It’s been a particularly stunning fall––I’m sure you’ve noticed––the leaves a glorious phoenix before the ashes of winter softly pull them to the earth. I remember growing up, when the sole purpose of autumn was getting all the neighborhood kids together to play in the backyard. Our goal? To make the biggest leaf pile imaginable. It was awesome. Or, as Shana Hack, owner of Moon Rabbit Toys in Santa Fe has a penchant for saying, “Awesome sauce!” But Midwestern winters could be brutal, and many an hour was also spent inside, creating galaxies with Tinker Toys, imaginary kingdoms with wooden blocks and trying to get the family together to play charades, or Trivial Pursuit, or an epic, sometimes week-long game of Risk.
I suspect I’m dating myself with the aforementioned board games, but it would appear that a new generation of board-game nerds is on the loose, as both Moon Rabbit and Out of the Blue Toys in Albuquerque note there’s a full-on resurgence in the popularity of board games in the past couple of years. Lisa Gallegos, manager at Out of the Blue for the past five years, thinks this might be a rebellion against or reaction to all of our solitary screen time, but perhaps it’s best not to overthink it, and just enjoy the “throwback family fun,” with new classics like Kingdomino, a twist on dominoes in which you are a lord seeking new lands for your kingdom, or strategic, long-play games like Ticket to Ride or Settlers of Catan. Shana advises looking for games that have won the prestigious German “Spiel des Jahres” (Game of the Year) award; a coveted honor that rewards excellence in design. Apparently the Germans don’t play around when it comes to board games.
Both Moon Rabbit and Out of the Blue are most decidedly not “big boxes,” but rather “old-school, neighborhood toy stores with quality and classic toys.” Out of the Blue, whose name was meant to be widely interpreted, but implies a “happy surprise, something lighthearted and whimsical,” has been around for 27 years, and has evolved from a gift shop/toy store/café to its current status as a specialized toy store with toys that have what Lisa calls, “extensive playability factor.” The more interactive, the better, she explains, as the focus should be about “what a child does with a toy rather than what a toy does to a child.” Less about how it can provide entertainment, and more about being a springboard for divergent play. Lisa, originally from Albuquerque, collected old-school anime toys when she was a kid, and was a Montessori teacher and worked for an educational software company as a grown up, but decided, upon her return to Albuquerque, that she needed something more fun. “Kids are easier to interact with than adults,” she says. “There’s no pretense––they’re very open.” At Out of the Blue, some of her favorites for littlest littles include the multi-sensory Noggin Stik, a developmental light-up rattle, as well as the very simple but brilliant Baby Paper, which is basically fabric that makes that “crinkly” sound and is machine-washable. I remember spending hours with my firstborn tearing up and crunching magazines (and trying to keep her from eating it). Baby Paper, where were you then?!
Next to the infant section is a formidable collection of arts and crafts. Lisa loves the Klutz products because everything is included, and every detail of the process is well thought-out with easy directions. Bath Bombs and Klutz Pom-Pom Puppies are best sellers and parents can be heartened by the implication of the name that just about anybody, no matter the level of artistic talent, can be creative. “We’re also all about STEM stuff here,” Lisa tells me as we move on to another section, pointing out the Ozobot––which focuses on robotics development and early coding, or Powerhouse, in which a kid can build and use 20 different alternative energy models. Batteries not needed!
Also, for slightly older kids more inclined to like puzzles and problem solving, there’s SET, where the goal is to find sets of three cards with features that are exactly the same or entirely different. Iota has a similar concept of fitting cards together, but instead of a set, they’re in a grid. Brainwright Cat Stax and Dog Pile, brain-teasers for those around elementary school age, have kids solve 3D puzzle challenges. There are even visual perception/spatial relation games for 2-year-olds––SmartGames Bunny Peek a Boo offers 60 different challenging ways to organize the four colorful wooden blocks.
Despite all the newfangled innovation in the toy world, Lisa says she still gets calls every day about longstanding favorites like marbles and jacks, jump ropes, Etch A Sketches and yo-yos —“no matter how many I order, they always seem to be running out,” she says. Shana Hack concurs. “I do tons of research about toys [in the process of deciding which to stock], but we definitely have the classics; once a good toy, always a good toy––I mean, who doesn’t love a Slinky?” Same with a bouncy ball, she says; there are just some toys that are perfect. These are the kinds of toys you can give to anyone, and they’ll immediately start playing with it.
Shana, who worked at various toy stores after graduating from college, woke up one day wondering what to do with her life, but understood very clearly that she wanted to play with toys all day and that’s how, almost 12 years ago, Moon Rabbit came to be. “My goal,” she says with an enthusiasm rarely found outside the North Pole, “is to find the perfect toy for everyone!”
Moon Rabbit, named after “the rabbit in the moon” and Shana’s love for rabbits, also has a wild and varying selection, loosely categorized as games, puzzles (from two to 2,000 pieces), building toys, things that bounce, things with wheels, Babyland, Toddlerville, make believe, stuffies and just “random weirdness.” Like rubber chickens––“Who doesn’t need a rubber chicken?” Shana implores, clearly bewildered by anyone who thinks they don’t. I brought my two kids, Nina (age 9) and Sam (age 6), with me to Moon Rabbit, and within the first 30 seconds of the interview, Shana was showing them how to do all sorts of funky tricks with the Astrojax; a toy that is three balls on a string that combines aspects of a yo-yo, juggling and poi.
Other favorites are Plus-Plus, uniquely shaped double-plus sign, open-ended building toys from Denmark that come in tubes that are easy to carry and organize. The Uglydolls have been a permanent fixture at Moon Rabbit; reminding us to delight in and celebrate our unique features. There’s a veritable zoo of handmade (many from fair-trade and/or local artists) stuffed animals, some of which are incredibly realistic looking. Then there are these awesome-sauce wooden alphabet blocks, made in Grand Rapids, Mich., that come in many different languages, and there’s even a set for the elements of the periodic table. Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty is one of Shana’s best sellers, made in a workshop for adults with special needs; it’s non-toxic, it never dries out, and there’s a bevy of colors and features like glow-in-the-dark (or glow-in-the-dark glitter), color-changing, as well as magnetic putty. From New Zealand there are Dodoland Eugy toys––mini cardboard kits kids can put together to create all sorts of creatures: dinosaurs, sharks, parrots, pandas, unicorns, oh my!
Shana’s other goal in life (in case you were worried about single-mindedness) is to find the perfect board game for everyone. There is a huge wire rack full of all of the games sold at Moon Rabbit that are open for customers to try out and have Shana and her “minions” explain to folks. (On that note, just about every toy is also open so you can see what you’re getting.) Shana prefers the games that can be played collaboratively as well as competitively, and there’s a generous standing rule in the store––“You can always take back a stupid move”––because games are supposed to be fun, right? Moon Rabbit offers about 150 board games for 2-year-olds all the way up to the rest of us, and if they don’t have it, most likely it hasn’t been invented yet.
On that note, Shana says with pride, “There are six games that we invented ourselves in the store that you can’t get anywhere else,” most of which can be carried in a back pocket or purse with rules and names that are equal parts silly and witty. There are straightforward games like Otter’s Gambol, where you bounce a little otter on a tiny trampoline and try to get him to land in one of the two swimming pools (the smaller the pool, the bigger the point value), or more involved games like Skoklaarg––which is kind of like chess, but not as “obnoxious,” and has a few more rules than checkers. Each monarch wants to storm the other’s tower, while commanding 16 minions and trying to protect their own tower. “Out of all my babies,” Shana notes, “I’m most proud of that one.” My favorite, just because of the name, is E. Kensingworth Pinfield’s New Game of Circuitous Meandering or an Adventure from Beginning to the End. How many games that you know of have subtitles? Worth the price right there, I’d say. As far as how to play it? Well, I think it’s time you stopped reading and went to Moon Rabbit to learn and play.
Out of the Blue is located at 2502 Rio Grande NW in Albuquerque. 505.242.4455. outofthebluetoys.com.
Moon Rabbit Toys is located at 112 W San Francisco St in Santa Fe. 505.982.9373. moonrabbittoys.com.
Story by Emily Beenen