It started with a mobile. A gift from our new baby's grandparents. And of course, I stepped in to voice some approved choices. Something sleek... perhaps thin, die-cut bamboo. "But wouldn't the baby like some colour?" my stepmother asked. Which is the moment I realized that I'd not been selecting toys, nursery-décor or other baby paraphernalia based on HIS preferences. I had been selecting what I thought would look the nicest in our home.
Being a decorator and former design mag editor, it made sense. My whole home life had been about style and fine details until this little guy came along four months ago. But we had entered new territory, where activity mats sat perched atop designer rugs, and bouncy chairs aren't available in the exact shade of blue to match the kitchen backsplash.
The baby had to come first. His developmental and safety needs were paramount. It got me thinking about many of the eco-friendly, European, and designer toys that sat waiting for him to get just a little bit older. Were they going to be fun for him to play with? Stimulating? Or just a bunch of boring, unbleached chunks of wood, sitting in a pile, collecting dust?
For a professional opinion, I reached out to my step-sis, Vancouver-based mompreneur and owner of Giving Gifts, an online retail website. I asked Lisa Pozin if she thought that high-end toys for kids were more for the parents or the kids.
"Anything bright with lights, sounds and batteries was always a hit in our house," reported Lisa. "That being said, wooden toys last for years and kids never grow too old for them. That type of low-tech play uses more imagination and they are going to be the toys I save for my grandchildren."
She also pointed out a desire to spend money on products that reflect her own values. And although her values are geared towards things being ethically made, I think it's just as valid that I value great design, from a visual, functional and aesthetic perspective. I am this kid's mother. So at the end of the day, he is going to learn about beautiful things from me the same way his dad will teach him about baseball or to play the ukulele.
I decided to conduct my own experiment at home. Our son lay on the floor while I tried to entice him with various small toys and rattles. Bear in mind he had only just learned to grab hold of things, so the results of the study may be questionable. At first, we tried a beige, organic chicken rattle, but it was quickly tossed aside after an unsuccessful attempt at inserting said chicken head into his mouth. Next, he gravitated towards a designer rattle which was easy for him to grasp, but still too large to fit into his mouth. Ultimately we found successful engagement with both a naturally woven cat doll, as well as a mass-retailer toy complete with soft plastic loops. The results of our ad-hoc experiment showed that he seemed attracted to brightly coloured toys and items that were easy to hold onto. Clearly for him, design mattered. But I doubt that he cared where his toys were made or who made them, despite that fact that I did.
I eventually told my stepmother to pick whatever she thought her grandson would like best from Moms To Be and More, a Toronto-based retail store with a great selection of baby accoutrements. She opted for a paper mobile by Flensted, a Danish company that was started in 1953. The whimsical and affordable designs are sold at the MOMA in New York, and are enjoyed by kids and adults alike. And while his hot air balloon-shaped mobile is a bit more colourful than I might have added to the already wallpapered nursery, he loves it. And when we blow on it, it dances through the air while he drifts off to sleep. Ultimately, great design is just that -- something that can be appreciated and enjoyed on many levels. It's perfectly acceptable for mom to prefer the style of a certain toy or high-chair, as long as it also makes sense for baby.
Don't get me wrong. I know there are going to be lots of AA batteries for a revolving door of garish electronic toys. But I'm okay with that. Mostly.
Trying to decide between pretty and practical? You CAN have it all, and you don't always have to pay the price. Granted the cardboard mobile has fewer bells and whistles, but it is still highly engaging for baby and comes with a bit of a history lesson. It even costs less than the big-box option.
(LEFT) Flensted Balloons mobile, $50, Moms to be & More.
A festive mobile inspired by "Montgolfieres" of the 18th century and modern hot air balloons of today. Five colourful cardboard balloons spin and float around.
(RIGHT) Tiny Love Classic developmental mobile, $64.99, Babies "R" Us.
This mobile combines a multitude of movements and motions, with 20 minutes of classical music as well as colourful moving liquids and lights.
Here are a few links to some great Canadian sources for baby gear: