Whatever you think of this interview with Lisa Mahar, mother of three and owner of Kid O, a store that sells what she prefers to call ‘materials’ rather than toys for pre-schoolers, you will find her opinions on children and learning, stimulating. If it sounds uncompromising, and to us, near-impossible at times, it might also be viewed as a noble and deeply-thoughtful approach. And she did have the humor to laugh when we called her ‘every parent’s nightmare’ because of the standards to which she adheres.
I wanted to start with a question based on an article I read in The Wall Street Journal the other day and it was about how in Germany they are starting to resuscitate kindergarten in its original form. They’re taking kids out into the forest to play every day for four or five hours and the thing that struck me about the article is that there are no toys at all for them, and apparently the kids never ask for them. I wondered what you would make of that?
Well really the foundations of early childhood development started in Germany and the first one to develop kindergarten was Friedrich Froebel. He had these beautiful gardens in the back of the school, usually circular, where children had little areas where they could grow [plants] and in conjunction with that he used no materials either except Froebel Blocks … I think some materials are important. Froebel’s initial belief was that there was a balance between nature and exploration and also having some materials that help children to be able to look at nature in a more abstract way. His Froebel Blocks were based on nature but [were] very abstract, very geometric. I think that there always needs to be a balance between exposure to nature and having a simple abstract system that helps children make sense of the world around them.
You mean wooden blocks? I sort of take for granted the idea of blocks, that they’ve always been children’s playthings.
No they didn’t exist. Froebel developed them for the first time. His had more of a rigid way that children and parents were to work with them, whereas in 1914, Caroline Pratt, who actually started the City & Country School right here on the corner, invented the first real building block.
When I looked at your store there is a serenity to it, which I thought was beautiful, but I also thought, is this wishful thinking on my part? Is it a fantasy of how I would want my child to live in this calm, clean world. My house does not look like that.
Let me show you my children’s rooms. I’ve actually found if you’re really careful about how you set up a child’s room, to make sure that you give them that absolute best things that really interest them, that they find valuable, they actually do take care of their rooms.
My children do not mess up their rooms and they do put their things away. My two-year olds are little less good at putting things away, my five-year old is exceptional.
But when you’re saying that, all I can picture is the conflict I have getting my kids to do things.
Well, what I say is, if they don’t want to put things away, I say [to them] you put away the things you want to, but whatever you don’t put away, I’ll put it away but when I put it away, I’m going to put it somewhere where you can’t get it for a week, then you’ll lose that toy.
What’s interesting is that it’s a great way to sort through the toys because inevitably they won’t pick up the things they don’t care about.
What do you think of Toys R Us-type toys then? Transformers and Pokemon gadgets etcetera?
At best they’re pointless. At worst they’re harmful.
What makes them pointless?
Many things. There’s a lot of manipulation generally used for selling the product. And the images or the characters themselves are simply uninteresting, violent, insignificant, silly. I think it also takes away from children’s creativity in creating characters themselves.
What happens if people give them to your kids as gifts? Do you draw the line?
I draw the line. Luckily most people are intimidated to give my children toys because I have a store! [laughs]
I find playing with my six-year old, at least with his toys, incredibly boring. You don’t find it boring?
Maybe I use different toys than you. I use toys (I like to call them materials) … I have microscopes and Legos and photographic equipment.
These aren’t really what people classify as toys, are they?
I use a lot of grown-up things with my kids. I don’t think kids need kids’ books or kids’ music. I actually read adult books to my children.
What kinds of books are do read to them then?
Right now I’m actually reading Charles Darwin to my five-year old. He’s very interested in The Voyage of The Beagle. I have to kind of paraphrase a little bit but it’s so inspiring to him. It was an opportunity with block-building because he wanted to build The Beagle. He actually just took it down yesterday but it was like a 15-foot block structure of The Beagle …
I have to tell you you’re every parent’s nightmare!
[laughs] No! I’m very parent’s dream! I can help them!
You must spend a lot of time with your children.
I run a business, I work from nine to six, my kids go to bed at seven. I have a nanny on the weekends, I have other help …
So does your older son have playdates?
I’m being very slowly won over to playdates but my feeling is that school is very intense and it’s very group focused, so I think it’s important for him to have some time to himself to do his own things.
I am wondering if we are creating children that can do all these amazing things and yet don’t have any true independence, a sense of self outside of organized, supervised activity.
Absolutely. When my eldest son was almost two and a half, one day he just said, I will only wear things that are yellow. Okay, well, you think maybe this is only going on to go on for a week or two but he started to get very obsessive, where not only would he only wear yellow clothes but he defined what it was, a shade of sunshine yellow, and it was his underwear, every single thing he wore and then it went over to his food and other people, not me, but other people, began getting slightly disturbed about it. I said, Do you know he is beginning to determine who he is and that is the most beautiful thing in the world. He was doing anything that was hurting himself or anyone else. I remember asking him for the first time why he was doing it, why this yellow, and he said, it was such a happy color. How can you argue with that?