I just completed an online order for a “LEGO The Lord of the Rings” set for my 10-year-old granddaughter as a Christmas present. Last year for her birthday we gave her (at her request) a Lalaloopsy doll and a handful of pull-apart erasers. She also has a large collection of “littlest pets,” and loves to play Wii/Xbox video games. None of these toys existed when I was a young girl, and only LEGO was coming onto the market when our own children were growing up. Of course, these examples represent only a drop in the bucket when it comes to changes in toys across the decades.
TOYS — the word refers to those commercially available objects that are expressly manufactured to serve as playthings for children in their young years. At their best, in Western societies, toys are generally viewed as potential resources for promoting a child’s healthy physical, mental and social development. Toys are strongly associated with play — that form of activity that we often refer to in our profession as a child’s “occupation.”
In many third world countries, play may not be considered important for healthy development nor viewed as a major childhood activity (Gaskins). In such countries, toys may be rarely, if ever, present in a child’s life. For example, in Bazyk et al’s study of play in Mayan children in Belize, “Commercially made toys were not observed in any of the homes except one. In this home, the 4-year-old girl had a small doll and a handful of plastic building blocks, which were gifts from her aunt . . . an exchange student in the United States” at the time). In Bazyk’s ethnographic study of Mayan children, the authors concluded that they needed to expand their definition of play to include “playfulness” (a concept brought forward by Bundy) in order to come to understand the concept of play in these children’s lives. Playfulness was defined as a style of interaction (in contrast to an “activity”) characterized by “flexibility, joy, exploration, spontaneity” and a playful attitude. With this expanded view of play, they made many observations of play in the children’s daily occupations in spite of the absence of toys. The use of humor, smiling, and playful mannerisms in social interaction were examples.
In first world countries, and perhaps especially in the consumer society of the United States, toys may literally be found almost all through the house. In the home I grew up in, we had a small room designated as a “playroom;” that’s where my sister and I kept many of our toys, and that’s where we engaged in much of our play. In the kitchen of the house, we had a toy drawer that held odds and ends of smaller toys like peg boards and crayons and card games and watercolor paint sets. In the dining room we had a game cupboard in which we kept all our board games and puzzles. Upstairs on a shelf in the big hall closet were two sort of “out-of-reach” toys — my older brother’s electric train set and his Erector Set. In a corner of the basement, under cover of plastic, was our dollhouse — stored there, to be retrieved periodically and taken upstairs for intense but limited sessions of dollhouse play.
Who of us does not remember some of the toys of our childhood, and who of us does not remember that at least some of those toys had very special meanings. I remember my doll named Pinky (she came in a pink dress — Duh!). I remember the paper dolls and the paper dolls’ clothes my sister and I made — including the names we gave each one and where they went to “work” and which clothes were their favorites. I remember a huge world map puzzle that came in an orange box; I would empty the large puzzle pieces onto the living room carpet and put the puzzle together there on the floor. I remember hours of playing Monopoly and Parcheesi and Canasta with my sister on that same living room floor. I remember folding back the corner of the rug in the front hall and playing “jacks” on the hardwood floor (onesies, twosies, eggs in the basket, around the world). And I remember sitting in the breakfast nook on Sunday afternoons, while listening to “The Shadow” and “Nick Carter, Detective” on the radio — with our stack of clean manila paper and our crayons, colored pencils, and watercolor paints spread out on the table in front of us.
And, I remember the dollhouse. We had little wooden furniture for the four rooms — a sofa and chairs and lamps and tables and appliances and plumbing fixtures. A grand piano for the living room had pride of place. We made little curtains for the windows and bedspreads for the beds. We also had a set of tiny green dishes — cups and saucers, teapot, creamer, sugar bowl, plates, a platter — and an even tinier set of silverware.
My sister Eleanor wrote a poem about the dollhouse. You see, it really was one of those toys that had very special meaning in our childhood.
How I long to live there.
Cozy under a quarter-watt bulb,
balanced on a toothpick-legged chair,
crumbless plaster sandwiches
served on tiny tinkling tea things
kept in a six-inch cupboard
with pinhead pulls.
A brindled china dog for company.
Frying pans clean
on stenciled burners,
bathroom fixtures that know no waste,
the clockhands constant
at ten past eight.
Prone upon a painted sofa,
beside a phone that never rings,
I wouldn’t move.
Eleanor Risteen Gordon
Bazyk, S., Stainaker, D., Llerena, M., Ekelman, B., & Bazyk, J. (2003). Play in Mayan children. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 57, 273-283.
Bundy, A.C. (1997). Play and playfulness: What to look for. In L.D.Parham & L.S.Fazio (Eds.). Play in occupational therapy for children (pp. 52-66). St. Louis: Mosby.
Gaskins, S. (1996). How Mayan parental theories come into play. In S. Harkness & C. Super (Eds.). Parents’ cultural belief systems: Their origins, expressions, and consequences (pp. 345-363). New York: The Guilford Press.