Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Trouble with Toys

A few days ago, I was shopping for a birthday gift for my cousin.  In one of those funny things that happens in families, she's actually just a few months older than Freddie.

So Rachel was turning four, and because I like Rachel and her parents very much, I was attempting to find a gift that would satisfy everyone - my 4 y.o. cousin, her busy parents, my not-so-secret green tendencies.

And what I found was that even toys that appear to foster creativity really do more to straight-jacket it.

I didn't buy the Barbie Sticker Maker - but I almost did.  A sticker maker seemed like a good idea - Rachel loves to draw and color and has recently discovered Barbies.  But the opportunity to create was so narrow.  It was all about coloring in an existing design, adding a few finishing touches.  Most of the work came pre-packaged; complete.  The verb "to make" seems woefully misplaced here - it was more like a fill-in-the-blank template than an invitation to imagine.

As I started looking at the other toys, I realized how few items were truly intended for open-ended play.  Even the race cars that Freddie loves seems programmed to do what they do on TV, imitating races that we see on the Speed Network.  It's not the end of the world, I suppose - the inclination with race cars is, of course, to go very fast while making "vroom, vroom" noises, even if you've never seen a race televised.

But in general, there are very few toys that require a heavy input of imagination and a huge number of toys that encourage children to follow directions.  Even Play-Doh comes in kits that encourage you to use the provided molds to create a finite set of objects.

I ended up buying Rachel a craft kit consisting of many giant, oversized pipe cleaners, but even that came with directions about how to make a tiara.  I hope she knows it's okay to make a lasso or a tree house or a doll cradle with them, too.

After we attended a 3 y.o.'s party, I was beginning to think that maybe I was a nut for thinking that way.  Every other guest bought a gift with more direction - LeapFrog learning books and the like - while we gave a relatively modest truck and book about trucks.  Was I just missing the point?  Were kids more into toys that told them how to have fun?  Was I the lame parent without a clue?

Let's leave open the possibility that I'm clueless and lame, but I'm not sure that I'm wrong.  On Saturday, Freddie turned down the chance to go to the big park with the train and the carousel to visit the local park.  He played catch with Daddy and we all took tree branches and turned a large, fallen branch into a drum of sorts.  Freddie ran in circles until he was exhausted, then we took him home, where he ran into some neighborhood friends and decided to run in circles with them for a while, too.

Freddie has toys - as he would say, a lotsa toys.  But we're doing our best to keep them creative toys that don't dictate how they are to be used.  It's getting tougher with every passing year, but so far, we're not doing so bad.

We'll see what happens closer to Christmas.

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