Getting to know yourself

big movie tom hanks playing with toysPlaying is weird for adults, we do it with children when we have to, some of us enjoy it (I clearly do or you wouldn’t be hearing from me as much) but some adults genuinely feel very uncomfortable with play. However, strip away the shield of a child/children and we all start to look very similar.

I have a confession to make, when it comes to play which is unsupervised by a child, I personally get a bit uncomfortable. I’m not saying I can’t do it, I’m not even saying I can’t have fun with toys, I’m just saying it feels a bit weird. So lets think about this.

I work in a toy shop, I’ve been around toys in this kind of environment from when I was fourteen years old till eighteen then since I was twenty two until now. Obviously I played with toys as a child and I was still making Lego sets at about twelve years old, so apart from four years at university and a couple of years between stopping playing with toys and my first job in a toy shop, I’ve basically been around toys for my entire life. Put another way, toys have played a huge role in my everyday life for pretty much my entire time on this planet and even I feel a bit strange picking up a toy and playing with it when there aren’t any kids around.

I have no alternative frame of reference but I’m guessing that if someone who has had unsupervised access to toys for their entire life can feel a bit peculiar playing in the absence of children then there’s perhaps little hope for other adults out there. The thing is that culturally we see toys as the things of childhood. To play with an actual, bona fide, child’s toy is to use a well-recognised cultural object out of context. Children are the guardians of the toy, to use one, one must typically have a child as one’s guide or one risks feeling ‘silly’.

There are people I know who seem to be exceptions to this rule, the great majority of these are mothers but I do know a few non-mothers among them. These are the kind of people who can pick up a puppet and strike up a conversation with another adult (no kids in sight), or who can hunker down with some toy trains and shout out a big proud ‘woowoo!’ in a shop full of ‘grown-ups’. So why do the rest of us have trouble?

1415469969384_Image_galleryImage_Harry_Enfield_as_one_of_hI’m inclined to think it’s got a lot to do with how we define ourselves, or at least it relates to the character we consider ourselves to be. As a teenager I was happy to live in the fringes, be seen as weird etc. but as an adult (and especially as a parent) I have to admit that I’ve become a bit more…normal (for want of a better word). I want a good life for myself and my family and being too unusual can get in the way of job prospects and friendships with other families, so I play my part as an ordinary guy.

To be honest I’ve played ordinary for a long time now, for so long that the hippy-dippy, weirdo pseudo-communist of my teens is hard for me to relate to. In short I’ve purposely become ordinary because ordinary is easier. Teenage John was was a bit of a mess, he had goals but no drive, and so many interests that he had a hard time keeping track, he slept entire days away and took friendships for granted. The sad fact of the matter is that I’ve produced a self-imposed bubble of ‘normalcy’ around myself to avoid becoming him, and one thing that ‘normal’ adults don’t do is play with toys (unless they’re playing with children).

So back to play and what it can tell us about ourselves, for me play exposes my attitudes regarding normalcy in adults and perhaps this is the real heart of what makes me uncomfortable. I lets me see what I’ve done to myself (for what are admittedly good reasons) to become the man I am today. I love playing with my children, and relish in pretend play when I’m with them but on my own or around solely other adults I doubt you’ll see me playing like that.

I know that play is a beneficial part of any person’s encounters with the world (I’ve discussed this before) and it makes me a little sad to realise that I’m the one responsible for my feeling of discomfort when playing alone. However, simply recognising this isn’t sufficient to let me enjoy toys in the same way I did as a child, or in the same way I do when I’m with my own children.

Thinking about how you feel about play (and toys) can have a profound effect on the way you view yourself. For me I recognise that I’ve gotten a little boring as I’ve ‘grown-up’ and that’s not very easy for a ‘toy shop guy’ to admit, but it also lets me see that who I am has been my choice and there’s no reason that I have to accept any part of my character. Perhaps this is simply a silver lining to a very small issue.

I still love toys when playing with with my children and I think toys and play are absolutely vital components of a healthy childhood (and adulthood). I’ve simply had to admit the peculiar fact that when push comes to shove, as an adult making decisions on how I’d spend my own time, I’m unlikely to choose playing with toys as a top activity. The next step is figuring out why I’ve produced this self-imposed exile from this little corner of the world of imagination and play.

Sorry for the downer today people, feel free to share your own revelations about yourself that you’ve discovered through play. Lets hope there aren’t too many boring old fuddy duddys like me out there. As always thanks for reading, All the best, John

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Is it good to be bad?

by Zotto1987

Image by Zotto1987

Do you miss something if you always play the ‘hero’? My eldest son is obsessed with superheroes, so much so that it’s basically the only thing he’ll play at the moment. The down side of this is I often have to be a bad guy and a fairly inept one at that, I’m constantly having to back-track on my bad guy antics as I’m informed that the bad guy ‘can’t run that fast’ or that ‘they aren’t that clever’, or ‘that strong’.

Thwarted at every step by a superhero with the power to change the very fabric of reality, my bad guy is doomed to failure, but should he be? Am I missing the opportunity to teach my son some hard lessons in a safe environment? Sometimes the bad guys win, sometimes being ‘bad’ is a matter of interpretation, sometimes the ‘hero’ is simply the one who gets to tell the story. History favours the winners after all.

There are some big life-lessons there, possibly more controversial than the birds and the bees, death, and the difference between real and imaginary all put together. These are realities that even most adults have trouble with. We tell ourselves that karma will catch up with bad people, or that they’ll be judged by a deity but often we’re looking at their behaviour through a lens.

karma-quote-funnyIt’s easy to see good and bad as black and white but I’m not sure it’s either useful, or helpful, for us to think about the world in that way. To be fair a lot of us recognise the grey area between good and bad but even that has its limits, to really get to grips with the way motivation works we have to understand that few people choose to do something that they themselves truly consider to be bad.

Some people get annoyed with police presence, with surveillance cameras, parking attendants and with other features of an organised society. When you hear someone put the police down or say that they ‘hate’ police officers it can be hard to understand, in some ways it’s easy to assume that they have something to hide or that they have villainous motivations. However, these features of society all include a human element behind them and you can see why someone might be mistrustful of this degree of power being offered to a select group of human beings. Sometimes, with as little as the press of a button, a person’s liberty can be compromised and it seems fair to worry about the type of person standing with their finger on that button.

Supermanredson

You can get it over on play.com

DC comics released a fantastic spin on the Superman storyline called ‘Red Son’ in which Superman’s ship lands in soviet Russia rather than in the good ol’ US of A. Instead of a Kansas farm he grows up on a soviet ‘Kolkhoz’ (collective farm) and joins the communist party to become an upholder of communist ideals (whilst being the antithesis of them at the same time). He helps Russia to take over the world, creating a working (if hyper organised and fairly corrupt) communist world society. The last bastion of freedom (yep, you guessed it, the USA) is headed by president Lex Luthor.

Now Lex Luthor’s mistrust of Superman looks well founded, his efforts to take down the man of steel are understandable, reasonable even. No one man (or woman I should add) should have that much power and Lex Luthor knows it. In essence Lex Luthor becomes the good guy simply thanks to a change in our perspective.

Should I use pretend play as a way of demonstrating not just the ‘greyness’ of morality but also the relative nature of how we judge goodness? Perhaps I’m over-philosophising my parenting again but I can’t help but feel that it’s important for my sons to grow up aware of the fact that people’s motivations for action can differ significantly from their own.

Sometimes it may be very difficult to understand why some people do the things they do and we don’t live in a world where those with darker motivations wander around telling people that they are ‘baddies’, ‘villains’ or ‘evil’. They think they’re doing the right thing, or at the very least they don’t think that what they’re doing is ‘that bad’. If my sons learn anything from me I want it to be that good people can do bad things, bad people sometimes do good things and that often neither type know which one they are.

I’ve a feeling that my ‘baddie’ persona is about to get very interesting. As always thanks for reading and feel free to chat with me over on twitter. Are there any pearls of wisdom that you really hope your children can pick up from you? Do you think the black/white perspective on morality is something that should be maintained through childhood? Are kids unable to recognise the subtlety? Let me know what you think in the comments bellow or (if you can fit your comment into 140 characters or less) pop on over to twitter and get the conversation going, Cheers, John

When parents stop being heroes

The IncrediblesNow don’t freak out, I’m not sitting judging every customer who comes into the shop but I do notice trends in the kinds of things people buy and I can’t help but notice a slow change in the kinds of toys children are asking for. A common theme that still comes up when children are choosing toys is that a lot of them like get toys to do with a parent’s job. The strange thing I’ve noticed (and the topic of this post) is that this trend is waning, from an earlier and earlier age children are less inclined towards the traditional hero-worship of their parents’ jobs.

BamBamFirst off the job thing has probably been done since little Ug junior got a club just like his daddy’s and went through a stone-aged world trying to bop unsuspecting pre-historic creatures on the head. Nowadays there are more subtleties, I’d imagine, in the kind of jobs parents do. For years the definitions and responsibilities of different jobs have been changing, there are new technology-based jobs that never existed before and a growing industry of information processing and content creation which make it harder for parents working in these fields to explain their job to their child. When this happens you either find that the child ends up mimicking a simplified idea of what their parent(s) do for a living or they give up on the whole thing and get into superheroes and other non-ordinary characters (like Barbie and characters from cartoon shows).

This is before you even get into how exciting or boring the parent’s overall job is. I work in a toy shop, exciting right? Well yes, sometimes, the toys are exciting but I’m not sure how exciting they find the shop work so when my kids get tired of playing shops they’ve got a mummy that works in a swimming pool, a grampa who’s a farmer and another grampa who’s a ‘fixer’ (my dad ran a handy-man company then went into fixing up properties). Out of all of these my kids are pretty much sorted for emulating jobs but when families that have more unusual/difficult to explain jobs come into the shop I have to admit you see a lot more super heroes and other fantasy jobs getting looked at.

I can’t help but wonder what this feels like for these parents. These parents probably emulated jobs as kids but now their own jobs are so hard to define that their children just give up on the early-years hero-worship of their parents’ profession and plunge right into the avengers, frozen, spider-man, batman, disney prinesses etc. etc.

the thinkerI had a small taster of how difficult job explanation can be when I was doing research for my MPhil. Back then Logan was only four and he just didn’t get what I was writing about. He often got upset when daddy had to go to the library to write for the day or when I had to head through and teach in Edinburgh. Far from something he wanted to emulate, for the most part I think he kind of resented my work. There were of course times when he would sit at his toy laptop and do his ‘writing’, he clearly wanted to understand what I was spending my time doing, he’d often choose to do his ‘writing’ when I was working at home. I loved it when he did this,  but at the same time his interest would wander and fairly quickly he’d be back to being a zoo-keeper, an animal doctor or a palaeontologist. The thing was, even if he managed to understand the nature of my work, at the end of the day it just wasn’t very exciting.

Perhaps that’s the tricky point so many parents are having to deal with, underneath all the difficult explanation lies a job that is quite simply boring (at least in the eyes of the average pre-schooler). With this in mind perhaps it’s better leaving a hint of mystery around what they do for a living, at least the mystery itself can make the job seem a little more exciting.

Do you have an unusual job, or just one that’s hard to explain to your kids? How have you gone about describing it to them, do they try to emulate it? Feel free to share in the comments area below, chat to me over on twitter or if you’re feeling particularly nice you can subscribe to get e-mailed my new blog posts as and when they come out (box off to the right). As always thanks for reading, Cheers, John

To Play is Human (My 100th Post!)

wpid-imag0460_1.jpgNo one likes to be pigeon-holed but it’s an undeniable fact of life. There is no escaping the differences to be found in human beings, these differences can differentiate individuals in a variety of ways relative to the culture in which they belong. If you are a different gender (including any variety covered by ‘queer studies‘) or a different race from those who hold power in your culture, this could mark you out as ‘different’ regardless of population density. You can also be marked out as ‘different’ on an individual level based on these kinds of characteristics.

buzz and jessie toys by bullyland from Fun Junction Toy Shop Crieff PerthshireSometimes we embrace these ‘differences’, especially when we find others who share this feature in common and, more importantly, share our perspective on what it means to have this feature. Often, when this happens we don’t feel so different any more. These features are what philosopher Ian Hacking calls ‘human kinds’ and according to Hacking it is by being responsive to these kinds, by rejecting some and embracing others, and by providing input into how these ‘kinds’ are defined, that we develop and augment the original cultural understanding of said ‘kind’.

The way in which a culture understands a ‘kind’, for the most part, can be changed by the actions and attitudes of those who identify (or are identified) as belonging to a kind. That said there is one human kind that seems to be recognised in almost every culture on earth. Individuals belonging to it are treated in very different ways to those who don’t belong and there is no escaping it, you have no choice about whether you belong to it and you have no choice about when society deems you unfit to be associated with that kind any longer.

That kind is ‘child’ and there is so much that we adults do and say which defines the kind (and often a little too little that we take from children themselves that contributes to it): things can be ‘childish’ or ‘infantile’, but they can also be ‘naive’ or ‘innocent’. If there is anything truly universal about human culture it might just be the belief in the existence of ‘children’. Of course there is a great variance in the way different cultures think children should be treated but there is little doubt that cultures accept that we have a very distinct sub-group of human beings living among us.

wpid-imag0003.jpgThere may even be some simple correlations in the way a ‘child’ is defined by different cultures. Primary among these will obviously be age, but another important and undeniable feature of ‘childhood’ is the way that children learn: they learn by seeing, then by replicating behaviours and actions and further to this they learn by experimenting with these behaviours and the ideas they’ve picked up. It might not be the case that every culture has a set name for this but in English-speaking cultures we call these behaviours ‘play’.

One of the trickiest things for any philosopher who looks at the nature of human existence is the difficulty of providing generalities, absolutes, and/or ‘universalisable’ ideas. In the face of sometimes overwhelming anthropological evidence it has become clear that for many ‘intuitive’ ideas about ‘human nature’ there is often a counterexample where some culture out there in the world, enjoys an existence which is contrary to what ‘common sense’ would expect. There are cultures without numbers, cultures in which criminals are ignored as if ‘dead’, and countless cultures with a far less solid marking between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ than we are familiar with.

Click here to see loads of animals playing football

In response to this, if there is anything that we might have a chance of seeing as universal I doubt it will be a grasp of basic numbers or even some kind of over-ruling ethical principle.  I would be willing to take a fairly large wager that one of the most universal traits that define human existence is the fact that we have all, at some point in our lives, played. As a species we share play (in fact some other species can also be said to play in the way we do), in my opinion play is as close to a universal human behaviour as you could get. I’d also be inclined to say that most adults still play without even noticing it.

Play and childhood are features I’d bet you can find in any human culture (and in many other animals too), is it any wonder that a philosopher with an interest in the meaning of human existence would find so much to talk about in the world of toys?

Step asside Barbie, ‘Lammily’ is taking a turn in the spotlight!

LammilyNickolay Lamm has been at it again. You may remember his make-up free Barbie that I posted about a few months ago, well his next step was to re-imagine a Barbie-style doll which met the average proportions of a 19 year old (I assume in the US). His design prompted a demand for an actual working toy and so he put together a crowd-funding page to get the doll into production (with the help of ex-VP of manufacture at Mattel; Roger Rambeau). They’ve already exceeded their goal by double (as of 7th March 2014) so the doll is happening.

average_compositeThe opinions are starting to pour in, some of them surprisingly negative. The primary complaint seems to be that Lammily isn’t ‘average enough’, or that she’s ‘too pretty to be average’ and I don’t know what we could say to this. Is she pretty? Well yes, in an average kind of way, but there seems to be reams of research supporting the notion that when you average out a large number of faces you get an attractive (though perhaps not very distinctive) result. So that sorts the ‘too pretty to be average’ issue. To be honest given the research she’s too average not to be pretty.

The next issue is: is she really average? Do a large portion of young women have body shapes which look like Lammily’s? To be honest we may never get an answer on that. Every community you belong to may have women in it with a very different set of physical qualities. When you average their proportions out perhaps you’ll get something like Lammily’s dimensions but that doesn’t necessarily mean that any one young woman in that group will have those proportions herself.

All of that said it’s hard to deny the fact that Lammily looks less alien, a lot more human and, most importantly, a lot more healthy than I’ve ever seen Barbie look. I would agree that Nickolay Lamm hasn’t really succeeded in making the most expressive or dynamic wardrobe for Lammily but in his defence Barbie has 60 years and the brunt of Mattel behind her selection of clothing. Overall there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with Lammily apart from one glaring issue (at least for me): Lammily is an average nineteen year old. What age are the girls who will make up the target-audience of Lammily? Possibly nine or ten at the most?

groovyLottie Pony Flag Race CompFor all of Lammily’s positive attributes I have to side with a more realistic girl doll like ‘Lottie’ or Manhattan’s ‘Groovy girls’. This isn’t just because we stock them, in fact we stock them precisely because they’re a more realistic image for a young girl to try and imitate. There’s definitely a place for the aspirational enjoyment of an ‘adult-looking’ fashion doll but when it comes to producing something relatable, and something that places less emphasis on the importance of growing up quickly, I have to side with Lottie and the Groovies every time.

What do you think? Is Lammily ‘average’? Would you still prefer a Barbie? Are fashion dolls in general too mature for girls or is there an important aspirational element to that kind of play? As always your comments are more that welcome either below this post or you can feel free to send me a tweet (you can also find my twitter feed to the right of this post). Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

P.S As a side note, here’s a defence of Barbie dolls ‘written by’ the plastic icon herself (makes for interesting reading).

Parenting without toys

cake mould on his headThis might seem a strange one a for a ‘toy shop guy’ to talk about but bear with me. I recently came across this Daily Mail article, about a school of parenting called Resources for Infant Educarers (or RIE), the reporter (Margot Peppers) describes this as the ‘latest trend’ in parenting, despite the fact that it’s been around since the 70s. RIE encourages parents to dispense with ‘helicopter parenting’ and stand back to allow their children to develop in their own way. Peppers describes RIE as advocating “…treating babies and children like adults”, she also describes ‘orthodox’ RIE practitioners who ‘ban’ things such as as “…baby bouncers, sippy cups and high chairs… rattles, pacifiers, baby talk and toys” (my emphasis).

I think the content on the Daily Mail article has been a bit sensationalised (pulling sombre/sad pictures up of kids brought up in a RIE environment) so no surprise there. However, even if there’s an element of truth I’m confused as to what kind of treatment RIE are advocating. What degree of autonomy is expected, how can you treat someone ‘like an adult’ when their brain is literally undeveloped? At what age do you introduce certain mundane activities, and, when you do so, do you leave them to figure out how to wash dishes/bathe/prepare food, etc. on their own?

Some of the RIE approach sounds sensible, modern kids are often cocooned from the world outside so perhaps making a child more aware of reality, and they way they fit into that, isn’t a bad thing but surely a line must be drawn in regards to what a child can understand about the world.

turkey dinosaurs in meteor showerLogan (my son) has a growing understanding of death and this is starting to tie in with his love of animals. This can really hit home when it comes to meat. He obviously has lots of questions about meat and where it comes from, he’s 5 (will soon be 6), and though I’d be reluctant, I’d be happy to produce a vegetarian diet for him if he asked. The thing is though, he is currently capable of a form of irrationality only possible for children: his world-view is in a very early stage. As a result conflicts between a love of animals and a love of bolagnese don’t get flagged as a problem. Typically I make bolagnese with beef (which Logan loves), though I do make a veggie version with courgettes and mushrooms, which he’ll eat sometimes, but he’s not a big fan.

This is often/typically not the way adults think, we assume less from the world (we’re more cynical), we accept less contradiction (though we’re still not perfect) and we are more able to enforce willpower over ourselves (especially in regards to principles and ideals we hold dear). As I said, Logan has been offered veggie alternatives and though he will eat them, and despite his love of animals, this conflict doesn’t cause him the same kind of discomfort which it might in an adult. Logan won’t compromise taste for something higher. I have my own reasoning behind being a meat-eater, which I won’t be spelling out here, but suffice to say as a parent I won’t force my child to solidify his beliefs at such an early stage. It takes a childhood, and quite a bit more, to even develop the most basic world-view and supporting set of principles. I just don’t see the sense in asking a child to be a ‘mini-adult’ prior to their developing this awareness, I’m not even sure if the word ‘adult’ is applicable here.

rie.logo.color.tagThis said I’ll confess that so far I’ve made a straw man of RIE. They don’t, in fact, discourage play and they even display a host of toys on their web site, the difference is the type of engagement they intend for children: “The rule is: passive play object/active child” (quoting a ‘Yahoo voices’ interview with Deborah Carlisle Solomon, author of ‘Baby Knows Best’). So the key difference (when it comes to toys) is that they try to keep the play object simple in order to encourage more imaginative engagement. It’s hard to fault this kind of thinking, though I would point out that what I would call ‘out-of-this-world’ imaginative play takes a bit of help (both from more active parental involvement and more dynamic play objects). As I’ve pointed out before sometimes playing with your kids can expose them to ideas about the world, and about people, that they would be unlikely to come up with/encounter on their own. I’m not sure what RIE practitioners would think of my take on the (occasional) need for a toy that takes a child outside the mundane, if only to expose them to new ideas/concepts. I’d be interested to get some responses (pop a comment below).

As to the ‘mini-adult’ take, (note I can’t find the term ‘mini adult’ anywhere on the RIE web site) I think there a few different ways that this can be interpreted. On one hand it could be about equal respect/personhood; something like the need to recognise your child as an individual person with their own capacities, likes/dislikes and dispositions. I can easily get on board with this, it makes for a healthy relationship when your kids feel that you can take them (and their opinions) seriously (even if you disagree with them, the disagreement itself can be taken as acknowledgement, so long as it’s not simply outright dismissal). To be honest I’m inclined to think that this is what RIE advocates.

The other possibility (hinted at on the Daily Mail article) is that children just are mini-adults; this position might hold that, although certain skills and capacities are in a fledgling state in childhood, children should nonetheless be seen as autonomous individuals making their way through the world who should be free to make their own mistakes. However, the whole point of childhood is to learn from those around you and a big part of that is learning from their mistakes so that you don’t have to, it’s a stage of development which is either minimised or none existent in other animals.

301220131670Regardless of which perspective we take, the importance placed on personal exploration and discovery in each of these understandings of childhood is clear and this is what I think jars with many people when looking at this kind of attitude towards children. The need to learn from others’ mistakes is built into human culture, in this regard we could be doing our children a disservice by not exposing them to our mistakes (i.e. taking them away from their own explorations to point out our discoveries). Perhaps it sounds like a lazy way to get to know about the world but it’s also streamlined, and often a lot more efficient, than trying to do it yourself: e.g. when you’re first learning to cook you could just improvise, taking a great deal of time to see which flavours combine well, alternatively you could simply consult recipe books and, once you have an understanding of the basics, you could begin to add your own flair.

There’s a good argument for the kind of self-sufficient perspective on the world advocated by this kind of perspective on ‘mini adults’ (after all the flavour-tinkering budding chef could end up revolutionising the way food is prepared) but I’d rather teach my sons about my mistakes so that they at least have the option to learn from them, to do otherwise seems somewhat unfair; like I’m holding back important information that they could use.

So lets take this talk back to play and toys (though we’ll get there in a round-about way). The world is changing at a ridiculous rate, as I pointed out a while ago machines and technology and the free exchange of information are demanding new skill-sets of the coming generations: e.g. keeping your identity safe, how to present yourself online and how to deal with the fact that a lot of your life will be public record. Getting in early on to provide your child with a good grasp of the basic life skills and concepts that lie out-with this strange new world can allow them to pay closer attention to this new skill-set. Certain types of toy will familiarise your child with the technology which will play such a prevalent role in their adult life and with the kind of attitudes that they may need to adopt in this new environment.

301220131674Two types of toy will help here, neither of which are particularly ‘simple’ in nature. The first (and most obvious) will be technology toys; getting accustomed to buttons and user interfaces at a young age is (sadly) a necessity now. However, it needn’t take over a child’s life and this is where the second kind of toy stands out: pretend play. By ‘pretend play’ I refer to the kind of toys which let a child explore who they are and who they want to be, these kinds of toy are very broad ranging, including (and definitely not limited to) dolls (for both boys and girls), dress-up, action figures, play sets like Lego and Playmobil, tractors, the list goes on and on. More so than ever before in history your child is going to be bombarded with the world-views, opinions and lifestyles of other people, and in order to be able to deal with these, without losing themselves in the process, they need to have a grasp of the kind of individuals they want to be.

I can hear RIE proponents crying out that this is what a RIE approach promotes; individual, self-aware, autonomous children. As I said previously, if this is their position I can see the uses of the RIE approach. However, despite the clear enjoyment that my children have when playing with wooden spoons, pots and pans, buckets etc. these will only take them so far in their play. Pot and pan play won’t allow me to play out the ethical questions of wrongful imprisonment that we can get whilst playing with a police station (and no it’s just as not as easy or informative to approach these issues in conversation with your child), nor will pots and pans allow us to explore the notion of insecurity/shyness that we could do with a doll/toy figures. The list of ways in which pretend play toys can provide venues for a parent to introduce fairly complex concepts and ideas is almost endless. Though I can see their reasoning, I (biased as I am) wouldn’t advocate giving up on toys. As my blog has always tried to show, there is a great deal that toys can teach us.

Does part of you still look at the world like you did as a child?

bruder figure b world Somewhere buried deep inside that jaded and cynical ‘grown-up’s’ mind is there a younger version of yourself trying to make itself heard? In a recent post I put together a quick ‘case study’ to see if the toys you played with as a child influenced the career you ended up in. Of course it wasn’t a real case study as the data was far too circumstantial but it was a chance to try out a theory I’ve been ‘toying’ with for a while. Schools of thought in Psychology and Anthropology highlight childhood as a (if not the) key stage in your personal development to become a responsible adult within your culture. The question I want to ask is what role do toys play in this?

let toys be toys logo no girls toys no boys toysThere are more groups than you could count out there discussing the negative impact that some toys (and toy-like things like computer games) have on a child’s development; Groups that insist that toys are responsible for the heightened division of gender in our culture. Groups that claim that toys glamorising violence can encourage children to develop more aggressive personalities. Groups that think that ‘non-educational’ toys can be a distraction from ‘normal’ childhood development. At the heart of this is a standing assumption that the types of nurturing provided by toys plays a pivotal role in shaping who we become.

There has always been debate about the roles of nature vs. nurture but it’s generally accepted now that nurture plays a solid role in personal development. This is a position that few people would be likely to dispute which makes saying ‘it’s just a toy’ all the more surprising. I would agree, that some toys really are ‘just toys’ but not all toys are and even those which don’t stand out as ‘favourites’ will still have an undeniable influence on a child’s fledgling world view.

Peggy Miller

Peggy Miller

I looked at the work of psychologist/anthropologist Peggy Miller when I was working on my MPhil thesis and I saw seeds of this idea here. Miller looks predominantly at  personal storytelling (stories about the child) and the role it plays in the development of self-image but I wonder if the ‘pretend’ stories which develop during play could have an influence on this too. In a household full of anti-war sentiment would an Action Man shake things up? Would seeing a soldier as a hero influence a child’s perspective in ways which aren’t made explicit by their parents/carers?

If we’re going to condemn the negative influence which toys can have we should also be willing to consider the positive role they could play. Toys may well be the first true choices made by a child. What they ask for for birthdays and Christmases will open up possibilities that may not be presented otherwise. In many respects choosing a toy is a first step towards autonomy; it is the stage at which we decide what kind of play we want to participate in, what kind of children we want to be. I have trouble seeing how this could be any different than an adult, say, choosing a subject to study or sport.

Adults have this peculiar notion that toys are somehow inferior to ‘real’ pursuits. We even use the word ‘toy’ as a contrast to the word ‘real’. Not only this but the term ‘childish’ has negative connotations in our culture: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Corinthians 13:11) This common quote comes from the Bible and is often used out of context to highlight an important developmental step which we all ‘must’ take (must we though?). This means that for at least 2000 years (and probably a lot more) we have contrasted ‘childish things’ with those things which are ‘important’. However, I’m of the opinion that toys are important.

leader of teh autobots transformers childhood icons memes

Barbie icon meme

Pop along to see the new ‘Dream House’ cartoons, they are genuinely hilarious, well written

Toys can have remarkable influence over cultures, and now that we’ve reached an age of intensified consumerism the evolution of the toy has been stepped up by an order of magnitude. With this in mind we could perhaps best understand toys as solidified ‘memes’. The word ‘meme’ was devised by Richard Dawkins to describe cultural ideals/ modes of thought etc. which are subject to selective pressure and which can be readily transmitted. I think we can safely say that something like Barbie or Optimus Prime are both examples of memes, and strong ones at that. They evoke specific emotions and responses which follow a set pattern and those of us who used these toys as children have particular types of reminiscence based on them (see this post about the current trend of toy companies reselling us our childhood for a bit on the power of these types of memes).

What’s more, simply having a toy in common with someone can sometimes be enough to initiate positive feelings towards them: just consider the last time you talked about a childhood toy with someone who shared that experience: ‘Oh my God I had a … too, didn’t you just love how it …, did you have to beg your parents for it like I did?’ You start to like the person, based simply on the shared past-ownership of a similarly shaped piece of plastic/wood/other. Toys are powerful and I’ve decided to dedicate a bit of time each week to getting feedback from other people about the role certain toys have played in their life. What toys have (or even do) play a significant role in your life? Do you think a toy is ‘just a toy’ or do you think there is something more to it than that? Who knows, if I can get enough information together I might get to finally merge my philosophy background with my toys background and write another philosophy book on the philosophy of toys (you can find my other, ‘non-toys’, philosophy book called ‘Living the Good Life in a Modern World’ here.

Apparently not many have ventured into the topic of the philosophy of toys but I found a few. A quick run through goes as follows; Charles Baudelaire’s ‘A Philosophy of Toys‘, and some interesting blog posts by Eyes Wide Shut and The Home of Schlemiel Theory. It looks like I have an interesting journey ahead of me if I decide to get stuck into writing this book, Just to put the feelers out do you think you would buy a book on the philosophy of toys written by a philosopher and toy shop guy? Anyway thanks as always for popping along here for a read, hope to see you here again soon, Cheers, John