Toys, Toys, Toys! What do the Experts Say?

As Toys R Us is on the verge of closing all locations following Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and Geoffrey the Giraffe is served his generous severance package after more than fifty years of unwavering company loyalty, I’ve been thinking a lot about the topic of toys. On the one hand, I’m deeply grieved by the end of an era in which toys held their own special space in the retail realm. When toys were not just five aisles of cheap plastic crap in a big box store of sixty. An afterthought at Walmart or Target because your kid was being particularly well-behaved on the monthly stock-up trip. Or something you order online to show up magically at your doorstep six hours later with Amazon Prime or ten days later at the very most.

I will miss the era in which my parents would take me once a year into the city to visit FAO Schwarz — another now-defunct toy store — where I would lose myself in a three glorious floors of giant Lego statues, life-size teddy bears, and the store jingle set on loop, beckoning me in from Union Square. A Christmastime siren song:  “Welcome to our WORLD of Toys…” I will miss a bygone time in which shopping for toys was its own very special trip.

However as an incurable bargain-hunter, I was planning to take advantage of the inevitable Toys R Us liquidation sale, snapping up some steeply discounted toys for my ever more curious and active toddler. I was expecting to find a feeding frenzy, with parents clawing and trampling over the final inventory, akin to the great Cabbage Patch Kid riots of the eighties. Instead, I’ve thus far encountered a mediocre crowd, shuffling in with all the enthusiasm worthy of a 10% Off bargain bin sale.

Have we  grown weary of toys over time? Or perhaps, as my theory goes, our excitement just peaked in the eighties…

A Very Brief History of Toys

Did you know that toys have been around since ancient times? In fact, toys have been written about in some of the oldest literature on record and excavated from sites dating back to 3010-1500 BCE. I had always assumed that toys came about as a Renaissance phenomenon, when childhood was finally recognized as its own distinct phase in human development and children were seen as something different than just “tiny adults.” Instead, playing with toys is something that’s been around forever and is ingrained into our very fabric as humans. When left to their own devices, children will play with whatever they can find, be it sticks, leaves or dirt. (This incidentally explains why your toddler will view everything as a toy and will not distinguish readily between, say,  Mama’s keyboard and her Fisher Price xylophone. The toddler will pound on both with equal zeal.)  

The Enlightenment Era brought with it a new attitude towards toys, led to a rise of manufactured toys, and gave us such old-timey favorites as: the jigsaw puzzle, the rocking horse (used as practice for real equestrianship), wagons, kites, and the ever-popular hoop with stick.

Another notable era in Western toy history was during wartime, as World War II specifically led to many serendipitous manufacturing and engineering innovations. Silly Putty was invented as a failed rubber experiment, Play-doh was originally created as wallpaper cleaner, and the Slinky was the result of a military spring test “flop.”

Once the 1950’s hit and plastics became widely available, toys became an ubiquitous and bountiful feature in western households. Notable toys invented during that time include Legos, Mr. Potato Head, the Rubik’s Cube, and my favorite old frenemy, Barbie Doll.

Then came the 1980’s. With the new technology and general excess, it was a good time to be young. Our moms were all in the workforce, giving us free range as latchkey kids to explore our neighborhoods and join toy forces with our friends. For better or worse, toys were more gendered than ever and Saturday morning commercials had mastered the art of marketing around the parents and straight to the children.  We also saw the release of many fads that are enjoying recent resurgences since eighties kids are now parents themselves, such as Transformers, Care Bears, and My Little Ponies. Here’s a totally radical list from Buzzfeed to blast you down memory lane.

Some Advice from Science

Between all the classic toy reissues being offered lately and grandma’s great affection for thrift store bargain hunting, I’ve been having a challenging time keeping the influx of toys from crowding out our diminutive living room. As a result, I’ve been extra thoughtful about the toys I select to bring into our home. In consulting the experts, I’ve found two prevalent ideas worth keeping in mind:

1.) Open-ended toys are the way to go

According to this very informative article from NYMetroParents.com, open-ended toys allow children to stretch their imaginations and prescribe their own unique narratives to playtime. An open-ended toy would be something simple such as a set of blocks, a car, or a box of crayons and some paper.

Opposite to this would be a complex toy that requires a specific action to render a specific result, such as a toy that plays a song when you push a button. This might be fun for a while, but the novelty wears off. Another example would be a Disney Princess doll. The story is already built into the toy and thus limits the child’s imagination.

A big benefit of purchasing an open-ended toy for your child is that the toy will endure and grow with your child as they enter new and increasingly complex stages of their development. For example, The Museum of Play in Rochester selected “the stick” as the toy of the year (!) since its uses are limitless and a child can reinvent it as so many things: a sword, a magic wand, a conductor’s baton, and so forth.

Additionally, open-ended toys encourage socialization between children as they learn to cooperate and compromise while determining the use of the object in play. According to the article, open-ended play allows children to dictate the direction of their playtime and reinvent the play in more creative and complex ways.

So perhaps our forefathers had it right: Keep it simple when it comes to toys…Wagons, Play Doh, and the good ol’ hoop with stick!

Here’s another fantastic article by Jenn Choi, creator of the website “Toys Are Tools.” Twitter@toysaretools. Ms. Choi shares the tricks she’s learned by observing her son’s speech therapy sessions and even goes so far as to say that toy stores are the worst place to buy toys. (I assume she’s not upset at the impending demise of Toys R Us) According to her findings, so-called educational toys offered at toy stores are ineffective since the machine is asking all the questions. In order for a toy to be effective, it should encourage early learners to the practice the joint-attention skills that will later be necessary for success in society and the workplace.

Ms. Choi has learned that the best places to purchase toys are specialty toy retailers and therapeutic product retailers. She goes on to recommend several highly rated toys for open-ended play and stresses the importance of us parents taking the time to participate in playtime as well. Taking the cue from her son’s therapist, she has learned effective methods of engagement. She gets down on the floor with her son, careful not to overwhelm him with too many toys at one time. She models good speech by describing what they’re doing as they do it, and she provides challenges in a patient and timely manner.

2.) Less is More

The other significant take-away resulting from my toy research is the idea that, despite all their social and educational benefits, there is definitely such a thing as too many toys. Madeleine Somerville, a fellow single mama and super hilarious writer for The Guardian, extols the little-known virtue of “deprivation as a parenting strategy.”

In these times of material excess and over consumption of cheap plastic crap, we might actually be impeding our children’s potential with a glut of options. Research shows that when we provide too many toys for a child at once, it prevents the child’s ability to focus and concentrate long enough to actually learn from each toy. Children instead tend toward attention-overload, rummaging through the mess so that they can touch each object.

Ms. Somerville points to research done by German scientists in which they deprived a nursery school of toys for three months. At the end of the three months, the children were engaged in more imaginative play and had increased abilities to concentrate and cooperate with each other.

So there you have it: Those of us who live in tiny homes can assuage our guilt, reclaim our living rooms, and proudly embrace the “one in, one out” rule when it comes to our children’s toys.

And for those of us who aren’t yet ready to part with our children’s toys (because let’s face it, nostalgia is a beast) might I make a suggestion? Try packing away the majority of your child’s toys and keep a manageable basket in the living room or play area. Then rotate “new” toys in on a weekly basis. Your child will be excited by the ever-changing possibilities for play and you’ll be relieved when clean up is a breeze at the end of the day… More mama time for wine and a movie!

…Coming Soon: The Great Gendered Toy Debate

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