As I’m not working at the moment we don’t have a lot of spare cash to spend on extras so, apart from birthdays and Christmas, we don’t buy toys for ‘Little P’. For her last birthday I was really excited to buy her a new toy. Full of enthusiasm, I went into one of the giant toy superstores. A cavernous warehouse stretched ahead with endless aisles of themed and heavily branded choice. I was feeling dreamily nostalgic about golden haired dolls, soft furry teddy bears, giant red play buses and brightly painted wooden animals. I soon realised the toy warehouse experience was quite different.
They are just too vast to have any of the charm of a smaller, selective oldie style toy shop. The smell of plastic alone made me a bit lightheaded after a while! I couldn’t find anything that I felt she’d enjoy. Most of the toys were TV or movie merchandise that mean nothing to her. The ‘toddler’ toys were giant plastic things with buttons that flash or make noise. She has a few of these type already and the trouble is, that once she has pressed the button sequences a few times, there isn’t really anything else about the toy that captures her imagination. There were odd looking stuffed animals with giant eyes and strangely coloured dolls with distorted faces that frightened me, so I can imagine the effect they would have had on her! In the end I bought a small play tent which she loves and it provides loads of fun. But as we all know, a couple of sheets draped over a chair would probably have made her just as happy.
The truth is that I was the one who was really interested in finding the toys. Little P is still too young to care. I can still remember my grandparents at Christmas coming out with that famous line, ‘They’ll get more fun out of playing with the box’. Now I can wholeheartedly agree. Little P’s current favourite toys are those few simple little wooden animals and figures that were passed down to her by the now much older children in the family. But most of the other things that she plays with are bits of packaging! Empty cinnamon tins, toilet roll tubes, cardboard boxes, magazines, and cleaned-up yoghurt cartons. Under her playtable we’ve re-created her playground swings, made from reused cardboard cups for her little toy figures to sit in, and it is by far her favourite thing to play with at the moment.
Of course there are many great classic toys available, mostly from small independent businesses and local retailers. But many of the more popular brands are really all about shareholder bottom lines and global corporates, some of whom may have little care for child development. I can see that Little P gets the most stimulation from very simple things that allow her to use her imagination. Blocks, little wooden animals and objects like boxes, tins and drums.
Many years ago education pioneers like Frederich Froebel and Maria Montessori recognised how young children add imagination to the simplest of playthings. The toys they provided for their ground-breaking schools were simple wooden shapes, blocks and beads. Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous American architect who deigned New York’s landmark Guggenheim Museum – a wonderful spiral art gallery much loved by millions of visitors – often spoke about the basic wooden blocks he played with as a child that helped to develop his sense of spatial awareness and creativity.
So I will save our much needed cash and ignore the confusing multi-themed expanses of Disney, and the ‘Paw Patrol’ and ‘Peppa Pig’ variations similar to many. Little P doesn’t need them, especially while she is so young. It may be a different story when she is older, watching TV and looking for the toys that her friends are talking about in the school yard! But for now I’ll continue to let her raid the recycling bin and, no matter what we manage to cobble together from bits and bobs, I know she’ll be impressed.
Every child comes pre-fitted with the greatest playthings of all, their limitless imagination and curiosity. These need no batteries, no instruction books, and no pre-planned tie-in merchandising structures to stimulate further interest.
An empty box, tin or carton is a new toy every day. Just add a toddler.