Engendered toys: Construction toys

Construction toysI’ve just come home from work to find both my sons helping Grampa to fix a cupboard door. My mum and dad have been watching the boys and my dad decided to do a much needed bit of DIY, I remember when I was growing up my dad doing DIY was pretty much constant. Here’s the bit where this kind of story usually highlights the bumbling mistakes of the dad and the inevitable call out to a professional. However that was never the case in our house, my dad was generally careful especially when it came to electrical repairs and I don’t really remember any cases of him jumping in without looking into what was involved in a job. As a result I grew up with the belief that if I’m careful and pay attention I can do pretty much any DIY job. However TV had a very different message to send me, through characters like Homer Simpson and Tim ‘the tool man’ Taylor.

new_4960802_retro-tv-icon-1I often have a good moan at the media in these gender posts but I can’t help it, I watched a lot of TV as a kid and I think most kids today are about the same. As a result I’m pretty sure that TV plays a big role in the kind of self-image that kids come to develop, I know I’ve always felt a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the way men are sometimes depicted in the media. So, on to how this impacts toys: simply put I think that men are often depicted as not-so-handy, this is apparent in family comedies in particular, and as a result I expect that many boys exposed to that are likely to develop an image of themselves as similarly lacking in handy skills. If this is the case then you might expect traditional construction toys (like meccano) and toys involving the use of tools to have become less popular than they were a generation ago and they have.

Of course there’s no doubt that other factors have played their part in this. For example there’s no denying the up-surge in the role that computer games play in a young boy’s life which has occurred over the last two or three decades. What’s more we can’t ignore the role that health and safety regulations have likely played in stamping down on toys with points and cutting edges.

tooltimeHowever, the notion that we can’t fix things without the help of a professional has become mainstream and as a result I have little doubt that many children feel intimidated by toys that require them to use tools. So far I’ve been talking about the effect this depiction has on boys, there’s a reason for this: traditionally construction and repair were the domain of men and boys, it’s a role that boys still show a strong connection to in their choice of TV shows like ‘Bob the Builder’ and ‘Handy Manny’. These positive male role models give boys something to aspire to; they provide boys with a potential vocation which they feel a close connection to.

Describing shows like this as depictions of positive male role models may sound as if I’m advocating an exclusionary stance against girls when it comes to aspirations relating to characters like this. It’s important that I stress a distinction here between someone who claims that girls can’t do something and someone who wishes to emphasise the need for positive male role-models. I belong to the latter camp; while I wholeheartedly agree that girls need to feel capable of following a career path relating to a manual skill I don’t think this should be at the expense of a positive role model for boys. I also think that it’s important that these role-models follow boys throughout their development (beyond pre-school) and sadly they don’t. As soon as boys get into primary school they start to encounter an academic bias that makes light of the role of manual skills (unless you count art and craft). What they’re left with is sport and if they find themselves lacking in that department there isn’t anywhere traditionally ‘boyish’ left.

In the shop we have a woodworking kit with a saw, a hammer and all the other tools you’ll need to complete the projects in the box (you can see it in the picture at the top of this post). I would have loved this set as a wee boy but it’s sat there since before Christmas and has had little to no interest. I don’t know if it’s lack of familiarity for the kids coming into the shop or if it’s lack of exposure from their parents but I haven’t seen one boy (or girl for that matter) giving it a second glance. Price may be a factor for the parents but that still doesn’t explain the lack of attention from the kids (who often pay little to no attention to the price of the toys they’re looking at).

lgst3241boys-are-stupid-throw-rocks-at-them-boys-are-stupid-poster

Really hate this meme, nothing positive about it and it’s not funny

I suppose this post has a lot in common with my last post about gender: both posts blame media depictions of day-to-day life and both this criticism alongside a depiction of shifts in gender stereotypes. In both posts I feel the need to blame these factors for the loss of interest in playing with these more ‘mundane’ kinds of toys. And my conclusion is very similar also, if children become familiar with the notion that only professionals can fix or build things this has the potential to lead them to lose faith in their ability to look after their homes. I know I’ve concentrated on how boys are effected but it’s for a reason: whilst girls seem to be discouraged from ‘domestic’ toys in order to expose them to something ‘better’, when it comes to construction and repair boys seem to be getting the message that they can’t do these things whilst at the same time they are being denied a positive alternative.

There’s no denying that the media often portrays the average man as unable to make/ do things for comedic effect but do you think I’m right to conclude that this can effect the attitudes of young boys in relation to construction toys? On top of this do you think that working with your hands beginning to be seen as somehow uncivilised or outdated? (Though it’s worth noting that if this were the case one would expect a similar drop in craft activities, which hasn’t happened). Also perhaps it’s just me but the recommended age for children to play with these construction kits seems to have crept up; meccano is now for 7 or 8 years+, as is airfix, but I remember doing these kinds of sets at 5 or 6 years old (and no I’m not trying to sound like a child prodigy, loads of my friends did it too). Is this simply a health and safety issue or is it yet another example of boys being seen as ‘un-handy’?

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Toys for Easter

Easter toysThere’s a fairly clear new trend starting to arise at Easter; children are starting to receive a toy instead of the traditional egg. Let’s leave to one side, at the outset of this post, any notions about the ‘real’ meaning of Easter and the role (or lack of it) that either chocolate or toys can play in this, though it could clearly be worthy of discussion I’m not doing that here (this is a toy blog, I’m not getting into religious debate if I can help it). The real motivation for this move to giving toys seems to stem from a mixture of the desire to give a child something at Easter combined with the worry that that a gift of a chocolate egg could add to an already burgeoning supply of food set to throw the hyperactivity of kids through the roof. No one wants to be responsible for hyperactive children on Easter Sunday so this new trend of toys for Easter has developed.

51gNb2BF8fL._SL500_SS500_Playmobile-Easter-Eggs-540x260As someone whose livelihood depends on people buying toys I have to say I’m all for anything that encourages people to buy toys.  However I should also point out that as a parent I can’t see anything wrong with it either. My sons are 2 and 4 and there is no way I’ll be giving them more than one Easter egg worth of chocolate to eat on the day, this means that any other eggs will either get distributed through the following weeks or eaten by me or my wife. This doesn’t seem fair, I’d much rather they got to enjoy their presents without rationing or distributing bits of them off and this lies at the core of my reasons for wholeheartedly supporting the new move to toys as an alternative to chocolate eggs.

My boys both love chocolate and I’m not going to deny them an Easter egg but I’ll be very pleased if some of the gifts that come their way aren’t of the chocolate variety. I suppose there’s something strange at work here, surely we should be grateful for any gift we receive? I should probably point out that while I love getting gifts as much as the next person I am also the kind of person who does look a gift horse in the mouth, having received many gifts that really didn’t keep on giving (to put it kindly), I’ll happily call in a vet to give that ‘gift-horse’ a thorough once over before I accept it. Some gifts may have a lovely thought behind them yet still be either highly inappropriate or just downright useless (what child actually needs their body weight in chocolate?). So yes I am hoping for a reduction in chocolate gifts, though I haven’t gone so far as to tell people this, I’ll just use this  post as a passive aggressive means of doing that instead.

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My attempt to be arty with my egg a few years ago

Dragon egg

Don’t really get time for this kind of thing on Easter now (with the kids running about)

Eggs will still feature in our Easter celebrations, like most other families we’ll be painting boiled eggs and then rolling down the hill at the park, though this year Logan and Mummy are off at a Birthday party at the Zoo during the day so we’ll maybe have to delay our rolling till the evening. However, the day will not be ending with a couple of sickly kids, stuffed with chocolate and hypered out.

What are your thoughts on this new trend? Is chocolate actually any more ‘Eastery’ than a toy? What would you prefer to get on Easter yourself? Once again thanks for reading, Cheers, John

Engendered toys: Is being domesticated really such a bad thing?

Gender toys, domestic toysI wrote about the topic of gender and toys a while ago and over the past few weeks I’ve noticed a considerable amount of readers seem to be dropping in from various places to look at that old post. I considered simply reposting it but the topic warrants more attention as there is so much more to be said than I could fit into my other post so here we are.

questions of genderI teach an adult learning course on philosophy and in last week’s aesthetics class we somehow came on to the topic of the accoutrements which we use to define our identity. This moved pretty cleanly onto the topic of gender identity and the subtle identifiers we employ to recognise members of our gender. It was so difficult to describe the specifics of ‘manliness’ or ‘womanliness’ that we came to the conclusion that there probably aren’t any specifics to describe, and if that’s the case then it’s likely to be something highly engrained that we learn through seeing and doing.

It’s for this reason that I think that the gender identity that we are exposed to as children (from, amongst other things, childhood play) plays a, if not the central role in our development of both our personal identity and our understanding of gender, and this is where things get tricky. I have two sons and I’m patently aware that they are growing up in a world where gender identity is in flux, I want them to be responsive to the world they are growing up in but at the same time I don’t want them to develop personalities which are similarly in flux. I want them to be sure of who they are.

Homer's 'BBQ'

Homer’s ‘BBQ’

The women’s rights movement has been reworking the definition of what it is to be a woman since before I was born. The strange flip side to this is that there has been no parallel conscious redefinition of masculinity. This isn’t to say that masculinity hasn’t been redefined, as new roles, responsibilities and attitudes are developed through the media’s attempts to keep up with the changes in female identity, and this is where children’s play struggles. Whilst it’s funny to watch traditional archetypes be eroded (just look at Homer, ‘head’ of the Simpson’s household) it feels slightly uncomfortable for some parents to break with tradition when raising their sons.

cleaning set for kids

A simple brush and shovel set,  your wee ones will love helping out around the house (I know my two do)

A girl with a tool set is empowered but a boy with a buggy or a doll doesn’t have a similarly positive description to fall back on. It seems that by opening the working world up in the toys girls get to play with we have somehow belittled the importance of the domestic world. As a part-time house-husband I feel slightly offended that my contribution to the household is seen in a negative light, this belittlement is especially clear where a woman chooses a similar position in life. House-wives or ‘Stay at home mums’ can be seen by some as anti-feminist. I’m not getting into a debate about that here but I do want to point out that there is no ‘just’ about keeping a house in order. The resultant attitude towards domestic toys follows quite easily and has been developing in some quarters for years: one that sees these toys as a limiting factor, as some kind of shackle with which we bind our daughters, as ‘anti-feminist’. The reality is that, unless your child manages to leave home and instantly make enough money to hire a cleaner and a cook, they will have to do some domestic tasks for at least some portion of their lives. Why not expose them to this at an age when domestic tasks seem glamorous? Regardless of whether they are male or female there’s nothing wrong with teaching your child to be house-proud.

Because of the negative connotations associated with women as house-wives somehow domestic toys have found themselves somewhat villainised. Personally I don’t see why we can’t help our children to celebrate the domestic. Surely if a child learns to enjoy housework there’s at least a chance that you might find yourself with a teenager who may occasionally help out around the house, or better still an adult who can take care of themselves. Isn’t that a pretty important skill to foster in a child from a young age?

As always thanks for popping by here, Cheers, John

What would you like to know about toys?

Found this image of a brilliantly retro toy typewriter at http://www.etsy.com/listing/88544444/tomys-tutor-typer-vintage-toy-typewriter

It looks as though I’ll be getting the chance to write about toys for a local newspaper! (I don’t often use exclamation marks but it feels appropriate here) The thing I’m wondering about is what kind of things the general public will want to hear about in relation to toys.  I’m personally pretty familiar with toy news since the shop has a subscription to a toy industry magazine (‘Toys n Playthings‘) which I read through each month to keep track of what’s happening in our industry. The thing is toys aren’t everyone’s industry and the kind of thing I hear about in these magazines probably won’t appeal to the general public too well. This leaves me in a quandary; I have access to a whole mound of information each month about the toy industry and all the things that could be associated with toys and I will now have to sift through it to put together a (hopefully entertaining) 300-450 word monthly article that readers will enjoy.

toys-genderI’m inclined to think that topics like ‘gender in toys‘, ‘the appropriate age for kids to stop playing‘ (that is, never, in my opinion) and ‘pocket money toys‘ might work well since they are things that many people can relate to and should hopefully get me some feedback here (I’m hoping to get a link to this blog in each article I write). However, I could easily be wrong. Are people more inclined to want to know about new releases in the toy industry or information about which toy companies are doing well and which aren’t, or even simply reports on toy brands or specific toys that have really impressed me in some way?

commentsThis is a fairly short one this week, I’m really just trying to fish for feedback from readers to see what toy topics you might be interested in. My first article should appear in the Strathallan times sometime in the next few weeks, for anyone in the Strathallan area. As usual comments are very welcome, just click on the box at the bottom under ‘leave reply’ and let rip. Once again thanks for reading, Cheers, John

Discovering the world through science toys

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This weekend there’s a science fair at the Crieff Hydro, in light of this Jo and I put together a couple of science themed windows in the Crieff shop, it wasn’t a competition or anything but even so I still think Jo won, as you can see above. Thanks to the science windows I’m now even more clued up on our stock of science toys than I was before and it got me reminiscing about the kinds of things I played with as a kid.

Navir optic wonderAs a child  I was pretty cerebral (I guess I still am as an adult ). I won’t say I was bookish because I lived in the country and I loved to play about in the muck about as much as anyone, but the games I played were different. I had bug finding equipment and binoculars for investigating the bugs that lived in our garden and in the woods beside our house. I also loved to ‘dig for dinosaurs’ (though not in the lawn) and I had a fair collection of other indoor ‘sciency’ toys too. It’s fair to say I played with science toys as a kid and loved it.

Kitchen Chemistry from John AdamsI just started wondering about our science section and racked up how many we sell in comparison to construction toys, collectibles (like moshi monsters and trash packs), and the bits and bobs from the top model range. Initially started to think that kids don’t play with science toys as much as other things but when I look back to my childhood, I had one magnifying glass, one set of binoculars one chemistry set, and so on: pretty much for every science toy, I only ever had one of it, because they lasted and they weren’t subject to popularity. They were always there in the background allowing me to be a budding entomologist/chemist/archaeologist etc. etc. and I can see no reason to believe that things will be different for kids today. In fact there are so many science toys on the market that today’s kids probably have far superior compilations of science toys than I could have dreamed of when I was wee.

Cartesian diver for kidsI could be imagining things here but the fact that the turnout for the Science fair has been on the up year on year makes me think that there’s a sizeable portion of the children in this town who really enjoy playing around with experiments to find out more about the world around them. When you get down to it that’s really what science toys are for and most of them are re-usable. The ‘Kitchen chemistry set’ from John Adams is a perfect example of a reusable science toy, as it can be replenished with simple household items. Other simple examples are things like binoculars, microscopes and small pieces of equipment like the ‘Cartesian diver’ and gyroscopes.

All of these things don’t have a shelf life as such; they aren’t some of the ‘popular/fashionable toys‘ which can lose their status almost overnight and what’s more they span an age range which can follow kids into their early teens (a feat which few toy types can achieve nowadays thanks to computer games). I might be wrong about how many children still play with ‘science toys’, but I hope I’m not.

Gyroscope for kidsWhat science toys helped you to discover more about the world? Do your kids use something similar or do you help them understand the world around them in a different way than you did? I always love to hear from my readers so feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this post (click on ‘comments’ to add yours) or you can head over to the Fun Junction facebook page and join in the conversation there. As always thank you for reading and I look forward to hearing your experiences in discovering the world through science toys as/with a child.

(Thanks to David Sader for some online advice he put out that let me get to grips with WordPress’s ‘gallery’ feature as seen above)

Reading to your kids (apparently less than 30% of us do it)

Some of the boys' favouritesAccording to Disney, in the UK, less than 1/3 of us read to our kids every day. Even if this number were 50% I’d be a bit shocked. Of course I can see how this comes about, and I’m not going to admonish those parents who aren’t reading to their kids every day here. We all parent in our own way and I’m not going to say that reading stories to your kids is the be-all and end-all of being a good parent, but it can be an important part of it.

I do read to my kids every night, the only times I don’t are when they’ve fallen asleep in the car after a long trip, then I just carry them up to bed but even then Logan sometimes wakes up and asks why he hasn’t had his story. I also read to them whenever they ask me to, Alexander (he’s 2) often brings me a book and jumps up on my knee expectantly. It’s normal for me because I was read to in a similar way as a kid, my parents had fun reading, getting really involved in stories and by doing so they got me involved in them too. As a result I enjoy reading a lot, learning to read was like getting the keys to thousands of new worlds full of adventure, mystery and magic and I think this is had a big part to play in the grades I got in school.

the boy who livedI think that an enjoyment of reading can lead to higher reading speed, getting really caught up in a story makes you read faster, and the more times you get caught up in this way the faster you’ll get, it’s like mental exercise. The thing is you’ll then read everything fast because you’ve developed your reading speed to be faster. I think that higher reading speed can be a major factor in whether a child will actually do their homework. Just think about it, if you know that your homework typically takes you about 3 hours a night why would you bother? You’ve spent all day at school, had your tea and now you’ve to spend your whole evening doing homework. It’s just not going to happen, and if it does it’s unfair on the child: we wouldn’t get right back into our work for 3 hours after tea, why should our kids? Kids need a chance to play and see their friends and, you know, be kids. If, however, you read quickly then homework could be an hour (or less) a night, which is much easier to fit in.

When I was a kid my friends consisted of fast readers and kids who just didn’t do homework. For those of us who were fast readers we managed to have social lives etc. whilst still getting our homework done and I think that it benefited us a lot. Reading well and reading fast lets kids live normal lives and still do well in school and there is little doubt that reading to children has a dramatically positive effect on a child’s literacy development, so we really help our kids out in the long-run if we sit down for 10-20 minutes a night and read them a story. Just one study (pulled from thousands that turned up on a google scholar search) which can be found here has this to say in its closing remarks:

“Findings reported in the CELLreview indicate that there is empirical support for the contention that “it is never too early to begin reading to infants and toddlers.” Age of onset of reading to very young children was associated with differences in the study participants early literacy and language development: The younger the children were read to, the better were their literacy and language skills. The sizes of effect were, however, small to medium in nearly all the analyses. The frequency of early reading onset also was related to the literacy and language outcomes, albeit not as strongly as the age of onset of reading.” (Dunst, Simkus and Hamby 2012)
poohDisney has set up a ‘Story Telling Academy‘ to help parents and children to get the most out of the experience of reading stories. The advice on the site is good but it’s the kind of advice that you’ll see replicated from many sources (teachers, developmental psychologists, those who work in language development fields, etc.). It’s not advice about how to read but instead advice about how to read in a way that catches a child’s attention. I’ve been reading Logan a story every night since he was maybe about 18months to 2 years and Alexander has been getting it since he was even younger, as he’s shared a room with Logan since he was about 1. I’m now pretty good at keeping them interested in what I’m reading, with this in mind I thought I might do a wee once a week aside post with a reading tip of the week (I’ll follow this post with one). I won’t claim that my advice will be radically different to what you’ll find on the Disney site but I’ll try and respond to questions and comments so hopefully it will give people some extra assistance (if they feel they need it).

However, I also thought it would be good to find out how many people genuinely struggle when reading to their kids, either due to time constraints or simply through lack of confidence. I’d love to hear about your experiences in reading to your kids and see if Disney’s findings are really an accurate representation of the population. After all 70% of us can’t really be skipping bed-time stories, surely?