Vickroy: Globe-trotting toys inspire social studies lessons
Allow me to introduce Muffin.
You might say Muffin the Lion is one lucky Beanie Baby.
He’s been all over the world in the past few months and bears no sign of jet lag or even fatigue.
In fact, his tannish mane, which earned him his name, is just as fashionable today as it was the day last August when he landed on Jillian Grzesiak’s desk.
Jillian, 9, of New Lenox, is a fourth grader at Bobbie Noonan Academy in Mokena. She also is Muffin’s temporary guardian and travel agent.
Jillian explained, “I named him Muffin because his head looks like a muffin.”
All of Kathleen Plocinski’s fourth graders received a Beanie Baby on the first day of school along with a paper explaining the social studies project. The students were assigned to dispatch the stuffed animals to all corners of the Earth. The toys were to report back with postcards or photos of themselves in different locations.
By logging thousands of miles, the Beanie Babies would, in effect, be cutting the world down to a fourth grader’s size.
“Whenever I hear that somebody is going somewhere, I ask them to bring Muffin,” Jillian said.
Muffin has posed in front of the Colosseum in Rome, on a busy street in Hong Kong and in a small, remote village in western Africa.
He’s been a lot of places — but Sophia Reyes’ stuffed deer, Whisper, has been to more.
Sophia’s mom persuaded many of her co-workers to bring the Beanie Baby with them to Germany, France, Australia and Mexico, as well as to Salzburg, Austria, a place Sophia would like to visit one day because it “just looks so pretty.”
Plocinski’s classroom proudly displays the souvenirs of the Beanie Babies’ travels. Postcards line one wall of the room.
Jillian said the student whose toy travels the farthest will get to keep it. But Plocinski expects all of her students will want to keep their traveling companions come year’s end.
“The kids just love this project,” Plocinski said. “We look on the map to see where the Beanie Babies have been. We talk about what life is like at each location.”
The students have learned a lot about faraway places.
After Muffin returned from Africa, Jillian learned that children in some villages have markings carved into their faces. The scars identify which village they are from and help prevent kidnappings.
Marcus McCarty’s black bear, Bill, has been all over Asia with his grandparents, who are missionaries.
Marcus, 9, thinks the most exotic location Bill has been to is Vietnam.
“My grandpa tells me a lot about Vietnam,” he said. “There are lots of motorcycles, and the people are very friendly. They don’t have a lot but they do a lot, with what they do have. And they’re always grateful for whatever someone gives them.”
Jasmine Dennehy didn’t know people could ride elephants until her Beanie Baby tiger, Stripes, returned from Thailand.
Other students’ Beanie Babies have traveled to Canada and Norway and ridden camels in Egypt.
Oh, the stories they “sort of” tell. Plocinski hangs the photos and postcards and the children discuss the various destinations, whether they’re exotic Singapore or equally fascinating Wrigley Field, which is where Tim Szarzynski took his bear.
“I’m a big Cubs fan and we had really good seats,” Tim said.
He’s not sure how enlightening that adventure was for his classmates, most of whom are die-hard White Sox fans.
“But Joy has also been to Plymouth Rock,” he pointed out.
This is the second year for the project, Plocinski said.
“I expect most of the students will get to keep their pets because so many have traveled so far,” Plocinski said.
Plus, she said, just like with all globe-trotters, there’s sure to be a few that don’t come back.
As for Muffin, Jillian is hopeful he will amass the most miles.
She’s not shy about asking people to let him tag along — after all, he travels light. No passports, no visas, no shots required. All he needs is a plastic freezer bag.
She overheard a girl in her dance class talking about going to Mexico and asked if Muffin could go along. He came back with a photo of himself wearing a sombrero.
The Beanie Babies have until April to accumulate miles.
Having just returned from New York, Muffin will catch his breath and start preparing for a trip to Haiti.