Hey there, and welcome to this episode of Parenting in the First Three Years. I am really excited about this topic and my guest. We’re going to talk about the good and not so good of toy subscriptions.

This whole notion of having things delivered to your house on a regular basis based on your preferences is a really neat thing that is part of what parents have as an option now. And so we’re just going to talk about what to look for, what not to look for, the goods and bads and all of those kinds of things. But my guest today is Zlata Stankovic Ramirez.

Zlata and I go way, way back in early childhood. We have been working on things together for many years, and she is a dear friend and just a wealth of information. So thank you so much for being here, Zlata. 

I’m so happy to have you. Thank you so much for having me. It’s always a pleasure to be with you, Anne.

We have so much fun together discussing topics related to early childhood and child development. I am honored to be here again and to speak about this topic that I think is an important topic for parents.

Well, why don’t you start just by telling us really briefly, because I know you could probably talk for a really long time about this, but just your research that you have done on environments for young children, and then also give us a little plug about your own children.

Sure, absolutely. So I have been fascinated with physical environments for young children. The correct terminology is built environments, and what that means is those are any environments that are made by the hands of humans. And so that could be a classroom. It could also be a playground that’s outside that kids go to. So something that has been altered by us as humans. 

And I really got interested when I was a preschool teacher and a preschool director. And most importantly, when I was a mentor to other centers, I really got interested in how can we make sure that quality is happening, and what are the first steps that we need to take in order to start improving an environment, start improving the classroom for the better, and helping children and teachers have high quality settings for young children. So to me, it was very natural to start with where they were physically.

 You know, did they have defined centers? Did they have appropriate materials in those centers? Were they rotating them enough and often enough? And did they have things that children were actually interested in? And then what about some of those neglected centers? So my research really led me down that path. I did ask at Eastville Community College where I was teaching at the time, and I’d been a lab coordinator. I asked four children, where did you like to play, and where did you not like to play, and why? And it was fascinating to see what children said.

Most prefer block, center, and dramatic play. And most neglected center was the science center. And part of the reason was because there weren’t any new materials in that center. It was the same tired plastic bugs and the same tired, you know, magnifying glasses. And so children really, the novelty wore off. They’ve used them and played with them, and nothing new was happening. 

And so that really led me down the path of asking teachers, how do you make decisions about environments? And that’s what my dissertation was centered around. When I was working on my doctorate at Texas Women’s University that I completed in 21, my questions were, hey, when do you pay most attention to the physical environment? And a lot of teachers said at the beginning of the school year, or over winter break, or over summer break. But then I also asked, how often do you change centers? And that varied so much, Ann.

I mean, I’m talking daily, weekly, monthly, every three months, not at all. So it was all over the place. And it really led me to really be thoughtful and reflective and think through, okay, well, how often should we change materials? Obviously, when children’s interests wane, when they’re no longer going to that space, then we need to make those changes.

But then also taking it further, how do we as parents do this at home? Many parents struggle, right? They have so many toys. They have so many things. And a lot of times, their children have outgrown certain toys.

But to be honest, parents grow attached to those toys. And they have fond memories of the materials and books. And they’re not quite ready to let go.

And so I’m raising children myself. I have an almost 10-year-old. I have a son who will be 10 in August, and a daughter who will be two in September. And so I get to see this. Just now, I was trying to read a book to Lola. We just moved recently, a month ago. I was trying to read a book to my daughter that she has clearly outgrown. She is over the book. And she even closed it and said, no, this is not the book I want to read.

And so I think sometimes for us, we also have to learn when have they outgrown our books? When have they outgrown our toys? And then also how much to have, how often to change it, and what to get? So these are all the questions that I think many parents struggle with. So maybe we can address some of those today together. Right.

Yeah. You know that Americans in the United States have spent $12 billion on toys in 2024. And we are recording this in May. So we’re not even half of the year in. 

Of course, you know, this is a wide range of things. And, you know, but that’s a crazy amount of money. Another statistic I found is that the average household spends around $300 a year.

The average grandparent spends about $500 a year on toys. There’s a lot of money being spent out there. And I know that money is, you know, something we need to keep our eyes on. 

And we certainly don’t want to be buying a bunch of stuff that our kids don’t really want or like or play with, not learning from, you know, setting up a space in your own home or advising people who are setting up a space for their, we’re talking to zero to three here. So, you know, infants and toddlers and young threes about how to set up a space. What are some things that you like for them to know and remember as they set that up? 

Absolutely. So I have some just general good tips that I always use when I’m working with families or schools, especially serving children zero to three. The first thing is the materials need to be accessible to children.

They need to be at their level. And so sometimes in the environment, parents and teachers alike both will say things like, well, they know not to touch that. And they know that that’s, those are my books. 

And those are my special things and my expensive china or vases or things of such. And I think that that’s very difficult for young children zero to three. So a rule I have, and now I’m actually going through the process of setting up in our new home that we just moved into that’s new to us. 

But the rule is if my child can reach it, then it should be something that she should be able to interact with. And so that is a really good rule of thumb. If your child can reach it, then those should be the items that you want them to reach.

And so the things that are at their level should be things that they can interact with and play with. Anything that’s sharp or valuable, obviously, or that you don’t want them accessing needs to be out of their reach. So I think that’s just a good rule to start with.

The other thing is, that’s rule one. Rule two, and I think this is an important one, is that you are intentional with providing materials in every space you’re in for the child to interact with. And so, for example, near my kitchen, there is a play kitchen for Lola that’s set up for her to play with. 

In our living room to the right, there’s a play space for Lola, where she can go and interact and do things with a table that’s her height with chairs, you know, obviously blocks, books, soft toys, and other materials that she can interact with. Same behind me, same thing in our bedroom. So there’s no place in this home where my young toddler who’s 0 to 3 can go and not have things that are specifically picked out for her and specifically placed in the environment for her. 

Why and how I came to this conclusion is because children want to be where we are. And so if we’re in the kitchen, they want to be in the kitchen. If we’re in the living room, they want to be in the living room. 

If we’re in our bedroom, you know, sometimes if I’m getting ready in the morning or, you know, putting on makeup or doing my hair, getting ready for work, like she wants to be right there next to me. And young children 0 to 3, they want to be with us. And so instead of, you know, spending so much time and effort in setting up one space for them in your home, like their room, for example, and putting all the things in their room, I personally believe that it’s probably best to have things throughout the home so that they can engage.

And you can make it tasteful. You know, sometimes I think parents worry too, is my whole home going to look like it just, you know, it’s full of toys and like toys and books that, you know, like the only children live here. I think there is a way to make it tasteful where they can be a mix of adult spaces and adult items and children spaces and children items. 

So I think that’s a good second rule. And I think the third rule is to really be mindful of what you have picked out. I personally do not love toys that make the noise, light up, they’re loud, and they do all the work for the child.

If the toy is talking, if it’s singing, lighting up for children, then it’s doing all the work for 0 to 3. We want them to do the work and use their imagination. And so I really try to stay away from those toys. Now, here’s the caveat to that.

Family members will buy those toys for your children. That will inevitably happen. It happened with my first child. It’s happening with my second child. And so, and I think that we sort of also have to decide our rules around gifts, right? What are appropriate gifts? And that’s something I think that’s evolved with me and my family and the grandparents in my life who love my children and want to give them gifts and lavish them with things. You know, I’ve made comments like, well, if you want them to have these toys, they can live at your house because when we come to play, you know, you can feel free to have the materials that you think you want them to experience.

You know, my son did have a chair that sang and lit up and did all the work and it has remained at my in-laws house and they have it for Lola now too. And that’s fine. And Lola probably really likes it, right? Exactly.

Because it’s novel to her, right? When she does something she does not have at her home. So, I think sometimes too, parents can also get very rigid and strict, but we can’t replicate our environments in our, you know, brother or sister or in-laws or mom’s other homes. But what we can do is explain and also have boundaries about what we want in our environments in our own homes, right? And so, I did receive some of those toys and I did keep them in a box and I would sit and play with my kids when they would engage with those items.

You know, I think that we have to be mindful of what we want and what we don’t want. And we have to really also be mindful of not overstimulating children with too many items. So, that’s rule number four.

You know, too many items can be too much. Recent research I just read states that children should not have more than six to nine types of things in their area, in each particular area, right? So, that means if they have blocks, if they have musical instruments, balls, books, right? All those items count as one unit, one type of item. So, we should really, especially for young children zero to three, we should really keep those items, you know, to about six types of items up to nine types of items.

So, even if we have an abundance of materials and toys, it’s best that we rotate, right? Which brings me to rule number five. We should rotate those items out at least every four to 12 weeks, you know? And just think about a season, right? Summer, spring, winter, fall. I always tell parents, this is a great time for you to sort of really look at the environment, observe the child, see what they’re actually playing with and what they’re interacting with and what they’re not, and then rotate, you know? So, when you rotate them out, here are some new novel things. 

Sometimes I have brought things back that maybe were part of last year and, you know, something we did and we bring it back and it has a new use and a new excitement around it. So, rotating toys is extremely important, right? And then rule six, how to buy the right things. I will tell you personally, you can never go wrong buying things from places where your school purchases things from. 

Some of those are Lakeshore and Kaplan, right? Community play things. Preschools typically purchase furniture and materials and items from those places. And so, you really can’t go wrong because, one, they give you the materials that are appropriate for the age, and they’re also materials that last and materials that have a learning purpose.

So, I think that’s an easy way to decipher, right? Now, rule number seven, what about all those toy prescriptions, you know, that you can do? There are many, many out there. I have tried one, so I can only speak to the one that I’ve tried. I’ve tried LoveEvery.

And, you know, some of the toys, now that I’m working with my young daughter, she’s 19 months now, some of the toys she really loved and they endured the test of time and there are things she’s interested in and others she didn’t take as much interest in, just like she would with any other amount. But what the advantage of, for example, that particular prescription is, is that if you have the set, you get a set every two months when they’re zero to one and every three months when they’re one to four, I believe, or five up to five, I think is how far they go, you can sell the entire set for half price online, which brings me to rule number eight. You should want to resell or re-gift or repurpose or recycle or donate the toys that you’re no longer using.

I think this is really, really key because at clutter, a cluttered garage, a cluttered attic, a cluttered room, a cluttered home really does add stress to the family. And so these are intentional decisions that our family has to make and say, okay, where are we storing these things? Where are we keeping them and how long? I did keep lots of books and toys and items from Daniel in a storage unit. And I am using quite a bit of those items and recycling them for Lola.

But now that I’m done having children, once Lola’s done using them, they are being either gifted, recycled, sold, discarded, or moved out of our space and our lives. Now, if there’s like a special lovey or a special book or something that’s very unique and special, of course we have keepsakes and we keep those items for our children when they grow up. But again, being mindful of not allowing toys to build up to where it’s so overwhelming is also the other piece, right? And then that also brings me to number 10.

I think a lot of times we think about what’s in our environment in a very passive way. And I think that we have to move with more intention, not just for our children, but for ourselves and also figure out how to blend. And I think this is the important thing in homes, how to blend our items and their items.

For early childhood classrooms, I talk about what’s on the walls. And I have an 80-20 rule. 20% of things should be for us as adults, pretty pictures or something that means something to us, maybe a photo of our family or whatnot. 

And 80% of things that are stimulating to the children in our environment. And I also feel the same way about our own homes. There should be a blend of things that are on the walls for us and things that are on the walls for children, but also being very mindful to not overstimulate children. 

So there is a balance, there is a blend, and it does take intention, it does take time. And I do think we should allow ourselves also less pressure and more grace in achieving those environments and really like working on one space at a time and giving ourselves time for some rooms to be done and some to be in progress of getting to a place where you have the right balance of adult items, child items, plants, decor, the correct furniture. You know, there’s just so many things that go into creating a home atmosphere that’s relaxed and welcoming to adults and children.

And I think sometimes we put pressure on ourselves to maybe do more or be done quicker than we need to. And I think as families, families typically report to me that they just feel overwhelmed by all the stuff, all the toys, all the games, and not knowing how to be creative with how to have the right things in big spaces, which I think it’s okay to ask for help. And it’s okay to ask for someone who knows to give you some assistance.

 Right. And a really neat thing about the way toy manufacturers and just the suppliers are making toys and storage and all of those things so beautiful so that they can be in your living spaces and match your color schemes and all of those kinds of things. I love the cushion sets that kids can get.

And the fact that you can get them in the neutrals now where, you know, a certain number of years ago, everything was only primaries and all of these, you know, big, bright colors. And I mean, who wants that in their family room, right? I mean, we shouldn’t say that, but it just, it’s not exactly aesthetically pleasing to other people who might come into your home, right? Yeah, absolutely. And I think, you know, even like I have those toddler mats that are one inch that you can wipe. 

So even those are now like, I have one that perfectly matches my sofa in my living room. You know, so you’re absolutely right. There are now, I think the industry is responding to families wanting things that do blend in and wanting things that are neutral and that are aesthetically pleasing and appropriate for children and stepping away from the loud primary colors. 

And part of that too is because we know through research that those loud primary colors can really overstimulate young children. And so there is a shift, you know, even if you look in classrooms, you know, most recently I’ve been looking at furniture design, obviously, like I constantly stay on top of physical classroom environments, so furnishings and materials and such, but you will see there is a shift towards more calming, neutral colors. There is a shift towards things that are more aesthetically pleasing and just more calming in general to adults and children alike. 

I think that we are seeing some of that change and not to say that you can’t have pops of beautiful color and vibrancy in life because you can, you know, but then where’s that line where it’s so overstimulating that, you know, neither you or the children can focus or feel at peace or feel inspired or creative in that space, right? So color does matter. Color choice is so key and crucial. That’s a good thing to keep in mind as you’re looking at childcares, you know, when you’re looking for an environment for your child to be in while you go to work each day, you want to find a place that feels calm and controlled and peaceful for them there as well.

Let’s go back and revisit the toy subscriptions, because that’s really kind of the crux of this topic is, you know, the good parts about them. And I can talk about the ones that I’m familiar with, that I have purchased myself for my grandkids. And then maybe some of the things that we might need to just keep in mind as we are making this decision about signing up for these kinds of things. 

The two that I know of, and we’ve only had one delivery so far of the Lalo kit for my newest grandbaby, but the kit we got was for the three to six month olds. And, and it was, it’s beautiful. I mean, it’s just really beautifully created. 

The toys are right on target for that age group. They’ve got some beautiful guidance for parents on how to play with their child. And it’s a good value. You know, I think it was $35 and there’s probably, I don’t know, six or seven toys in there, but they also have a buyback program as well, which I think is a really neat thing that the, the subscription companies have, have created the ability to recycle and that kind of thing. 

I think that’s the valuable part of same with me and LoveEvery, I think the booklets, you know, if you read them, it gives you what to do. It gives you the why some activities you can do with children. And just what’s going on developmentally.

And I think obviously for us who are in the field, you know, that might not be as needed, but however, you know, majority of parents want to know, you know, what is my child supposed to be doing? And are they on track? And what are some activities that I can do with my child? So I found those to be extremely well done. 

And even on the app, there are extended activities you can do at home. And so I think you’re getting with those subscriptions, you are getting more than just the toys. You’re getting a system. 

You’re getting to sort of see where the child is developmentally and track them. And also what other activities you can do at home that are appropriate for that age group, which I think is the other added value beyond just the beautiful toys that, you know, are well-made and recyclable and on target. You’re also getting a whole package with it.

And I think that’s why some of the cost can seem quite a bit for parents more than they would want to spend, but you have to sort of look at what all are you getting as part of the package. Yeah. And I would expect too, that if you know that you have a package coming in two weeks, then you might not be as likely to pick something up when you’re at target or something like that.

You know, you might just say, well, let’s just wait and see what we get and make sure we don’t buy what we’re getting ready to have delivered. Another subscription, and I can’t recall the name of it, but we had it for the other set of grandkids. They had it for several years.

And then they just kind of finally said, we’re really probably done with this. But it was a book subscription. And every, however often I told them to send it, they would send a box of books.

But the cool thing about it was you could look at, it was kind of like those clothing things where they send you a bunch of clothes and you, you know, decide what you want and send them back. Well, that’s how it was with these books. You would read them and keep the ones you wanted. 

And they would just bill me for the ones that they wanted and then send the rest back. But you could still read the books before you sent them back, right? And let the kids handle them. And so that was a really, really neat one.

And what I knew, because I saw all the books and I’m very familiar with children’s literature, it was new stuff coming out. And so children’s authors were able to get their work out there and in the hands of families and, you know, get some feedback really, and see what’s working, what’s not working. And so that was a really cool one.

And it was a little bit outside the box of some of the other toy things. So what about the not so good? Let’s talk about that. What would be the reasons to not get a subscription? So I think like the ones that are full of plastic, you know, we have to sort of think through how valuable are they to children, that are loud in colors, that are making noise, that are doing all the work for the child, and that are really closed-ended. 

Toys that you just like can do one thing with, but can’t really use them for anything else. So, you know, that’s sort of a discerning eye can tell that. And parents need to be intentional with that, right? And I think, too, sometimes when parents get online and see these different options, and something’s $20 and something’s $100, you know, they tend to pick, well, you know, what they can afford.

What I think another really big option is, is some of these resale sets, right, that you might get for half price that maybe are $100, but you get them for $50. They’re in good shape. Families take good care of them.

You disinfect them and use them. That’s absolutely a viable option. I would definitely pick quality, you know, as a number one reason to get certain items. 

And I also do think, too, just beyond toy subscriptions and toys in general, there are lots of items that are very cheap to get and make, but then that takes some research on the parents’ part and time that some parents have and some parents don’t, right? I was part of a program at my college for families that are below the poverty level line, and they gave wonderful ideas about how to use typical household items to develop some of these toys that you would typically have children play with that are zero to three. But again, it takes research and time and effort. So I do think that you, as a parent, might want to stay away from toys that are, you know, closed-ended, that do one thing.

You want to stay away from toys that are plastic. You want to stay away from things that are made poorly and are going to break very quickly, because then you’re having to rebuy toys soon after. And so always sort of think through the long game, which is what can these children play with? I will tell you, in my home, something that’s been a tried and true are these magna tiles.

And they are extremely expensive, but my son has played with them since he was six to eight months, you know, very young, and he’s almost 10 now, and he still plays with magnet tiles. Wooden blocks, you know, he went through a phase playing with those. And we have those in our saving them for Lola, because I know she’ll get in her phase when she’s building and needs them.

So there are things that you can purchase that will, one, last over time, and children will want to utilize for many years. And also that you can reuse with other children that you plan on having. And so that’s something to think through.

Now, as far as books are concerned, I have not sold a single one of my son’s books, knowing that I was going to have potentially one more child than I do now. And even now, you know, I am really going to have to be intentional with deciding which of these children’s books, you know, I want to sell or recycle or gift and which ones I want to keep. I love having a children’s library for all ages, right? So books, I think, are harder for me than toys.

But again, there are toys that will stand the test of time and that are worth the investment. You know, wooden blocks are worth the investment. 

In our family, magnet tiles have been worth the investment. Books have been worth the investment. Legos, blue Duplos. Legos. Balls. All the standards.

Yeah. All the typical things that children have played with for years are a worthy investment. And so I think thinking through some of that and deciding where do you want to spend your money and where is it worth to spend the money? I will tell you, children do go through phases. 

You know, we have collected, you know, different things with my now almost 10 year old. We had probably three or four folders of Pokemon cards. He’s no longer into Pokemon cards.

And so, you know, that’s something, you know, that they outgrow. But then of course, like we’re going to keep the ones that are more valuable and special and rare. And the rest of them, you know, either resell or gift or donate. 

And so they do go through these phases of they are into a certain type of thing. And then it’s a phase and it ends. One of my friends did even say with her son, when he turned 14, he was no longer interested in Legos.

And she had, you know, just mountains of Legos. So what do we do with that? Right? So it is something to think through. Children do outgrow things and you can keep a few special items as keepsakes.

But the rest, the parent has to also learn to let go. Which I think is sometimes harder than for the child. Right. 

And so there are ways to let go that are very good. One is to, you know, donate your toys to a toy library where people can go check out toys and use them a while and then bring them back and somebody else can play. The little free libraries that you see, if you’ve got those in your community.

I love to take books that I no longer want and put them in those libraries because I know that some kid will look in there and find it and be delighted to take that book. And I would just encourage you to, you know, keep those things in mind and to exchange toys with your friends and maybe even create your own place where you do a toy exchange. You know, just like we pass along hand-me-down clothes, let’s do that with toys as well and make good use of those really good things.

Make good use of our money dollars, you know. Another thing that I want to add though to them, maybe the not so good of the subscriptions is that you might get duplicates. You might have already have those things and then now you have another one that you really can’t use.

Of course, there’s a great opportunity to gift someone with those brand new toys, but that might be just another way to think about it. But I would say for all the grandparents out there, do the toy subscriptions. It’s such a fun thing to get a box of stuff and to open it up to see what’s inside and to play. 

And I also think to collaborate with the parent, right? For sure, yes, ask. What do you want? Right, and also their ideas because some parents only want Montessori toys and other parents will take learning toys and other parents do want the, you know, the noise making, talking, light up toys. And so I think it’s that communication piece is important too, to sort of be on the same page.

I always tend to gift books because most people love children’s books and want children’s books. So that’s always a great gift to give for birthday parties or Christmas or whatnot, but you know, holidays and such. But I also do think that sometimes kids do get duplicates even for holidays or birthdays.

And then what do you do with those? So thinking through some of that, but it’s, I think the other piece is too, to be really tuned into what the child needs and what the child wants. Children are very clear in their choices. They could be in the most beautifully intentionally arranged space with the most amazing materials.

And, you know, they go and color with crayons on paper that they could get anywhere because that’s what they’re interested in at the moment. And so I think we have to really be intentional looking at our children’s interests and providing them with materials that they are going to want to engage with. Because at the end of the day, it’s about what they learn from those materials that makes that material a good material for that child at that moment.

Right. Which is a great statement to end with. Observe your child, be responsive to them, and do the things that, you know, that make them tick. 

And that’s the delight of parenting is to watch your children and see what makes them tick. I’m going to put in the show notes a link to a download, if you are interested, it’s called 20 Ways to Play with Your Infant and Toddler. And it’s all about just using household items. 

And I’ve got it broken down from zero to, I think, 24 or 36 months using things like balls and things that you can put in the bathtub that might be bath toys, but they might also just be things you have around the house. Kitchen stuff, just scarves and pieces of fabric and books, of course. And then there’s some do’s and don’ts about playing with your child. 

And so I’m going to add that there. And this this might be a good thing to look at as you are thinking about toys. So as we wrap up this conversation, Zlata, what would be your word of encouragement to parents as we sign off? My word of encouragement is do not get overwhelmed with all of the choices. 

Try to remember that, you know, when you grew up and what your childhood was like, and what did you enjoy doing most? And what did you enjoy playing with most? And then observe your child and watch them in these different environments. There’s so many play spaces now we can take our children. They do go with us to Target. They do go with us to Lake Shore. They go with us wherever we take them. And your children will show you what they’re interested in and want to play with.

And they will surprise you. And so don’t allow the amount of options to overwhelm you. Try to remember that some of those basics are wonderful and children still love them and still want to use them. 

And observing and watching your child will give you all the clues you need to make the right decision. So trust your child and your own instinct and what is best for them. And know that you got this and you will figure it out as you go each day, each month, each year.

Beautiful. Thank you so much. That’s really, really great.

Great words. Thank you so much, Ann. You have a great day. 

Bye. Bye bye. If you loved today’s episode, take a minute and subscribe to our podcast.

And one last thing. I’d love to pray for you and your baby if you’d like for me to. You can email me at ask at nurturednoggins.com. Your request can be as simple as just one word or it can include an explanation. Either way, you can trust that I will pray for you. It’s a quiet, simple way that I can connect with you and your family and support you in your parenting journey.