May 242016

Feeling stressed?  There is a simple solution that will cost you a whole lot less than stress-related medical bills or years of therapy. Try coloring. Go to you local toy store or book store and pick up a coloring book; swing by an art supply store (in our area…Mish Mish or Michael’s) and buy some colored pencils and a small pencil sharpener (if you don’t have one stuck in the back of a kitchen junk drawer); and sit down at the kitchen table with a mug of tea and color.

You can thank Joshua Reynolds, a British artist, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Friedrich Frobel (Swiss educators), Kate Greenway, and the McLoughlin Brothers for the coloring book.

In 1769, Josh Reynolds, gave a series of lectures in which he argued, essentially, that art and art instruction should be made accessible to the masses (the democratization of art) rather than merely to the upper echelons of society. Artists became art educators who based their production of art education materials (drawing and painting manuals, templates, etc.) on the premise that “art could be learned by anyone because it consisted of teachable knowledge (‘general truths’ or principles established by the great masters) and skills”  (Masien, 2014). In short, anyone can become an artist and can learn to appreciate art.

PaintBook1The McLoughlin Brothers published the first “paint book,” The Little Folks Painting Book, in 1879. The book feature illustrations from Kate Greenway, an English illustrator best known for childrens’ illustrations and a contemporary of Randolph Caldecott. The annual awards for best children’s illustrations are called the Caldecotts in the US and the Greenways in the United Kingdom (just an aside). Other companies soon followed suit: Charles E. Graham Company,

Enter the Crayon and the Depression. If you look closely at the toys created during the Depression (with the exception of Legos–yep, a product of the 1930s), you will notice that the vast majority of products were paper based, from paper dolls to fiberboard dollhouses to games (think Monopoly) to card models included in and on the back of cereal boxes. Paper products took off because they were relatively inexpensive and could be included as part of a wide-range of promotions aimed at the persuasive power of children. Coloring books were on the forefront, especially as crayons entered popular use (again, they were far less expensive to produce than other artists’ mediums). While crayons had long been a medium for artists, with versions dating by to Da Vinci, they became the child’s medium with the development of the wax stick crayon in the early 20th Century (you can thank Binney & Smith, aka Crayola; Prang; Milton Bradley, and Joseph Dixon).  By World War II, coloring was firmly a child’s activity despite its adult roots.

According to the Washington Post, the act of coloring “generates wellness, quietness and … stimulates brain areas related to motor skills, the senses and creativity.” (Elena Santos, 2014). Carl Jung colored mandalas as a relaxation technique. Just ask the French. In France, coloring books designed for adults are one of the fastest growing genres in the publishing industry. According to clinical psychologist Sally Austen,

“Because coloring-in requires focus, it is quite meditative and mindful. You are completely in the moment, not ruminating about the past or worrying about the future….There is also–and this is probably quite significant–no element of competition or possible failure, which is quite rare these days…Colouring in is as near to doing nothing as you can get…It is creative and peaceful; a lovely moment of inane happiness.”

So the next time you stop by to pick up a coloring book for your child, buy two–one for the child and one for you and pick up an extra-large canister of crayons (or colored pencils). Set aside 15 or 20 minutes each day and color.  You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes.

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May 242016

Disney, best known for magic, had a particular method of magic in Mary Poppins that has always fascinated me…chalk art…sidewalk art…street art.

In the movie, Mary Poppins and company fall through the art and into a land where carousel horses and their riders dash across pastel countryside and subvert a fox hunt by hiding the fox; where tea is served by dancing penguins; and where having a “perfectly splendid” time is perfectly acceptable.

Think chalk and chalk drawings are only for kids? Think again. While chalk art dates back to pre-historic times (think cave dwellings here), the sidewalk activity dates from 19th Century England. Like Dick Van Dyke’s character, well over 900 folks were making a living drawing on sidewalks in Great Britian in 1890.

Colored chalk is one of those mediums we often dismiss, but there are a fair number of rather well-known chalk adherents, including: De Vinci, Raphael, Micelangelo, Durer, Rembrandt, Rupens, Matisse, Picasso, and Degas. One of the appeals of chalk was that it was relatively cheap and plentiful…a great medium for studies and quick sketches.


Storytelling on the Walk. Most sidewalks, at least those leading to a front door, are split into sections rather than being poured as a solid slab. Ask your kids to illustrate their favorite book by telling the story in drawings, one drawing per section of sidewalk.

The Most Colorful Driveway. 1 or more neighborhood kids (and adults). Pick a nice day and throw a block drawing party (typically combined with a neighborhood potluck and/or cookout and a rousing game of volleyball in the back yard). Divide your driveway into squares an invite your neighbors to add to the drawing. The object is to fill the space, create neighborhood art, and have a good time. I’ve also seen this done as a neighborhood activity where everyone decorated their driveways and walkways. By the way, if you have an asphalt driveway, make sure you have plenty of white chalk to go along with the various colors.

The Game Course. One of my favorite examples of chalk art came from a neighbor in Missouri, who used to go out and draw a version of chutes and ladders or another kids’ game on his driveway every Saturday morning. He made a large die the kids could “roll” out of a cardboard box he covered in white butcher paper and decorated with construction paper cutouts. By the end of the day, the board was scuffed, the box was dented, and the construction paper decorations had faded to a dull, color-tinged gray. The board varied from week to week, as did the die. The kids were their own game pieces, and one child was designated as “die roller.” I have no idea how many games were played during the course of a Saturday, but the “board” was always in use. By the time the neighborhood came to life on Sunday, the board was gone and the neighborhood had to wait a week to find out what was next.

readChalk Drawings: Types, History of Drawing with Chalks.

ART ENCYCLOPEDIA 2016. Bar none–one of the best sites on the internet. If you are interested in art education, this is one of the best places to start. 

Chalk Pastel Tutorials: Lessons & Resources for the Artistically Inclined..Intended for beginning and intermediate artists.

Street Painting and Street Art. Wikipedia.

3 Amazing 3D Graffiti Artists: Street Paining and Sidewalk Chart Art. The Web Urbanist.

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May 242016

My parents didn’t buy me a set of alphabet blocks when I was a kid. They didn’t have to. I played with my mother’s set of blocks, blocks dating from the early 1930s. They were wonderful blocks. In addition to the ABC’s and the numbers, they had a red and yellow patterns on one side, train and circus puzzles on another, embossed pictures related to the blocks letter, and puzzles of important people in the community (the fireman, the policeman, the train conductor, the soldier, the sailor). The soldier was dressed in a World War I uniform, so I didn’t connect him to the images on the television in the early 1960s. I took it on faith that the sailor was important, even though there were very few sailors in south-central Montana. The paint was somewhat faded and the edges were worn, but I loved those blocks. Indeed, 50 years later, I still have them.

While the new blocks available on the market are not quite as visually interesting and do not have the same range of play possibilities of those produced in the years just after the turn of the century (1900-1925), they are still an important part of childhood and provide a world of play and learning possibilities, not only for children, but for adults as well.

History of Alphabet Blocks

Alphabet blocks were invented by John Locke (yeah…the English Enlightenment philosopher better known for political theory and philosophy) in 1683. In short, these puppies have been around a long time. Not quite as long as the United States, but pretty darn close.

In the early 17th Century, Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel (the great, great, great something of the American kindergarten movement), refined Locke’s idea, by imprinting the letters on carved wooden blocks.

The blocks available from a variety of outlets (ours come from Melissa and Doug and Maple Landmarks) are the descendents of the blocks created by a fellow named S.L. Hill, of Brooklyn, New York, who came up with a method of printing multiple colors and embossing wood. He is primarily responsible for making alphabet blocks commercially feasible.

In 2003, somewhat overdue, alphabet blocks were inducted into the Strong Museum’s National Toy Hall of Fame.

readFrederick Froebel’s Gift: Connecting the Spiritual and Aesthetic to the Real World of Play & Learning (Provenzo, American Journal of Play, Summer 2009)

The Strong Museum in Rochester New York (one of the 5 coolest museums in the United States)

Alphabet Block Games: Uses of ABC blocks beyond their presumed play life…

Perhaps it comes from being located in a 143 year old train station, but we believe in adaptive reuse. This extends to alphabet blocks. Under normal conditions, most folks set aside the alphabet blocks or sell them off at the first yard sale of the summer without thinking about their other uses. In an effort to give you the most bang for your buck and suggest some ways to incorporate those small wooden alphabet blocks in your family time, we would like to make some alternate suggestions.

First, if your blocks did not come with a small canvas bag, pick up a small tote bag. Beyond paper, pencils or pens, and an egg timer, it is the only other item you will need for most of the following games.

16 Blocks. (1 or more players)

Required materials: paper, pencils, egg timer, and blocks (plus tote)

Object of the game: find as many words as possible in a set period of time (2 minutes, 5 minutes, etc.). Players need to agree on the timeframe before you start.

Start by setting aside 5 vowel blocks. They will need to be placed face down and shuffled before each round.

Go around the circle and have each player draw a block from the bag and set it face up on the table. The group will continue to draw until there are 14 blocks. The last two players will choose two of the vowel blocks and set them in the middle of the table with the other blocks. The blocks should form a 4 x 4 square.

Set the egg timer to the agreed upon length of time and have at it. Each player writes down all of the words they can find using the 16 letters (14 consonants and 2 vowels). No letters can be used twice. The player with the longest list, wins the round.

Variations on the theme:

  • rather than rewarding the player with the longest list, give points to players who come up with words no one else found.
  • rather than making individual lists, one player acts as a secretary for the round. Players yell (or say, in a well modulated voice) “word” and announce the word they have found. The secretary keeps track of the word list and who made the suggestion. At the end of the round, each player gets two points for every word they found. This variation adds a bit of mayhem to the proceedings and probably isn’t appropriate for more public settings (except, perhaps, schools, where mayhem is a typical part of the day).

The game can also be played as a solitaire game, one very similar to those found in most Dell puzzle books.

Storytellers Anonymous (the more the merrier)

Required materials: blocks plus tote (may want to bring along the egg timer).

Object: to create outlandish stories.

Put the blocks in the tote. Agree on the length of each round (once around the circle, twice around the circle, or a given period of time).

The first player chooses a block from the bag, chooses a side of the block as the “game side” and hands it to the player to his or her right.

The second player must start a story, by creating a sentence using a verb and a noun starting with that letter. If the “game side” of the block is a picture, then the second player must use that word (horse, bee, barn, octopus) and a verb starting with the same letter. At the end of their sentence, the second player draws a block and hands it to the player to his or her right.

The third player must provide the next sentence of the story, using a verb and noun on the block they were handed, and connecting it to the sentence provided by the player before them.

The round continues until each player has had a turn or you have reached the agreed up length of time.

Variations on the theme:

Each player has to repeat all of the previous sentences before adding theirs.

Rather than going in one direction, allow movement in both directions (handing the block right or left).

If you are playing with a small child, let them pick the block and hand it to you. You make up the story. They continue to hand you blocks and you continue to add to the tale. ABC blocks are one of the world’s great storytelling tools.

The Car Trip Game (whoever happens to be inhabiting a seat in a moving vehicle… best used on very long trips)

Required materials: blocks, plus tote

Object: to find interesting stuff out the window. This is a bit of a takeoff on the alphabet sign game.

First, one of the parents or other adults in the car will have to play referee and block chooser.

The referee chooses a block and a side and announces the letter, picture, or number to the other passengers. The first one to spot the letter (a Z), a number (4), or the specific object (a barn) gets a point and the players move on to the next block. The blocks add a random element to more traditional travel games.

Variations on the theme:

Require that the letter or number be part of a license plate or a roadside sign.

Require that the images be found on a vehicle or a roadside sign.

There are hundreds of variations, including drawing two or three blocks and requiring that the letters or numbers or images have to be found in the same location.

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May 242016

Sitting in a drawer in my house, protected from being turned into a chew toy for the depot puppies, is an old, thread-bared, and well-loved bear, named “Bear.” He is approximately seven months older than I, so he is, in fact, old enough to qualify for our Thursday Senior discount here at the depot. He’s not very big, maybe a dozen inches, and looks like he has been through the wars. He started life in a toy shop in Calgary, Canada and arrived at the Presbyterian manse in Hilger, Montana via a crop duster. I keep him because he is my bear and has been part of my landscape for nearly 60 years.

Most folks, regardless of gender, remember a stuffed critter that defined at least part of their childhoods. For my father, it was a stuffed Steiff schnauzer; for my college roommate, it was a stuffed monkey. Both critters, like “Bear” were thread-bare and well-loved. In an age when toys are defined by electronic movement and the presence of gadgets, stuffed animals remain as one of the few, purely simple toys left.

A very brief history of stuffed critters….

Stuffed critters, the plush kind, have been around for just shy of 200 years (c. 1830), but they were not manufactured commercially until 1880, when Steiff, a German Company, was founded by Margarete and Fritz Steiff (brother and sister) . The first stuffed critter was an elephant and actually started life as a pin cushion. However, being astute, Ms. Steiff noticed that kids were not only drawn to the stuffed critters, they played with them. 132 years later, kids are still playing with them.

The popularity of stuffed animals, however, came to popularity during the original do-it-yourself period during the late 19th Century, when ladies magazines met the Arts and Crafts movement.

1902 and 1903 were banner years in the development of the stuffed critter industry, especially in Great Britian with the introduction of a stuffed version of Peter Rabbit, based on the books by Beatrix Potter, and in the United States when Morris Michtom introduced the Teddy Bear, a critter based on a political cartoon featuring President Teddy Roosevelt and a bear cub. Michtom, a Russian Jewish immigrant, and his wife, Ruth, started the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company a few years later, the same company that brought you Betsy Wetsy and Thumbalina, along with a whole raft of other toys over the years. Like many toy companies, Ideal has since been swallowed by Mattel.

The sock monkey (we carry a sock monkey kit in The Cambria Toy Station) is a far newer stuffed critter, although most folks may think it is older because it harkens back to the “make it at home” movement of the previous century. Sock monkeys were invented during the height of the Great Depression and illustrate what happens when kitsch meets toys. You can thank a sock company out of Rockford, Illinois, the Nelson Knitting Company, for introducing red heels to socks in 1932.

The Teddy Bear was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998, the first year the Hall of Fame was established by the Strong Museum.


Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing Wold of American ChildhoodGary S. Cross (1999). Harvard University Press.

Books With Bears

  • Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Robert Southey (1834)
  • Winnie the Pooh. A.A. Milne (1926)
  • A Bear Called Paddington. Michael Bond (1958)

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