Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What Makes a Toy?

There in the supermarket--you've seen them before--was that harbinger of spring: the giant rack of inflatable, colorful, 99 cent balls.  And there, staring up in awe, was a very tiny person of about three years, craning her neck, trying to decide which one would be hers to take home .  I recalled the hours of fun, the imaginary play, the simply joy, that comes from owning one of those balls, as I once did.  Remember the joy of that new ball smell?  A ball can be kicked in a game of backyard soccer, thrown in a game of dodgeball, and tossed in the air just for fun.  They don't sink in the pool, so they make great floats for those shipwrecked in mock battle.  Ah, but that was when a simple ball was all one needed. And we ought to remember that even a supermarket ball is merely a prettified version of a goat bladder, after all.

 Lenore Skenazy's reflections on the New York Toy Show (hey, there's a show for everything in NYC) remind us of a time when "a ball was just a ball."  If it ever was just a ball, it seems it is no longer.  She writes on her experience in the WSJ:

Now [a ball] is a tactile stimulating sensory aid that helps develop gross motor skills.
Hand-eye coordination, I quickly discovered, is the go-to claim for any product that can't find anything else to say for itself. ("Develops spatial awareness" is a distant second.)
At one booth I asked the salesman if there's anything on earth that doesn't promote hand-eye coordination: "Like, if you're a baby and you grab something, even a toe, aren't you developing hand-eye coordination automatically?"
"Would you rather we not create toys?" he huffed back.
Hm.  Perhaps.  Are those our only choices?

A contrasting view of the Toy Show came into my inbox today from the School Library Journal:
This year, there were plenty of kid lit characters to be found among the 1,100 exhibitors. Ludwig Bemelmans's Madeline was well represented at the Briarpatch booth, where she and characters Fancy Nancy and Frog and Toad have been translated into assorted games and puzzles.

So this gets me thinking outside the ball.  Is a stuffed literary tie-in character like Pooh or Paddington better than, let's say, Big Bird?  How does a licensed character compare with some crazy nightmare of an educational infant toy when it comes to encouraging imagination, creativity, growth, goodness, college admission, success in life, a strong marriage...?   
I must admit, I do enjoy visiting my niece and nephew and trying out all the new toys they have.  Buttons to press, lights and sounds to hear and see, and all the colors you can imagine are great fun.  And some of them even have that new ball smell.  But that's bad, isn't it?

1 comment:

Kimberlee said...

"A time when a ball was just a ball." Do you remember when food was just food? When it was just stuff you ate, not something to lower this or raise that, well, it might, if you also eat x and y but never z. I forget what food we have seen that actually says 'satisfies hunger' on the label. Yes, reading modern labels is very entertaining - food, toys, whatever. My new iron instructions warn me not to try ironing the clothes I am wearing...