(Re-)Visiting Toyland

I spent this afternoon at the Play England Research Network Meeting, held in waterfront rooms at the ExCel centre and hosted by the British Toy and Hobby Association’s  annual trade show. The ExCel Centre was also accommodating the London Motorcycle Show and auditions for Big Brother 10, making for a beautifully weird mix of people waiting for their Costa coffees and Square Pies.

The network meeting itself was really interesting, the first I’ve attended but certainly not the last. I’ll put something up soon about some of the presentations and contacts made there, but all the way back on the DLR and tube I was turning something else over in my mind entirely. Thanks to a brief drift through the trade show on my way out I couldn’t stop thinking about toys.

In play, particularly the old-school niche that is Adventure Play, we tend to disregard most conventional toys as limiting, expensive, consumerist pieces of rubbish. I tend to as well, and my first post here was on the uneasy relationships being formed today between concepts of gender, play value and purchasing power. I do believe that most toys – meaning here the prescriptive, mass-produced activity-type toys – foster the bizarre notion that play requires stuff. Toys inadvertantly limit play behaviours by suggesting that each toy can be played with in specific ways and that different or additional games effectively require the purchasing of more stuff. However, this rather hardline ideological approach implies that I was raised with little more to amuse myself with than a stick, a ball and a sock. This was not the case.

I grew up in Southern California, close enough to Disneyland that the location of schoolfriends’ birthday parties was rarely in doubt. I loved it there, unquestioningly. I still remember some of the toys I had as a child, and many of the ones most vividly recalled were bright shiny plastic, with small moveable parts and large friendly letters on the packaging. A Smurfmobile pedal car, a Care Bears Dream House. My father worked for Mattel and I felt like the luckiest little girl in the world. But at the same time my parents never believed that love was proved by presents, and I was most often given wooden building blocks, crayons or the eternal favourite the cardboard box.

We often talk in play provision of the difficulty in responding to the desires children express, especially as they can only ask for things that they have seen. We talk about play value, and prize a sandpit over a springy chicken any day of the week. But at the same time the mechanisms of children’s engagement with their material surroundings is complex and often misunderstood. I can’t be the only former lover of Barbie who grew up so dang feminist.

The key has to be in providing space for the natural richness and diversity of play to develop, for the natural diversity of children’s needs, interests and experiments to take root and thrive – even if on occasion that means biting our tongues about the consumerist rubbish that these children bring on site.

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