Thursday, March 18, 2010

Politicalization of the CPSIA

I was recently asked for a link to an article I wrote a year ago for Change.org. The article talked briefly about the politicalization of the CPSIA (Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008). For reasons unknown, the article is no longer available on Change.org. I'm reposting it here so that it can still be accessed for those who wish to view it.

The Politicization of the CPSIA
By Jennifer Grinnell
Published February 22, 2009 @ 07:29PM PST at Change.org

After reading the opinion pieces this week in The New York Times (“Is That Fabulous New Toy Safe?” February 23rd, 2009) and the Times and Democrat (“Demint should put children first.” February 18th, 2009) regarding the CPSIA, the American consumer must be wondering, what is wrong with the children’s consumer goods industry? How could such a sensible law create such controversy?

Misleading rhetoric, unfortunately, is drowning out sensible discussion. People on one end of the American political spectrum would peg the CPSIA as part of the Democratic Party’s push for a “Nanny State,” or as motivated solely to benefit lawyers in a litigious society. On the other side are those who cheered its inception. They are appalled by calls to delay and amend the law, believing that any changes will “[endanger] the lives of millions of children.” The reality is that the CPSIA is not part of a plan to render the US a Socialist nation, nor an intended gift to trial lawyers. And the other sad reality is that the CPSIA does not protect children from law breakers any more than the standards that were in place prior to its inception did. The CPSIA is simply a piece of legislation written with the best of intentions but without the best science behind it, nor the best understanding of the multiple industry segments that make our children’s products.

Full disclosure: I am a toy retailer. But I am also a mother of three young boys. In 2007 after the first round of toy recalls were announced, I had to pry the lead-tainted Thomas the Tank Engine trains from the sticky hands of my then 2-year-old son (I really did.) He cried and I had to explain to him and his two older brothers that the toys weren’t made very carefully and that they had a “poison” in them. My then 6 year old wanted to know why the people who made the toys wanted to poison him. I had a hard time trying to explain this to myself, let alone my child. To be quite honest, I still don’t understand large-scale overseas manufacturing well enough to explain how these products got out of the plant with lead paint in them. But I can imagine it to be a combination of cost-cutting measures (is lead paint cheaper? Maybe it doesn’t take as many coats?), poor quality control and low oversight during overseas production. In other words, whoever was in charge of securing compliant components (i.e., non-toxic paint) didn’t do their job. And they broke the law. Lead paint has been illegal in the United States for decades. But I am not na├»ve and can also imagine it was something else, too.

So, why would manufacturers and retailers protest this law?

It’s not a bizarre opposition to the concept of chemical-free toys. Toys should be free from bio-available toxins. Period. And for that matter, so should my couch, your clothes, my mom’s food and our children’s shampoo. How do we insure that our products—all of our products—minimize harm to our bodies and the environment? We can choose to just look at toys and children’s goods but I believe we’ll miss the larger problem. The most sensible way to take lead and phthalates out of the children’s goods commerce stream is, quite literally, to go further upstream to the source of the component materials and require component testing. For example, let’s say that Fabulous Fabrics Inc makes 100,000 yards of Super Special Fabric No. 8 this year. If manufacturer A buys 100 yards of Super Special Fabric No. 8 to make a rabbit lovey, and manufacturer B buys 500 yards for his deluxe terrycloth towel in pink, why are both manufacturers required to test that same fabric? The fabric itself should be certified when the supplying manufacturer first ran its batch of 100,000 yards. Because now manufacturers A, B and probably C, D, E, F, G and H are all testing the same fabric for loveys, towels, bathmats, shower curtains, bathrobes and that strange new Snuggie blanket that seems to be vying for airtime with the Sham-Wow. That’s quite a bit of redundant testing that does not make the fabric any safer than when it left Fabulous Fabrics Inc.

It’s not because we are putting profit in front of safety. Creating safe toys actually isn’t costly. But buying that piece of paper that says products are safe is costly to a small business. And here we come to the crux of the argument: Small businesses can’t afford to prove that their already safe products are safe. On the other hand, the larger manufacturers that had the opportunity to bless the new legislation can afford to pay for 3rd party testing. They can absorb those costs into their large product runs. Individual crafters, micro and small businesses cannot. There is no other drama here. No hidden agenda. No one is trying to “wiggle out” of the law, or squeeze a larger margin out of the American people and be damned children’s health. Law abiding manufacturers are essentially being taxed to prove that they are not breaking the law. Lead paint is not legal in the US. Maybe I’m missing something essential here, but, unless it’s manufactured overseas, how would a manufacturer even obtain lead-based paint?

And it’s certainly not because we are “right-wing business groups.”[4] At Toy Fair on Sunday night, I had the opportunity to go out to dinner with some of my industry colleagues that are members of the Handmade Toy Alliance. To my left sat a vegetarian from Vermont, to my right a cloth diaper retailer from Arizona. Also at the table were people from New York, Connecticut, Minnesota and three people (me included) from Massachusetts. The sad fact about larger public discussions in the US these days is how politicized almost every subject has become. In an “us” and “them” environment, we seem to have lost site of the fact that perhaps we, the citizens who find fault with this law, actually have a legitimate point and are not trying to advance an ideology or nefarious political agenda. We are simply small business owners who have been stuck with a bill incurred by large companies that overspent on the public’s trust.

The opinion piece from the Times and Democrat allowed reader comments online. One written by Skylar 6 served as a succinct, albeit sadly cynical, summation:
“Bottom line, Left vs. Right, Dems [sic] vs. GOP, Good vs. Evil, The fight goes on.”
I sincerely hope this “fight” does not go on.

Jennifer Grinnell is Owner and Founder of the online store LivingPlaying.com, Toys & Games for Creative Play. She is also a member of the Handmade Toy Alliance and CPSIA-Central. She lives in Sherborn, MA with her husband and three children.

This article originally appeared at Change.org at http://www.change.org/ideas/4203/view_blog/the_politicization_of_the_cpsia

Friday, January 2, 2009

Happy New Year and Let's Keep Handmade Toys Safe and Legal in the US

Happy New Year to everyone! I had a terrific holiday this year with lots of family and friends around. It was busy but lots of fun.

But I also spent a good chunk of my time working with a group called the Handmade Toy Alliance to keep handmade toys not only safe but legal. That's right, I said legal. You see, after the made-in-China scandal of 2007, the Consumer Product Safety Commission went into action to write a law that would require companies that sell children's goods to do many things that would obstensibly create safer toys in the US. I say obstensibly because, although their intentions were sound, the CPSC with Congress created a law that would in effect outlaw handmade toys. Simply put, the law would be so burdensome and expensive to comply with, that only large-scale manufacturers of cheap plastic toys would be able to afford to put toys out to the American public. This certainly wasn't their intention.

The Handmade Toy Alliance, along with lots of other grassroots organizations that are involved in producing goods for kids, are working to get the law changed so that they will be able to afford to comply with the rules. But to let the public know, we decided to put out a press release--written by yours truly--that describes what we've been doing to date. I hope that you will contact your local congressional leader to let them know that you want to keep handmade toys--the safest that are out there--a viable small business in our country.

So, here is the release! Feel free to pass it along to friends!

###
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

New Consumer Standards Jeopardize U.S. Handmade Toy and Children’s Goods Industry: Handmade Toy Alliance endorses modified petition that preserves small businesses

Boston, MA, January 2nd 2009—Today the Handmade Toy Alliance (HTA) announced their endorsement of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) petition to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The HTA is a grassroots alliance of 139 toy stores, toymakers and children's product manufacturers from across the country, who want to preserve consumer access to unique handmade toys, clothes and children's goods in the USA.

The NAM Petition, released December 18th 2008, calls for the use of component-testing certification for children’s products manufactured under the new CPSC law, as opposed to the currently mandated unit testing. HTA, in agreement with NAM, is urging the CPSC to consider the “common-sense, risk, health and safety-based exemptions,” that will “protect the public while minimizing unnecessary economic impacts on business that lack any added safety benefit to consumers.”

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2008 was passed by Congress in August of this year in response to the children's products recalls in 2007. Currently under the CPSIA, which goes into effect February 10th 2009, all goods produced for children aged 12 years and under must undergo expensive third-party tests for lead, phthalates, and other chemicals as finished products. Goods must also contain a permanent “batch” label indicating where, when and by what company the product was manufactured.

It’s the one-size-fits-all nature of the law that is causing waves in the children’s goods industry. Small or micro manufacturers point to the concept of batch labeling as an important inventory-tracking mechanism in the event of large-scale recalls of an item that was produced in the tens of thousands, but suggest this makes much less sense in the case of a company that produces only 250 felted baby slippers a year. According to HTA member Cecilia Leibovitz of CraftsburyKids.com in Vermont, a handmade children’s items store, “The owners of our companies are personally involved in every aspect of production, from procurement to storage, design, and assembly. The scale of these businesses does not permit outsourcing or loss of control over the production process.”

HTA members acknowledge the importance of the improved safety testing for children’s products, but believe that manufacturers large and small will incur exponentially greater compliance costs if they are required to test every product component individually at the finished product stage, instead of relying on testing results for each product’s component materials prior to assemblage.

Without component-based certification, many small businesses will be forced to shut their doors, according to HTA members. “In essence, only large-scale companies that produce massive lots of plastic toys or kid’s t-shirts in China will be able to comply with the law. Do we want that? I know my customers don’t.” says Jen Grinnell owner of LivingPlaying.com a specialty children’s retail store in Massachusetts.

“But component-based testing would allow many of us to continue our business, while adhering to the current regulations outlined in the CPSIA,” says Jill Chuckas, owner of Crafty Baby, a hand crafted children’s accessories company in Connecticut.

Simply, the HTA is calling for common-sense rules that fit with the realities of the children’s goods industry without compromising consumer safety. An example of this type of regulation exists already for Organic Food Certification. According to Dan Marshall of Peapods Natural Toys & Baby Care in Minnesota, “Materials-based certification is also used in other industries, including organic food certification. Component testing is already a federally recognized and reliable method, to ensure the overall end product’s safety for consumers.”

The CPSC has proposed new rules excluding “natural materials” from redundant testing processes. According to Dan Marshall, “The reasoning behind the proposed exclusion of natural materials from the new law is that the CPSC believes there is little to no risk that a piece of wood, cotton or wool by itself could become contaminated with lead during storage and manufacturing.” The same reasoning, according to HTA members, should apply to all other materials that are commonly used in children’s goods and have already been properly tested before being made into a finished product. Many of these components, such as flour, food coloring and flax seed are currently regulated by the FDA as foodstuffs. The HTA is compiling a preliminary list of these natural materials to submit to the CPSC.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Contact
Dan Marshall, Peapods Natural Toys & Baby Care
The Handmade Toy Alliance
Tel. 651-695-5559
dan@peapods.com
www.handmadetoyalliance.org

Jill Chuckas, Crafty Baby, Owner, Designer (Stamford, CT)
The Handmade Toy Alliance
Tel. 888-788-5168
jill@craftybaby.com www.handmadetoyalliance.org

Rob Wilson, Vice President, Challenge & Fun
The Handmade Toy Alliance
Tel. 888-384-6200
hta@challengeandfun.com
www.handmadetoyalliance.org

National Association of Manufacturers Petition: http://www.handmadetoyalliance.org/document-to-share/CPSCPetition1208.pdf

The Handmade Toy Alliance (HTA) is a grassroots alliance of 139 toy stores, toymakers and children's product manufacturers from across the country, who want to preserve unique handmade toys, clothes and children's goods in the USA.

###

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wheeee! It's the holiday season!

My house is a shameful disaster of crushed goldfish crackers, boys crumpled socks and other childhood detritus. The laundry room is not navigable. There is a smudge of something on the stairs that I've looked at for a few days now as I've dragged my tired body up to bed. Plus, I'm wearing a baseball hat. I am not a baseball-hat-wearing gal. Truth is, I haven't been able to shower today (or yesterday). So, why is my house and my personal hygiene suffering so acutely? Because it's the holiday season and I sell toys!! Wheeeeee!!

To be honest, I am thoroughly enjoying the holiday season this year. LivingPlaying is busy, busy, busy. And the fun part for me has been the customer phone calls! As an online retailer, I don't get to interact with the customer as much as I would like. I certainly receive emails (and love to get them!) but nothing replaces talking with a customer "in person". Grandparents call and tell me about their adorable grandkids. Moms call and whisper their orders over the phone so their brood doesn't bag them and --oops!--so much for that Santa Clause person! Dads call--with a list from mom--and can I just tell you that they are really happy to hear that I offer free gift wrap and a card? The bottom line for me, though, is that selling and buying toys is a happy business to be in. It's fun to buy an incredibly cool block set, or trailer truck handmade in Maine with real, wooden logs, or dollhouse that is really beautiful!

So, thank you customers! You've made this season really fun! And because I'm feeling all Christmassy and whatnot, please use this little coupon code--HappyHolidays08--to take 5% off of your orders between now and December 14th!

Happy Holidays!

(p.s. Please remember that coupon codes can't be combined! Thanks!)

Friday, August 15, 2008

LivingPlaying.com having technical difficulties

LivingPlaying.com seems to be having some major technical difficulties at present! I was alerted by a kind soul that the site "disappears" from browser-view right after logging on! We're working on it, and want to assure everyone who has placed an order that we are still here and working hard on your shipments! And for those of you who would like to place an order, you can always call the toll free number at 888-334-1313!

We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience and hope to be back up and running ASAP!

Jen Grinnell

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Fabulous Contest! Win a FREE Custom Shoe Portrait


Okay, file this under Cool Stuff! You know how--way back when--parents would bronze their baby's first shoes? Who does that anymore? Nobody. Well, maybe somebody, but I don't know them ;) Anyway, here is a super hip upgrade on that milestone marker: a custom painting of your child's first shoes--or first ballet shoes, mary janes, baseball cleats, Roobeez, etc. Cool, huh?! Alisha K. Ard is a fine artist who paints photo-realistic portraits of children's shoes. Sometimes they are pair that speak to a particular childhood milestone or accomplishment, or simply just tug at her client's heart. These wonderfully rendered paintings become not only unique nursery decor but a really precious heirloom.


This is not simply a review of how super cool Alisha and her magic paint brush are--no, no, no, no. This is an announcement. A CONTEST announcement, in fact. How would you like to WIN a gift certificate for a FREE custom portrait of a pair of your child's shoes? You know, the pair that floods you will memories and make you long for the diaper days again? Well, you could win this neat-o custom painting by simply clicking here and entering the contest!! Good luck!

Friday, May 2, 2008

In An Era of Distractions, Let's Encourage Pretend Play

In my last blog entry Learning to Play? (er... a month ago. How did that happen?) I discussed a child development observation that has been making headlines lately: today's children don't play the way their parents did. The end result of today's play culture may be children who miss out on important developmental skills, including learning how to self-regulate in both the cognitive and social-emotional sense. In a nutshell, the observations by child specialists are that today's children:

  1. Play almost exclusively with children their age and don't have older child "play mentors."
  2. Are heavily involved in adult-led activities and are unable to practice unstructured make-believe play with other children.
  3. Watch more t.v., play more video games and spend less time outside and are becoming passive both in mind and body.

So, what can we, as parents, do to change the social scaffolding that are children's lives have become attached to? The good news is that there is much we can do--whether your child is a 1 year old or 10 year old.

First of all, let's look at our own choices as parents. Putting our kids into activities like karate or gymnastics or math clubs aren't bad things to do. They are enrichment activities which are fun for kids and keep them active. What we as parents need to understand, however, is that unstructured pretend play is not "doing nothing." And it is just--if not more--important than playing both baseball and soccer. Make-believe play encourages higher symbolic thinking and the development of self-regulation (i.e. planning skills and impulse control). These cognitive and social-emotional skills are learned while children act out ideas and stories while using different props. (As an aside, this is another reason why reading to your children is so important. Having a library of stories in their heads to draw upon gives them a jumping off point for play activities and allows them to make up alternate versions of the story lines.) We need to choose to give our children the time and space to learn and exercise these skills.

So, what can we do? The following short articles written in 2008 by D.J. Leong and E. Bodrova--originators in the Tools of the Mind program--offer suggestions that parents can use to encourage mature play at home and in playgroups.

The first article, Make Believe Play at Home, breaks down the needs of children by age, noting that whereas children who are between the ages of 3-5 generally need help thinking up ideas of what to pretend, children who are between the ages of 1-3 don't know how to pretend play if no one shows them! They list simple ideas in bullet point form to help you understand what your role should be--and should not be--when encouraging make-believe play.

The second article, Mature Play Skills in Playgroups, encourages parents to invite over children of different ages, gives ideas for kick-starting the group and dealing with a very active group of children that will still encourage self-regulation.

I hope these articles are helpful! And please leave comments with any of your thoughts and suggestions on how to encourage our children to play creatively!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Learning to Play?

A few weeks ago I heard an interesting segment on NPR entitled “Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control.” As an advocate of creative play, and mother to a boy with difficulties self-regulating, I was intrigued. What is the connection between open-ended play and self-regulation? It turns out, what I heard not only surprised me, but required me to rethink my assumptions about play environments and children today.

The NPR news report focuses on a particular preschool that employs the Tools of the Mind curriculum. The basic underpinnings of the Tools of the Mind program is that children today are not often in situations that require them to learn to self regulate. What is self-regulation and why is it so important? Self regulation is the ability to manage one’s feelings, behaviors and impulses. Children that are able to manage themselves better (for example, resist the urge to talk with friends during circle time or get upset because s/he wasn’t first in line) are also better able to focus, pay attention and learn.

Listening to the NPR program, I was able to hear the teachers and children in the school interact. But what I heard completely surprised me. Why? Because it didn’t sound like creative play to me—the children were required to plan out their play scenario before they even picked up a block. In fact, they needed to fill out paperwork about their intended game, draw a picture of it and verbally reiterate their intentions. Yikes, I thought. What’s up with that? Talk about an adult-driven, overly-structured environment! But I kept listening.

As it turns out, the theory behind the curricula is rooted in the belief that today children play very differently than they did when I was a child in the late 60s and 70s. Where at the age of 4 I walked out the door with my older brother and sister to join in the neighborhood kids’ game of kickball or pretend “school,” children today are highly circumscribed in their movements (allow my 4 year old to roam the neighborhood with the big kids? No way.) They spend a lot more time safely indoors with adult supervision—in a daycare or karate class with children exactly their age, or at home with the TV or some other type of electronic entertainment endlessly looping. So, whereas I learned “mature” play skills from older children in the neighborhood, children today are missing out on what we all took for granted: multi-age interaction and interaction that isn’t being regulated by an adult.

And what do many children do today in their "spare time?" Music and Movement class? Adult-led. Karate? Adult-led. Art class? Gymnastics? Baseball? All adult-led. All of these extra-curricular activities require the child to listen to an adult, and, essentially, be regulated by an adult. And although the classes are stimulating and beneficial in specific ways, children are not practicing how to self-regulate as they would during make-believe play with other children. Older children—referred to as “play mentors” by child specialists—model more mature and creative play that engages symbolic thinking, exercises the executive brain functions (i.e., planning, rule acquisition, ability to control impulses) and leads to mature self-regulating behaviors. With all of the enrichment classes and scheduled same-age play dates, the opportunities for children to learn mature play skills from older children are few and far between. The basic emotional and cognitive skills that we took for granted while playing with the neighborhood kids aren't being learned by a whole generation of children.

So then what does this curriculum featured on NPR have to do with creating opportunities for children to learn from “play mentors”? Aren’t these classroom situations still adult-led? Not exactly. Let’s back up. Have you ever watched your child talk to themselves during play? I never really thought much about it when my 4 year old would talk out loud to no one in particular about what his car was doing or what it was going to do (Cooper is freakishly obsessed with cars). Apparently during make-believe play children carry on this inner dialog about what they are doing which, essentially, is a form of self-regulation. They think it (plan the intended play); they say it (“super-fast race car is going to rescue race car no. 55 from the sharks!”); and then they do it. Kids also carry on that dialog during make believe play with each other—plus additional steps such as negotiation. So, back we are to the Tools of the Mind program. That paperwork and planning? It’s mimicking the inner dialog children would be doing under circumstances where make believe play happens often and with multi-age children. In a nutshell, the program is giving children opportunities to exercise mature make-believe play skills, learn to develop those skills and, in turn, learn self-regulation. By mimicking the process of inner dialog, and modeling "play mentor" behavior, the Tools of the Mind program taps that part of the brain that requires executive functioning—an increasingly underused cognitive skill for children who spend a great deal of time being entertained.

It does make you wonder about the rise in children with ADHD. Certainly there are children whose behavior is not a result of missed make-believe play opportunities. But, what about the other children who show ADHD characteristics—impulsive, emotional and unfocused—yet are not unduly hindered by the learning challenges faced by those clearly diagnosed with the disorder? Why the rise in children with this type of emotional and cognitive challenges? Many specialists seem to think it’s a direct result of lost emotional and cognitive learning opportunities usually met through pretend play.

Over the years I've noticed that my older son--who has sensory integration difficulties and trouble self regulating-- plays more calmly and with more purpose when he is with an older playmate. It is interesting to note that processing sensory information is done in the executive regions of the brain. Would my son benefit from a more make-believe play time? Possibly, but I think that he might benefit from make-believe play time with more mature play mentors. Since he is my oldest child, he doesn't have the opportunities that my younger children have to learn from a bigger kid. Except that when it comes down to it, I'm a big kid. I'm not as good as an 8 year old boy, but I can certainly fill in some gaps.

Stay tuned for suggestions on how you can find opportunities for your child to engage in make-believe play both with other kids and at home.