(Not a) Material Girl

(I couldn’t help myself, but now the song is stuck hopelessly in my head and I’m having nostalgic flashbacks of dancing to Like a Virgin with my cousin in her bedroom while wearing a Benetton sweatshirt.)

Earlier today I read a comment from someone who excitedly shared that their child had been enthralled with a specific toy, namely that said child had spent a whopping two hours engrossed in the task the toy had designed for him to do. The toy in question was this Mine for Fossils Science Kit.

It was an innocent enough comment, and an innocent enough activity; a gifted kit to “mine” for fossils that its recipient actually used and enjoyed, a rarity in the world of kids and toys, it seems. Still, the toy itself started to get under my skin, which isn’t to say that I don’t understand either gifting a child a toy or the relief in being a parent whose child has gotten lost in an activity for two hours by themselves. But doesn’t it say something that we, collectively speaking, would acknowledge the anomaly of a toy with such a long life?

The fossil kit contains a faux block of rock in which fossils are dug out of, which means the kit itself required quite a bit of materials and energy to produce. The fake rock, the fossils, the one-use plastic tools and magnifying glass that we all know will never, ever be used again after the toy’s singular mission has been fulfilled. It is very specifically this waste, this idea of constant one-off entertainment, that has increasingly gotten my britches in a bunch.

Ultimately we seem to want to give kids play that is mediated and manipulated, we want to create these false experiences for them. Lest I be tarred and feathered for being mistakenly accused of discouraging imaginative play, I am trying to say precisely the opposite. These kinds of toys do not encourage imaginative play. What is to be gained from spending $30 to “dig” for fossils with a backyard full of dirt and the ability to create this scenario much more fully, and on an independently? I might make an exception for anything that encourages the exploration of artistic or hand-working skills, like knitting or drawing kits, though I’m also imagining neither of these things to be one-use. Essentially we’re asking kids to engage with what someone else has designed to be fun, even if we know from our own experiences as, or observations of, children that this effort is usually futile.

Recently another offline acquaintance bemoaned the fact that her two year old daughter was more excited by a large cardboard box than any of her actual Christmas gifts. She went on to detail all the things her daughter did with the box: built a bed in it, used it as a landing pod to jump into from the couch, toted it around like a beloved companion. I know this isn’t a unique experience, and one any number of parents could recount, but I think it does speak to the fact that the best gifts are blank slates. They require, no allow, their users to create meaning, to imagine, to play in an improvised way. Most importantly, they enforce no imagined agenda and they let kids interact with the world as it is, finding an unimpeded curious place within it.

A discussion of toys inevitably leads to a discussion of industry and markets, so I fully understand that toys are marketed products to be purchased for the sake of supporting industries themselves, even if there are actors within this market trying to create better, or perhaps less-bad, toys that facilitate more of that free form play I was digging for. I can get behind jump ropes and frisbees, for example. I refrained from starting the discussion about the gendered nature of toys, but that’s a post for another day.

In reflecting on my own memories as a kid, they are mostly a smattering of physical play and friends. Time spent at the beach with the lingering taste of salt water in my mouth, playing in sprinklers with friends. The toys I cared about were stuffed animals and miniature cars (Micro Machines for any of you other children of the 80’s), but these were things I engaged with over and over. Did I need them to play? No, and even though I’ve presented a hefty case against toys, I did appreciate them, dare I say I have fond memories of them.

I suppose this wasn’t really a case against toys in and of themselves, but instead a plea for less waste, less disposability. Fill kids’ lives with things that will last, that aren’t so temporal and quickly forgotten. Why hasn’t anyone made a decent box, like maybe a rubber box that is both firm, but forgiving, for jumping in, is waterproof, and easily cleaned? Is that too much of a capitalist wish for a less-consuming appeal? Let’s give everyone an awesomely fun, durable box and a set of metal straws. Because, um, yeah. Plastic straws also have that britches bunching affect on me.

*Featured image credit: Michael Amos

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