Parents look to past for modern nursery toys

By: KIM COOK
October 29, 2009
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photo - The Sleep Sheep soft toy by Cloud B plays four different soothing sounds including whale song and rain showers. The sound box is removable, operates on two AA batteries, and can be set to run for 23 or 45 minutes. Photo by Cloud B/The Associated Press
The Sleep Sheep soft toy by Cloud B plays four different soothing sounds including whale song and rain showers. The sound box is removable, operates on two AA batteries, and can be set to run for 23 or 45 minutes. Photo by Cloud B/The Associated Press 

Once upon a time, the ideal for a child’s room was a cozy haven filled with sturdy push-pull toys, handmade dolls and a few baskets of dress-up clothes.

That was before batteries, computer programs for toddlers, and the array of stuff that talks, squawks, jangles and jolts in little hands.

Some modern parents want to lower the volume on tech toys and on children’s environment as a whole.

Amanda Heravi, of Larchmont, N.Y., says her toddler, Jake, and his new sister, Lilia, should drive the play experience. “Wooden puzzles, trains, blocks — whatever sounds Jake thinks should accompany the toy, I love to hear,” she says. “Then I can tell that he’s really using his imagination.”

Not surprisingly, many of the designers and retailers responding to this trend are parents themselves.

When Atlanta couple Jim and Erica Lancaster had their first child 14 years ago, “our house began to fill with plastic and electronic toys which neither suited us nor the environment we wanted for our kids,” says Jim.

Erica, who had worked on The Nature Company’s toy development team, envisioned a collection that updated familiar classics; Jack Rabbit Creations was born. Their jack-in-the-boxes feature characters like Fifi the poodle and Spots the bunny; there are knitted toys, big fleecy jingle balls and old fashioned tin lunchboxes.

Melissa and Doug Bernstein have built a toy empire in Wilton, Conn., around that sentiment. Parents stock up on “Melissa and Doug” peg pounders, sorters, blocks and puppets toys that could have been found in a child’s room half a century ago.

“We’re experiencing dramatic age compression — children aren’t children for as many years any more,” says Melissa Bernstein. “Five-year-olds are receiving iPods as gifts, and 3-year-olds are playing video games. Imagination and the ability to innovate come when the brain can engage in open-ended creativity.”

In this intense, strife-ridden world, she believes, many parents are eager to provide their kids with “real, simple, enriching play.”

Lisa Lowe of Long Beach, Calif., puts out the SugarBooger collection, which includes closet dividers in themes like Nursery Rhyme and Campground, complete with sticker sets to help organize. Her Yummy Kitchen and Gingham melamine tray sets are charming, as is the beechwood kitty rattle.

Some technology, of course, suits parents fine. Californians Heather Hamda and Linda Suh of Cloud B studio developed a collection of plush toys, some with nightlights, to soothe restless babies. Gentle sounds like rain and whale song emanate from the soft bodies of giraffes, dolphins and sheep; you can set the sounds on a timer. Turtles and ladybugs project a starry sky on the ceiling, and a Labrador retriever smells like soothing lavender. The line has been popular among Hollywood celebrities.

Nora Neiterman, a New York-based textile artist, creates juvenile designs for retailers like Target, and likes her own children’s rooms “to be an extension of our overall home decor.” Her color palette runs to “white, soft green and accents of vegetable colors.”

ToysRUs has launched a line of nursery decor called Little Boutique. Vintage-style switchplates, frames, wall art and storage are attractively priced, and a leafy tree decal is simple yet chic.

“We connect with the past when we share it with our children,” says Deanna Campbell, who runs myretrobaby.com, offering toys and decor that evoke a range of bygone decades. “In a fast-paced world, that’s calming.”

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