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The Doctor Is 'In'

By Don Oldenburg, Staff Writer

The Washington Post

August 17, 1998

Her e-mail inquiries number more than 100 a day now. They arrive from around the world. An Egyptian import-export company wrote her last week from Cairo asking where it might find "thumb size" toys to include in food packaging. An Indianapolis man wrote in search of someone to restore his favorite childhood toy, a Doctor Dolittle "Pushmi-Pullyu." A schoolteacher wanted to know where she could find blank Pogs. When parents of a Dutch child who was upset over losing his rare teddy bear wrote for help, "Dr. Toy" located a duplicate. When a student from India e-mailed that no faculty advisers at the Royal College of Design in London were knowledgeable enough to guide his study of toy design, "Dr. Toy" mentored him through his graduation.

"People write to me all the time," says Stevanne (Dr. Toy) Auerbach, whose books and syndicated column, online resources, toy reviews, parenting advice, and advocacy for children -- not to mention a penchant for self-promotion -- lately have made her the toy expert in demand. Fact is, she receives more e-mails and letters than she possibly can answer. They come from people telling her about new toys they invented, from activists fighting against violent toys, from professional toy buyers, from toy collectors, from the toy industry itself. But the messages she finds most telling come from ordinary adults inquiring about the toys they loved as children.

"I have several thousand questions from parents and grandparents who have a fond memory of a particular toy they had when they were about 10 years old," says Auerbach, who founded San Francisco's first and only toy museum until an earthquake shut it down a decade ago. "They describe the toy and say they need to find one to give to their child or grandchild. They don't know the name of the product. But I remember."

How does she remember? For Dr. Toy, playing's the thing. "People don't always understand how important toys are to children," she says. "They remember their earliest experiences. They can remember so many years later the toy that was important to them. I want parents to understand how important toys are to their children now."

Lest anyone think she's just playing around, the good doctor sometimes prescribes toy time in tougher terms. "If you do not take your child's playtime seriously, there will be dire consequences for your child," she warned in the press release announcing her recent book-signing appearances in Baltimore. "Playing is crucial to a child's emotional, social and intellectual growth. . . . The brain-functioning of our kids is drastically impaired if kids are not given constructive play time."

A former teacher, now a grandmother, Auerbach has been building her credentials and her practice as a leading expert on children's products for nearly three decades. Specializing in child development and parenting education, she is the director of the Institute of Childhood Resources in San Francisco. But the title that goes everywhere with her is the Dr. Toy alias (she does have a PhD). Boosting her media visibility and her marketplace impact of her reviews, it has helped to make her the Siskel and Ebert of toys. She writes a Dr. Toy newspaper column syndicated nationwide by King Features. She is the author of 14 books on child play, child care and toys -- her latest published this year, Dr. Toy's Smart Play: How to Raise a Child With a High Play Quotient (St. Martin's Press, $13.95). Next month, she is scheduled to host an hour-long cable TV program about educational toys and products on the Home Shopping Network.

Since going online five years ago, Auerbach has been reviewing toys like a runaway choo-choo train. Annually, she releases reviews of the year's 100 Best Children's Products, the Best Classic Toys and the Best Vacation Products. Several hundred toy reviews are available on her Dr. Toy's Guide Web site, which she calls her monthly online magazine.

Besides reviews with color photographs of the toys, toll-free telephone numbers and Internet hyperlinks to the toy manufacturer, and toy cross-referencing by the child's age, her Web site includes an easy e-mail form for contacting her, an electronic product-information request form, Dr. Toy's tips on buying toys and child's play, Auerbach's biography, a kid contest, Internet links for children, parents and teachers, and a growing list of how languages around the world say "toy," from the Chinese "wan gee" to the Turkish "oyuncak." While Auerbach doesn't sell toys, she does provide a link to - an online toy store.

"I have tried to keep my Web site simple, so that anybody coming in would not be intimidated by it, so that it would not turn off a new parent," says Auerbach, who maintains she was the first to go online with a site dedicated to reviewing toys.

Indeed, Dr. Toy doesn't love all toys equally -- and doesn't love some at all. She likes most basic toys -- jacks, yo-yos, puzzles, books, the imagination and mastery stuff. She likes computer games that educate children beyond what books can, but bemoans the "endless shooting and fighting" games. Violent toys don't have a prayer of making her best lists -- especially toy guns. "I've been a big advocate against toy guns and violent toys," she says. "When you are 9 and 11, and you are told it is okay to play with guns, then why isn't it okay for them to play with guns at 14 and 15? I say, with 300,000 toys, why would you want to put a gun in a kid's hand?"

Shannon Tobin regularly seeks Auerbach's expertise on products when planning the Children's Interactive Expo, her annual fall trade show in San Francisco that welcomes families to try new interactive computer games. "She understands how kids learn and translates that knowledge into crucial advice for purchasing, parenting and teaching," Tobin says of Auerbach. "In a world full of violent games, Dr. Toy identifies the best-quality products. May we be so lucky to have parents and teachers following her advice."

* Parents who don't have online access can get a free copy of Dr. Toy's "Best Vacation Products" and other lists by sending a SASE (#10 envelope) to Dr. Toy, 268 Bush St., San Francisco, Calif. 94104).


Finding the best toys for your children requires more thought and care than just hauling the kids to Toys R Us and letting them choose. Figuring whatever toys were good enough for you are good enough for them doesn't cut it either. "Children learn through toys and through their play," says Stevanne Auerbach, whose professional persona is Dr. Toy. "What they have to play with stimulates their thinking, their logic, their creativity, their eye-hand coordination, their ability to reason. "Playing a board game, for example, teaches them how to get along with friends and how to win and lose. So what we give children to play with has to be not only be safe, but also have qualities that are going to be beneficial to them."

Among Auerbach's tips on how to pick good toys:

Bottom line: Is the toy fun? "Play is, after all," says Auerbach, "a time to have fun."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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