Like the country and the city mouse, two of toyland’s newest bears – both branded as Steiff, have a very different approach to life. One values tradition, imagination, and creativity, and the other…well, maybe not so much.
Our two bears face-off high-tech versus old-fashioned play. One, the Steiff's Flynn Teddy ($44.80) is “just” a stuffed doll, the other, tonies x Steiff Jimmy Bear ($39.99) is enabled with a chip that can trigger the playback of an audio story book when it is placed on top of the tonies player (sold separately, from $99).
Our old-fashioned bear, Steiff’s Flynn Teddy is an 11” doll that comes in a small suitcase decorated with travel stickers. A similar doll, the Ben, comes in a blue suitcase decorated with two hugging bears. Both are delightful to the touch, it really comes down to which face you prefer. They are soft and snuggly, the encapsulation of everything we think of when we close our eyes and think “teddy bear”.
These are the sort of dolls that become imaginary play friends, and sweet companions to fall asleep with. They come to pretend teas, they are patients at the play-doctor clinic. They are props for pretend play, helping the child exercise imagination!
The suitcase is for more than storage. Toddlers will make up their own play, sometimes a sort of peek-a-boo, using it for spill and fill, pretend play like going on a trip or off to work.
The entire experience is designed to provide a safe play with no power other than the child’s energetic imagination.
At first glance tonies x Steiff Jimmy Bear seems like it is made of the same sort of magic. Smaller than the Flynn, the Jimmy works in conjunction with the tonies audio system (sold separately). I’ve recommended the toniebox for since it was introduced, but always with the caveat that a player is only as good as its content; it is in essence, a platform. One of the best things about the tonies system is that it has always featured excellent stories by "known" authors. Beatrix Potter and Doctor Seuss are in the collection, side by side with "licensed" properties. Unfortunately, Jimmy Bear's stories are not credited.
How is a parent to know, not just in the tonies content, but in other “designed for children” platforms? It turns out that the answers go back to the beginning of child oriented video games, and before that to children’s books themselves. If a book, whether traditional, incorporated into a video game, or in an audio format, does not list an author it is a bad sign. Signed books put an author’s reputation on the line. They give you a way to look up other works by the author, to see if past works are to your liking. A signed book is an indication that the publisher has pride in associating with the content, and moreover -it shows that a more substantial portion of the budget has been placed on the content, as getting an accomplished author costs money.
Likewise, if the story is based on a licensed character (particularly if there is no listed author), then there is a good chance the publisher has put more emphasis on marketing than literary or educational value.
Not every unsigned storybook is bad, but it should cause a parent to see a red flag.
In the case of the tonies x Steiff collection, the unsigned stories are uninspiring. Yes, there is something magical about touching the bear to the base and having the audio begin, but that play pattern is available with other, better, less expensive products in the tonies line. So here, you’re paying more and getting less. I get that parents might see added-value in the tech-enabled doll: It can give some respite, something electric to engage a child that doesn’t have a screen. They would argue that the techy-bear retains its traditional play quality, while adding other functionality. Maybe, but what is lost? First, the doll is much less cuddly. The hard plastic buried in the base of the stuffed bear takes away from the cuddle-factor of the toy. As big a concern is the transformation of play from an active experience to a passive one where the “work” of play, and the responsibility for learning to entertain one’s self, is supplanted by a digital device. Hi-tech does not always improve a toy’s play value.
My recommendation: Purchase the Steiff’s Flynn Teddy, and pair it with a book that you can share with your child. The tonies player is still a great choice, but stick with the stories written by named authors.