Fun and Games

What’s a kid to do beyond screen time? The experts at this local toy emporium have a few suggestions.

Walk into Barstons Child’s Play asking for the hottest new toy and you’re likely to have a few questions thrown back at you before you get answers.

“One of my least favorite questions is what’s popular for this age?” says Steven Aarons, with a grin. He owns the shop’s four locations in Arlington, McLean, Rockville and the District (and co-owns a fifth outpost in Baltimore). “Each kid should be treated as an individual,” he stresses.

Luckily for shoppers, Child’s Play employees—artists, librarians and yo-yo champions among them—are happy to serve as stewards of fun, matching gifts to kids in the way that a sommelier pairs the perfect wine with each course. On a recent visit, I put their skills to the test, using my older son as the subject: What would they recommend for a 9-year-old boy who loves books, can figure out how to put a toy together before he even opens the box, and gets sucked into long, intricate systems and stories?

Bregette Poore, manager of the McLean store, recommends a science-based building kit from Thames & Kosmos. “The best part about the kit is the book that comes with it, which shows a real-world application that explains why this invention is important. If only my college textbooks were that well written!” she sighs.

“You could also do a Choose Your Own Adventure book,” offers Liz Tromba-Jones, manager of the Arlington shop. “Maybe give him a notebook where he can write his own endings.” (As a writer and a child of the ’80s, this idea delights me.)

“Or Rory’s Story Cubes!” Poore chimes back in, referencing a pocket-sized game containing nine big dice covered with simple images; players roll the dice and create a spontaneous short story using the images that land face-up.

These are the types of games the retailer suggests to parents who come in looking for educational toys. “A lot of these games are working on academic skills without using flash cards,” Poore points out. “They develop creativity and problem-solving techniques under the guise of having fun.”

Further testing the team’s toy-matching savvy, I describe a girl I know: a mature 10-year-old who loves to write, chooses sports and adventure over princesses and makeup, and enjoys reading but doesn’t shy away from the spotlight. “Ooh, what about Quelf?” Tromba-Jones proposes. It’s a board game that requires players to perform hysterical tasks and answer ridiculous questions. “That’s a great slumber party game.”  

“Or maybe Dance Charades?” chirps Poore. “That gets them up and active. You can earn points just for doing something funny. There’s nothing better than bad dancing.”

I can see that these two could go on for hours, leading me through the aisles while excitedly explaining both the immediate pleasures and deeper rewards hidden inside each box and behind every book cover.

Tromba-Jones distills the mission of Child’s Play down to this: “It’s about getting families to converse and spend time together, to put down the crackberry and step away from the million scheduled activities. We are facilitators for childhood.”

Aarons reiterates the sentiment. “[Offline] games are very important for kids. When you’re playing games, you sit together and laugh and talk, which is vastly different than playing videogames.”

Another point of pride among the staff is their ability to translate. “Someone can bring in a piece of paper where their kid has scribbled down a bunch of words, and they’ll hand it to us and say ‘we have no idea what this means,’ but we can look at it and know right away…” Tromba-Jones says with a smile. “We’re pretty much fluent in child.”

Kids climbing the walls during winter break? Ask the staff to help you plan an at-home art camp. “These Kidzaw Master Kitz are amazing,” Poore says, pointing to a stack of art kits that contain all the supplies to help children replicate a range of iconic masterpieces, from van Gogh’s “Starry Night” to Hokusai’s “The Great Wave.” “They explain the techniques used by the artist and why the work is important.”

“And if you want to extend the curriculum further, we can help you come up with a field trip to a local museum,” Tromba-Jones interjects, making it clear that the retailer’s interest in kids doesn’t end with a sale.

“The happiness of children means a lot,” she continues. “Happy children mean happy parents; happy parents mean a happy neighborhood; a happy neighborhood means a happy community. And for us, that’s what it’s all about. We’re just little idealists doing what we love and believing in what we do.”

Barstons Child’s Play

4510 Lee Highway, Arlington; 703-522-1022
1382 Chain Bridge Road, McLean; 703-448-3444

Style columnist Adrienne Wichard-Edds now keeps a set of Rory’s Story Cubes on hand at all times. Wanna play? Email her at

Categories: Style