When I first started out in playwork I was pretty sniffy about toys.
For me, it was all about household materials, natural elements – grinding flowers into perfume, sawing planks to build a fort, and sitting around a fire as the sun tipped over the housing estates beyond. This idea of ordinary loose parts was a way out of the commercial and the over-priced trap we’d all fallen into, an escape from the overwhelming tide imported plastic rubbish that is probably made by children as much as for them.
And yet, and yet, children insisted upon loving their toys. They drew small figures out of their pockets as they walked in through the gates, to show their friends and run along the railings. They counted out trading cards and swapped them endlessly, and knelt behind plastic tigers that gave them a louder growl than they’d yet found on their own. I went back to my reading, looking again at Winnicott on transitional objects, at Dibs.
Here are three little descriptions of toys I’ve seen lately, in different contexts.
- At a play setting recently in a school, helping carry large plastic boxes of toys out from the store cupboard. “Baby dolls in the home corner,” one of the staff team said. “Soldiers and blocks and trucks and so on over there.” I looked down into the box of Action Men I was holding, all those naked and putty-coloured heroes jumbled up together. The one on top had its string joints loosened by time and use, and lay there with its limbs flung out with a balletic, corpse-like grace, its vacant expression turned towards fallen comrades.
- In the Toy Museum in Istanbul, they had rooms of toys divided by era and theme.
Of all of these, I felt the closest to the plastic cowboys and Indians – they felt like the toys of a childhood parallel to my own, that of the boys I knew, that of the adults in my family whose 1950s childhoods I had seen in TV shows and read about in books. It was so easy to imagine dioramas just like these laid out on living rooms carpets in America, in Britain, in Germany and Japan – all the places these specimens had been collected from.
In peering through the glass of these display cases, whole realms of the imagination began to unfold. Were these built in response to children’s shrinking landscapes of freedom? It seemed then that a toy, the right toy, becomes an extension of the self. It is a process of imaginative introjection, a dance of flow-with-object in which your physical self-reference shrinks and is projected through a bottleneck, emerging into a new realm of tingly possibilities. You melt with your toy, suddenly able to leap and wrestle with alligators, fly and shoot and drive with your small, mute, tangible (and eminently transportable) pocket guide.
- Today, I went to an auction of furniture and home decorations and found these among the sideboards and tea sets. A leather suitcase lay open, flat cardboard orange boxes full of jumbled tin trucks, plastic tracks, and a paper mache collection box for the Barnardos Home. All of them, gathered in lots and tagged for the convenience of browsers and bidders alike.
I would have bought a boxful, if I’d anywhere to put it. The three-legged lions and wagons that peculiar shade of 1960s red called out to me. They all seemed so homeless, so like the melancholic ending of The Velveteen Rabbit, and I wanted to gather them in the same way that as a child I had taken up the lumpy toys, the wounded squashed ones at the back. I wanted to make something new, maybe take photographs like Minimiam and the Little People Project – but this time, with dinosaurs.