Monday, November 23, 2009

reBlog from Dad-O-Matic

I found this fascinating quote today:

If you are a parent, you should have no trouble looking for things to be thankful for this holiday season.  You need look no further than your children.  While parenthood is full of stress, challenges and worries, it is also rich with rewards.  Yet, with all the hustle and bustle of a home full of kids, it is easy to take for granted some of the true blessings of being a parent.  Thus, with Thanksgiving a few days away, as a reminder to myself, here are…, Dad-O-Matic, Nov 2009

You should read the whole article.

Friday, May 22, 2009

It All Began with a Toy Piano

Today I'm what kids call a "grownup", although I love to believe that, if you showed me the picture that the Little Prince drew, and I was not already in the know, I'd be certain that it was a boa constrictor that swallowed an elephant, and not merely a hat. Of course, I've spent much of my life fascinated by creatures such as boa constrictors and elephants and have always been rather bored by hats, at least the ordinary kind that exist only to serve the very ordinary purpose of protecting one's head from the elements. Because I try, in my heart, to remain a kid always and forever. And so I will share a secret about myself that may not be obvious to the world, looking at me as a company leader, ex-professor, writer, mom, and more.

I love music. I play music. I have, in my house, one grand piano, one electronic grand piano (so that I can play without waking anyone), 2 keyboards, a harp, and about 5 guitars (I believe that we are losing track of the guitar numbers as my son now has begun this process of collecting and playing musical instruments, too). And yes, I play them all. I'm not really all that good at it, which is why it remains a hobby. I have never had the fortitude or patience to memorize a long piece of music, or heck, even a very short one. I'd rather move on to the next piece, trying each one, enjoying it for what it is and never worrying about perfection. I did actually play in a band once, and was even paid for a performance! It was at the Tanana Valley State Fair, and I immediately blew my earnings at a tent near the stage that was filled with rhythm instruments from around the world. Oh, guess I forgot to list those above! I have baskets of them.

This lifelong love affair with music began the day that my mother brought home a very small toy electric organ, all of 2 octaves, with numbered keys and a songbook to match. It was like unlocking a code. I had already been in the habit of gravitating toward any piano in sight (alas our house was instrument free at this point), the neighbors of my grandparents in Chapel Hill were happy to let my plunk away for hours on end, and work out the tune to simple songs - "On Top of Old Smoky", "Twinkle Twinkle", "Chopsticks", and so on. It wasn't so much "playing by ear", although as I worked at it I did develop some skill in that arena, as trial and error. As I spent long hours doing this, I did begin to develop an intuitive feel for notes, scales, and more.

But now, here in our own house, was a "real" organ! And the sounds it made were magical, because it included buttons that would play a chord, and of course with the wondrous, easy-to-read music that was included, I could make sounds like I'd never done before. I began to collect music whenever and wherever I could, and would run to my mother asking her to help me unlock those parts that were not obvious - accidentals, and the ultimate magic of understanding how rhythm was coded. After years of lobbying we finally got our very own spinet, and there was no stopping me. On my own, I discovered the Circle of Fifths, the various types of scales and their relationships to one another, and was heavily drawn to the genius of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin above the simple folk and nursery songs I'd started with. Somewhere along the way guitars caught my eye, once again starting with begged and borrowed instruments, and so my musical adventure broadened further.

So when I heard that the Schoenhut Toy Piano Company was looking for a kid who wanted to help them give away 100 My First Pianos, I knew that I wanted to be part of this. I understand the power of music. I know that even a small toy piano, keyboard, or other instruments can give children a lifetime gift of awe and joy that comes from making their own music.

So I added my own challenge to their challenge: If a Colorado kid wins the contest, PlayFair Toys will donate 2 Schoenhut Toy Grands and award the winner a $100 gift certificate to spend at PlayFair Toys. Read all about the contest, which ends June 15, 2009, and my challenge here.

Never underestimate the power of the right toy at the right time. It's now well established that children who have certain types of music education in early childhood have better math skills than those who do not. I think that is all fine and good, I am pretty darn decent at math myself, but fundamentally, to me, music is about joy. So whether you wish to help spread some joy around, improve math skills, or simply help kids in need get a very fun toy, I urge you to spread the word about this exciting challenge. Please spread the links about this challenge to anyone who may wish to know about it. The contest is simple to enter and runs for a very short time.

Here's to music for everyone!

Professor PlayFair

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Natural and Unnatural Wood - the Greenwashing of Toys

Parents and all consumers are currently being presented with a glut of "environmentally friendly" products. This is a huge growth market, and one that isn't going away (thank goodness!).

The "green", "eco-friendly", and "environmentally friendly" labels that are being batted about are something of a 2-edged sword, however. On the one hand, it is about time that we face the realities of the non-sustainable lifestyle that has driven our society for decades. We have developed a transportation system and infrastructure that is dependent on fuels that are in limited supply. We have used our atmosphere essentially as a garbage can for the refuse of our cheap energy usage, and we are now facing the reality of rapid climate change that threatens almost every aspect of our world. But the cutting side of this sword is that as environmentally friendly products move into the mainstream there will be many claims made that are simply not true. Natural does not necessarily equate with either safe or environmentally friendly.

Toys are a particular hot button in this area, because the lead paint and toy safety recalls of 2007 went a long way to raise consciousness about how environmental concerns are no longer limited just to one political viewpoint - they go right to the heart of health, safety, and our lifestyle. How can parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles - all of us who love our children and buy toys for them - sort this out?

An example of this is a well-known national toy retailer chain that released a new line of "green toys" right before Earth Day 2008. Here was their big claim - they are made of "natural wood". Oh wow! How exciting! NATURAL WOOD! That would be as opposed to unnatural wood, which is presumably not environmentally friendly.

BUZZER! Someone ring the "wrong answer" buzzer! I do not dispute that the wood in these products is natural. As I sit here, I can see my yard filled with trees made of all natural wood. Yup, definitely a natural product. For that matter, oil is a natural product! Natural gas is a natural product. It's also true that, in general, "wood" is a product that is replaceable - chop a tree down and another will eventually grow in its place. But there is the fly in this ointment - what happens when that tree is chopped down? And just how long is eventually - just how quickly will that tree be replaced? And what else happens when that tree is harvested? Are there secondary impacts? The answer is, of course, "it depends."

There is lots of wood on the market that is being harvested in a most unsustainable fashion. For example, many tropical woods are harvested in a way that destroys the forest and soil on which they grew. The impacts of this are profound and so long lasting that they are essentially permanent. Not only will those tracts no longer produce trees, but meanwhile many other species decline or go extinct along with this habitat destruction. It's killing the goose that laid the golden egg. But it's not only tropical woods that are potentially a problem. Large tracts of northern forests are also being clear cut in a fashion that prohibits or greatly slows their replacement. These northern forests serve an important role as storage locations for carbon, and therefore an important role in mitigating global warming.

Unfortunately for the consumer, and anyone else who is trying to sort this out, there are no easy answers. The northern pines that are often used for making many products may be harvested and replanted sustainably. And there are tropical woods that are excellent choices. Rubberwood is considered the most environmentally friendly wood on the market today. A member of the maple family, rubberwood is grown on plantations, and its sap used for making rubber. As the trees age, eventually they stop producing sap. Harvesting the trees for their wood at that point means that they are used in every stage of their life. So choosing toys made of rubberwood, such as those by Imagiplay of Boulder, Colorado, is a great choice. PlayFair Toys carries Imagiplay's products in our retail stores, but at this time we do not have them available for sale online.

Bamboo is another good choice. Actually a grass that hardens into a strong wood when dried, bamboo is an environmentally friendly wood primarily because it grows so quickly and therefore replenishes itself. A lovely example of the use of bamboo in toys is the Bamboo Collection Creative, a set of games and activities made of stained bamboo, both lovely to look at as well as educational and pleasing to the touch.

Yet another approach is that used by Blue Orange Games of San Francisco. They pledge to plant two trees for every one that is harvested to make their engaging, creative, all wooden games.

And finally, there is "unnatural wood", which might, in the end, be the friendliest to the environment of all. Sprig Toys of Ft. Collins, Colorado, introduced a new product line in late 2008 that is made of "Sprigwood", which they describe as "a durable, child-safe, bio-composite material made from recycled wood and reclaimed plastic." Reusing two different products to create something new is the kind of innovative thinking required to continue our lives on this planet of ours. I am very excited about Sprig Toys, and as promised last Earth Day, we now have them available online and in our store!

So there you go. PlayFair Toys and Professor PlayFair recommend that you consider unnatural wood as a safe, environmentally friendly alternative for your child's toys.

With that - it's almost Earth Day 2009. Here in Boulder, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the 100% natural trees in my yard are just about ready to burst their buds. Why not do something with your family that will celebrate these ordinary miracles and assure their continuing existence? Plant a tree, walk to the park, turn your garden, and appreciate all that you have.

Professor PlayFair

PS - Drop by PlayFair Toys this week and pick up a free Ecohouse courtesy of Plan Toys, constructed of recycled paper.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Play Notes Now! A Day of Family Music

When: Saturday April 18, 10-3
Where: PlayFair Toys, 2550 Arapahoe Ave, Boulder
Who: Everyone is invited to this FREE event

Don't miss this very special event co-sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Center for Musical Arts. We'll have games, puzzles, and giveaways all day long, ending with a drawing for 4 FREE TICKETS to see Dan Zanes & Friends at the Boulder Theater, April 25.

Highlights of the day include:
10 AM - Kids guitar demonstration/presentation by James Cline
11 AM – Drumming and drumming circle by Danny Schade
12 PM – Instrument Petting Zoo – meet the orchestra!

This perfectly free event is for all ages. We are thrilled to support the arts in our community. Please show your support for local business and for community arts by dropping by on Saturday!

Free Eco House to the first 50 customers, courtesy of Plan Toys. Thank you, Plan Toys, for providing this free Earth Day activity and for being a model company!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Maybe the best defense really is a good offense

We've all met them - the people who move through life with a "best defense is a good offense" approach. And we all know that they are, well, offensive! You never quite know what these folks will come up with, because their goal in life seems to be keeping the rest of us confused or at the very least at a safe distance from them.

So why this topic? Have I decided to become one of the offensive ones? No - definitely not! But I realized recently that the current economic crisis has put me into a defensive mode. Much of my focus has been on battening down the hatches and defending the territory. And that just isn't going to work, plus it's really dark down there, and I need to see! I realized that taking a defensive posture just won't get me anywhere at all.

I was listening to an interview with Terri Norvell yesterday, and she used the phrase "forward focus." And it struck me that this is where we all need to go.

I do like football, I loved playing and watching sports in high school, so I like these offense versus defense metaphors. And although I'm not saying that any good team doesn't need defense, I also realize that the best you can do by focusing on defense is either to tie the game or win by luck. Without a great offense, to really make the score, we're sunk.

This is where our children are our greatest teachers. Their goals are completely forward focused. The baby longs to make things happen - first to control her arms, then to move, then to walk. They want to go to school, they want to run, to ride a bike. As teens, the things they want to do can scare us a bit, but they so want to become adults. Our children don't spend time looking back or worrying about how maybe it wasn't such a good idea to learn to climb out of the crib at only 8 months old. No - our children are 100% focused on moving forward, on scoring points, on winning the game.

I don't know if a great offense is truly a good defense or not, and I certainly don't advocate being offensive as a posture! But I do know that the snow is melting, the sky is blue, the grass is greening up, and today is the first day of the rest of my life, however long that may be. May it be joyous and filled with good things, those things I want for myself, for those I love, and for this magnificent world we live in. I hope that this post brought you a springtime smile and a desire to look forward to today, tomorrow, and the rest of our glorious lives.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Concert was great!

Madelyn and Ernie's free concert at PlayFair Toys was great! Check out Madelyn's classes and camps at Music with Madelyn.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Power of Music

There is so much happening in April (besides a few more days of snow...), there's never a reason to be bored. It's National Poetry Month and the Month of the Young Child. Earth Day happens on the 22nd, and Easter's only 11 days away. Not to mention Straw Hat Month, Kite Month, and Fresh Florida Tomato Month!

But forgetting the tomatoes for a moment, lets talk about music and poetry. I recently attended the annual fundraising dinner for the Rocky Mountain Center for Musical Arts (RMCMA), a community based music school in Lafayette. Besides meeting some wonderful people, I came away thinking about the role of music in our lives.

The RMCMA event reminded me of how what a powerful force music is in bringing people together. There was a teenage opera singer, a law firm that played and wrote rock and roll together, and a community jazz ensemble with a big band sound. All this from... where? Where does music come from? Music is so pervasive in our lives, with media ever present, that it's easy to take for granted. Music is based on math, but what is astounding is that organized sound can cause our brains to react in a way that creates - joy! Pure joy!

Music is fundamentally part of life. Certain species - whales and birds - incorporate music into their mating behavior. Humans often do the same thing, but in a slightly different way - we often use external music rather than singing ourselves (often for good reason!). The touching of our emotions by music is fundamentally a human, or even just an animal, trait. But with our giant brain capacities, we have taken music to new levels and complexities that expand infinitely.

From mothers singing lullabies to their babies to families singing together to orchestras to whale song, music brings us together with each other and bonds us as humans. It always amazes me how we can spend hours, even days, together creating and enjoying music. In tribute to the glory of music in our lives, PlayFair Toys and the Rocky Mountain Center for Musical Arts bring you Play Notes Now! A Day of Family Music, on Saturday April 18th. There will be live music, an instrument petting zoo, poetry readings, musical games and puzzles, and more, from 10 am to 2 pm. This incredibly fun day of musical activities is for everyone, whether you are an ardent music fan, a prodigy, or think that you can't play a note (a misconception - everyone can play at least one note!), there will be something here for you.

As much as I am a biologist by training, and therefore appreciate and understand that fundamentally this is all about my neurons, in my heart I believe that music is proof that there are, indeed, miracles.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

PlayFair's Free Family Fun in 2009

OK, so New Year's was 3 weeks ago, but for me, the inauguration was truly the start of a new beginning. So, let's move on to the resolutions, shall we?

Although obviously I can't read your collective minds, I'll bet that many of you have one or both of these on your list: (1) finally get the house organized, and (2) remember that my time with my family is both short and precious, so remember to enjoy it and make time for it. Probably some of you also have vowed to lose a few or more pounds, or to stick to your budget.

I can't help you with the pounds thing, but PlayFair has been making a few resolutions of our own, and we want to help you with the organization and the family fun part, all at a price that will fit into absolutely any budget (that would be free).

All through 2009, we're bringing you free concerts, free art lessons, free movement classes, storytelling, and even free seminars on all sorts of things, including how to organize your house (or your garage or...), how to play with your children in ways that promote learning, and other useful and fun things. We'll be singing, dancing, and celebrating the birthdays of famous scientists, poets, authors, and more. We're kicking this all off on Valentine's Day with a free concert. Details will follow shortly.

In order to make sure that you don't miss out on any of the fun, make sure that you are signed up for our email newsletter. That's the first place that events will be announced.

Meanwhile, if you've got a talent, a profession, or a business that is potentially of interest to our customers, let us know. We are actively seeking community partners that want to be part of this fun series. You should be willing to offer something free that can be done in our store. You'll get free marketing and promotion and the opportunity to let people know what you are doing. Don't worry if you're not sure if the fit is right. Email me and let me know what you're thinking - I'd love to see if we can fit you in.