Toy buying guide – buy this, not that

I spend a lot of time with children. I have play tested all of toys on the market and I have my favorites. Often times I find parents want to buy the biggest, coolest looking thing for their child, only to find it gathering dust the next week. These are my alternate suggestions to toys that are bought with good intentions.

1. Lego blocks set vs. Lego kit


Ages: 4-14

Legos are awesome. Lego kits are awesome.  I wish I had a Star Wars Death Star. But I’m an adult who has patience and can sit still for more than 5 minutes.


Retail Value – $399.99


I’m not saying that Lego kits aren’t amazing. It’s unbelievable what’s available. Also, there is value in child being able to follow directions and recreate something. The books have no words and the pictures are clear. They dumb it down as much as possible.  And that’s my point. It’s simple direction following. It doesn’t  inspire or develop imagination.
Free play with Legos means a child can create his own inventions, instead of recreating someone else’s. There is experimenting with form and function with a real tactile experience. The replayability is truly endless. When they are young it might be just a garage or house. As they get older they experiment with more complex forms like cars and rockets.


Actual Lego instructions from way-back-when


2. Plastic fruit vs. Plastic kitchen


Ages: 2-6


Kitchen playsets are adorable. The are mini versions of our adult dream kitchens. They are toys for us adults to buy to dream of what we want. They are fun for children, but they don’t see them with the same eyes as we do. They like to open the drawers and hide stuff inside. They use the table tops, but often times it’s for any and all of their toys. It stops being a kitchen and becomes a small surface to gather junk.

I prefer the cheap plastic food sets like fruit. For younger ages, they are great for learning letters (a is for apple). They can make their own kitchen with they toys they already have or even just the couch. You can make a market out of blocks and use play money to teach about buying and selling. Children’s imaginations are made to fill in the gaps. They don’t need literal representations of things to play. A pen can be an airplane, and a bed can be a fort. But a plastic kitchen, will always be a plastic kitchen.


Play on, future consumer!


3. Soft blocks vs. alphablocks


Ages: 1-4


There is a rush to get children reading and writing, as if their success in adulthood is dependent on a child learning to read at age 2. Parents buy wooden blocks (or practically anything) with letters on them in hopes that this subtle exposure will give their child a head start in learning. IT DOES NOT. There is no shortcut to teaching your child to read and write.

So instead, buy what children really want. For the first few years, what they want is to destroy. The only reason for building a tower is so you can knock it down. Why fight it? It’s a fun game that honestly, I kind of enjoy too. I like the soft blocks because they are house / baby / mom – proof. They are practically weightless. You can throw them right at your child’s face and they will just giggle. They won’t break lamps or leave scratches. They squish and are easy for little hands to grab. They are great for stacking to make big towers that topple down. And they’ve got pictures of stuff on them so you can use them to teach when your child is actually paying attention.

4. Balls vs.  Baby play sets


Ages: 0-3


Baby sets that have bright colors and things that click and crunch and ding are awesome. Look at all the stuff my baby can do. So you spend a lot of money, come home, and leave the baby in front of it and walk away. Your baby doesn’t touch it. She just watches you and cries for you to come back.  When you sit and play with her, the toys come alive. She squeals and glees at all the different sounds you make. You feel happy and walk away. Baby cries for you to come back.

The moral of the story is: you are a baby’s best toy. Toys are just ways you play with baby.

The best baby playset in the world still cannot do all the things a ball can do. You can roll a ball, bounce a ball, throw a ball. There are small balls that bounce off of ceilings and walls, bunches of little balls to roll around in, big rubber balls that you can slap with your hand, footballs that roll on the floor. Textured balls are great for rolling under your feet. You can catch a ball with your hands or you can catch it with your feet. You can kick it. You can hit it. And you can do it all with Mom and Dad.

5. Play Doh vs. Art kits


Ages: 2-13


The big art sets are eye catching. So many colors, and in every medium. 100+ pieces! Every tool you’d ever need to be the most talent artist ever. All in a convenient travel case to carry with you on your world adventures.

The reality is you get a cheap, poorly made case. The crayons, pencils, and paint are worse quality than anything you could buy separately. Chances are you already have crayons, pencils and paint of better quality and variety. When you open the case everything either falls out or is permanently encased in a cheap plastic mould. All aspirations of being the next great artist are dashed when you realize you can’t buy talent.

If you want to inspire a child artistically, I recommend Play-Doh, the Legos of squishy material. I don’t mean a Play-Doh like substance like plasticine that is hard for small fingers to manipulate or organic green-Earth all natural material play substance that smells like compost. I mean Play-Doh, the non-toxic toy that comes in every color imaginable and has its own perfume.


Please don’t buy this.


Kids can smash it, roll it out, mix it, make spaghetti and snowmen. They can share with mom and trade cutting tools. They can make a mess and clean it up. They can accidentally leave it out to dry and learn the lesson of taking care of their toys. Then you can buy some more.

6. Pots, pans, and spoons vs. Music sets


Ages: 0-3


There are some neat music sets for children that include tambourines, recorders, castanets, and xylophones. I plan on owning all of them. But I’m not going to start with them. Before I teach about musical instruments, I like to show there are sounds all around us. There is so much to be learned by banging a wooden spoon on everything in the house. Or beating two metal spoons together. Or blowing on bottles.

Your world is already full of interesting and new things that your child doesn’t know about. Pots and pans, empty jars and cans. Glass, metal and wood all sound different. Don’t rob them of the experience of discovery by making a beeline straight for the musical instruments.

For everything else

The best toys are the ones that engage you and your child. They inspire and enrich the imagination. If a toy is highly detailed or movie licensed, there’s not much room for your child’s imagination to grow. Toys that are multipurpose have the highest replay value. Be wary of sets – it’s how manufacturers hide shoddy products. Remember, you are buying for your child, not for you. Most of the time.


Why do pigs oink in English, boo boo in Japanese, and nöff-nöff in Swedish?

Why do pigs oink in English, boo boo in Japanese, and nöff-nöff in Swedish?

It’s not just pigs, the onomatopoeia we apply to most animal sounds varies delightfully across different tongues. What does this reveal about our relationship with language?

Read more @

Learning works better when it’s fun

I’m a firm believer that if I’m not enjoying my lesson, then neither is my student, and it’s not effective. Learning a new language is difficult. There is no shortcut to learning the thousands of words and hundreds of grammar rules needed to speak fluently. It takes a truly motivated individual to stick with the process, especially when you feel like you’re not making progress. Most of us (me included) need motivation to get us over the hurdles and onward on our journey.

I find that most students can stick with a new hobby for about 3 weeks. After that, the novelty has worn off and it becomes a chore that is now taking up valuable time in their lives. This is when they need a great teacher.

I strive to make my lessons unique, non-formulaic, thought-provoking, and honest. I pride myself on the fact my style of teaching would never be accepted in an institution, because it’s way too informal. I encourage my young children to make messes and silly jokes. I talk about video games and cartoons with my older children. I talk about about relationships and swearing with adult students. Because that’s what’s interesting to them. When a student is free to talk openly and honestly, they don’t stop. And it’s all in English.

A classic teacher would scoff at my approach. But just like the video, it’s hard to argue with the results.

Halloween in Russia


I have such fond memories of Halloween in America. It started with all the different Halloween activities in school. Counting pumpkins in math class. History of the Salem Witch trials. Reading “horror” poems. And all the art and craft projects you could imagine.Then came carving the pumpkin with Dad. For so many years I would draw a face on the pumpkin and he would cut it out. Then finally I was mature enough to cut my own pumpkin. I can clearly remember the smell of a candle burning inside a freshly scooped out gourd. Then the best part! Trick-or-treating through a crowded neighborhood. All the other kids dressed up holding the hands of their proud parents. Knocking on doors to find crabby old ladies or a house full of younger adults partying away.


Mom and Dad, how could you??

As I grew older, I still got dressed up and made a tradition of making orange and black cupcakes for my classmates, and later colleagues. My birthday is only the week before and I always requested a Halloween cake. I am literally wearing Halloween socks at this very moment as I write this. I adore this holiday.


However, it is just not celebrated here in Russia. Sure, the adults get dressed up and go out to clubs. Almost all the nightclubs have a themed Halloween party. But it’s not a popular kids holiday. Russians don’t generally teach their children horror stories. They don’t talk of ghosts, witches or zombies. And apparently they don’t like it when foreigners do either (first hand knowledge). I’ve never questioned it before, but yes, it does seem odd to expose our children to such macabre themes. I believe it desensitizes a child to scary things, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, that’s not for me to decide as a teacher.

This holiday comes and goes without so much as an acknowledgment from me. For now. When my son gets a bit older, he’ll have the coolest costumes and know the scariest of stories. And know the joy and misery of a belly full of candy.


Silly English

Some more fun English!

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo’ is a grammatically correct sentence – as ‘buffalo’ can mean the large animal, the city in New York and also a verb – ‘to bully’.







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