based on a Disney princess which is really in that sweet spot for the preschool set.  They are beautiful and have different costumes, and they are packaged along the same lines as the American Girls - the different wardrobes come in a little package, the dolls themselves have beautiful hair play which is very big for preschoolers.  They are of a size and scale where pretend play is very rewarding versus Barbie where the pretend play scales a little bit older.  I really like them a lot.  They are a beautiful product at a good price point.  I think they are $29 each.  So for that price you could get a few of them and have some Disney princess play before you invest in the American Girl doll.

Savvy: What have we missed?  What other kinds of toys would you highlight?

Shannon: For me, because my kids are getting to the point where they can actually play together in a civilized manner (they are three and six), I'm look for games that are for the two of them together.  I think if you have two children, it's really in your interest to find a few games that they can do together and that the family can do with them.

Savvy: And what is a game that you think they would enjoy together?

Shannon: There's a lot of different stuff. We just got a game for them they love called Sturdy Birdy.  It's a game with little bean bags, and you roll the dice and the pictures on the dice tell you where to put the bean bag: on your head, on your shoulder, and then you draw a card and there's a picture of a bird standing in some completely awkward pose and you have to stand in that pose with the bean bag for whatever time the ticker card says.  So it's just a really fun game.  It teaches balance and position and strength, but what's really fun is to see the kids kind of mock each other and mirror each other and try to knock each other's little bean bags off.  They've loved it. 

There are a lot of different games like that that are all about physical play, like the new Twister game called Twister Hoopla.  It's like Twister but instead of a mat you have these big round circles that your throw all over the floor and the kids have to put their body parts in them.  With physical games like that, they just start cracking up at each other.  So that kind of stuff is really rewarding.

Savvy: Anything else you'd like to mention?

Shannon: I want to mention Mastercard Marketplace - Toys'R'Us is a merchant of theirs so all the products that we've discussed are available through there with really great deals that Mastercard has worked on with Toys'R'Us, so that could be a good service to your readers as well.

Savvy: Thank you, Shannon, for all the great tips! 

Originally published in 2011. 

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    Thanks a lot to Eliza Clark

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 2

    PS: Disney dolls for 2-year olds?? Better to buy (or better, make) a Waldorf doll in your daughter's image. Marketing to preschoolers is insidious, in my opinion...

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 3

    Great idea for a column, but might be better to interview someone who is not getting paid to promote specific products... I followed the link for the Fisher Price camera, which seems like a great idea, but the reviews for it on Amazon are awful!

    over a year ago


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