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Think of the toy store as indoor playground


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 23, 2001

Some parents dread taking their kids to the toy store. They get in and out as quickly as possible, trying to block out the constant chorus of "Can I have this?" that resonates from every aisle. Some parents face tantrums if they leave empty-handed. Others give in, leaving poorer and beaten down.

I, however, have learned to transform toy stores from something threatening into free entertainment. Stores these days have train tables, dollhouses and Lego sets out in the open for kids to play with. Usually when we go to a toy store I allow at least an hour for my kids to play and look all around.

Rarely do I buy them anything after we play, and if I do it's the $1.99 Clifford coloring book, not the $16 Barbie unicorn. And after talking with area toy store owners and managers, I've learned I don't even have to feel guilty about using their stores as a free indoor playground. In fact, they say they want us parents to do just that.

La La Land on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg is even starting to invite play groups to come in and try out the toys at no charge. Timothy's Toys, also in St. Petersburg, holds free craft sessions with visits from Madeline, Thomas the Tank Engine and the like. H&R Trains in Pinellas Park holds monthly meetings of the Little Engineers Club where 50 or more kids learn about trains, play with models and make a craft for free.

The Toys R Us on Tyrone Boulevard is remodeling its store, which will feature a carpeted area with play toys called the "imaginarium" when the makeover is complete in mid October. Stores in Tampa and Clearwater already have undergone the transformation and are much more kid-friendly.

Alice Morris, one of the owners of H&R Trains, has continually added to the store's children's corner over the years. It now includes wooden train sets on low tables and a Victorian dollhouse loaded with furniture and dolls.

"After I put that out for children, I didn't have any more ripped packages," she said. "If they come and play for an hour and they buy something, that would be wonderful. If they come and the parents are with them and they don't buy a thing, that's fine, too. I feel people go back to where they were treated kindly. It may not be this week. It may not be until Christmas."

"We have one customer who brings his daughter in for a few hours at a time," said Karl Lounge, who owns La La Land with his wife. "Once in a while he buys something but he's not one of our best customers. Still, that's okay,"

Since moving to a new 3,500-square-foot store at 6193 Central Ave. almost a year ago, Lounge has continually added more play areas and toys for customers. There's a Thomas the Tank Engine train table, a musical hopscotch board, an easel with two felt boards and stacks of felt pieces, a chalkboard, two doll houses with furniture, puppets, musical toys, computer games and more. A table with a plastic Playmobil camping set is set up on a taller table so little shoppers can't put the pieces in their mouths.

Lounge is about to add a corner full of wooden puzzles for kids to work, a Brio train table and a Bob the Builder play station. He already added a changing table in the restroom two months ago.

"We want them to feel they can take their time and play here," he said. "If the parents can see their kids really like something, they might buy it. Playing with something is not going to hurt it as long as they're not ripping the boxes open."

"If the parents see their child really enjoying the buggy or the electric scooter, they might be more apt to buy it," said Jack Ding, manager of the Tyrone Toys R Us. "We've got the pogo sticks out so the kids can try it. It's okay if it may be two months down the line for Christmas or birthdays before they buy it."

The revamped Toys R Us will have a Thomas the Tank Engine wooden train set on a low table for kids to play with along with a Lego table and robotic arm table. A video screen will continually air new videos, and there will be plenty of room on the carpet for kids and parents to sit down and look at books. New products on the shelves include wooden puzzles, felt boards, Animal Planet stuffed animals, more educational toys, books and a large clothing section.

Instead of endless aisles where shoppers can never find an employee to help them, the store will have similar toys grouped in "worlds."

"It will be less confusing," Ding said. "There will be a race track that goes all the way around so we can see the guests better."

The toy store managers and owners all agreed that while they want the kids to enjoy themselves, they also need parents to watch them. An open pogo stick means more opportunity for your kid to have fun and break his arm. An open dollhouse means plenty of little things for your 1-year-old to stick in her mouth.

Of course, they also don't want the toys broken. However, most said they usually don't charge parents if a child accidentally breaks a toy.

The new Build-A-Bear Workshop at International Plaza in Tampa also welcomes kids who want to hang out without buying anything. The store includes soft and wooden bears, a bear bathtub, computer tables, giant spools of thread and children's music. It's very inviting to kids, but few parents are going to let their child build a bear each time they are lured in.

The concept is cute. Shoppers choose from hundreds of different unstuffed bears or other animals, then build it by visiting all the different stations along the assembly line throughout the store. They stuff it themselves, pick a wardrobe and select a sound to go inside their personalized toy. Prerecorded sound chips include giggles, growls and moos, as well as messages that say "I love you" or "happy birthday." Single sounds cost $3 each or you can record your own for $8.

The most basic bear -- sans clothes and sounds -- costs $10 to build. You could easily invest $35 for one with all the fixings. The store also offers birthday parties for a minimum of six children.

Now I can't get you a free bear or scooter or even a Clifford coloring book. But if all you want to do is find something cheap for your kids to do on a rainy Saturday, be my guest. And don't feel the slightest bit guilty.

- You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731; or call (727) 822-7225.

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