Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and my fondest desires were simple enough to be satisfied with a pack of bubble gum or a clean new box of vibrant color markers, toys themselves were also simpler. We might also say the same of the times generally, though I think that would be a nostalgic fib. America’s beloved JFK hit the exit ramp early, and, for a time, baby John John, stoic and cute, stepped into his father’s shoes as our nation’s favorite (little) man.
Toy makers have traveled the decades along with the rest of us and have done an excellent job of incorporating science and technology into our children’s play lives; as to the latter, at least so far as technology is measured by extensive use without over-careful attention to creativity. Maybe that criticism is a bit harsh; after all, though we may look at a wide sea of available toys and judge most as rather silly and useless, most things fall on a bell curve, and our kid’s toys are no exception.
I am heartened to find, a near half century later, that my favorite childhood toys still exist today; diehards of pleasurable pastimes, imaginative and certainly, by today’s standards, simple—some might say, primitive. But never boring, their endurance a testament to their constant appeal. Here falls, for our youngest ones, the clackety-clack pull along animals fashioned of wood and string; Rockwellian painted jack in the boxes, where the child giggles endlessly with delight just by turning a tiny wooden knob, listening to a funky telltale tune, being surprised (somehow, every time), when a plastic or wooden creature covered in a fabric base springs from it’s hiding place; the pop-corn push toy, with the brightly colored balls that dance and pop under a clear plastic dome- and nothing else (no lights, no whistles, no robotic voice telling our children how smart and special they are). For older kids, we find the hard molded dinosaurs and wildlife figures, with which an entire world can be created and acted out; the classic etch-a-sketch, which even a parent will pick up for a minute or two while tidying up kidlet’s room. For girls, Barbie still exists (and, though I digress, allow me to note that the witch never ages!), and this doll easily creates hours of imaginative play. (Why every Barbie in my house is always naked I cannot explain, nor do I think I want to…)
Technology has invaded some toy concepts like a contagion, equating to a desperate attempt to appear hip and cool and ‘educational’ on the toyshop shelf. What they are in reality is useless and, kindly put, most annoying to mom and dad. Little sing-song or robotic voices making utterly insipid declarations to your child, and you just cannot help but wonder what phrases appeared on the ‘rejection list’ of things the voices might say. I would kill to be in that board meeting!
JONES: No, Keith, the doll shouldn’t say, “I love you mommy”. It’s so very, well…boring! Kids are sophisticated, they expect more today! (Love being so outdated, don’cha know!)
SMITH: Yes, you’re right! Let’s incorporate edge for our little sophisticates! Let us have spunk and use edgy language!
JONES: Now you’re talking! And ‘edgy’ means ‘Me’! We must use ME language. Know what I mean? ME language. It is crystal clear and makes perfect sense. Alternatively, we can pull something straight out of our …EAR to have her say!
SMITH: You’re the boss, so yes I do know what you mean! It is clear. Right again Dan. The doll should say “I want a BabyTech-TechSavy computer”!
ME: Gentlemen, you clearly have no children and no parents. May you be fated for eternity to play with your own creations.
My toy maligning is spurred by a toy phone I bought for my daughter today. She saw it on the shelf and it was one of those ‘had to have its’. At $3.99, I promised her the phone if she could get through the shopping trip behaving under my definition of ‘good’. She did; I did. She fell asleep with it still in her hand. An hour ago, I heard it drop to the floor, knowing she was ‘out’ for good. Only then did I take a better look at it. It’s from Disney, and sports a clever likeness of Tinkerbell on the front –clever, I say, because Tink’s expression is somehow both bashful and alluring at the same time—a look I’ve tried to master for twenty plus years with far less success. I like that it plays a weird chip version of Beethoven’s Ninth, but only because that’s my favorite symphony- and while at best it’s mere chance, at worst, its just another lame commercial overuse of something beautiful. Still, we got to talk about Beethoven, so it meets with tentative approval based on parental prejudice. But with all its buttons, it only says two things, and how they finally decided on these two phrases I just cannot imagine (hangovers notwithstanding). Ready? Here you go: “Sparkle power” (how uplifting…) and, way worse: “Always winging it (push button again) put your wings on and fly.” What the…??
Okay. Here’s a message I want to send to my college bound, will no doubt be a professional child: WING IT! Not only ‘wing it’, but ‘ALWAYS wing it’! I hate this phone. I dislike it more for that out of the ascot statement than her obnoxious little “alphabet computer” with its insanely rude admonition when it is too long ignored: “(Aaahemmm!) Ex-cuuuuzzze ME” (I kid you not! That’s what it had the sheer audacity to say!- There’s enough rudeness in real life, now we have to take it from our toys?!! You want to see crazy? Catch yourself talking back to your child’s toy: “No! Excuse ME!”…) Dear, where’s that popcorn push thing??
I have ended up with several versions of baby computers, those to teach alphabet & letters, numbers, math games etc etc- Forget it. Kidlet is bored and a masters degree is required to figure out all its…specialness. A real computer is far easier and, after letting the three-year-old loose on it, she has not only figured things out pretty well, but she has taught me shortcuts and tricks a few times. It incites a ‘wow’ none of the sorry ersatz versions could ever hope to muster. Okay- she also locked me out once- but at least the thing didn’t berate me as I was trying to get back in.
The old stand-bys will always be my favorites. She loves them and I am thrilled to have another shot. There are new toys, too, which are so wonderful, so playful and creative, I wonder how life would have been to have had them in my childhood arsenal. For wee ones, the Leap Frog Alphabet Pal is great, and would make a terrific and affordable gift for any baby shower. Pull it on its string to be regaled with the alphabet song. Let it rest comfortably, and choose between modes: colors, letters, letter sounds, songs. It has a modest light feature, but that’s just a tiny flair. For slightly older to very older kids, my favorite is the Eye Clops by Jakks Pacific, which retails at major toy stores for about $40.00: a state of the art tool to show your child, up close and huge, the world of tiny things right on your tv. We look at fabrics, bugs, hair, skin, and anything that comes to mind. Magnify a fiber by 200 times and it seems a mad forest that one cannot help but be intrigued with, young or old(er). Think of it as a baby version of an electron microscope.
Soon little one will tire of her Tinkerbell phone. And little does she know, I’ll be watching. And waiting. And first chance I get, when all is clear, I will swoop down and scoop it up like a hungry pterodactyl and she’ll forget all about the sage advice that if you can’t take the time to do it right, you can ‘always wing it’. Sigh.
Shop well, shop smart, and, please, know that $4 is too much to pay for some very bad advice…