All too often, a true sign that you have children is when you have more toys than floor space. Between holidays, birthdays and other gift-giving occasions, it is easy for your child’s room (and even your living room) to quickly become crowded with toys of all shapes and sizes. But Patti Tepper-Rassmussen, owner of Learning Tree Toys, Books & Games, says toys should be more about quality than quantity—and that the types of toys you purchase can have a big impact on your child’s learning and development.
A Montessori Approach
Patti founded Learning Tree 28 years ago, opening the doors to her first store in 1985, just a few doors down from her current location. A former Montessori teacher, Patti and a fellow teacher opened the specialty toy store with the goal of providing developmentally appropriate toys, games and puzzles designed to help children learn. “We carry toys that are good for children, starting at birth and continuing through age 14,” Patti explains. “Some people think of us as a preschool-oriented store, but we carry stuff for kids all the way into their teen years.”
Patti’s background in Montessori education leads her to select toys that place an emphasis on independent play, freedom for exploration and respect for a child’s natural developmental process. “What I look for are very durable, safe, open-ended toys that can be used in several different ways,” she explains. “It’s kind of in line with a European approach to raising children. We suggest providing fewer toys, of a higher quality, that offer many things to do with them as the child grows. We look for green toys, toys made from recycled materials, and lots of wood toys—no plastic, we’re talking about toys that will last for years.”
This type of shopping is the opposite of what Patti refers to as “conspicuous consumption,” a term referring to the purchasing of items to display wealth and income rather than to cover real needs. “Purchasing long-lasting toys teaches children that there is value in choosing high-quality, creative toys that you will play with for a longer time,” she explains. “This is very different than the immediate gratification of a toy purchased on a whim that they might play with for a few weeks and that ends up in a garage sale six months later.”
Instead, Patti encourages her customers to choose things that will be played with over a variety of developmental stages. “The idea is that your kids play with it, then you share it with a neighbor who has a baby. Then, you get it back when your next child is born. It is well worth the investment because it goes from child to child to child and was only purchased once.”
Ease of Shopping
The 2,800 square foot store is divided into separate areas, each containing products appropriate for different ages and developmental stages—making shopping for gifts easy and convenient. “One side of the store is set up for birth through age five, and the toys are grouped by ages,” Patti explains. “The other side is from age six through teens, and is laid out by category, such as games, puzzles, science, construction and outdoor toys.”
On the preschool side of the store, the toys are grouped by age-appropriate levels and each area has signs that detail out skill levels of a child in that developmental stage. “People will often read the signs and say ‘Oh my gosh—that perfectly describes him!’” she laughs. “So they feel confident that they are getting a toy that the child will enjoy.”
More than 500 brands of toys and games are represented in the store. For children ages 6-12 months, Learning Tree offers a variety of pushing toys that encourage crawling and help them balance while they learn to walk. “I also love wood toys for toddlers, including pounding toys, shape sorting toys and building toys,” Patti notes. “Other favorites are our Corrolle dolls, which I love because their faces are all different.” Shoppers in the market for a new doll can also find a selection of Adora dolls, Baby Stella and Groovy Girls. “I don’t buy anything that I haven’t pulled out and played with,” she adds. “I want to be sure that it isn’t going to break, that they are safe, accurate and effective.”
In addition to their specialized inventory, Learning Tree also offers child development knowledge to customers looking to select the perfect toy or gift. “We are able to helping parents and grandparents choose the best toy for the child,” Patti says. “They can describe where the child is and we help them find toys for the next step. If they say the child likes puzzles, we can help guide them through the whole developmental progression of working on puzzles.”
Patti has two part-time employees who are both former educators and bring their child development and classroom knowledge with them. She also employs five or six high school or college students to assist in the store. “They learn from us and like to play the games,” she laughs. “The great thing is that they can then teach the games to customers.”
Free gift wrapping is available on all purchases and the store will also assemble items upon request. “Additionally, customers can call and let us know the age and interests of the child and we can pick out an appropriate gift,” Patti adds. “We will wrap it and get it ready to go so that all they have to do is pick it up.”
Learning Tree offers a birthday registry, where the birthday child can come in and fill a birthday wagon with toys and games for guests to choose from. Also available is a frequent shopper program called Leaves of Gold that allows shoppers to earn store credit. “We stamp your Leaves of Gold card and indicate the amount you spend pre-tax,” Patti explains. “After 15 visits, we add up all your purchases, average the amount spent and you receive that much in store credit. And the card never expires.” Learning Tree also offers a 15% discount with a Keep it Local card, the Allied Arts OKCityCard, as well as a discount for military personnel.
Patti offers one last piece of advice for first-time customers. “If you are coming just to check out the selection, be sure to plan extra time,” she advises. “We encourage children to play with what’s out on the floor, everything from trains to a marble run, so there is lots to explore. It’s a very fun place to be.”
Learning Tree Toys, Books & Games
7638 N. Western, Oklahoma City,
Sunday, 1:00-5:00pm (November/December only)
Also located at 102 South Broadway in downtown Edmond inside Cinnamon Bears,
What do your customers say most often?
“I love it when customers tell us that everything they bought from us was a big hit, and that they can trust that everything they buy from us will be wonderful.”
Brooke Barnett is the Editor of MetroFamily Magazine