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Local entrepreneurs promote empathy, equality through play

  • Amelia Brooks, 3, plays with a marble toy at A2Z Science & Learning Store in Northampton. André Boulay, co-owner of the A2Z, says that many traditional toys and activities that can help a child regulate or express feelings might be easily overlooked GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dolls of various genders are displayed at A Child’s Garden toy store in Northampton. Kate Glynn, owner of the store, keeps her shop as gender-neutral as possible. “Whenever I’m talking to customers, I never ask if it’s a boy and a girl. I say, ‘How old is the kid, what are they into?’” Kate said. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • André Boulay, owner of A2Z, talks about puppets as a toy that can encourage dialog with children. “I think the most important part for kids is being aware of themselves as people and being aware of their emotions,” he said. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Liz Rosenberg, left, owner of the Toy Box in Amherst, creates a neutral environment at the store. “I try to erase the idea of gender as much as possible. I would not order something that says it’s for girls or for boys, and I stay away from pink and blue for babies — I’ll go for cream or yellow or green.” GAZETTE PHOTO



For The Recorder
Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Every other day, it seems, there’s another headline comparing President Trump to a toddler. But he’s not the only one who needs to cool down sometimes, says André Boulay, co-owner of the A2Z Science & Learning Store in Northampton. “A lot of people who are running this country make you feel like they are going off some strong emotions, and you wish they could take a step back and acknowledge their emotions before making decisions,” André said on a recent winter day at the store, which he runs with his wife, Devon Boulay. “They probably need more toys in their life.” He paused. “Not sure if our president had dolls.”

Thanks to a local entrepreneur, Laurel Wider, plenty of boys around the Northampton area — and around the country — are playing with dolls. And not just ones that are in the “pink aisles” of big-box stores. Laurel, who has a 7-year-old son, founded Wonder Crew, a brand of dolls for boys.

“We know that play impacts child development,” says Laurel, a psychotherapist who lives in Northampton. “This means toys have the power to teach.”

But what should the toys be teaching? “It’s our job to teach kids how to be in this world,” said Kate Glynn, the owner of A Child’s Garden, a toy store in Northampton, standing in front of a wooden play kitchen. “Being kind to each other, being respectful of people who are different, and learning emotional intelligence to navigate the world.”

Emotional intelligence refers to “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically,” according to Oxford Dictionaries online. Coined by two psychologists, Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, in 1990, the term was popularized by science journalist Daniel Goleman, an alumnus of Amherst College (Class of ‘68), in his 1995 best-selling book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.”

André, who studied biology and psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and later pursued a Master’s degree there in neuroscience, knows the term well. “I think the most important part for kids is being aware of themselves as people and being aware of their emotions,” he said.”If you can take the time to acknowledge that ‘that’s my brain feeling anger right now,’ you’re much likelier to make a wise decision versus just running blind.”

In the days leading up to the holiday-shopping crush, André, the father of a 4-month-old girl and a 4-year-old boy, picked out some favorite toys, games and activities that he believes benefit children’s emotional development. “Friends and Neighbors: The Helping Game” by Peaceable Kingdom, for example, is a collaborative board game André likes because it cultivates emotional literacy and empathy. He pointed to a picture of a little girl crying in the rain. “She looks sad, and you need to find the item that will make her happy,” he said. “In this case, it’s an umbrella. Parents can teach their kid in a way, like, ‘OK, you’re frustrated, but this is how we deal with frustration, and this is how we fix and learn from a mistake.’”

He added that many traditional toys and activities that can help a child regulate or express feelings might be easily overlooked. Walking over to the craft section at the front of A2Z, André said that coloring can be “calming and meditative. Kids can communicate a lot of what they’re feeling through art, even if they can’t verbalize it.” Playing with puppets is also a way for kids to “channel their frustration through the animal” and “express crazy emotions and tell crazy stories,” he said.

A doll for boys

When her son was still in preschool, Laurel Wider found something missing in the “blue aisle” of many stores — and from the play landscape of boys in general — toys that encourage empathy were mostly marketed to girls.

“A few years ago, my son came from preschool with this message of ‘boys are not supposed to cry,’” Laurel said one recent chilly afternoon at The Roost in downtown Northampton. At the time, her son was only three. “Getting this kind of message was shocking to me,” she said, “especially in our progressive community.”

She took a sip of her coffee. “As I looked at toys that were more geared and marketed toward boys, I couldn’t find anything that promoted or encouraged nurturing or connection — at least nothing with a human face,” she continued. “We kind of assume that boys have the upper hand, but through my work with clients as a psychotherapist, I’ve seen a lot of male clients who struggle with this idea of masculinity… Strength comes in so many forms. It’s not just about conquest, but also about connection and the ability to be a good friend, to be in a relationship, and to be a good partner. That’s where I saw a gap in how we teach our boys.”

After interviewing more than 150 people — including parents, kids, educators, psychologists, and teachers around the country — Laurel found that many of them shared similar frustrations. Armed with research, she decided to design a doll for boys.

“I had zero experience,” Laurel said. “But one thing I thought would work — and after testing, it did work — was combining the adventure of an action figure with the emotional connection of stuffed animals. I thought, ‘Let’s take in that common denominator, plug in nurturing — and mix masculinity with nurturing.’”

Through the Valley Venture Mentors, a business accelerator program based in Springfield, Laurel created a business model for a doll for boys and won an initial grant of $27,000. In March 2015, she launched a 30-day Kickstarter campaign and eventually raised $40,000 toward her goal. “It’s incredible,” she said. “Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing situation. For toy manufacturing, you either place a big order or you can’t do it.”

Six months later, Laurel delivered the first Wonder Crew doll, Superhero Will. After she teamed up with PlayMonster, an award-winning mainstream toy and game company, the Wonder Crew brand expanded to include four dolls of different skin colors: In addition to Will are James, Erik, and Marco.

“Wonder Crew is all about connection and teamwork,” Laurel said as she proudly showed pictures on Instagram of kids bringing their dolls to different places — a dentist appointment, a birthday party. “It’s a character to protect and take care of, rather than something to fight or to idealize.”

After the innovative boy doll made its debut in the broader market, “it just exploded,” Laurel said. Wonder Crew started to sell nationwide in retail stores such as Target and Toys “R” Us, and on Amazon. In April 2016, Laurel was invited to speak at the White House conference “Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes in Media and Toys,” which was attended by influential companies such as Mattel, Disney and Warner Bros. And just last month, Wonder Crew was shortlisted as Toy of the Year in the doll category by The Toy Association.

Was she surprised by Wonder Crew’s national success? Yes. “But that was the goal,” Laurel said. “I really wanted to reach people who would be hard to reach — people both in red states and blue states.”

A2Z was the first toy store in the nation to carry Wonder Crew, in 2015. “We sold out during Christmastime, and we definitely restocked several times,” André said. Here in the Valley, he added, “A lot of people don’t really feel it’s a problem giving their kid a doll, no matter if it’s a boy or girl. But in the market across the country, there are places where that would be totally shocking, like ‘Wow — a doll for boys.’ ”

Breaking gender barriers

Like André, Liz Rosenberg, owner of the Toy Box in Amherst, doesn’t think gender stereotypes prevent her customers from buying toys for their children. “We’ve had a lot of people shop for dolls for boys, forever,” Liz said, sitting in the basement stockroom of her store. “For the 14 years that I’ve owned this business, people would buy baby dolls for boys and girls, alike.”

After going to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she studied planetary geology, Liz opened the Toy Box in 2003. “For my degree, I did a structural and geological map of a 1,000 -square-kilometer area in the northern hemisphere of Venus,” she said, standing by a shelf of rock collections. “Now I own a toy store! Whoosh!” She waved her arms as if shifting the air in front of her chest. “Bringing joy to so many people is priceless. It’s my salary.”

Liz attends the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association’s annual trade show to meet manufactures and retailers across the country, and she finds an interesting split in the market’s response to gender. “The world of independent toys is quite different from mass market,” Liz said. “Nationwide, in independent toys stores, you’ll find less gender breakdown, and in the mass market you’ll find more.”

But even running an independent toy store, Liz is sometimes shocked by the blunt gender messages in toys. “Once I asked for a Mattel catalog, and it came in two parts: one for boys and one for girls,” Liz said. “I held these two parts in my hands, and I said, ‘Where am I gonna find the games?’ ” After some searching, she found games filed under the ‘boys’ category. “Why? Why are the games in ‘boys’?” She rolled her eyes. “I was so floored by that. This is an international company!” (She added that Mattel added a catalog for all children a few years ago.)

At the Toy Box, Liz creates a more neutral environment. “I try to erase the idea of gender as much as possible. I would not order something that says it’s for girls or for boys, and I stay away from pink and blue for babies — I’ll go for cream or yellow or green. This is our wrapping paper,” Liz said, pointing out a gift box wrapped in green paper with a colorful pattern. “I don’t care if it’s a girl or a boy. We can change the ribbon if people want. But it’s a generic wrapping color, and it’s happy.”

“I know my customer. I am my customer,” added Liz, who has two daughters, ages 12 and 17. Among other things, she has introduced to her customers her favorite card-based social game, Happy Salmon, which she says “has no educational value but is absolutely hilarious,” and a soybean fidget toy that “is an item we carry that’s so Amherst, I don’t know anything that’s more Amherst.” She laughed. “With the farmers market, natural eating and everything, you know. I felt everybody in Amherst needs one, unless they are allergic to soy.”

While some toys appeal to everyone, others are suited to kids with specific needs. “I want people to think, What’s most appropriate for my child? What do they like? What do they need help with?” she said. “Once, a customer came in and said, ‘I have a child who gets very frustrated when plans change at the last minute.’ There’s this amazing card game called “Obstacles.” It’s a game, so it doesn’t belong in a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ section. I think it’s so much more important to fit a child’s need as opposed to who they’re supposed to be.”

For Kate Glynn, owner of A Child’s Garden, playing with so-called boys’ toys was never a problem. “When I was little, my favorite toy was my train set,” said Kate, who grew up in New York and Boston. (She later went to Smith College, where she studied psychology, education, and sociology with a focus on children and family.) “I had a wooden train set, and my best friend, William, across the street, also had the same train set. We would mix them together.”

Like A2Z and the Toy Box, Kate keeps her shop as gender-neutral as possible. “Whenever I’m talking to customers, I never ask if it’s a boy and a girl. I say, ‘How old is the kid, what are they into?’” Kate said. “Because toys are toys. It’s adults who patrol the gender lines — the kids just play.”

“Every kid needs to learn how to do pretend play. Every kid needs to learn to play with dolls. Every kid needs to learn about building and three-dimensional space,” she continued. “The things that, stereotypically, girls play with or boys play with — developmentally, our brain needs to do all of that.”

Also on the shelves of A Child’s Garden are more than a few children’s books that shatter gender stereotypes. She selected most of the titles after she bought the store over 11 years ago, she said: “When someone asks if I have favorites, these are the ones I will pull out and say, ‘These are the great ones; everyone should have these.’”

Among her recommendations are “The Paper Bag Princess” by Robert Munsch.”A dragon burns everything down, and the only thing the princess got to put on is a paper bag,” Kate explained. “The prince is scared of the dragon, and the princess is like, ‘I’ll outwit the dragon and save everyone.’ The prince says, ‘But you’re not dressed like a princess.’ She says, ‘screw you,’ basically.”

“William’s Doll” by Charlotte Zolotow is another one of Kate’s favorites; it was first published in 1972, during the women’s movement, and tells the story of a little boy who gets teased for wanting a doll.

When it comes to using toys, games, and books to teach tolerance and encourage emotional sensitivity, all three independent toy-store owners agree that the Valley has been ahead of the curve. “We have an amazing community that is accepting,” André said. “A lot of people come in, and their little boy wants the cute little animals in dresses — that’s fine. We have little boys come in, and they want to wear a dress, and that’s fine. That’s a beautiful thing to just let kids be kids. As they grow and learn, that’s their decision to make — what they want to play with.”

As some children crowded around the toy-display tables, André called attention to a wooden plaque featuring a quote by Fred Rogers: Play is really the work of childhood.

“Mister Rogers was one of the first people to acknowledge that kids need to express emotions and that it’s really important that you talk about how you feel,” said André, who grew up watching the beloved TV series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which first aired in the U.S. in 1968.

“Play is not only a simulation of real life,” André said. “It is real life.”