A toy is not a thing, it’s an island of happiness

beloved toysI keep telling myself I’ll get round to writing a post about Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti’s project Toy Stories and eventually I’ll write a full post about it but first I want to consider the notion of what constitutes ‘enough’ toys. Many commentators on Galimberti’s work have looked down on the subjects of the more ‘western’ images (see more images later in this post) as horrible examples of materialism gone mad. I disagree wholeheartedly: whilst I can see the temptation to jump on the bandwagon of bemoaning the attitudes of better off parents in providing an near endless supply of toys, I just can’t seem to bring myself to agreement with this notion because anyone who claims to know how many toys are ‘too many’ is in effect claiming to know how many toys are ‘enough’. Can we put a number on that? Is a child with 10 toys less spoiled than a child with 50? What if the financial value of the 10 toys is quadruple that of the 50? The problem is we’re using an adult’s manner of quantification to assess something that can’t be counted.

gabriele_galimberti_5When a toy works; that is when a child takes it into their heart, it fits into a unique band of objects, it is no longer just a ‘thing’ it is gains a value that cannot be gauged by anyone but the child and becomes special in a way that surpasses the sentimental. I’m possibly too much of an adult now to put this thought into words correctly but for that child that particularly perfect toy becomes a key to a world: sometimes this will be a place of comfort and calm where a child can relax and feel truly at ease, sometimes this will be a world of brilliance where the child’s greatest dreams transform into reality, wherever this toy takes them here you will find its value.

In philosophy a distinction is sometimes made between a ‘token’ and a ‘type’ identity. In the case of a book the type is the book as a series of words which can appear any medium (in this case there could be millions of the ‘same’ book), the token would be the particular book lying in front of you (of which there can only be one). Any philosophers reading this will probably criticise my hurried definition, sorry. If you lose your particular book you may be able to buy a new one which comes from the same ‘type’ but this book will obviously be a different token (it’s not physically exactly the same book). I don’t think the same can be said of some toys and sadly too many adults think it is: e.g. a child loses a favourite soft toy on holiday so you go back to the shop where you got it and buy a new one. Unless your child is really young they will know, they may not kick up a major fuss about it but they’ll recognise the switch. If you change the key it won’t unlock the same door, the child will never return to the same world which they did with their lost toy, sometimes this is unavoidable but it is no less sad because of this.

gabriele_galimberti_13When you look at a child with a room full of toys, compare them with a child who has (as far as you can see) only three (or even one), and make the judgement that the first child has ‘too many’ toys you are claiming the right to decide how many worlds a child is allowed to have access to. Of course a child can be spoiled by being given a load of toys but the spoiling doesn’t come from the toys it comes from the idea that somehow these toys can ‘keep the child busy’, when a parent buys toys as a convenient means of keeping their child quiet the toy isn’t to blame for the spoiled child the ‘Laissez-faire’ parent is. If you help your child to engage with their toys and encourage their imagination to grow they simply get to travel through more worlds. No 0ne says ‘Oh they’re too well-travelled’ and I think the same can be true of toys. If the child engages with those toys properly then that’s not too many that’s just enough. Similarly if a child is content with just three toys this doesn’t make them ‘better’ than the other child it simply means that they have fewer keys to use and some must make them work all the harder.

Galimberti’s images of children with less toys tear at my heart strings not simply because of the obvious poverty: on a deeper level they are missing an element of childhood that our ‘wealthy’ children have the potential for easy access to and yet there is dignity and room for joyfulness for these little people. The ‘poor’ children still have toys, they still appear to have been given the time to access other worlds through these beautiful, fragile little keys. The toys look well loved and in some of Galimberti’s images (where the photographer’s attempt to get the child to keep a straight face, in order to keep the images clear for comparison, failed) the children are showing real love and joy in the presence of something beloved.

gabriele_galimberti_4Of course we should bemoan the avarice of our capitalist society but this doesn’t give us a carte blanche to stomp all over the toys that the wealthier children love. It is not our place to (as some commentators have done) demand that the ‘rich’ kids send some of their toys to the ‘poor’ kids, they are not your toys, you have no right to assume that you can gauge their worth with a system based on the exchange of lumps of metal. They are their toys, if the plight of the ‘poor’ children bothers us it is our job as adults to do something about it, not simply by sending them toys but also by being more aware that kids need someone there to play with them and we cannot gauge by the photos just how much of the most valued resource these children receive: time, time to be children, time to explore and importantly time with an adult who cares for them and helps them to do these things. If this bothers us we should do as much as we can to respect the adults who look after these children and ensure that they have some time in their day to play with their kids, Make sure they aren’t walking for 4 hours for safe drinking water- fund a well, make sure that when they do a days work they get paid fairly- buy fair trade, you know the drill.

On the flip side who knows perhaps some of the  ‘rich’ children may lack the most important ingredient to help their toys really work for them as their parents/carers are caught up in the ‘work/life’ balance, barely finding time to make their kids breakfast as they get themselves ready for work and scraping together a bit of time in the evening, just before bed to sit and spend some one on one time with their child.

gabriele_galimberti_3Galimberti’s pictures are beautiful but let’s not turn them into more than they are, of course there is a difference in the quantity but the quality will not show up in a photograph, finally here is an issue that only kids can get a say in, the value of these toys is not a price tag and it never should be. If you would ask the boy in the top picture to part with one of his little dogs, or his scuffed up wee dinosaur, in exchange for 30 new dogs and dinosaurs you aren’t on the same page as me at all. The value of toys goes beyond price or even sentiment as I personally think Galimberti’s work shows. If you think throwing some toys at the ‘poor’ kids will make their life better you’re missing the point, the picture is bigger than that, they need a better life to enjoy more toys, all kids do and better doesn’t always mean more money.

Thanks again for reading, sorry for the lack of a fresh post last week, I’m having a busy time of it at the moment. Cheers, John


4 comments on “A toy is not a thing, it’s an island of happiness

  1. ksbeth says:

    i love the stark simplicity of the photos of the children with few toys –


    • John says:

      I think it highlights how big a part that those toys play in their lives. It’s perhaps less pronounced in the case of kids with more toys since their time is spread among their toys more thinly. In each of the pictures I can’t help but feel a little humbled as you’re granted access into these private little worlds.


  2. […] moderately alive. However a toy isn’t like this, I’ve talked about the value of toys in a previous post but it’s worth going over it a bit again here. Whilst a consolatory win on a scratch-card […]


  3. […] behind play please pop along and check out a popular post by John The Toy Shop Guy titled ‘A toy is not a thing, it’s an island of happiness‘ (it’ll change the way you look at […]


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