Finding That One Great Toy

How do I find engaging toys? I know a go-to person who is passionate about toys.


I didn’t grow up with many toys as a kid, so for me they're not as much of an interest as playing games.

On the other hand, my friend Julie’s face lights up when she talks toys. She clearly cares. She gets so animated and joyful, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next goodie in the mail.

She has a particular focus to her toy purchases. In some way they have to activate the mind; teach something. And as the creator, the child will bring part of themselves to the toy. One of her new finds that she’s shared with me are “Frigits”.  These are a marble maze game which can be played on the refrigerator door. You get to create your own marble runs.

I wanted to encourage our son to go outside more and be more active.  (This must be every mother’s desire for their child. “Go out and do something!” is the plaintive plea.) Julie’s solution? An ingenious toy called a “Razor Rip Rider”.  The Rip Rider is built on the concept of the old-school Big Wheel, but with castors on pivots for the rear wheels. With these, the Rip Rider can turn or spin in tight circles. (Razor also has a version called the Flash Rider which has a scarified spark strip which shoots out a blaze of sparks when you pull the hand brake.)  And now, my son wants to go out and go exploring the neighborhood and I’ve taken up running as the dog and I chase him down block after block.  (The dog likes this toy, too. She gets more and longer walks.)

Then, recently, Julie introduced us to the idea where she makes a new creative toy out of old cast-off electronic toys. She had visited the Exploratorium Tinkering Studio and came away with a great idea.  

Step 1: Build up a stash of old semi-broken out-of-use toys with electronics inside. 

Step 2: Put together a tool kit for dissection. Scissors, small screwdrivers, and seam rippers.  

Step 3: Go to town. Open up those toys and harvest the motors, lights, LEDs, battery packs, speakers and other electronic boards.

You may have already guessed the next steps. I particularly liked this toy project. I’ve listened to “experts” who make projections of what the future work force will need to look like. How education will need to change to meet the creative needs of a business.  It certainly seems to me that this kind of thing fits into that vision. Instead of accepting what you are given, you break it up and make something else. You make your own creation which will be unique. It teaches that a monkey-wrench in the works is OK and yields fun off-shoots.

Step 4: Use a hot glue gun and glue your electronics parts to a wooden block.  (Julie used two Jenga blocks glued together side-by-side.)

Step 5: Pound 2 nails into opposite ends of the block of wood.

Step 6: Solder wires from your component to the nails.

Step 7: Provide your child with alligator clips and kachow! you have created your own “create-a-circuit” toy.

Here are some quick guidelines if you are excited about buying toys that in their present form that might have been destined for the landfill. Take the toys apart slowly, and if possible, while they are still running so that you have chance to see the motors, switches and wires and with some quick tracing, have some idea of what they are doing. Another tip (particularly if you try to re-use printed circuit boards) is to make a quick note of the number of batteries which are used in the toys. It’s a fair bet that the circuit parts in toys with 3 AAA’s will mix fairly well (same voltage level) as other toys with 3 AAA’s.

On the point of tools, Julie bought her soldering iron (used in step 6) at Radio Shack. Fry’s Electronics also has plenty of choose from. And, when you are soldering wires to nails, they are just about as easy to use as your hot glue gun.  Plus, the same safety tips apply:  don’t touch the hot end of the soldering iron!

Along these lines, our son introduced me to a great YouTube video where a boy and his step brother show off their long line of “customized” (reconfigured) toy trucks, tractors and cars.  They have done a wonderful job of pilfering parts here and there to create new toys.

The only issue with cutting up and dissecting is that your child might not be up for cutting apart his “electronic singing Easter Bunny,” even if it came from Goodwill, is missing a foot and sings a very silly song. 

Julie had a couple of stories of toys with great harvesting promise that ended up as her child's new favorite. Part of this might be the age of the children. I imagine older children are more likely to get into the allure of sacrifice of what previously seemed liked sacrilege. 

Curiosity is a wonderful thing. 


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