Hiding your play

I recently came across a large number of online comments from mothers whose children apparently still play with toys at the age of 12 or 13 (though they apparently keep it under the radar of their friends). As anyone who has been following my blog will know I tend to circle back to the theme of age appropriateness quite frequently and this selection of posts, found when doing a simple google search about the average age at which children stop playing, really caught my attention.

Both my kids are too young for me to have real experience of the stopping play phenomenon so aside from the odd pre-teen sneaking into the shop so their friends don’t see I was kind of in the dark as to how late kids seem to really be playing. It’s fantastic and sad all at once: fantastic because my faith in play and in the perseverance of child-like nature has been restored but it’s sad because these older children and teens feel the need to hide their activities from friends who, by the sounds of things, are doing exactly the same thing. I suppose this state of affairs would also be humorous if it wasn’t for the inevitable fact that we can imagine a serious amount of over-compensation on the part of these older players, not to mention the missed opportunity of shared play.

One post I saw on a parenting forum was by a 14 year old girl who still played with dolls, this wasn’t one of these teens who fantasise about being a young mum (as you might see on Jeremy Kyle or Jerry Springer), the dolls she played with were more the dress-up variety and if I remember correctly they were from the sylvanian family range.

Playing lets us break away (a little) from our preconceptions about how the world works and instead we can play out how we would like the world to be. If these kids could somehow find each other then this could turn into a really great experience for them: rather than feel ashamed about something completely natural and plunging themselves into the world of the pre-adult (filled with violent, sexual and otherwise ‘grown up’ themes) they could enjoy a few more years of fantasy before they are forced to face the harsh realities of the adult world.

We glamourise the adult world either intentionally or unintentionally. The media can make adulthood look like a special club with special privileges with the admission fee being your childhood. More and more kids seem to be paying this admission willingly and turning away from childish things but looking at those parenting forums this really is just for show, they simply cannot hide the fact that they are still children and where they should feel proud of a wholly unique perspective on the world they instead feel the need to hide their nature and act like mini adults.

To those kids who apparently are living a double life please don’t hide your enjoyment of toys and play, there are tons of us who do it, trust me you’re in good company.

(Picture used above comes from http://www.getsurrey.co.uk/entertainment/film_and_cinema/s/2086262_walton_teens_lego_film_to_grace_us_festival an article about a young film maker that specialises in using lego)


Colouring in

This is something almost all of us must have done as kids, strictly speaking it’s not really a toy but it’s close enough to talk about here. There’s something really special about colouring in, it’s really immersive, even if you’re pretty rubbish at drawing etc. you can have some success with colouring. You get stuck in scribbling away and maybe even adding some shading if you feel particularly artistic.

Adults don’t really colour much, some of us have artistic hobbies like painting and sketching but the old colouring books don’t get much of a look in. This is a bit of a shame because I’m yet to find an adult who doesn’t get totally lost in a colouring book once the opportunity arises, hogging the colours and otherwise neglecting the child they were supposed to be helping. The other week I ‘helped’ Logan to colour in a Ben 10 colouring scene and it was great, I’m officially a massive fan of colouring, it’s one of those activities that you can get completely lost in, allowing you you to get into a kind of ‘zen’ state (as someone more new-age than me might put it).

There’s a resurgence (of sorts) in the popularity of colouring in among girls at the moment, thanks to a range of books which come under the heading ‘Top Model‘ made by expert stationary company ‘Depesche’. The basic theme is clothes design (though some books are dedicated to interior design), the books are filled with mostly blank pages featuring a line drawn model waiting to be outfitted by someone’s imagination. The whole concept is just clever, with sticker accessories and stencils to help those who can’t quite produce the look they want by themselves. If you had told me 4 or 5 years ago that a colouring book would be one of our best sellers I’d have been extremely sceptical but Top model products now trump pretty much any other product as presents for girls of 6/7 years+.

Well the girls are on board with how great colouring can be, but what about the rest of us? A colouring book and some colouring pencils (always my favourite but there’s nothing wrong with using pens, crayons or even paint) is a simple and inexpensive product to pick up and, depending on the images in the book, colouring a page can sometimes take more than an hour (I’m currently hunting down a colouring book we used to stock where you copy great art works). In terms of value colouring books are right up there.

I’ll confess I’m a bit of a quantifying junkie: I like to count up everything and sadly this habit even stretches to entertainment. For example an average sit com is about twenty minutes an episode with roughly twenty episodes to a season, that’s 400 minutes a season, a DVD box set is typically about £15 and unless the show is an instant classic like ‘Friends’ or ‘The Big Bang Theory’ you’ll maybe watch it all the way through two or three times, this gives you a maximum entertainment value of 75p an hour (and that’s being optimistic). Then look at colouring books, a personal favourite of mine at the moment is a ‘Transformers’ colouring pack that we sell in the shop at £1.29, and you get 5 A4 sheets, colouring pencils, a door hanger and a bookmark for that. I could take maybe half an hour to an hour colouring and shading each picture and I’d still have the pencils to use on another book. Maximum entertainment value here would be around 26-50p an hour, and a normal colouring book has a heck of a lot more pictures than five.

So continuing on a number of themes from previous posts, colouring is an activity that adults and children alike can (and should) enjoy, it’s good value and it can offer everyone a chance to change pace a bit and just get lost in something for a wee while.



N.B. the image used at the top of this post came from www.clickncolour.com a site that offers interesting designs for people to colour (their prices are in AU dollars)

The most visited castle in all the land

As promised in my last post I’ll be concentrating on a particular toy today: Melissa and Doug’s fold and go castle. Logan got this as a present from Santa when he was two (Christmas of 2010) and as soon as it was opened every other present lost its appeal. This was particularly unusual because up till that point Logan had rarely fixated on a particular toy, he had been more of a hoverer when it came to playing (jigsaws and Manny and Diego excepted). We generally open presents in the morning, have some lunch with my parents and then go visit his other Granny and Grampa for Christmas dinner and this particular year the castle came too.

We had to open his other presents for him, he was so engrossed, and to be honest is was the better part of a week before he played with anything else. Even then the other toys were incorporated into his castle so that we had T-Rex attacks, a visit from a mammoth, a sabre toothed tiger (and their friend the sloth), the inhabitants of the castle even got to know their neighbours (some anthropomorphic animals that lived in a pink doll house we got in a charity shop). Sometimes there would be an attack from a giant Winnie-the-pooh teddy bear and the king and queen were kidnapped at regular intervals by whole array of different baddies.

Logan isn’t particularly soft on his toys (but he can be careful if he knows something is fragile) and that much play can’t go on forever without some wear and tear, but then this is where the really important quality of wooden toys comes into play: they can be fixed. After well over a year of play some of the furniture started to break, a bit of wood glue, a night to dry and we were back in business (a plastic alternative would have had to go in the bin). The castle itself got a crack, again wood glue and everything sorted. We’ve never had to replace any parts, we’ve only had to stick things back together, the castle has even gone flying down the stairs a couple of times and still it comes up fighting.

The characters inside have never needed repaired (though they have occasionally gone awol for a few weeks) and they still feature in games that Logan (and his wee brother Alexander) play now. Last week the castle broke again (a crack along the hinge), I’m out of wood glue but as soon as I have some more it’ll be back in play.

People point out that wooden toys are more robust but that’s not the whole story: unlike their plastic counterparts wooden toys can be fixed time and time again, even if a piece is damaged beyond repair replacing it is as simple as getting a piece of wood the right size and shape and sticking it on (maybe with a bit of paint if needed). The plastic toys which we encounter every day are great at what they do and some really are near-on indestructible  (e.g. Lego, Wow toys, Playmobil) but wooden toys give you extra piece of mind. If something becomes a favourite and is played with to destruction it can be as simple as administering some glue and the ‘destruction’ is counteracted. Wooden toys aren’t just more robust they’re practically immortal.

Educational value

I’ve made the decision that this week (and possibly from now on) I’ll be doing a post on toys in general and then another about a specific toy that either of my sons (or I myself) enjoy. Hope this works, if people don’t like the new set-up let me know and I’ll go back to the normal of one a week.

Parents (and in this I’m really referring mostly to dads) occasionally go through a peculiar process of persuasion with their kids in the shop where the kid has picked a toy but the parent thinks a more expensive toy would be better value. To be honest there really isn’t anything wrong with this, provided they’re right about value and this is the odd bit because value is a slightly relative notion: e.g. a child who likes cars and doesn’t really play outdoors much is unlikely to play with a kite, regardless of the quality of the product (though of course there’s nothing wrong with showing them something new) so there’s little value to be had in getting him/her a kite.

The strangest value judgement by far is when parents assess value based on developmental contribution (that is allocating value based on how much the toy helps their child to develop). We parents can’t help but hear about the latest ideas about how to get our kids to reach their ‘potential’ but some parents allow this to steer all the decisions they make regarding their children. Some toy companies specialise in the kind of advertising which appeals to this mentality (leapfrog springs to mind) and though their toys may provide the developmental assistance advertised this doesn’t mean that other toys (which aren’t advertised in this way) can’t.

A bouncy ball can help hand eye coordination, any dice based board game can contribute to early numeracy, dolls and other character-based toys aid in language development and in social awareness (not to mention imagination), jigsaws stimulate the shape recognition capacities that will assist children in understanding further mathematical concepts which they will encounter later in their school career (and the same could be said of any construction toy), the list can go on and on. There isn’t a toy in the shop that I couldn’t describe in a way that points out some developmental benefit which it can provide.

Keeping this in mind then it seems odd to refuse the child a cheaper toy solely based on the fact that it’s seems less enabling of a child’s development. Of course if there’s some specific thing that the kid needs help with perhaps the parent will need to consider toys that might help them a bit but when the child is just looking to spend some holiday/pocket money it seems a bit of a shame to force them to spend their own money (as far as they are concerned) on something more ‘educational’. What better way to put a child off of something?

What’s more really good learning resources don’t have to cost a fortune. I remember a customer a while ago whose daughter was having problems with recognising numbers and with counting, what was worse was the girl had started to put up a block whenever her mother approached the subject with her. I suggested that she get some spotted dice and some number dice and try playing light hearted games with them (keeping talk of the numbers to a minimum), starting off just using the spotted dice (since she could count the spots) and moving on to introduce the numbered dice so as to start the girl off with a countable quantity and then slowly introduce her to the symbols which represent those quantities. After concerted effort from the mum the girl ended up not only picking it up but she jumped up to be one of the best at maths in her class. The dice cost a total of 80p for the four of them. Very good value I’d say.

We also sell maths games , books and activity books which are great for specific tricky subjects but if you have the time and the energy you can get similar results with just a set of dice. So what am I trying to say? I suppose its this, when a kid has pocket money it’s for something fun and frivolous, educational toys etc. are the parent’s domain and they don’t have to be expensive. Logan (my oldest son) doesn’t get pocket money, instead he gets stickers then he gets to pick a toy of about £7-8 when he reaches 20 stickers, it can take him over a fortnight to collect up enough and at the end of that fortnight I seriously can’t imagine insisting that he buy something based solely on it’s educational merits. Those kind of resources are for me to get hold of.

Development is a tricky issue for parents: we all have our own idea of how to bring our kids along but along the way we have to sometimes let them buy what we might regard as nonsense. If they don’t get to be a bit silly as kids when will they?