This is an argument for simplicity in toys.
This argument rests on the following bases. First, I would contend that children — especially very young children — deserve the opportunity to develop as much imagination and creativity as it is in them to possess. Anyone who has watched a baby grasp and study an ordinary object such as a plastic measuring cup, a wooden block, or his or her own hand will understand that discovery is a prime force in the life of that child. Every baby is a scientist, observing and learning about the world around him or her. And every observation is important, and useful, to a baby who has no prior information. The measuring cup will hold the block when it is oriented in one way, with the hollow side up, but that same block will not disappear when it is placed upon the bottom surface of the upside-down cup. The cup will hold and pour the water that fills up the nightly bath, and which you cannot catch and hold with your hands. Some objects will float on the surface of this liquid, and some will not.
Of course, this is not a plea for parents to give their children no toys at all, in favour of measuring cups alone. What I do see is an ever-increasing tendency for mass-market toys to perform the exploratory functions for the child, so that he or she is reduced to a passive role. The toys that play by themselves, or that provide limited opportunities for imaginative reworking by the child, do not allow him or her to develop as rich an understanding of the way in which the world works.
What is clear is that, over the last hundred years or so, the mass-market toy industry has evolved in such as way as to ensure that playthings have become entirely commodified. That is to say, the desire to give a small child a doll to nurture and cuddle, for example, has been tweaked by the industry into the desire to give the child some particular doll, touted by the prevailing advertisements as the newest, and therefore most desireable, item to possess.
And children quickly come to understand this. How many of us have looked into a toybox and seen a pile of headless, naked “fashion dolls” at the same moment that the child is clamouring for the newest, most glamorous, version? How many battery-operated RC cars, which stopped working as some part of their fiddly plastic innards broke or the batteries ran down again, lie moldering in your basement or garage? And don’t even get me started on electronic “learning games” which are almost entirely drivel.
Advertisers for mass-market toys are largely preying upon our insecurities as parents, just as they prey upon our insecurities in other ways (“This guy is a winner, and he drives a/wears a/drinks a (fill in the blank) and you don’t … so you are a loser, but that could change, were you to buy this car/perfume/brand of whatever.) The amazing thing, to me, is that we keep falling for this, as parents, when all we have to do is watch our small children and see how happy they are to play with the simplest of toys. Yes, eventually they will grow into little consumers themselves (and good luck trying to buck that trend) but at least as babies through preschoolers they deserve the opportunity to find out about their little world largely through their own efforts.
The rewards will be richly appreciated.
Tomorrow (or whenever) — a very few categories of essential playthings for small children.