The way we load our children up with toys… is the crime of the age; it is a sin against our children; it corrupts their simplicity; it stimulates their destructiveness; it sates and blunts their curiosity and hastens the time of their general discontent with life. (Burroughs, 1906)
This post comes at a pertinent time of the year. That time of the year when most of us feel compelled so start buying lots of stuff for other people who don’t really need any more stuff, who often say they don’t know what stuff they want because they already have so much stuff, and will inevitably put the said stuff in the back of a cupboard before discovering it a year or so later and putting it in the bin (or if you’re lucky, taking it to a charity shop). See also George Monbiot’s excellent article titled 'The Gift of Death' ‘The Gift of Death’.
My son has been learning about the history of toys at school. I’d rather they had called the topic the history of play - the history of toys just highlighting (unintentionally I hope) that we’re now in a world of consumerism, and the history of toys making the assumption that we always were. We are lucky to live on the doorstep of the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, London, where they also paid a visit. A museum much more about toys than childhood. I have spent many a day there with my children, trying out the rocking horses, watching the model railway go round, looking at how transformers have changed in the past 20 years or so. I was slightly surprised at our last visit when we discovered the Paw Patrol lorry behind the glass, much to my son’s delight and my bemusement. Has the Paw Patroller really earnt the right to stand there next to wooden rocking horses, 100 year old dolls and meccano?
The museum and school are correct, of course, in their inference that toys are now important to children, probably more so than ever. As consumerism has taken hold and disposable income and aflluence has increased, we are buying more toys than we have ever done. It’s now commonplace that children will have a wide range of toys at their disposal within their home. And with less children now per household than in the past, they may not even need to share them with other siblings.
As part of their learning, the school have also asked children to make their own toys, using ‘junk.’ There was a pretty big build up to this. A week of collecting up our rubbish to take into school was pretty exciting. R made a rocket blaster, which he is immensely proud of. We still have it in the house, along with an ever growing pile of ‘junk’ in the corner of the bedroom, and some sellotape and scissors. I can’t stop him. My youngest son has now got the bug. Every bit of ‘junk’ he has he wants to keep to help make his rocket or car or crane. The various rockets and machines are growing in size and stickiness, covered in messy sellotape. It’s fair to say, the junk modelling has been as, if not more, entertaining than any Paw Patrol toy.
So what have toys got to do with children’s mobilities? Children in the past always used to make their own toys. And if they didn’t make them themselves, they probably didn’t have any, or certainly very few. Making your own toys fosters creativity and imagination. You can take them outside, you may be more likely to share them with your friends. With a wider range of toys purchased for them at their disposal, children are more likely to want to stay inside and play rather than going out into the neighbourhood to play with their friends. Parents, too, may find it easier and safer to keep them indoors when they can easily be entertained with their toys.
Our obsession with ownership and on our children having toys is likely to be one of the many factors that stops children wanting to play out and parents feeling inclined to allow them to. If you have your ready made Paw Patrol vehicle, perhaps it makes sense to stay inside and look after it, not get it dirty, and to look after your ‘stuff.’ Particularly if someone has spent quite a bit of money on it. But a bag of ‘junk’ or loose parts encourages social interaction and can make children want to get outside and get involved with others.
I’d like to think less toys is better for both the environment and children’s well-being. They really don’t need more ‘stuff’ - what they need is time to think, time to create and to be given opportunities to foster their independence and freedom. Maybe even get a bit bored from time to time. Here’s to a toy free xmas!