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The joy of giving and receiving toys resonates through the girl and boy within all of us. As we progress from little tykes to adults with more responsibilities than we can shake a holiday stick at, the definition and meaning of the word toy changes. But, make no mistake; everyone wants a toy under the holiday tree.

Gender-Neutral Toys

Long ago in a land far away, girls wore pink and played with dishes and dolls, while boys wore blue and filled their hands with dump trucks and cowboys.

The times, they are a-changin’. Actually, the transformation is complete.

Jodi Pesich, owner of HGS School of Music in Highland, has the perfect solution for shoppers who desire gender-neutral toys. “You can’t get more gender neutral than music and voice lessons,” Pesich says. “Children of all ages love music in all forms.”

HGS offers gift certificates in any amount as holiday gifts. “We offer lessons in guitar, drums, piano, violin, voice, even ukulele,” Pesich says. “People of all ages want to learn music, or extend their knowledge.”

Tracy Melcher, owner of Alice’s Garden Toy Boutique in Chesterton, specializes in toys that attract and excite, regardless of gender. “I’d say that 90 percent of our toys are gender neutral,” she says. “We have lots of science kits, arts and craft kits, and a large assortment of puzzles, puppets and games. It’s been our experience that boys and girls are drawn to what naturally interests them, as opposed to stereotypes regarding gender.”

The Child Within

Gender specific isn’t the only stereotype that has gone by the wayside. Kids of all ages want toys.

JoAnn Lance, owner of Park Lane Hobbies in Dyer, can attest to that fact.

“We sell model trains in all three sizes, N, HO, and O,” she says. “We have customers in every age group imaginable. The passion for trains crosses all generations.”

Lance watches many dads bring their sons and daughters to her hobby shop on Saturday mornings, when the large display is up and running. “You can see the kids catch the same passion Dad has,” she says. “Their eyes light up when the trains run on the track.”

Pesich adds that similarly, music lessons are for everyone, regardless of age. “We have lessons for kids as young as five or six,” she says. “But you’d be surprised how many seniors come in to take lessons for the first time in their life.”

Collectors visit Alice’s Garden in search of toys sparked from a childhood memory. “We sell a lot of wooden toys that are reminiscent of a by-gone era,” Melcher says. “Even though many of them are modern toys, the way they are constructed attracts children of all ages.”

Learning Disguised as Fun

Every parent’s dream: the kids are learning—but they think they are playing.

“One of our biggest mottos is that our toys are kid powered,” Melcher says. “You won’t find very many batteries in our toy store, if any.”

Alice’s Garden specializes in toys that challenge children’s imagination through play. They shy away from toys that, according to Melcher, “stifle their imagination.”

“If the toy does the playing for them, what do the kids do?” she asks.

Lance offers up Park Lane Steel, a miniature steel mill built to scale amongst the train sets. “People who worked in our local steel mills bring their kids here and show them how steel was transported by rail around the facilities,” she explains. “The wow factor is huge, plus the kids learn a lot of history about where their parents and grandparents worked.”

Pesich says that music lessons help students develop math and coordination skills. “Students learn dexterity, how to read music, and how to concentrate,” she says. “But they see it as having fun. It’s a great way to learn.”

Music and voice lessons also provide a subtle opportunity for discipline, Pesich adds.

Easy on the Environment

As consumers become more aware of environmental issues, toys that steer clear of landfills become a popular option.

Music and voice lessons fit that category. “Most people who invest in music are aware of our carbon footprint,” Pesich says. “Instruments, as well as lessons, don’t end up in a landfill.”

Lance says that the hobbyists who visit her shop want to create things that stand the test of time. “We sell a wide variety of model cars,” she says. “Those go on someone’s shelf, not in the dumpster. We also sell many varieties of craft paints and items for arts and craft kits. Customers are building things they want to hand down to their next generation.”

Green toys are a high priority at Alice's Garden. “Many of our toys are made of recycled material,” she says. “We look for that from our suppliers. We also avoid battery toys because dead batteries end up in a landfill.”

It’s the wide-eyed delight when a gift is opened that makes the shopping worthwhile. It may seem to be a daunting task to find the right gift for that certain someone. Thinking outside the box can make the job easier, and sometimes, a lot of fun. Instead of hitting the big box stores and buying the same thing everyone else buys, try some of the local, unique shops in the region. Opportunities are as diverse as our population. Enjoy the journey to Toyland.