What’s a Puttyhead?

  1. Someone crazy for Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty
  2. Someone who uses putty as a fidget toy
  3. Someone who’s mind is as elastic as putty
  4. Someone who cares about their health

All of the above!

Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty and other fidget toys are popular right now. I’m not sure what forces have come together to legitimatize fidgeting as a thing. It could be recent research (like this research, or this research, and this research) showing that fidgeting can help counteract the negative effects of sitting so much and can actually help people think.

It could be the observation that trying to get active kids to stop fidgeting is a Sisyphean task — that is, an unproductive and unending task.

It could be we’re all feeling it — the lethargy that sets in from sitting…too…long in one place.

In any event, “fidgeting” is going (or has already gone) mainstream, and there are a delightful array of putties, gadgets, and toys that will help keep us moving and focused. Find some of those, and more, at Ruckus & Glee!

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Worrying Means You Suffer Twice

“My philosophy is worrying means you suffer twice” is my favorite quote from Newt Scamandar from the recently released movie Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.

The holidays, as much as they are about the joy of family, friendship, and community, also bring worry.

Is this the right gift? Is it too much? Is it too little? Will she like it? Wrapped in a box or in a bag? Will I regret eating so many holiday sweets? How ugly does my sweater have to be for the ugly sweater contest at work? And so on.

I’m a worrier by nature, just ask my better half.

So, just at the right time, the weekend before Thanksgiving and the onset of the holiday onslaught, I saw Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.

The character of Newt Scamander was so refreshing – his lack of worry and “processing” paved the way for action, tinkering, and creation. Think of the world he created in his suitcase, his nonchalant arrival in a new world, and his polite honesty.

This holiday season, I challenge you to summon your inner Newt and suffer less!

Remember the best gift is a gift given with love. Holiday sweets are made for enjoying. And your ugly Christmas sweater is ugly enough.

Happy holidays everyone!

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Silhouette Artist

When I visited my grandma’s house as a child, I spent a lot of time gazing at a framed silhouette of a woman on her wall. The kind of silhouette where the person’s image is cut out from black paper and pasted to a light background.

It was my first exposure to silhouette art. The next time I got that close to real silhouette art was in 2009, when a contractor peeled the drywall off one of the interior walls of my house and I could see that someone at some time had stashed a silhouette portrait of a woman in inside the wall.

The silhouette is amazing because on one hand it perfectly captures the essence of someone, and on the other hand leaves out all the features that we otherwise use to decode someone.

So, I’m delighted to be hosting the third-generation silhouette artist Clay Rice at Ruckus & Glee this November. His grandfather, Carew Rice, was described by Poet Carl Sandburg as “America’s Greatest Silhouettist.” That’s way cool.

Clay visited us last year and our guests marveled at how quickly he can capture someone on paper, in just minutes. Some tools of the trade have evolved – there’s fancier paper and promotion is done on Facebook and via email – but the basics are the same: Clay, his subject, his scissors, and paper.

With the advent of inexpensive photography, silhouettes have gone from mainstream to something quite unexpected.

But there is still magic in the silhouette, and here in Milwaukee we still feel that magic because Clay’s visit is by far our most popular event. At the time of this writing, we have just a few sittings left.

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A Change Of Heart About Dolls

Confession time.

I have a hard time admitting this as a toy store owner, but until recently I didn’t truly get dolls.

I remember loving dolls as a kid, and yearning for Barbie and Cabbage Patch Kid dolls.

But as I got older, I became suspicious of dolls. What lessons do they teach? Do they reinforce traditional gender norms? Why aren’t there more diverse dolls available? Are they just a vehicle for manufacturers to sell doll accessories? Why don’t more boys play with dolls?

When we opened Ruckus & Glee, initially my co-owner and I agreed on one thing: NO DOLLS.

That’s right, no dolls in a toy store (even though we had many goofy plush items and puppets…somehow we missed the irony at the time).

All this changed recently as a result of attending a conference and hearing Phil Wrzesinski speak passionately about the value of dolls.

He essentially said that dolls are creative tools that only come alive when there is a child to animate them. Dolls require a child to create an imaginary world, to populate the imaginary world with characters, and to build a story. These stories relate everyday life, and they relate conflict and resolution.

The voice, name, and character of a doll come right from a kid’s heart.

Cue our Homer Simpson “Doh!” moment when it finally dawns on us that dolls have immense play value. Perhaps equal only to blocks and other completely open-ended toys.

Dolls help kids be social, work out their hopes and sadnesses, and figure out this thing called human interaction. Dolls allow kids to be kingdom-makers, authors of their own stories, and important characters in the stories of others. That’s why kids love their dolls and yearn for dolls.

To conclude, we get it now. We have dolls on our shelves at the store. They have worked their way into our hearts. And we hope they, or other dolls, work their way into your hearts, too, and the hearts of your kids.

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A Little Wild Idea (or How We Opened A Little Toy Store And Followed A Seemingly Crazy Dream)

10 years or so ago, my spouse and I developed this weird vacation habit. We’d spend a fair chunk of our vacation time coming up with lists of business ideas. And we’d do this vacation after vacation.

We had all kinds of wackadoo ideas. Like hipster “Up North” t-shirts, a restaurant that just sold fancy toast, and a coffee shop called Happy Matt’s.

Clearly we both had an urge to create something new and share it with our community.

But the timing was never right. I had a consuming day job, we had a little daughter, and our little daughter didn’t like to sleep much.

Then, she entered kindergarten. We got our energy back. I enrolled in a poetry class. My spouse started theatrical performance again. And after about 6 months, we looked at each other and our creative outlets and said “The time to create something new is NOW!”

We could have continued the poetry/theater trajectories. But the idea of starting something together, a local business, grabbed me first, and then it grabbed him, too — it was time to cook or get out of the kitchen, so to speak.

We revisited the vacation lists and started going down the toast restaurant path in earnest until I found a community and marketing study that had been conducted a few years back for North Avenue in East Wauwatosa.

And there, in that study, a hobby/toy store was identified as a good fit for the neighborhood. And I thought, “YES, THIS IS IT!” It just clicked. North Avenue needed a place for kids, and a toy store would be a perfect fit. I knew it in my bones. And then my next thought was, “THIS IS A WILD IDEA!”

A toy store. We had no experience running a store, we had no background buying and selling toys except toys for our daughter, and we knew nothing about the toy industry. What were we thinking?

So we tried to shake off the toy store idea by exposing ourselves to the toy industry — the old “learn enough about something so that we know it’s not right for us but also so that we can say we didn’t give up without making a valiant effort first” tactic. We joined a trade association for independent toy store owners, I spent a few hours one day at a toy trade show, and we visited every independent toy store we could.

The tactic backfired. Each step we took towards this wild idea we had the urge to take another one. And then another and another. Some parts were nerve-wracking, like financing the start-up,  deciding on the scale of what we wanted to do, and explaining what we were doing to our parents. Some parts were amazing, like attending a toy trade show in earnest and meeting the people behind the toys we sell.

We talked and planned pretty much every one of our non-working non-family-time waking moments for 12 months, and then we signed a lease, and then we opened 4 months later.

In short, we took a little wild idea, treated it with respect, and heard it out.

What is your little wild idea?

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Build a Stronger Family By Taking A Road Trip

With gas prices low, and air travel an ever more unpleasant and expensive experience, road trips are the now trend in my crowd. Which is great, because the magic of road trips happens on the road more than at the destination. Your family is crammed into a small space for hours on end. It’s an opportunity to focus completely on one another and just be silly. Going off course on a road trip has the whiff of epic adventure. And what family doesn’t want epic adventure?

Here are some ways to focus on the moment during road trips and avoid excessive screen time and lethargy.

The best memories are unplanned, so roll with it.

On a road trip from Milwaukee to Austin, in the middle of nowhere in Arkansas, my daughter projectile vomited pancakes all over herself, the seat in front of her, and the back of my husband. I completely freaked out while my husband calmly cleaned himself up and the car. We all still remember the episode fondly and with much hilarity, since it showed the stuff our family is made of. We in fact remember more details about that episode than the rest of the trip, and it’s the first story we tell about that trip.

So when stuff goes wrong on your road trip, and it will, lean into it and laugh about it as soon as possible. It’s the stuff you’ll be talking about with your family years down the road, and perhaps for the rest of your lives.

Before you go, prepare a surprise for your kids for each day in the car.

Consider buying a number of small cheap toys that you can surprise your kids with one at a time during the trip. You can even wrap them like gifts to make them extra exciting. These aren’t toys your kids will keep forever; they are toys that will keep your kids occupied for an hour our so without being attached to a screen. A glorious, glorious hour or so.

Revive road trip games from our childhood.

When I was a kid, we played a car game that was a child-appropriate cross-over between Pediddle and Punch Buggy. Whenever we saw a Volkswagen Beetle (the Punch Buggy part of the game) we’d yell Padiddle and hit the ceiling of the car (the Padiddle part of the game). Now I keep the child-appropriate version of this game going, except that I’ve replaced the Volkswagen Beetle with the Toyota Prius, a fairly ubiquitous vehicle where I live. This PBS web site has some AWESOME ideas for road trip games.

A cookie sheet can be your best friend.

Everyone has their own unique road trip “lifesaver.” Ours is the metal cookie sheet. Why? It’s magnetic, so we can put magnets on it for our kid to play with. Also, it has a ridge, so she can play with various messy things on it (like putty or craft items) without it getting all over the car, or she can eat on it and any messes typically are contained. A cookie sheet might not be for you, but figure out what your lifesaver is, and never ever leave home on a road trip without it.

Pack a cooler and lots and lots of snacks to avoid whining at the gas stations, and don’t forget a water bottle for everyone.

Our favorite road snacks are granola bars, nuts, mozzarella sticks, dried banana chips, cherries, jerky, crackers, and raisins. We try to spring for the good stuff, because in the end it’s still cheaper than eating on the road. Often, we make a lunch of our snacks to avoid fast food on the road. Having water bottles is great, since they are easy to fill at rest stops and we can avoid juices and other sugary drinks. Finally, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t keep some treats like La Croix and premade coffee drinks in the car, too.

Dare I say, get a paper map?

Looking at a paper map we can fantasize about the places we could go to, whereas as the smart phone just tells us how to get from Milwaukee (Point A) to Point B. Thus, paper maps = more epic adventures. Reading a paper map is also, in my humble opinion, an essential life skill, like making hard-boiled eggs or sewing a button back on. A road trip is the perfect opportunity to share this essential skill with the kids.

Drive on!

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You Can Have the Summer of Your Dreams

The last day of school is quickly approaching, and if you’re like most parents you’re a bit apprehensive. As Midwesterners we wring the most we can out of summer’s sunshine, but too often summer comes and goes in a whirlwind. I admit that in summers past I’ve actually looked forward to the first day of school because it promised a return to an easier level of activity for us.

But there are several tried and true things we can do to harness the madness to try to bring a little more repose into our summer weekends. Here are just a few:

Treat the weeknights a little more like weekends.

Trying to jam family bonding time and outings and errands into each summer weekend is exhausting. Instead, try moving a few of those weekend summer activities — going to the pool, bike rides, cookouts, grocery shopping, etc. — to weeknights. You can even find several farmer’s markets in the Milwaukee area that stretch until 6pm or 7pm on some weekdays: this web site lists local farmers markets and their times (hint: scroll down to Milwaukee County). Of course moving some of these activities to weeknights means that dinner will have to be super fast, portable or purchased on the go. But if you can manage it, moving some of summer’s essential activities to weeknights can free up huge chunks of time on the weekend, helping those weekends to have the “lazy summer afternoon” quality that we dream of.

Ask your kids now what three things they want to do this summer, and then schedule them in (trying for weeknights if possible per the suggestion above).

I asked my daughter this question last night, and was surprised by her answer. I imagined she’d talk about amusement parks and the State Fair, but she said she wanted to go to the local pool, learn to skateboard, and do more computer coding. Wow! Those are things I can help happen with the assistance of evening pool hours and websites like Instructables and Lifehacker that teach skateboarding and coding. Scheduling these activities in and sticking to it means that it’s more likely they’ll get done and without the stress of trying to jam them in during August.

Ask yourself what you want to do this summer, and schedule it in.

A pedicure with friends and without kids? A long run a few times per week? A fishing trip? Whatever it is, commit to it, schedule it, and buy tickets or make reservations or whatever you need to do to give yourself a little kick to follow through with it.

Have an unending supply of chalk and bubbles and finger paint, and, if you have a yard, get a sprinkler and some lawn games.

These are classic summer activities, and it’s the classic activities that often keep kids occupied for huge long stretches of time, so you can just haul out a lawn chair, get a book and a beverage, and chill. You can find these nearly anywhere, and we carry most of these items at Ruckus & Glee.

Go stargazing.

Few things will bring more lasting wonder into your life than looking through a high powered telescope into the night sky. Just the surface of the moon seems like a thing you can touch! Kids love it because they get to stay up late (and they love it more if it is combined with ice cream). We’re so lucky in the Milwaukee area to have access to some free or low-cost stargazing experiences at UWM, the Milwaukee Astronomical Society in New Berlin, and Froemming Park, among others.

Finally, go easy on yourself.

Summers never turn out quite like we expect. Things happen that will disrupt your plans and force you to abandon ship. Remember what it was like when your kids were babies and a productive day meant perhaps checking off one item on your list of 100 things to do? Give yourself that kind of space to get through the summer, one day at a time.

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