Rainy holidays

It’s raining again. To be honest this is hardly surprising since the schools are now on holiday. There seems to be an inescapable law that the first week of the summer holidays (at least) will be wet and miserable, it was like this when I was a kid and it still seems to be the case now.

When I was younger this amounted to frustration that I would be stuck indoors. In itself this is odd since most of my favourite play activities were best suited to being indoors. Perhaps it was the fact that the choice had been taken away from me, I couldn’t just decide to head out for a ride on my BMX, or climb a tree or even just to go for an adventure into the woods beside my house. A shower wouldn’t have stopped me but the obligatory summer holiday deluge was definitely enough to put me off. I made do with activities which on any other day I would have enjoyed immensely (playing with my Lego, my computer, reading a book or even just sitting and drawing) and waited for the rain to stop.

Now I’m a parent and the rain presents me with a similar yet also subtly different problem: I now feel obligated to be the provider of entertainment not simply a seeker of it. My son has just finished his first year at nursery and his response to waking up to the first day of his holidays yesterday was ‘I don’t like holidays’. He didn’t say this with a moan or a grumble, it just came out as a raw fact. The simple truth is he’s never had a summer holiday before (though every day before he started nursery was a little like a holiday). All the fun activities were spread throughout the year, and more importantly he didn’t know any different. He’s now familiar with a day-today environment in which trained professionals have put together a plan of the activities to be on offer that day, safe in the knowledge that they have access to a whole array of resources which very few parents will ordinarily have in such abundance at home (though I am aware that many schools are suffering from budget problems, I’ve even heard of a teacher in a school down near Glasgow who had to buy paper towels for the class as the budget wouldn’t stretch that far).

My point is that my son is now used to having activities set up for him every day of the week and I’m now out of the habit of coming up with them myself. I think many parents are in the same boat, they face the holidays with dread, coming to the sudden realisation that what teachers do at nursery and school really is hard work. We panic and buy mounds of craft kits and other indoor activities (not that there’s anything particularly wrong with these activities) but in doing so we miss the potential of activities which we, as adults, find mundane.

I took Logan to the supermarket yesterday since we’d spent a good portion of the morning and early afternoon in the house and I though he and his brother could do with some fresh air. Not to mention the fact that we needed something for dinner. I was a bit worried about what this would be like since I normally either shop for groceries online or nip down for top up shops by myself on my way back from work. I needn’t have worried, the two boys were as good as gold (if a little energetic) and Logan had fun helping me to pick things for dinner. It was time well spent and both of them seemed happier when we got back to the house with our shopping. The two of them even helped me tidy it all away into the cupboards.

It struck me today that Logan doesn’t normally get to do things like that; he’s ordinarily at nursery when we get the shopping/do household chores etc. As a result all of these things are kind of interesting to him and become part of his games. I’m now seriously considering getting him a toy cooker soon so that he can ‘help’ at dinner time. Perhaps the holidays are an opportunity to bring our kids back into the fold of day to day life. Rather than mimic what they encounter at school/nursery perhaps we should let them take an active role in those tasks we consider to be ‘mundane’. If they’re too young to properly participate there are always toys and games which can replicate these day-to-day chores: play food and games like orchard’s ‘shopping list’ game immediately spring to mind.

We won’t replace the time they spend with friends at school, and few of us will have the time or the resources to replicate those activities thought up by their teachers, but what we can do is show them the world of ‘grown ups’ and let them try their hand at certain aspects of our world. We can expose them to ideas and activities which will have a positive impact on the way they might engage with the world as adults. Come to think of it some of my favourite summer memories from my childhood involved cooking with my parents, helping with gardening, helping my dad with DIY/fixing the car, going on shopping trips, or (when I got older) helping my mum out at the shop where she worked. Perhaps there’s something fun to be found in these mundane rainy days after all.

Gender in toys

I recently read an article on the guardian’s web site by Charlie Brooker about the state of gender in the computer games industry (Brooker’s article). I have to admit I was less than impressed with the article itself as it failed to include anything about the portrayal of men but that’s besides the point, what it really started thinking about was the more modern understanding of the way children ‘should’ play and what kinds of themes which we ‘should’ expose them to. Brooker’s article is a far cry from what this entry is all about, it just brought something to a head that I’ve been thinking about for a while.

I’ve worked in toy shops since I was about fourteen and back then (about 1997) there was a bemused puzzlement about what we should call the previously tagged ‘boys’ toys’ and ‘girls’ toys’ throughout the industry. The problem was that despite sizeable evidence to the contrary (sales numbers and the personal experience of shopkeepers) we were being told that it was politically incorrect to market certain toys more towards one gender than the other. Sections in shops became harder to lay out in a way that wouldn’t offend but we tried and we received no complaints so we figured things were fine.

I think the main issue was the idea that if a girl played with a doll she’d end up with only one career goal open to her (mother). Little was said about the kind of expectation that was associated with the heady expectation put on every boy by a football. In my childhood I received a number of footballs and I admit I did play with them but with no more enthusiasm than my little sister did. In this lack of interest a boy is instantly pegged as wimpy or at best different to the other boys. I’m not particularly bitter about this, to get bitter would be somewhat odd considering that this social pegging made me the man I am today (I got interested in music, learned guitar and had a blast of a time in my teens).

However at the time (back in 1997) it confused me that so much importance was being placed on the expectations associated with ‘girls’ toys’ and that next to no one seemed bothered by the gender stereotyping of ‘boys’ toys’. Since then I’ve had time to think it through and look at the issue with a critical eye. The truth is that the numbers don’t lie, my lack of interest in football makes me an exception to a rule, just as the little girl who plays with monster trucks is also ‘different’. The problem isn’t the gender stereotyping: it’s the loaded term ‘different’ that got (and sometimes still gets) parents worried. We don’t want our kids to be seen as ‘different’ as it makes us aware of the social exclusion and other treatments that such a label might bring upon our them. So what are we as parents supposed to do?

Fighting against gender stereotyping is a battle no one is going to win. The reason for this is simple numbers and what appears to be the harsh reality of biology. A couple of recent studies (Kahlenberg and Wrangham, Current Biology Vol 20 No 24 and Hassett, Siebert and Wallenof Hormones and Behavior, 54 (2008) 359–364) studying the behaviour of chimpanzees (both wild and captive) has found that males prefer play which is either mock-aggressive in nature or which incorporates mechanism (the mechanism focus was actually shown in an episode of the BBC’s ‘Bang goes the theory’ and I can’t find an article to correspond with it), females on the other hand have a tendency to mock-nurse a child and engage in other rituals associated with motherhood. I’m not claiming that we can’t escape our biology, but given that even in human beings there’s a prevalent cross cultural preference in toy choice, we can’t escape the sheer brunt of this fact.

So what is my stance on gender stereotyping in toys? Well it’s complicated: I’m all for blue buggies and for girls who collect toys from the ‘Lego friends’ range. In short I’m happy to admit that crossing the boundaries pegs a child as different, this is unavoidable since children by necessity will cling to simpler more digestible concepts than adults. However what I think we do need are toys for those on the fringes which nonetheless still allow them to feel comfortable in their own skin. This doesn’t mean making all toys gender neutral: it has a lot more to do with toy companies taking time and effort to provide toys for genders which they are less than familiar with. Lego has done a remarkable job in this respect: I was never a fan of their previous attempt (‘Lego bellville’) which was basically just pink lego blocks and pleased no one. Their new offering has clearly had a far more careful treatment of their target audience, it incorporates the same level of building challenge which you find in the standard ‘Lego city’ sets but it also presents girls with an array of characters with jobs and lifestyles which can allow them to play ‘girly’ games whilst enjoying building blocks.

But where are the toys for the boy who wants to cross the line? Aside from the blue buggies and dolls for boys (which I have to admit only seem to target the preschooler age group) there doesn’t seem to be the same careful treatment. A boy who wants to try skipping is stuck with colours and designs which are clearly focussed at a girl’s tastes (how hard would it be to make a skipping rope that mimicked video game or car themes?). A boy that might have an interest in owning a fashion doll will have to make do with Ken (basically a male Barbie) or pass over any every day activities which a man might enjoy and go straight to war toys like Action Man and G.I. Joe (toys which, as I have been told by older customers, were themselves met with mistrust by fathers in the 60s and 70s).

Boys simply can’t break gender lines as easily without loosing something; in order to enjoy an activity which is stereotypically ‘girly’ they have to become more ‘girly’ themselves. Girls now don’t have to make such sacrifices, they can enjoy ‘boys’ toys’ yet remain girls thanks to innovations like those released by Lego (the term ‘tom boy’ only seems to be used by grandparents now).

Surely if we want men and women to understand each other better we should start by allowing not just girls but boys too to make forays into the other camp without sacrificing their own sense of gender identity. In fact this seems the best means of making for a more pleasant relationship between the sexes in the future. I like being a man, I liked being a boy, at no point did I wish otherwise but I did like the look of some of the toys which my sister and my cousin played with, I just wanted the toys to be less pink, and more structured (maybe with some flashing lights and sound effects to boot). To be honest I think most girls would welcome an escape from the barrage of pink also. In short there should be girls toys and boys toys (the alternative is a world of very confused children: children need solid concepts) but this shouldn’t prevent some cross over and, most importantly, the room we allow for this kind of cross-play could mean that far less children (girls and boys) feel marginalised by the toys with which they are presented.

Pocket money

pocket money toys

Today I’m thinking about toys, I’m a parent and I work in a toy shop so it happens a lot I suppose. But today I’m thinking about one type of toy in particular, this is a kind of toy that we as parents probably think of as fairly insignificant: they are those small purchases made for any number of reasons. The reasons could easily include buying a toy one day just because you’re in a shop and your child has been especially good, or you may pick something up because you’re on holiday and want your child to have something fun to do while you’re there or perhaps (as is most often the case) these toys count as part of your weekly routine as a reward at the end of the week when you give them their pocket money. Despite the various reasons behind such purchases the most frequent is the last one mentioned and so these innocuous little items have gained the name ‘pocket money toys’.

The main thing that popped into my mind when I decided to start writing about toys was how surprising it can be to see which toys in particular win a place in your child’s heart. What made me feel the need to write this particular post was the recollection of a particular set of toys which my son got about two years ago on a quick trip into the toy shop with Granny. They had just nipped up the road to pop in and visit me at work and while they were there Granny got him a wee thing just to keep him occupied. The toy he chose was a set of four zoo animals in a plastic packet that had sat in the pocket money section and sold well for weeks, if I remember correctly they cost something like £3.99/£4.99. In short neither Granny or I expected Logan to consider them as something particularly special they were just bought as a little keepsake that we thought might keep him occupied for the afternoon. How wrong we were.

The characters in the packet developed, they became extensions of Logan’s personality, he would say things in a different voice for each of the animals, they opened up his imagination and gave us access to some of his inner thought processing. Three characters in particular began to stand out; he named the lion, the elephant and the baboon after characters from ‘Ice Age’ (his favourite film at the time). In these little characters we gained three new additions to our household. These characters could not be left behind even on a quick trip to the shops, and their personalities became more pronounced as time went on: Diego (the protective and sometimes fierce lion), Manny (the subdued and friendly elephant) and Sid (the excitable and often frightened baboon) became members of our family.

We got caught up in the drama on the day that Manny got run over by a bus, thankfully he came through unscathed (though a week or so after a tusk fell off which we peg up to the bus accident). Diego went missing for a fortnight and I would genuinely sit up at night worrying about whether he was lost for good and how we would break it to Logan. Happily he turned up and I shared in Logan’s excitement and relief at his return.

Over the course of the past two years Logan’s characters have touched our lives and it just goes to show that you can never predict just what toy will be taken to heart and become beloved member of the household. The thing that scares me a little is how simply I could have initially dismissed these little characters and lost the opportunity to have them in our lives. Perhaps I might have suggested an alternative: a colouring book or a die-cast car and I would never have known how many hours of fun, heartache, excitement and joy those little pocket money zoo creatures would have given us. I see parents in the shop doing this all the time: “No you don’t want that, why not go for this instead? It’s much better value.” The truth is that we really can’t predict the value which a toy will acquire, toys can quickly gain a kind of sentimental value that money can’t touch.

Do you only look at toys in adult terms, weighing pros and cons and likelihood of potential for play? If you do you’re not alone but keep in mind that your children and the toys they pick can easily surprise you. If it’s just a wee thing why not just let them choose their own without interference? We can be more fiscally responsible when we go for the big items at Christmas and for birthdays but if we’re dishing out pocket money surely it’s up to the one with the money in their hand exactly how they’ll spend it. You never know when a pocket money toy can change your life.