Of loved and broken toys

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  3. 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.


9 thoughts on “Of loved and broken toys

  1. Very nice.
    My dad made me two (what I thought) were large wooden boxes for toys that were crammed like some of your examples here. I was quite distraught to discover in my adulthood that my parents had given them, and the contents, away at some point. It’s daft, I know … but they where mine!
    Reminds me I must write about Rabbit some time.

    1. You absolutely should! And it’s not daft to miss those toys, or to be distraught that they’d been taken from you. It’s an undervaluing, even if it is a very common one, and the loss is of the object and the strong memories that it dredges up from the emotional deeps.

      1. My gods … you’re RIGHT! My parents were complete bastards! I’m telling them you said so.

  2. i felt exactly the same way about toys when my eldest was first born but after 10 years of watching how my kids interact with them I am so glad we have a house that’s now overrun with various brightly coloured characters who are all very much loved and very much played with! I love overhearing the conversations they have with them and the scenarios they re-enact. thank goodness for toys 🙂

    1. Yes, absolutely! Sometimes I meet an adult who is dismissive of role play and games that draw on TV characters (one who called it “junk play”) and I wonder how much attention they’re really paying to what children are really saying and doing within the play.

      I think the problem is when those toys are the only toys that children see, when they miss out on the gathering of leaves and the cardboard forts – but a balance and children’s freedom to choose! That’s a beautiful thing.

  3. Hi Morgan. A great post.

    Children imbue there own meaning on toys and mass made objects, whatever we say about the global toy curriculum or however personally disdainful we think Action Men (etc) are. I like yourself and many other playworkers really value ‘found stuff’ or loose parts as we call them, but manufactured toys that supposedly have a designated narrative and purpose for use, and therefore are crticisied for their developmental purpose by adult experts, have their place in play spaces.

    I don’t think children are aware of ‘their shrinking freedom’ in the global economic trade-space, but he way kids use and mix up toys ‘reversing the order at will’ is fascinating in itself. children will rarely use just one box of figures, given the choice of a multitude, and it is probably a good thing that what once came in a shiny plastic pouch inevitably ends up tossed into a large ice-cream tub with all other manner of flotsam; you often get army figures, Star Wars, Lego, My Little Pony, He-Man castles and dolls houses all in the blend of some mad reverie in the dark corner of a bedroom or some other ‘quite space’.

    From a macro lense these things we might quite justifiably argue that many of these products are evil in how they are manufactured and subsequently arrive at the play space through aggressive marketing and cynical psychological need-tactics, but down low it can seem amazing and genius in how they are deployed within a play frame once they are taken from one world and introduced into another.

    And considering it was evil (the Nazi occupation of Scandinavia) that gave us Skrammell playgrounds and eventually playwork, is all that comes of evil a bad thing?

    I personally think the devil has helped us create the best tunes.

    Love Ed and Robert Johnson

    1. That’s such a good line! I agree with you (and it), and would add that it’s because there are parts of ourselves that we only meet in adversity.

      For me, the question of “directive” toys is interesting because they offer children such a strong narrative from the beginning. I think that this is why many plastic, manufactured toys are quickly disappointing, because children realize very fast the the play has already been done in the design and board rooms.

      But action figures don’t really do that. They bring their narrative with them, into the hedges and the cardboard castles, among the lego and the My Little Ponies.

      1. Talking of Scandinavia ….
        I went to a conference in Sweden a donkeys age ago where someone presented an excellent paper on the way children use toys that talk or make sounds or not. She’d had a series of pairs of toy figures made (two identical fire fighters for example one of which had a string that when pulled said some stuff and one which did not).
        She found that when you gave children the one that talked they fiddled about with it and experimented and they included the talking in their play. But after a while they ignored that and played with the talking figure in exactly the same way as the non-talking one. The narrative really was in the ‘figure’.

      2. Oooh – very interesting.

        I’ve had a vague memory swimming around of a paper I read written by a domestic archeologist, who’d found a cache of dolls heads and ribbon in the cavity wall of a Victorian house.

        There should/must be some sort of way of finding the authors of these things.

        Say, do you remember the <a href="” target=”_blank”>Barbie Liberation Organization? The great RTMark-funded direct action of 1993.

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