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Dr. Toy's Playhouse: Stevanne Auerbach Has A Diagnosis Of The Latest Kid Stuff

by Maria LaPiana

The Sacramento Bee, Scene/Family

November 29, 1997

You can't see it from the street, this jammed-to-the-rafters space, where Stevanne Auerbach does for a living what many of us only dream of. Hidden in back of a karate studio on a bustling avenue in Berkeley is a crowded, colorful, enchanting place that is part warehouse, part laboratory. Every square inch is filled with things designed to delight the kid in all of us: games and dolls; cars, trucks, trains and planes; puzzles, blocks,balls and plush animals; boxes and boxes of newfangled software. Santa's workshop's got nothing on this joint.

What would make it perfect, says Auerbach, is more room for kids, so they could enjoy her vast collection as much as she does. Most days, this is where you'll find this early childhood expert with a Ph.D. in play. She's a professional and a grandmother who has made toys her life. She's so committed to her work, in fact, that she likes to be called by her alias: Dr. Toy.

Tall and unassuming, Auerbach is 59, but she still loves to play with toys like a kid. She's dressed in gray sweats and black sneakers on this brisk afternoon. Her black flannel shirt is essential attire in the cold warehouse, where you need to sidestep to get past all the clutter to the telephone.Her shoulder-length auburn hair is tousled under a black corduroy cap. She's wearing no makeup, silver earrings and a gold scarf at her neck.

We're talking toys with the good doctor, and she's in her element. She's surrounded by playthings. She has galleys of her new book, and she's eager to discuss her list, her 100 Best Children's Products for 1997, which she released in October.

She looks intense and a little worried, but she smiles often, in snippets. Why toys? Because all her life, Auerbach has been intrigued by the ways in which children learn and grow. Early on, she discovered that play was the Window through which those phenomena could be seen most clearly. She loves toys because they fire a child's imagination. One reason to have toys is to create a childhood that's playful, a childhood that has some magical qualities, says Auerbach. But the magic doesn't come from the objects themselves. Auerbach believes that toys are simply vehicles and they don't have to come shrink-wrapped to do the job.

In the absence of bona fide toys, kids will make their own, and that's fine by her. Before you get into the actual "things," they'll play with boxes, Tupperware, bowls and spoons, brown paper, shopping bags. Anything that's available, she says. A good plaything is one that gets a child's curiosity up. It stimulates children to develop language skills, like a puppet would do, developscoordination skills, teaches them something they may not otherwise know, Auerbach says.

Child's play is truly at the heart of Auerbach's work. As an educator and activist for child-care reform, she has spent the last 30 years advocating for children in all walks of life. Her accomplishments are many.

Working for the commissioner of education in Washington, D.C., in the late '60s, she was asked to review the first proposal for Sesame Street. She is Director of the Institute for Childhood Resources, founded as a research organization in San Francisco in 1975. She just completed an interview for a TV special on classic toys that will air on the History Channel. Auerbach helped establish the first day-care center for children of federal employees. And she started a hands-on toy museum in San Francisco, what she calls the highlight of her career. The museum, which had been visited by more than 50,000 children, closed after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

Today Auerbach works as a consultant evaluating all sorts of children's products, from infants' soft toys to software for adolescents. She writes a weekly syndicated King Features newspaper column and has written 14 books (her latest, Dr. Toy's Smart Play will be published by St. Martin's Press in January). Her income comes mainly from her books. She also has a Web site ( on which she lists her top toys for recent years and where to get them, among other things. During the holiday season, the site gets about 40,000 hits a day. The site also has information on how to import, design or market a toy, and how to find a toy remembered from childhood. But what may give Auerbach the most credibility as a play professional is the fact that she loves toys and believes with her whole heart that every child should have access to them. "Toys are as valid to borrow as books, she says. "Toys are expensive and kids lose interest. But, every community does not have a toy library, and every community should have one." To that end, after evaluating the toys she gets, she donates most of them to preschools and day-care centers. In an effort to start a lending library, she has recently furnished Habitot, Berkeley's new children's museum, with hundreds of new toys. As a critic, Auerbach is tough. She reviews thousands of toys every year, some sent unsolicited, some requested by her, all free of charge, and compiles a list of only 100 that she feels are worthy.

Along with Joanne Oppenheim of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, who also reviews and rates toys, Auerbach is considered a valuable resource in the industry. Diane Cardinale is a spokeswoman for the 290-member Toy Manufacturers Association. Her industry takes Auerbach and her work seriously. Her interest in toys goes back a long way, and her background gives her list more weight,than, say, something published by XYZ magazine, says Cardinale. The educational toy market, in which Auerbach has a keen interest, is a little vague and undefined, says Cardinale, but it has a crossover quality. When you think of it, every toy is educational, even Barbie, says Cardinale.

Auerbach's criteria for a toy worth endorsing: safety, age-appropriateness; design; durability; lasting play value; cultural and ethnic diversity; good transition from home to school; educational value; learning skills; creativity; improvement in the understanding of the community and the world.

Oh, yeah...and it has to be fun. And fresh. "I'm looking for something innovative that teaches kids about something," she says. "But the teaching component doesn't have to hit you over the head. Education is not just reading, writing and arithmetic. It's everything,"she says. Auerbach frowns at all the attention some toys get, especially at this time of year. What is going to be the hot toy?

"I think that's the wrong question to ask," she says. "What's hot today is cold tomorrow." Dr. Toy looks for longevity. She champions the small to mid-sized companies, the ones with tiny advertising budgets, or even no marketing savvy at all.

As parents gear up to hit the toy stores, Auerbach urges them to take a second look at the less "popular" toys out there. But she does not suggest that parents ignore their kids' whining. "You want a child to create some wish lists. It's very important," she says. "You should go to the toy store with them and find out what they really want. It doesn't mean you have to buy it. But if it's what they really want, and even if it's something you don't particularly approve of, they may still need it. They want to be a part of a peer group. It's what they all have, and what they talk about." Auerbach herself does not ignore the giants (the Mattels and the Hasbros). There's always something by the big guys on her list. But, the crush for commercial toys doesn't thrill her. People say "What about Tickle Me, Elmo?' Well, Tickle Me, Elmo is a gimmick. It's doing it. Not the child. It's cute, and it lasts for a little while. It wiggles and giggles. But I'd rather have the child have a puppet of Elmo and have him do it." Can kids have too many toys? "Definitely," says Auerbach, "especially if they are the wrong toys. Remember," she says,"this is not about spending a lot of money. And it's not about having a lot of stuff."

Published article has color photo of Dr. Auerbach plus information on selected winning products including:

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