Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Toys: the love-hate relationship

I think that it is a truism that all parents have a love-hate relationship with toys. We love them when they are fun and make our kids happy. We love when a kid will play with a toy for long periods of time allowing the parent to do something else than try to come up with another idea for a bored kid. However, parents also do not like picking up the toys or nagging their kids to pick up toys. Then there is the trauma of when to part ways with a toy. My theory is that a young child will never knowingly part with a toy even if they haven't played with it since they first got it. Lately, many different ideas about toys have been playing around in my brain, so I thought that I would share some of those thoughts and see if I can get ideas from others about how to manage the toys. This is where I am getting back to the original idea of my blog. Toys lend themselves to more chaos, and I am a person who tries to beat back the encroaching hordes (or hoards?).

To begin, I am a very pragmatic person. When we first had our first child, my husband was surprised when I kept buying toys for her. He thought that I would see that as extravagant. Actually, I saw toys at that time as my child's work. She needed toys to assist her in the various stages of development. She needed to learn various skills. If I thought an appropriate skill for her age was being neglected, I looked for a toy that would help build and develop that skill for her. Ah... the newbie I was. I felt so proud of myself for limiting myself. I didn't buy electronic toys or battery operated toys. I didn't buy toys with TV characters all over them. We had limited space at the time in our tiny apartment, so we kept the toys small and simple. We still have many of those toys and I consider many of them the basics that will be used with all of our kids (blocks, balls, mirrors, rattles, soft books, toy piano, baby safe music box, tiny stuffed animals). Looking back from my current perspective, however, I purchased things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but didn't catch our daughter's interest or were inconvenient (non-machine washable plush toys). I discovered that our daughter found chewing on my shoelaces to be so fascinating that she would sit at my foot (literally) and chew on my shoelaces and play with them for the better part of an hour. Yes, she would play with the other toys, too. But, they kept having to be changed out for something "new" because her interest would wane. Then, when she started to crawl and pull to a stand, mobility was all she cared about. She wanted to play with the real world (our furniture, books, my husband's harp, door knobs, grass, leaves, dirt). The toys were stand-ins for what we wouldn't let her get at. Fast forward to today and I still see play as my kids work to develop needed skills, but the toys are only temporary tools to aid this endeavor. We bought too many toys. We forgot the truism that the box and the ribbon is more fun than the gift. Kids desire to learn about their world and real life. They don't need to be handed artificial versions if there is a way to give them the real thing safely.

Another thought that has been floating around in my brain lately is how we are inundated with messages that tell us that toys have to be bright and shiny and loud. They need to have lights and beeps and talk to your child. Somehow, if we buy the simpler toy, we are hurting our child's development. Our kids have to have the flashiest gadget that just came out or they will fall behind all the other kids. After all they need to be ready for preschool or they won't be able to be ready for kindergarten. Before you know it you are imagining your kid growing up to flip fast food burgers as a career while all the other kids go off to fabulous careers. Then of course they advertise directly to kids so that they will whine and complain that their lives won't be worth anything if they don't have whatever they are told that they should want. I still remember begging my Mom for a ballerina doll that danced on a special platform. I got it for either Christmas or my birthday and remember being completely disappointed that it not only didn't make me happy, but it wasn't as great as it was made out to be. The kids have no clue that they are being lied to about these things. We as adults have the perspective they lack, but we fall into the trap ourselves. The toy industry is in business to make a profit. Unfortunately, they use a parent's fear of being a bad parent to sell to them and use a kid's complete self-centeredness to sell to them. I've had some of these so called educational toys that are supposed to teach your kids. They don't teach much. Also, there have been studies which I keep seeing in the news that show that kids learn better from a person talking to them than any educational toy. So, where does this leave me in choosing toys for my kids? Don't follow the hype, it usually leads you to a dead end. I have to remember what my long-term goals are for my kids.

Another point that I would like to bring up is rather more mathematical. If every child has only two gift getting occasions a year (birthday and Christmas for us), then by the time they are ten, say, they have had twenty such occasions providing them with new things. Some of this is gotten rid of from time to time as they grow out of certain age appropriate items. But, what if there is a sibling or two. Why bother getting rid of those toys that will be appropriate for the next child. Yet, those children, too, experience gift getting occasions. In a family like ours where the oldest child is approximately 5 (birthday later this month) and the other two children follow pretty much every two years, the accumulation gets to be enormous. Yes, we do get rid of things, but it is a struggle to do so knowing that another kid can benefit from them. Some toys leave by way of destruction. They are simply loved to death and must be disposed of when no longer play appropriate. Some toys are neglected until Mommy can sneak them away and donate them if they are still in good condition. Others, cause trouble and have to be given time-outs. If they can't work out a good play relationship with the kids, they have to go. And every time a baby becomes mobile, I have to retrain the older kids about what the baby can play with and can't play with. It becomes my motivator to get them to pick things up: "Do you want your brother to eat/chew on that?" Then there is simply the issue of space. The older kids' toys (that are not safe for babies) have to be in their room, so that the baby doesn't get at them. There is only so much space available for that. I have also noticed that the more toys, the less they get played with. The kids simply can't see them. It is an issue of not being able to see the individual toys with so many all around them. As you can guess I have been struggling with these latest issues a lot and have been trying to winnow the pile.

When all is said and done, do my kids play with their toys. Yes. But, not usually how those toys were intended. Just yesterday I let my two year old play with some play dough (messy but simple and definitely a keeper). She started out by making a cake. Then she made some other type of food with it. About an hour later, she had found a toy spoon and squished play dough on the bowl part of the spoon. The spoon was a person and the play dough was the person's hair. She was having a nice little play time with her pretend person. Our daughters have wonderful imaginations and use the toys to work as props in their play. A toy is very rarely used as originally intended. Brooms become horses (despite the fact that we have a rocking horse). Shape sorters become airplane hangers. Books become stacking blocks (despite the fact that we have three different sets of stacking blocks not counting legos). Oddly shaped toys are perfect for an original creation of sculpture (sometimes kinetic). A cookie jar lid is a top. They have lots of fun and like to make their own toys from paper too (more props). But even then, there is something that will make them drop their play in a second in anticipation of more fun. What could it be? Going outside. They can either continue their play-acting outside with more natural props or just wander and explore. Sometimes we'll play games or ride on wheeled vehicles of various types, but mostly it is unstructured imagination time and exploring. But best of all... better than any toy... better than outside... Mom or Dad, Grandparents and other relatives and friends giving them attention and loving fun.

So, where does this leave me as I plan for upcoming birthdays and Christmas? How do I manage the toy shuffle as we move things around to be more baby friendly? How do I keep perspective on what my kids need to learn as they play? How much needs to be specific toys? How many props do they need? How much time can I let them have outside (especially when I am still limping and the backyard is still a construction zone)? How can we as parents make more time for our kids to be with us just for play-time? I know the questions. I have some ideas about the physical limitations of what toys we can own. I think that I need to work more on keeping the simple stuff, and eliminating the complicated, flashy, and redundant stuff. But the treasured possessions... that needs to be the relationships.


Kristy said...

We have been going through a simplifying process in our entire house, including really evaluating what toys we will keep and what need to go. My kids are very imaginative as well and most of our toys just don't get used much, and when they are used I find that the kids are not using their imaginations as much. We also don't have any popular character toys and very few electronic toys. So, what toys did we keep and what do our kids play with the most... dress up stuff, play food and kitchen, cash register, dolls, cars, blocks and art supplies. We are planning on getting them a lot of art supplies for Christmas and some other dress up clothes, such as a king's robe and crown for my son and a fireman costume. We feel like my son really needs more dress up opportunities like his sister has. We're also giving them Lincoln Logs for Christmas. And we've also gotten them a few educational toys such as pattern blocks (Melissa and Doug has a great magnetic set) and Fantacolor Daisy (you'll have to google it), which has pegs like Lite Brite but it doesn't light up. My kids love it! For gifts you could also give gift certificates for classes such as ballet, or coupons for special mom-and-me trips to ice cream, etc. And books are always great as gifts, you can never have too many books! We're also giving the kids cute kid-size ceramic mugs to drink their juice from in the morning for Christmas. Oh, and gift certificates to a paint your own pottery place, my daughter LOVES going to those places! Maybe you could purchase the plates (or whatever you want them to paint) and wrap them with a note saying that they get to go paint it sometime. The whole idea is to think outside of the "presents must be toys" that our society is caught in. We already have all of our Christmas presents bought and hidden and very few of them are toys. Good luck! It's very freeing when you actually get rid of the clutter and figure out what the kids really play with. And one last thing, I promise... I just started reading the book Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv and I highly recommend it. And go check out this post about non-toy and imaginative play, it's very inspiring! Makes me wonder if kids even need toys at all! Here's the link...

Chili said...

You are so right about so-called "educational toys"--what an oxymoron! So many have little educational value AND little play value as well! We had a great thrift store near us when we lived in Maryland and I got so many really great toys there for so cheap--but now I think maybe I went overboard--each individual toy may be worthwhile in and of itself, but as a group there are just too many. It's hard to know what to cull and how to do it without upsetting the kids--I always feel sneaky getting rid of toys behind their backs, even when they haven't played with them for ages!

Lostcheerio said...

Both of ours were given Leappads, and they and their accessories are all in a box under the bed.