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Jenn Choi Talks Raising Boys and Toys are Tools

She fell into publishing an online magazine, Toys are Tools, as a way to combine her interest in helping her sons grow up, working with therapists, and talking with parents facing similar problems. Jenn and her husband have found a few ways to engage their kids as they learn technology and, equally important, how to manage the good and bad parts of technology. Her online magazine is a terrific resource to find toys to interest kids. She also writes articles about learning, productivity, and play for Forbes, Quartz, and other publications.

Tim: What kinds of technology does your family use?

Jenn: My two sons love playing Minecraft on iPads. My older son tried Scratch but probably needs help to get to next level. The younger son broke his iPad and both kids wanted it fixed right away. They were so demanding, unreasonable. Instead I removed Minecraft from the good iPad for the moment.

I recently bought two iPad minis because I really need the Siri speech to text functions so I turned in our iPad 2. But the boys do not have Minecraft yet. Every day they ask for it back. And every day I say no and you have to ask the right questions to get it back. But they never do. Parents have to be held accountable, have to keep their promise. I don’t want giving it back to be a random decision when we’re both exhausted. My older son is so smart. He says, “Can we have it back for one day?” The game for them is just so addictive.

My little one is seven and still needs to build his play skills, creativity, self directed play. He’s more a victim to that whole sucked in feeling kids experience with games. My older son will play for an hour then stop and play with his Legos. It’s not that it has taken over their life. But it still needs to be managed. Once you spend time doing that, you don’t spend time doing other things.

One thing is I don’t want to be a therapist to my kids. I am a multi-purpose person to my children. I feed them, dress them, play with them. Being their therapist or teacher would confuse them. A parent can mention a toy will help with their handwriting but the child may listen or not. However, I can encourage them to play.

Tim: Do you use software to control what they see and do online? How do you manage their play time?

Jenn: So far, I have limited access to websites on the mini iPads and no access to download apps. I asked them to stop asking me. Part of the problem is some of these games are hard. I want to leave them to try a little harder, to get through them instead of giving up. Logic games have that addictive quality until they get too hard you can’t play them anymore.

When my oldest was younger, I felt like I had to let him play. It was very hard to be socially engaged when other kids are playing on their devices. At family events, like a wedding, I saw very well-behaved children using iPads. Meanwhile these kids are very good at switching between traditional games and electronic games. Trying to not do something really backfires because he needed technology to be social. My family did not understand why our boys did not have their iPads and games. My brother finally got fed up and bought my son a Nintendo DS that Christmas because he felt sorry for him.

When I went to that wedding I thought, “I’m really not with the times.” But when they start to fight, I tell them this is why they need to be able to do other things. It’s also true if you have a weakness for video games, if you cannot control it, then other people can control you. It’s important for my sons to have balance.

I didn’t realize they had a game where you keep buying to keep playing, like the arcade games of old, but they recognize those games and don’t bother to download.

Guided Access is good but after awhile they have to be given a chance to screw up so you can say, “look you still need this” or “you clearly don’t need this.” But they still manage to get on YouTube. It’s very difficult to police that because you don’t know when it’s television or something you don’t want them to watch.

Tim: How long has your Toys are Tools magazine been online? How did that get started?

Jenn: November of 2011 I started. The magazine was a way to do one thing I could do. I would write articles, not “we blew bubbles today.” I wanted to do something constructive, less personal. I wanted the magazine to be about something very focussed. I remember seeing therapists working with my children, watching them play. I had no idea this is how you play with children. This kind of play was so productive.

I went out and bought whatever toys the therapists had. I couldn’t go to Toys R Us and buy many of these toys. I started looking online but the process was so difficult. It was very different. But some of the things that came home were excellent. I was able to make a play space in my home which also attracted other kids, which was good for them.

Someone from the Twice Exceptional organization, kids who are gifted with needs, for example, dyslexia. She has this after school center for bright kids with issues who need small classes, individualized instruction. I had met with the teacher and the owner who asked me to stock her store based on my toy collection at home. Then I thought about how much I loved researching and buying toys that help kids. I never did stock her store. But it did help push me to start my magazine.

Tim: What kinds of toys do you write about?

Jenn: A lot of these great toys and products are only in therapeutic or school supply catalogs. Therapists are limited only to those catalogs used by their schools. They’re limited to what they’re exposed to. They understand parents like me have so little money after raising kids so they don’t want to tell you to go buy something at home. Dinner out is an expense. They see a lot of parents sort of frown because they have three kids and can’t spend lavishly for one. How do therapists know which parents want to know about toys and where to get them and which parents don’t or can’t?

As a result, parents don’t get to access professional toys ideal for their child. They’re left to speak to other parents. Great toys are only in these catalogs. But there are really great products to have for your kids, even if they’re not expensive. Even if they cost a lot, sometimes you can sell the toy after your child is done.

Every time a parent saw my play space and toys, they asked where I got my collection. I started Toys are Tools as a magazine to catalogue everything, to help parents learn about then find toys ideal for their child. Where I could explain how useful they could be, how to look at toys in a productive way.

For example, I found a balloon you can fill up with air or helium. It cost six dollars, less than one movie ticket. Someone on Amazon complained it broke after 2 times. What do they expect? Meanwhile, this cheap toy is a great social scene helper, helping kids make friends without parents introducing them. If you have this really delectable toy which other kids want to join in, they’ll introduce themselves and join the fun. Three dads came up to me in a park to ask where I got that balloon toy.

My magazine helps to manage expectations. I also get therapists to help me explain in plain language the reasons a toy will help a child. After awhile, the phrase “fine motor skills” goes in one ear and out the other. Better to say something like “sitting down will help your child focus.”

Tim: How do you define a productive toy?

Jenn: Number one, it’s important to explain these toys and products are not like medicine where you take a pill which might work overnight. These toys take teaching and time to work. There may not be an immediate Eureka moment for a child.

You teach a child how to use a toy as a tool to help them. Pharma reps go to doctors offices to explain everything about a medicine. Toys don’t have that context. My magazine provides useful context to help parents and therapists understand how a toy might meet the needs of a specific child, based on actual play plus the experience of therapists.

Tim: How did your kids respond to your toys from the magazine?

Jenn: We had a lot already. I actually found a small grant to buy a kitchen. Others I would buy from garage sales, other parents, or the internet. They always had interesting things.

Right now, this year, because I’m writing for different publications, there are a lot more toys. I realized if I want the magazine to be successful, I had to focus on toys for girls and gender neutral toys. If they had too many toys, they would be overwhelmed. If you have only a few toys, you focus better on the toy. This is an unnatural way for a toy to arrive at your home. Having other testers helps a lot, parents who volunteer their children, but they’re all anonymous to protect their privacy.

Also, with my kids, when they want screen time all the time, I ask, “Do you want this toy to go to another tester?” they’ll say No and start to play. I really wish they would not give them all away. For people who buy toys, they keep them a good period of time. To write about a toy over a long period of time also is important. I might have made an error in judgement about how old a child has to be to play with a toy. I give a lot of toys away when they’re done.

My kids want to play with me. They don’t want to be photographed. Sometimes they like being asked for their opinion. Once in awhile I have to grab the camera and it bugs them. To help manage which is theirs, I tell them which toys are theirs and which are company property. If it is their toy, they get to keep it. If they try really hard to do something, then I might reward them with a company toy. That’s the only way to manage the volume of toys.

My son uses a lot of stuff for his science projects, too.

Tim: How did that go?

Jenn: The first time, he was in second grade, and remember I worked in a medical school, as a publicist, and I made my son have a control group. I know he is very scientific, and loves logic, but a control group was too much. Even if he did have almost a double-blind control group going. I didn’t want him to copy something off the internet. I was so tough on him.

The first project he did was with the Time Timer. It’s a great timer. You have to buy it. It’s better than an hour glass because a Time Timer you can adjust. There’s a software version and physical timers. Every time a child looks at it, they see time has passed. I use it in family meetings and the boys realize they have to decide what’s important to talk about, to help focus their attention and time.

I first used a Time Timer for his homework, to see if kids could focus more with it. Then he used it for a science fair project.

One thing, I don’t understand why companies that sell STEM projects don’t include science fair projects, to help kids ask a question, form a hypothesis, and draw a conclusion. There’s a lot of Language Arts involved. But a lot of these companies don’t help kids this way.

The last one he did was, “Can Food Play Music?” with Makey Makey. You clip on food and play notes using food to conduct electricity. I said, “Surely you’re going to win!” but he didn’t. The year before, he did something with K’NEX to explore the difference between using small gears and large gears.

Tim: When people ask you which is the best toy, how do you respond?

Jenn: I grew up in a restaurant so I love everything. It’s so hard for me to make a decision. I waited tables and people would ask me for recommendations.

With food, what’s very interesting, when you don’t know what to order, the waitress wants to know what you appreciate. If you really appreciate the flavor of pear, the texture of pear, I could make a great recommendation. It’s not that you’re an expert on pears. It’s your appreciation of pears that makes you like a dish.

Toys work the same way. Some people really appreciate finely crafted wooden toys. It really motivates them and helps them connect to a toy. Because I grew up in a restaurant and waited on tables, people would ask me questions about what to order. I never answered their questions. Instead, I learned to ask them a lot of questions, to help me understand what they appreciated. After hearing their answers, it was easier to make recommendations. If someone really loves puzzles, then I would you ask if they like jigsaw puzzles or logic puzzles. If they like logic puzzles but have too many already, then maybe they want to play Mastermind which is a multi-player logic puzzle. Most logic puzzles are single player.

Parents and kids also can be convinced to try something if it includes an element they already like. A baby who likes cream cheese might try celery if it has cream cheese slathered on top.

Tim: How does your husband respond to all the toys?

Jenn: I tell my kids their dad, my husband, uses numbers to catch bad people. He is a regulatory analyst and former Wall Street options trader. He’s analytical, more critical of toys, knows what he likes, but also open to toys that he might not think will be fun.

My husband is so overwhelmed, poor guy. And since men like to buy toys for their kids, more than moms, I feel badly because I kind of took that away from him. He’s so sick of it. He doesn’t want to see the toys anymore. But we will work it out.

Learn More

Jennifer Choi


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