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Meet some of the people developing toys for your kids

Once again, CreativeParents attended Toy Fair, the industry event that brings together toy developers, vendors and buyers under a few large roofs. The emphasis is always on "what's new!" and the products out each year range from the ridiculous to the sublime (though we wish there were more sublime.)

This year we decided to do a story on some of the individual inventors who have created interesting toys, and the stories behind the toys' creations. It's been a while since we wrote toy and game reviews. In 1995 we (Istar) wrote reviews of over 150 children's games and toys for Games Magazine. However, rather than explain how the games are played, this time we want to focus on the reasons the products were invented and the work and dedication that goes into developing and selling them.

Mentalogy was created by Pat Howe, an Irish taxidriver who first learned to read and write in his 20's. To help his daughter, who had learning problems, Pat created materials that stimulate visual memory. One day Pat Howe picked up another Pat, Pat Kinsley, in his cab. A gregarious fellow, Howe told Kinsley about his creation and Kinsley, a graphic artist was interested. The rest is history as they say. Last year Mentalogy was the best selling game in Ireland and now these two Dublin based Pats and their Magictaxi International cohorts are ALL on a roll. Pat Howe's daughter excelled in school and studies science. Taxi Pat still drives a cab in Dublin and is asked for autographs by people who recognize his picture from the toy box.

Chip Engdahl was in graduate school studying for his MBA when John Nash (the real life hero of A Beautiful Mind) won the Nobel Prize for his work on Game Theory. Chip became interested in the interplay between cooperation and competition described in Game Theory and invented a game called Coopetition that challenges competitors to cooperate as well as compete in answering trivia questions; guessing drawings; and acting out charades. A few years ago Chip quit his job in marketing to work on the game fulltime. A Midwesterner on the scale of Paul Bunyon, Chip's company Big E is hoping to create a version of the game for younger players -- this one is for teens and adults.

John W. Jameson, Ph.D. is the creator of Vocolo a musical instrument that allows players to pretend that they are creating tunes on the saxophone, clarinet or trombone. When we described the instrument as a "glorified kazoo" it was meant as a compliment -- we like kazoos. The player sings/hums into the mouthpiece to turn any song into a piece of music. It was fun playing "76 Trombones" in the middle of Toy Fair hubbub. John, a mechanical engineer, who played music in high school, designed the instrument using his engineering background. Part of Alto Research LLC in California, he has been juggling the life of a toy inventor with his job in engineering. What's great about this and other toys that allow kids to use their imaginations is that you can play ANY song. The choice is up to the child and not dictated by the toymaker.

In the past few years there has been a focus on getting kids to MOVE and yoga has become an increasingly popular way for kids to develop body awareness and coordination as well as to stretch and relax. Barbara Swaab and Julie Levinson, who have been teaching yoga to kids, developed a non-competitive game that encourages kids to explore a series of yoga postures as they move around a board. The game, Yogateers, is packaged for easy storage and has already won the Oppenheim Portfolio Gold Seal Award for 2004 as well as recognition from the National Parenting Center and Parent's Choice. It was heartening to see women inventors at Toy Fair.

Card games are big this year and Did Ya Know is one of those that explores the world of parent-child communication. Rob Mathewson, who describes himself as the Big Picture Guy at Tooti, Inc., designed the game for "parents on the go." The cards are like story starters, leaving blanks for parents and kids to fill in to encourage conversations about such topics as books; heroes and music. The best question is the last one which is open ended and gives each person a chance to expand. Rob said that he has done lots of testing with families and that the questions even get teens to talk.


What are some of your favorite toys and games? Let us know.

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