Ben claims that my toy philosophy makes no sense, but he also admits that it works. We have particularly good toys in our house. Everyone who comes over comments on this and I don’t think they’re just being polite. Sophie has relatively few dud-toys, the sad neglected ones that you can’t remember why you bought. You know the toys I mean? The ones that look appealing briefly but quickly lose their allure. The ones that end up cluttering up your house, making you feel guilty, wondering why your child keeps playing with the box more than the toy that was inside the box.
So here, in time for Christmas, is my theory on how to select toys that will become favorites, toys that will be played with daily for months.
My sister’s rule is No Plastic, No Batteries — and although I appreciate the clarity and aesthetics of that, I do love legos which are plastic, and I do see Sophie enjoying a burbling turtle which has batteries, so it’s not the perfect rule for me. Sophie has an incredible set of plastic stacking cups that she has played with during nearly every bath this year. I wouldn’t want to give that up. Instead, I modify my sister’s rule to simply favor toys that are beautiful.
My mother’s rule is to aim for Toys that are Tools. She doesn’t mean that every child needs a hammer and an electric-drill. She means tools in a broader sense: a kazoo is a tool for making music, crayons are a tool for drawing, bikes are a tool for transportation, almost all the best toys are tools for something. But I’m not quite sure what Sophie’s stuffed dog is a tool for (a tool for hugging, maybe?) — and that’s one of her current favorite toys, though we have yet to see how long its allure will last (thanks, great-grandparents!). She also uses that cute stuffed dog as a hat, an excuse to announce “dog,” and something to tickle her parents with.
Nearly every toy is a tool for the imagination — so I’m afraid my mom’s rule stretches out into uselessly covering every toy. But I do see that some toys are better tools than others. When I was little, my mom made me a trapeze hanging from the front-porch roof (it was just a simple broomstick suspended from some strong rope: it was a brilliant toy) and a puppet-theater hanging in the living-room’s double-door (it was a curtain with a hole cut in its middle, and a stage-curtain added in), and those two tools were incredibly fascinating toys to grow up with. I still remember the hours I played with them, the foot-prints I left on the front-porch ceiling, the endless puppet-shows that I made my mother sit through.
So I keep the toy-tool connection in mind, but what I also think about is flexibility. My own toy-philosophy is to favor Toys that are like a Beach or Legos. During college, I worked one summer at the fantabulous Boston Children’s Museum, and part of our training was listening to a museum-expert talk about the then-vogue of “interactive” museum exhibits. It’s not really interactive if all that happens is you push a button and hear a bell, he said, or push a button and get a bell AND a light. That may be basically interactive, but it’s also quickly boring. The talking-Barbie, the arm-swinging GI Joe, the supposedly interactive kids’ toys are often the ones that end up gathering dust in a corner. What’s really interactive, he said, is a beach. Because there is no limit to the interactions on a beach, kids can slide on the dunes, jump in the waves, dig in the sand, search for shells, peer in the tide-pools, swim, float, skip some rocks, invent new games, and keep on exploring a beach day after day after day. A beach is much more deeply interactive than a speak-n-spell. So this museum designer told us that he aspired to make every museum exhibit like a beach. Or like legos. They’re as endlessly open to creative possibilities as a beach. They’re the model for a toy that lasts.
That doesn’t just mean a sandbox and a water-table, although both of those are good toys. It means a ball, a dress-up box full of scarves, a bottle of bubble-blowing liquid, a handful of matchbox cars, and, yes, a trapeze or a puppet-theater. It means any toy that you can do multiple things with. It explains why Sophie loves her new toy kitchen (thanks, Grandpa George!). She visits that kitchen first thing every morning and last thing every night, constantly inventing new stories as she plays with frying the wooden egg, storing the wooden carrot in the pot, hanging the ladles, baking her favorite marble, rearranging pots & tops & drawers, turning the kitchen around to look at the backside of the cupboards, constantly exploring. I’ve noticed that each person who plays with the kitchen with her makes up different stories, different ways to interact with the beautiful tools that are there.
Ben says the toy-beach rule is way too vague. I modify it by also looking for toys that have stood the test of time (collective wisdom isn’t a bad thing), toys that I myself want to play with, toys that make me smile.
So, in a way, Ben is right, my toy philosophy makes little sense, it’s just really an analogy, looking for the beach in a trapeze. But it works most of the time.