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Child's Play

HearthSong strikes individual note

By David Templeton

A quality toy," defines Sebastopol entrepreneur Barbara Kane, "is a toy that brings out the best in the child. A child meets the toy--and finds out something about himself or herself. The best toys are toys that leave a lot of room for the child's own imagination. And of course, a quality toy is a toy you feel good about giving--just like it says in the catalog."

That catalog is HearthSong, a several-times-a-year offering that goes out to 10 million households annually. With six Bay Area retail stores, including HearthSong's very first, in Sebastopol, the 13-year-old business was developed by Kane, a registered nurse with a degree in science, as an antidote to the trendy, media-oriented, action-and-aggression toys, most of them with a tie-in to a movie or TV show, that fill the shelves of mainstream toy stores. Now owned by an Illinois-based corporation, Foster and Gallagher, HearthSong still encourages parents to allow their children time for creative, imaginative play.

"I wanted parents to know there were alternatives to everything that's advertised on TV," she says, speaking on the phone after a long day of preparations for a new retail store.

Typical of HearthSong's offerings are such stalwart items as alphabet blocks, rag dolls, chess sets, and multicolored dominoes, all made of wood, as well as Chinese checkers, canvas teepees, wooden stilts, puzzles, and fanciful hand puppets, plus a variety of simple craft kits that enable children to make everything from gingerbread houses and beeswax luminarias to glycerin soap and beaded jewelry. Most items are acquired from small independent toymakers, an increasing number of which are locally based.

"It seems that we have begun to have a significant influence on the toy industry in this country," Kane adds. "We develop a lot of our own toys. But there are more and more toys independently designed that we can now tap into, wholesome toys that didn't used to be around. It's pretty gratifying to me."

And apparently appreciated.

The arrival of the HearthSong catalog in the mail is a small event in many households, with parents vying with children over who gets first peek. The goodies displayed are likely to stir up as much wistful nostalgia in the parents as they inspire the inquisitive enthusiasm of the little ones.

"There's a growing demand for the basic toys that are timeless--much more so than there was 10 years ago," Kane says. "I think parents are reaching some kind of limit with these trendy toys that everyone just had to have. People enjoy giving things like a wagon, a ball, a baseball glove, a toy stove."

In other words: the classics. In addition to offering these tried and true artifacts of childhood, HearthSong has an active product development department, responsible for designing 40 to 50 new toys and crafts each year, sold exclusively through the catalog and in the retail stores.

One perennial favorite is Topsy-Turvy Trolls, a terrific set of interlocking, colorful wooden figures designed by HearthSong's creative director Lynn Ostling, who lives in Sebastopol. The 20-piece set fits geometrically. The 2 1/4-inch trolls easily interlock to build towers and walls. Or use them for board game pieces. "I had some wooden gnomes from Germany at home which gave me the inspiration, and I remembered how my two boys loved to play with tiny standing figures that they could line up and put in interesting formations," Ostling explains. Her retired father cut the prototypes in his home woodworking shop. Recommended for ages 3 to adult, each 20-piece troll set comes with game suggestions and costs $9.95.

"A child does not need a lot of toys," Kane insists. "Just a few, well-chosen toys. Toys that speak to who a child is. With those and their own imagination, children will simply thrive."

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From the December 5-11, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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