The Philosopher in the Toy Shop

owl cuddly toy toy shop crieff fun junction perth perthshireOK I’ve not mentioned this for a while but I just happen to be a philosopher who sells toys for a living (BAHons, MLitt, MPhil and Toymeister, OK I made that last one up). On a day to day basis you would think these two things have little in common but I like to think, as I approach my 100th post (this is number 99!), that I’ve managed to show that this isn’t the case. One of the key things that makes me feel comfortable about my cross-disciplinary position is that philosophers (good philosophers anyway) never stop asking questions, it’s built into us, it’s why we picked a subject made of questions and it’s the attitude to the world that our training has enforced in us. In short we like to ask ‘why?’ a whole freaking bunch, does that remind you of any other demographic group perhaps?

427276_10152018994445401_531008992_nChildren enquire as a reflex, it’s like it’s coded into their brains that their primary function at that point is to find out and experience all that they can. Children are like a heap of mini Aristotles, Platos, and Socrati (that’s probably not the right plural of Socrates but I like it and I’m sticking with it). They question things, they’re even brave enough to ask us why they’re not supposed to ask questions (at those really awkward moments like ‘why is that man doing that?’ shouted within earshot in the middle of a crowded street). We hit our teens and everything gets very internally analytical, we all resemble Descarte’s meditator, knowing only what we think, feeling less inclined to understand the thoughts, feelings and attitudes of others.

To an extent that’s probably a good thing, at that stage in life it is important to know and understand yourself but what happens when we leave your teens behind? Can we go back to the fun enquiring-minds attitude again? I obviously did but perhaps its harder for others. Depending on what you choose to do with your life, your training may require a degree of accepting what your instructor tells you ‘just because’. I’ve always been lousy at retaining that kind of information. Even at school I only really learned when I was the one asking the question; I don’t do well with force-fed information.

There’s a growing population of adults who enjoy mind-altering objects and literature: from Rubik’s cubes to science fiction, from strategy games to game of thrones. A growing portion of the population are taking a chance to think about the world in a different way and toys can be, and are, a big part of that. Obviously some adults take this interest in toys a little far and turn a little (sometimes a lot) creepier but overall I think we’re doing well from it.

pulp fiction winnie the pooh

Gansta Pooh (Pulp Pooh just sounds…wrong)

So what happens to kids toys as a result? Sadly the potential income generated from the disposable income that is ‘pocket money’ has lead companies that traditionally appealed to teens to start venturing into a younger demographic. In this climate it’s going to be hard to tell a kid who’s a few years shy of thirteen that they’re better off playing with toys instead of play-acting being a teenager. Remember the go-to of any child will be ‘why?’ and if they don’t get a good answer they’re going to investigate this new world and absorb all they can about this new culture, that’s so different from that of childhood, and so alien to the world their parents belong to. At that age it’s not rebellion it’s a thirst for knowledge and a yearning for new experience.

That’s why I like to look at toys philosophically, I like to think about whether any manufacturers are managing to step up to the plate and offer kids a chance to enjoy that feeling of wonder and interest without having to leave their childhood behind. It’s an ongoing quest, a fierce battle ground, where toy companies battle against ‘teen-centred’ product for a person’s very childhood. It’s a fascinating thing to watch and it’s hard not to feel the need to step in with your own voice raised to the heavens crying for the continuation of childhood and the holding back of the floodgates of adolescence (at least for a few years). Why wouldn’t a philosopher enjoy working in the midst of this?

As my 100th post looms on the horizon I’d love to know what people have been thinking about this blog and I’m open to suggestions on how to make it better. If you have any questions about toys or ideas about topics I haven’t touched on yet please pop them in the comments section below or pop over to twitter and tweet me here.

Now a public service announcement: If you know any philosophers or have been effected by philosophy in any way there are departments around the world who are there to help. Philosophy can effect you at any stage in life, symptoms include a tendency to ask questions about questions, a need to see every side of a problem and an emotionally detached approach to arguments. If you think you may have been effected by philosophy please contact your nearest philosophy department immediately.

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Getting outside with science: can it build momentum of interest?

stick insect science education biology entomolgyFun Junction currently has a bug infestation…but, you know, the good kind: ‘Insect Lore’ recently sent us two lovely new stick insects. This builds on our population of Fun Junction pets which, up till now, consisted solely of some aqua dragons. We have Barbara and Fetch (get it ‘Fetch the stick insect’, you can thank one of our facebook likers for that wee pun).

We had Barbara and Fetch along at our stall at Perth’s garden and outdoors show last weekend and it gave us a chance to show off all the fun sciency stuff kids can do outdoors without even realising they’re doing any sciency stuff (does that make sense as a sentence? It sounded right in my head). Getting kids into science and helping them to feel comfortable about asking questions about the world around them is vital, both for parents and educators, but there’s a tricky issue when it comes to maintaining interest.

really gross scienceThere’s a rising realisation at the moment that a lot of girls are not engaging with science after a certain age. When we try to understand why this is happening, we have to consider the host of social stages that girls are going through (not to say that boys don’t experience their own, just as affective, stages). These social changes are thinning the numbers slowly and surely all the way through primary school, high school and on into adult life. Surely anything that increases interest at a young age is likely to provide that smidgen more momentum to help girls stay interested as they mature.

There are of course a host of other issues to tackle, possibly most pressing being the cultural idea that maths and science are for boys. However, I could easily get bogged down in discussing this so just for this post I just want to look at ways of building a level of interest with some real momentum, in the hopes that the children that experience it start to think of themselves as scientists from a very early age.

pop up Port-a-Bug bug enclosure catcher biology science toy children resourceThis is where outdoor engagement with wildlife can be helpful. Children can monitor the quantity of wildlife and the behaviour of that wildlife throughout the year, developing an emotional investment in what can only be regarded as scientific research (albeit on a fairly small scale). This can be as simple as setting yoghurt tub traps under a hedge and noting what you find. When you add some educational aides to the mix it makes it even easier to get kids interested; this can range from bug catchers that let them see the mini-beasts they encounter up-close and personal, all the way to insect habitats in your home or classroom which allow children to observe insect behaviour throughout the day.

In terms of the kinds of toys Insect Lore has put together they offer loads of educational aides which are functional whilst managing to remain entertaining and different. Every one of their products draws children in to find out more about the living world around them and on top of this the sets have a bright cheerful feel that can sometimes be so sadly absent from educational toys (especially science-related toys). The simplest way to tell you about what they provide is with a quick run-down (I’ll throw in some mentions for some other companies along the way too):

Insect lore Creature Peeper biology entomology children toy resource classroomNavir Bug Viewer biology entomolgy children toy resourceJars and magnification: There’s something really startling about seeing what an insect (any insect) really looks like. Give a child a magnifying glass and an insect and you’re basically sending them into an alien encounter. The physicality and behaviour of insects is so different to our own that children (and most adults too to be honest) can’t help but be enthralled by what they see (just look at Rose-Lynn Fisher’s ‘Bee’ to see what I mean). At Fun Junction we stock a heap of magnifying bug jars (by Insect Lore and Navir, among others) that vary in size and functionality from mini jars that can fit in a pocket, to large display jars with multiple-angle magnifying viewing windows). Insects just won’t look the same to a child again.

insect lore Living_Twig indian stick insect biology entomology children toy resource classroominsect lore Live_Butterfly_Garden biology entomology children toy resource classroomStick insects and butterflies: This next collection pushes things to a different stage of commitment. With bug jars you’re typically responsible for an insect for at the most a few minutes. However, with a butterfly or stick insect pack you’re watching insects develop from an egg to a full-blown adult. This process can take a few weeks (as is the case for butterflies) or it can mean as much as a couple of years of care and attention (a stick-insect’s life-span). Along with the extra responsibility there comes the advantage of being able to show children the entire life cycle of a creature in real time. For those who think the end of a stick insect’s life-cycle might be a bit difficult for a child to take the release of a net-full of butterflies may be a much more attractive option (I know my eldest wouldn’t cope too well with the death of a pet at this stage, he’s only 5 just now).

navir_Optic_Wonder biology entomology children toy resource classroomOther resources: Insect Lore also makes a range of other resources that can help children to understand insects and insect behaviour. This includes life-cycle figures, butterfly feeders, bug’s-eye-view goggles and many other things to use for display and play which allow children to feel connected with studying insects.

These are just a few products that can help develop a momentum of interest in science in children (I’ve set up the images so that clicking on them takes you to the product page where you can find out more). There are heaps more science toys that we stock at Fun Junction and I’ll definitely talk about science toys again in future. Are there any ways that educators or parents have found of sparking that kind of interest? I’ve already mentioned yoghurt tub traps (you dig a hole, put in a fairly large plastic yoghurt tub which makes it harder for insects to climb back out, and then you come back the next day to see what insects have fallen into the trap), but are there any other home-made methods you know of to help kids get in touch with the natural world around them? As always I love to hear from you and if you fancy catching up with me on twitter you can get me here. Thanks for reading, all the best, John

When the Trains Take Over (Brio play days)

sheldon trainsAs the great Dr. Cooper says ‘Don’t be silly, you love trains!’. All the staff at Fun Junction have train brain this week, we’re going to be doing something a bit different in the next few days in our Perth shop: Brio have lent us a ridiculously large collection of trains and accessories and we’ll be popping it all out in store for kids to have a play. It’s as simple as that, no charge, no pushy sales-pitch just pop your child down with the trains and let them enjoy.

Freight Battery Engine (by Brio) Sturdy battery powered freight train can pull surprisingly well on just one AA battery.

Freight Battery Engine (by Brio) Sturdy battery powered freight train can pull surprisingly well on just one AA battery.

I love the fact that one of the companies we deal with has put together such a genuine and enjoyable experience. They haven’t pushed a rake of cash into a traditional advertising campaign, instead they’ve made a toy range that they’re proud of and they’ve decided to let the general public decide for themselves if Brio trains are any good. As any parent with a child with a train fascination knows Brio is not the cheapest wooden railway system on the planet, in fact I don’t know of any wooden railway products that cost more. That said I’ve found through experience that you really do get what you pay for.

Switching tracks with signal box and signal master. Add extra fuel to the imagination: what will you do with a runaway train!!???

Switching tracks with signal box and signal master. Add extra fuel to the imagination: what will you do with a runaway train!!???

Every wooden railway system is compatible with one another (well every system I’ve come across anyway), there are some that come very close to Brio’s quality level (like BigJigs) and cost a little less and there are others that are a lot cheaper. There’s therefore nothing wrong with shopping around to get bits and pieces from all these different companies to get a nice mix of quality and lower budget. That said I think the great thing about the Brio play day is that it’ll give parents (myself included) a chance to see what a train set made entirely out of Brio-quality pieces will be like. Not only that but because the set gets passed around group to group, shop to shop around the country we’ll all get to see how they do in terms of general wear-and-tear.

brio railwy uk fun junction toy shop scotland perth crieff perthshire

One of the only wooden railway trains that you’ll find that can take passengers, with spaces for two drivers and three passengers (Brio figures), you can get one here.

This is what I love about this event, Brio isn’t forcing an agenda, they’re not pushing a new line by throwing a pile of adverts in the middle of your child’s favorite shows: instead they’re saying ‘Here, we made something that we think is pretty great but you have a play, you decide, is it worth the extra cost to get a train/a piece of track/a station/any other accessory made by us?’ There’s nothing for them to hide behind, if your child plays with the trains and doesn’t like them then no amount of advertising will change that, so Brio has to make sure that what your child is presented with is something pretty awesome. It’s a gamble and takes a lot of bottle for a toy company to do what Brio is doing, but based on my own experience of their products I can’t say I’m all that nervous for them, I think they’ll do just fine.

Have you come across any companies (toy or otherwise) who surprised you like this? Are some companies good enough to do away with traditional advertising or do you think that, without TV ads constantly reminding them, kids will just forget about a toy/brand? I’d also love to hear any experiences you’ve had with Brio (good or bad). As always thank you so much for stopping by, I’m one of these sad people that get’s a bit of a buzz from things like reader counts and comments so it’s always brilliant when someone stops by for a read and it’s even better if you leave a comment. If you’re in the Perth (Scotland) area then pop along to our shop on the 15th, 16th or 17th of May to join in the fun (they’re open from 9:15am till 5;15pm, Cheers, John

UPDATE: Please note our Brio play day has passed but we have every intention of hosting another one soon 🙂

Why Make Blind Bags!?

IMAG0511Lego Simpsons mini-figures are here! Thursday was the 1st of May which meant that we were finally allowed to put our boxes of Lego Simpsons mini-figures out on the shelves (we’d had them in the back for a week or so but Lego wouldn’t allow us to put them out till the 1st). To be honest I’m pretty sure that we’ll be out of stock sometime next week since there’s a Lego based episode of the Simpsons being aired this weekend as well. This is all brilliant for us but the question I’m hearing from a lot of parents is ‘why the blind-bags?’ and to this I have trouble finding any answer other than ‘Lego wants to make money’.

IMAG0515I understand that there’s an element of the excitement of the unknown involved in blind bags, I can even recognise this as part of the appeal, perhaps even to an extent this might be part of why children buy them: there’s a hint of risk, the rush of not knowing if you’re about to get something really special or if you’re about to get a figure that is the exact copy of five identical figures you already have at home. To be honest blind bags are the lottery scratch cards of childhood.

The problem is that whilst the majority of adults (you would hope) are likely to be able to understand the odds of a win compared to a loss, I’m just not so sure that children are all that equipped for the disappointment. I’m not saying we should protect our kids from this, I’d probably support the opposite stance: that children will become more resilient individuals if they occasionally have to face a set back. What I find strange is that toy companies are willingly eliciting this kind of reaction, in fact they’d be hard-pushed to deny the fact that a huge proportion of a child’s experience of blind bags will be of disappointment (especially as they approach the completion of a collection and are only looking for the last couple of figures).

IMAG0514I get why lottery card companies are OK with the disappointment, they carefully factor in a host of smaller prizes/ consolations to ensure that hope is kept 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 which equals the value you paid might make an adult feel good I’m not sure if picking up a fifth copy of the same toy holds the same sway on a child. Sure they got a toy with their money but it’s the complete opposite of what they wanted, it’s more of the same, it takes them no closer to finishing their collection whilst at the same time using up their pocket money.

Children will get heavily caught up in the chase to get the specific figures they want from a set of blind-bags but is this really the kind of experience a toy manufacturer wants their buyers/fans to have? A child crying because the figure they got isn’t the one they wanted might look spoiled but just think about what they’re actually being forced to endure.

Imagine if book companies started doing this: for example, imagine you want to start reading Harry Potter but that they now come in blind-bag form (because, you know, more fun and all). You get a copy of book 3 only to realise that you really need book 1 to understand what’s going on, you buy another blind-book-bag and hooray!,  when you open your blind bag you find book 1, in fact you’re lucky enough to get as far as book 5 (with a few spare copies of 1 and 2 but you know, blind bags, adds to the fun). However, now the odds start stacking up against you and to make matters worse you find out that books 6 and 7, the end of the series, the bit that makes it all make sense and completes the collection, are ‘ultra-rare’ books. As the pile of extra copies of books 1 through 5 starts to mount-up and you see more of your cash pour away on the ‘fun’ of blind bags, wouldn’t you too feel more and more inclined to just break down in a full-on tantrum in the middle of the book shop?

Going back to the crying child in a toy shop now. Are they really spoiled for getting upset at a quintuple duplicate or are they simply reacting to an unjust waste of their pocket money and time?

Blind bags are insane, from a toy manufacturer’s perspective they may make a lot more money a lot faster than just, you know, packaging products in a way that allows the consumer to see what they’re getting, but should this really come at the expense of children enjoying the toys you make? Maybe there’s a dimension to blind-bag collecting that I’m missing here? I’m very thankful that neither of my kids are at a blind-bag buying age (for now) but I’m dreading the inevitable day when one of them gets hooked on a collection and basically gets turned into a little gambler. Do any of you guys have a blind bag story (or two) to share? Maybe we should start a petition or something? Also, click on these links if you’d like to pop over and share your feelings about kraggling and/or the usefulness of Lego as a tool for teaching children about impermanence (and perhaps even grief). Anyway, as always I love to see that people have stopped by and if you guys join in down in the comments, even better. You can also catch me over on twitter and join in discussion about blind bags by searching for #blindbag. Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

jack-reusen-cover-front2ONE LAST THING: I’m children’s author and would really love it if you popped over to the official site for my books. The Jack Reusen series follws a boy who accidentally tears holes between his world and a ‘Fey’. Fey hosts an array of magical people and creatures and the breaches allow a small collection of odd creatures to stumble into Jack’s world. Along with them comes a girl with a very unusual power who finds herself lost, scared and alone in a world she doesn’t understand. She seeks Jack out to help her find her way back to Fey and in the process the two of them find themselves pulled into something much bigger than they expected. Sinister forces are interested in Jack’s world and it’s up to Jack and his new friend to try and stop them. Please take a look at the official site if you have the time (I’d really appreciate it).