Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Plastic toys we HATE...

PJ Sparkles Mini Playset Pj's Magical Lights Bedroom review

***0 Stars*** NO STARS***

Ok, I mean I hate. PJ Sparkles. I hate you. What a waste of money/space/plastic/earth's resources/pollution...argh. This was a birthday present to my daughter from a classmate. My daughter says she 'loves' it. But she doesn't play with it. It sits, in all its pink and purple plastic-y large awkward footprint take-up-a-whole-shelf kind of way in her room, and my dear daughter, sweet girl, does not know how to 'hate' it properly OR how to play with it.

On the very first night, she sadly pushed all the cardboard paper 'knick-knacks' and tiny plastic hairbrushy things that came with the castle-ish playset inside the turret-like 'closet' and shut the rounded door as best as she could and sighed. "PJ Sparkle's crown won't stay on her head, and her things don't fit in her closet, Mama. And her bed is so hard and she keeps sliding off. Can you help me to get her teddy bear to sit on her table?" Um, no, sorry honey, her table is so slanted, nothing will stay on there at all(!).

I asked her if maybe PJ Sparkles is just not a very good toy and that maybe we should think about giving her away (yeah, like to the garbage can, except I feel even worse about contributing to a landfill, so it'll go to the Salvation Army) but my Dd5 said no, not yet. She still 'likes her ok' but even so was very disapointed in the transformation of PJ Sparkles short skirt to long nightgown. "I thought she was going to have a real nightie, but she's just sleeping in her day clothes, Mama. Can you make her a real nightie?"

No honey, sorry. I can't waste one single second more on this awful toy, except to write about it.

So. I am writing about this toy because I really, truly, thought this was a dollar store toy, it is soooo cheaply made. Her chest and the playset do 'sparkle' or rather, light up, for a few seconds, but only 2 of the 3 lights over the 'mirror' (a bubbly bit of junk) do work and overall it just looks and feels so cheap. Really like a dollar store item. Or a $2 store item.
And then I saw it at Target. Wow. Shame on you Target. Made by Zizzle. (Huh? Who?) Whoever you are Zizzle, shame on you too. I mean, outside of the nearly $20 this 'cost', what are the real costs? How much new waste was produced making this awful playset? How much new landfill or - ack- incinerator toxins? Not to mention the cost to my good humor whenever I see the thing taking up valuable space in her room/my house!

So, anyhow, I did cut her a piece of polar fleece for a quickie doll blanket, and it does help to keep her on that plastic, slanty bed, but I swear, the doll and the playset has sat, untouched, ever since. Just a new piece of clutter to be dusted around. Argh.

This piece of awful is on it's way OUT.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Plastic toys we LOVE...

I don't want to get too Montessori/Waldorf -i-ish on y'all, so I'm going to include some of our all-time favorite plastic toys in these reviews of mine.

I'm hoping these reviews help other families to have less 'quantity' and more 'quality' toys.. I am in the process of weeding out our toy bins...which can be a challenge, considering that we have both boys and girls as well as baby, 'little kid' and 'big kid' toys.

Ok, so here is my first favorite plastic toy review:
Playmobile 1-2-3
Five stars! Larger than regular Playmobile toys (Bumble-bee girl measures 2.25 x 1.25 inches), these streamlined, smooth plastic toys are just lovely and feel great in the hand. Sturdy, well-made, nicely jointed, (at neck and waist) with simplified shapes, this line is safe for babies and yet still interesting enough for my Dd5 and Ds6. (Darling daughter who is 5, and Darling son who is 6.) We have even used these as tub toys and as sandbox toys. They can take it, and they do dry out, (but sand in my house is a pet peeve of mine, so unless we buy seperate toys for outside use only, these are to stay indoors only).

The people fit nicely where they should (on the horse, in the cart, etc) and the animals fit nicely in our favorite (also plastic) barn (I'll be back later today to post that review).
I also really like the charming and whimsical bumble bee girl and her spinning flower and the lady-bug-boy on his snail. Strange and perfect, perfectly strange? The flower spins, the snail rattles, the baby loves them and I do too. I think I'm in a 'woodland' phase these days...can't get enough fairys and gnomes and mushrooms...and bug-kids...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Grimm's Spiel & Holz Wooden Rainbow (and how to finish wood with a non-toxic sealer)

Grimm's Spiel & Holz Wooden Rainbow
****4 stars****

Ok, so we just got this in the medium size (best price $28.95 at and I have to say I am loving this toy almost as much as the kids are.

But. BUT.
When it arrived (just before Easter, an Easter basket present for the 14 month old) it was SOOOO rough, I could NOT believe it. The inside curve of each rainbow was nearly splintery!

I wish I had taken pictures. I had my husband feel it, and he thought I should return it.
However, this toy gets such great reviews online, that I decided it might just be an anomaly...anyhow, I decided to 're-finish' it.

Yup. I'm crazy.

But it was not really hard, I just sanded it (rather lightly, afraid I was sanding off the color, but as you can see it still is quite colorful) especially the inner sides of the curves and then oiled each piece with mineral oil on a rag and then waxed each piece with a mix of beeswax and mineral oil, about 2 parts oil to 5 parts beeswax.

How? Just melt grated beeswax in a puddle of mineral oil in a double boiler (be careful not to do this directly in a saucepan, as beeswax can catch fire!) and apply while warm to your wood with a rag. Allow to cool and then buff off excess with the same rag. (I used a cloth diaper.) You can even get a little shine if you repeat the process. (I did it just the once.)

The result is what you see in my pictures, and is exactly what I wanted and thought I was going to get when I opened the box. (Are you familiar with Plan Toys? They feel GREAT, and are less expensive. But they are usually less of an 'open-ended' sort of toy.)
Now, to be fair, this toy arrives sealed in a plastic wrapper, so there is no way the people at could have known that this rainbow felt splintery and 'dried out', but it did. Dried out is a good way to describe it. Just not great. Like it would snap in half if a kid stood on it. But now it really feels great. Really.
When I was looking online for a good non-toxic finish to apply to these, I read that wood likes oil, needs oil, or it becomes brittle, and that beeswax has been used for centuries as a wood 'sealer' but has such a large molecule that it needs to be mixed with oil so that it can penetrate the wood.
So this finish was pleasant to work with, smelled great, and is considered food-safe, although some people have a beef with the mineral oil aspect.

I even like it well enough now that I would be willing to 'fix' their nesting boxes and bowls, if those arrived in the same condition. I'm considering ordering them even as I write this.

Has anyone puchased these and found them to be smooth?
Was my shipment just a deviation from the norm?

I did read a review that said 'because Spiel & Holz does not finish their wood with a shiny finish, these are 'easy to stack' (Haba's blocks are a tad on the shiny/slippery side) but I really received such a rough and splintery-feeling toy that I did not want to give it to my kids at all. Especially not the baby.

Anyhow, I would have given it 5 stars had I not had to work to get the finish 'right'.

Because really, it is a great open-ended toy and has been played with every single day by every single one of my kids, plus the grown-ups like it too.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Toy Reviews!

I have a not-so-secret passion for 'em! We have too many, like many over-indulgent American households do, though my goal is, as always, to only have beautiful, interesting and 'smart' toys...and occasionally do weed out the toys I have grown to 'hate'(...more about those later).

I actually have a quote pasted above my desk that reads:

"The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst beautiful things"
Ha. How's that for a sweeping rationalization for retail therapy!

Well, in any case, we have some favorite toys that I'd like to let you in on before that awful CPSIA law takes away our options to buy anything except Mattel and Fisher Price.
Here's my first review:

*****"5 Stars!"*****
These were a gift for 3 year old Russell's birthday from relatives who live in New York City.

Beautiful. 42 colors, no two blocks match, and it comes with a wooden tray that nicely contains the blocks and allows for all the blocks to be accounted for at clean-up time.

The blocks are painted on the edges and one side, with the other side left plain wood, but finished.

My eldest (age 6) might love these even more than the 3 year old, and together (together!) they have built some very cool and unexpected creations...including a long and winding road for their cars to travel on. Including a multi-level 'garage' for said cars to park in.
Really open-ended play and very pleasing in design and feel. My 17 year old niece spent nearly 45 minutes trying to organize the colors into a proper spectrum but the colors are sophisticated and challenging and therefore a bit difficult to organize. Really fun. Definitely a toy that will 'grow' with your child. Would be a nice addition to Dad's office too.
Right now you can buy them on sale at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art on sale here,
or, directly from the Art & Play site for (a lot) more. Apparently you can also buy the same 42 piece set in a wall-mountable box for about $100US more, but I love the scale and put-away-able-ness of our set.

Great toy! Thanks guys!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where are you, Nursing Mamas? A response to 'The Case Against Breastfeeding'

I'm feeling...Opinionated. Polemical.
I want to talk about breastfeeding. And about pumping. And about formula.

I want to talk about Hanna Rosin's article 'The Case Against Breastfeeding' (The Atlanic April 2009) and about Peggy O'Mara's response 'Case Closed: Breast is Best' (Mothering Magazine May/June 2009).

It is my belief that breast pumps are BAD. They represent Big Business and create BIG problems. They cost big money too (for a good pump, that pumps both sides at a time, you are looking at an expense of nearly $300US and/or even more once you factor in all the other gear you need). And they are ugly. And they turn a beautiful experience (breastfeeding your baby), into an ugly one (pumped like a cow on an industrialized farm). And when you spend that much money on something, you usually end up feeling like you'd better use it. And so you do, and it screws everything up. Your milk production goes down, and then the pediatrician recommends supplementing with formula, and there you go down the path.

In the video that The Atlantic posts of a coffee table chat with Hanna Rosin and three of her friends, (Dr Meri Kolbrener, Linda Perlstein and Anne Dickerson) Rosin and the others agree that they wish the breast pump companies would just 'disapear', not only because the pumping is uncomfortable and ugly, but because it enables our country to continue with it's complete lack of paid maternity leave, while hypocritically telling us that 6 months of exclusively feeding our babies breastmilk is 'best'. But breastfeeding needs to mean nursing, not just feeding babies pumped breast milk, but being available to your baby to nurse. And our country does not make this option available to working mothers.

I also believe that breast pump companies and baby formula companies are in 'cahoots'. Can I prove it? Not really, not yet, but it's a theory I'm working on.

Medela, you are everywhere. You make the 'best' breast pumps, you make (ugly, sorry) nursing bras, you present yourself as 'pro breast-feeding', and yet pumping breast milk can actually decrease a mother's milk production and completely intereferes with establishing a nursing 'relationship' with her baby.
Did you know pumped milk tastes different than nursing directly from a breast? The milk's taste changes, (can even become bitter) as it cools from body temperature (and most pumping moms are freezing their pumped milk) and babies may very well prefer the sweetened, sugary formula over frozen breastmilk and thus are eventually switched to formula. Not all babies mind the taste change, but some really do. And the moms take it personally, not knowing that the taste has become bitter, but thinking the baby 'dislikes my milk'. Well yes. If it's been bottled and frozen and now tastes funny, yes. And so; formula.
Enfamil, you are everywhere. The 'free' formula that arrives in the mail as a 'welcome kit' with every pregnancy, the coupons in every 'family' mailer, the 'free diaper bag' loaded with cans of formula, the 'free' bottles and insulated bags and coupons handed off to every new mother as she is released from the hospital. The enormous closet at every pediatricians office stacked high with containers of formula waiting to be handed out...ugh.

You know what is NOT everywhere? Nursing mothers.
Where are the nursing mothers? How many nursing mothers do you see when you are out and about in the world? When I'm out in the world, I go to places where there are children and moms in abundance, and in the 6 years since I've been a mom, I have rarely seen anyone besides myself nursing in 'public'. That includes the waiting room at the pediatricians office, the mom, infant and toddler Music Together classes, and the locker room of the health club after mom and baby yoga classes.

The mall? Never. I never see anyone nursing at the mall. I do see women with bottles. Babies with bottles, and babies with pacifiers. My kids never accepted pacifiers, and I tried. Especially for long car rides. What they wanted was to be comforted by nursing. And so I did, and do. And it's a lot of work and yet I believe that the innate need for suckling needs to be met and that if it is met, then the baby can grow out of the suckling phase and you won't have a paci-dependant child. But this is only possible when the mother is physically available to the baby. Is this off-topic? Well, the point is, no babies are on the breast at the mall, but instead have been 'pacified'. Coincidence? I just think it's all connected.
While I refuse to nurse my baby in a public bathroom stall out of sanitation concerns (and outrage), I do often nurse in my car before going into a public place, because I do feel the social pressure of being 'different', of not having a bottle to offer my babe, but instead a (gasp) bare breast. I am modest, however, and although I do not wear a tarp (or a 'nursing cover', or a 'hooter hider') (geesh, that's offensive to me!) and I do not smother -I mean cover- my baby's head with a blanket, I do wear a nursing top and try hard not to show skin while nursing...but even so, I feel pressure. I do not want to be 'different', I do not want to make a 'statement', I just want to feed my hungry baby. I suspect lots of moms do the same, nurse in their car, to avoid feeling like we are on display. But it's lonely out there.

In Hanna Rosins' article, 'The Case Against Breastfeeding', she mentions social pressure too; the pressure to be a 'breastfeeding mom', the pressure to have 'sleek strollers and organic snacks and a higher ratio of wooden toys to plastic' all as signifiers of belonging to the 'club'. What club? The 'Good Mom' club is what Rosin implies. That these moms at the park, with their 'tight jeans and oversize sunglasses' are sizing each other up, and comparing notes on how best to sneak frozen breast milk on board airplanes...but see that there? Frozen breast milk. Pumped. In a bottle. Talking about breastfeeding, but not actually breastfeeding from an actual breast. Not in public anyway.

There is a real phenomenon going around of pumping breast milk and then feeding your baby from the socially acceptable bottle. No socially unacceptable glimpses of skin to skin contact, and lots of money involved (all that stuff that is required from the expensive pump, to the insulated bags and containers, and the diposable and sterilized gear, and access to refrigeration, etc).

Hanna Rosin complains that "every mother I know has become a breastfeeding fascist". Really?

Peggy O'Mara's response in Mothering Magazine includes a statistic from 2005, that "while 74.2 percent of US mothers initiated breastfeeding in 2005, only 11.9 percent were exclusively breastfeeding at six months. This means that most women who breastfeed in the US also use formula; contrary to Hanna Rosin's perceptions, it is still bottle-feeding, not breastfeeding, that is the norm in the US. "

I know MANY women need to work to provide their part of their two-income households. I know that many women want to stay home with their babies but have decided they have to go back to work. But the pressure that Hanna Rosin is complaining about seems to me to be more about social standing than about paying the grocery bills.

My family would certainly be able to do a lot more if I contributed financially to our expenses, like we could consider adding on to our house, or actually go on a vacation, or even go more regularly to the doctor, dentist, and eye doctor. Or buy all Brio trains for our train fanatic. Or go to Disneyland. Or buy the kids shoes at Stride Rite ($35+ a pair) instead of at Target ($9 a pair). Or buy the couch for the basement that so clearly needs a couch!

But my husband and I made the decision that I would stay home with the baby to nurse the baby and take care of the baby (now babies). It was a long, hard decision, and one that evolved over the period of my first (unpaid) 12 week maternity leave where I just cried and fretted a lot, trying to imagine how on earth I was supposed to leave this baby with anyone but me and return to work.

Wanting to be available to nurse my baby was THE strongest reason for not returning to work. It was a really primal feeling, a mothering 'instinct', that I could not 'abandon' this baby, and I needed to do whatever I could to stay close by, even 'attached' if possible.

And luckily, my husband supported me and continues to support me (and all 6 of us now, poor guy!) and luckily, we are able to make do and get by.

Do I believe breastfeeding can reduce your child's risk of athsma or allergies or obesity or make them smarter or more secure? Do I believe that breastfeeding is full of antibodies that protect your newborn? Do I believe that breastmilk is better for your baby than any man-made batch of chemicals, preservatives and sweeteners? I guess the simple answer is yes. Am I a breastfeeding fascist? Possibly.

But you know what? Any 12 year old can feed your baby a bottle. Any daycare can sit your baby in a swing and keep your baby 'safe' till you come to retrieve it. But only the Mama can nurse. And the intangibles, the cuddling, the nurturing, the closeness and yumminess that is integral to nursing, that is what is so special and that is why I am home with these kids. I am available to these kids and I give them 'quantity time', which may be as important or even more important than 'quality time'. I am a 'given' and I value that more than a sleek stroller, and more than oversized sunglasses and more than going to Disneyworld.

And more than a new couch. Sigh.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter magic...

The kid's table

Strawberry Rhubarb pie!

(The hunt is about to begin!)

(following the trail, gathering eggs)

(discovering the kid's table)

Ok,'s what happened. Stayed up nearly all night, despite trying hard to get everything started earlier in the week, but you know, wanted the kids to be surprised...really surprised...and so had to get them all in bed before I could make the breads...or set the table...or make up their baskets...ohhhh, that bunny works hard! Yes indeedy! But the kids, well the kids were delighted, and delightful, and that, that was my reward. Did I successfully re-create the Easter magic of my 6th Easter? Well, I came close.

I made 'nests' of Italian Easter bread, (you can find the recipe here), a strawberry-rhubarb pie, (recipe here) a wonderful baked egg dish, (recipe courtesy of one of my wonderful neighbors), with a side of fake bacon, deviled eggs, grapes and cheese and crackers and little favors baskets made out of paper cups, cupcake liners and pipecleaners at each place setting. You just don't see those little favors baskets anymore and I remember them so homemade version was just charming enough, with paper grass and tiny little silk flowers tucked in next to the handle, filled with a scattering of jelly beans and a few foil wrapped chocolate eggs, made me happy.
Made sugar cookies too, with the kids help, and though they were pretty, you know they weren't very delicious if you've still got a plate-full left over a day later. Sorry, Martha. I'll need a more delicious recipe next year!

I brought in forsythia the day before and the buds started opening right away...and yes, the forced cherry blossoms bloomed right on time, Easter morning! makes me want to plant a quince tree, just to force those showy blooms in the spring, but I don't love the thorniness - no matter how appropriate for the season...
Aurora only had one complaint: "the Easter bunny forgot to bring those yellow marshmallow chicks this year and I really wanted them". Ah, right. Peeps. For goodness sake. Bought them last year's Easter on a (idiotic) whim and she was only newly 4 years old. Memory like a steel trap, that one.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Getting ready...tick tick tick...

For some reason, this year I really want to re-create an Easter memory of mine...I think I was about 6...maybe it's because my oldest is 6 now? Hmmmm... probably.

Well, I am on pins and needles to pull it off, as it involves sweet (challah?) egg bread in little bunny shapes at each place setting, each holding a colored egg...which alone means staying up all night...and though I sometimes do, and probably will, I'd really like to make the breads without staying up all night...(not to mention the little paper frilled baskets at each place setting filled with jelly beans, the table all set and ready...etc)...

I wish I could invite Martha Stewart over for the prep(!), or at least had Martha's crew of over-acheivers at my beck and call! But my aunt didn't, all those years ago, and she pulled it off so nicely!
My mom has no memory of that Easter's preparations, like whether she even helped my aunt or not...but I remember the result; a glorious, magical morning filled with California sunshine and hummingbirds at the window feeders (ok, that part would be too hard here in Michigan even for Martha) and 5 children all ooh-ing and ahh-ing over their very own magical, colorful, beee-uuuu-tiful table all set with a child's dream of an Easter feast.

I'll try to find some pictures. Until then, what I have so far is a very pretty Easter mantel, with some Martha crafts (very fun) and some cherry blossoms that just may bloom in time (which would be amazing, we'll see).
(painting by Aurora Jane, age 3)
(doll available here)

About Me

My photo
Mamazakka is Mommy blogger Autumn Sousanis; also-known-as Autumn Dunbar; and also-known-as "Mama" to six little ones, ages 9, 7.5, 5, 3.5 2 and a 3 month old! :) Busy,yes. A graduate of C.C.S. (Center for Creative Studies, School of Art and Design in Detroit) with my bachelor's degree in Fine Arts, I have finally found my calling as 'Mamazakka', maker of everything and anything that might improve your home, life and outlook. :) It's my goal to create things that truly meet Wikipedia's definition for 'zakka'; (here's an excerpt)..."cute, corny, kitschy is not enough. To qualify, a product must be attractive, sensitive and laden with subtext." Oh yeah! You betcha! Well, that's my goal, anyhow! I'm also known as an over-user of exclamation marks(!) and parentheses (can't help it) though I do try to keep my smileys to a minimum :)