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

War Games!

wpid-imag0743_burst002_1.jpgI know for a fact that there must be 10s (possibly 100s) of people playing/modelling with Games Workshop (Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000) figures in Crieff so it definitely has an active presence in the local area but sadly there doesn’t seem to be any centrally organised group set up for those wanting to arrange games-days/nights or even just to talk about the hobby with one another.

I’ve had a lot of kids in recently asking about local groups and seeing if there is anywhere that they can play locally and unfortunately I’m completely in the dark. In an effort to get something organised and simple together I put up a local wahammer/40K group on facebook but other than that I have nothing to point them towards. If you’d like to know more about the hobby and/or would like to be able to meet up with others who enjoy the hobby then feel free to pop over to the page. I used to play, a long time ago, and the shop is lucky enough to have a really hands-on Games Workshop agent so I can usually find the kind of answers you might need fairly easily.

wpid-imag0746_burst002_1.jpgGames Workshop produce an amazing array of assemble-your-own figurines which you then use to play war games. There’s a degree of customiseability that you just won’t find in ordinary board games etc. and because of this it’s a hobby that can be extremely personal, creative and expressive. You can turn up for a game with friends and show off your latest regiment and all the fiddly little customisations you’ve spent the past few weeks doing to it. Judging by the questions I’ve had in the shop there are rakes of children (and teens) who want to get involved but who are reluctant to start because they don’t know anyone else who’s involved in the hobby.

Possibly the saddest thing for me is this lack of support locally for younger hobbyists who seem really enthusiastic about both the painting and gaming side of the hobby. I’ve had boys and girls in the shop buying models, paints and other peripherals who haven’t been able to find people to play against. I’ve suggested they join their school’s games workshop groups only to be met with blank stares, either their school doesn’t have one or whatever group they do have at school isn’t very well known (or isn’t, strictly speaking, ‘official’).

wpid-imag0745_burst002_1.jpgConsidering the rise of interest there has been in fantasy over the past few years I’m surprised that games workshop/warhammer/40K groups haven’t seen a booming growth in members. I’ve been assured by Yan (our rep) that we could easily manage to provide support for local groups and there are resources there that could allow us to provide some resources free of charge to any local group who thinks to ask us for it. Sadly we’ve been in the position to help for months and, as yet, no one has taken us up on it.

If you live in the Crieff area and want to join a group (or better still if you run, or you want to set up, a group) then pop on over to the Crieff Warhammer/40,000 group on facebook to ask for advice and other information.

Just going for a nice short post this time, as always thanks for reading and comments are always more than welcome, Cheers, John

Toy Awesomeness Part 3: Good Branding

hobbit games workshop escape from goblin townHow to make a great toy part 3: Good Branding

As I explained in my last ‘Toy Awesomeness’ post, just because a particular character is ‘in’ just now doesn’t mean it’ll still be popular with kids in six months time. That said, if you pick a tried-and-tested character (think Disney for starters) to hitch your wagon to, the hazards of the whims of children may effect you far less.

hulk avengers legoAs westerners we’re almost born knowing about Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Superman, Batman, Hulk, Snow White, etc., they’ve become more than simply characters; they’ve been appropriated as cultural symbols, for want of a better word they are the ‘gods’, ‘goddesses’ and ‘demi-gods’ of our culture. The companies responsible for these kinds of character are fully aware of their clout though, so matching with one of these brands may be expensive/difficult.

That said there are lesser known ‘icons’ who nonetheless seem unable to do wrong such as ‘Bob The Builder’, ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, ‘Postman Pat’ etc. Their popularity does ebb and flow more than we see from the true ‘gods’ of the toy shelf but children will still be more willing to chose a toy if it has a character they recognise on it.

For example if Wow toys were (hypothetically) to produce a Postman Pat van I’m almost certain it would outsell all of their other sets. Speaking as a parent I would pick something like that because I trust the quality of Wow and I also identify with the character of Postman Pat.

That said character placement can often look a bit tacked-on, almost as though the company thought their product was slightly sub-standard. In cases like this, instead of fixing the problems with their toy a manufacturer pays for some licensing and sticks a picture of a popular character on it to push sales. There are so many of this kind of toy out there that I hardly feel the need to name and shame, they know who they are.

turtle lair by Lego

The Lego Turtle Lair is available from Fun Junction

lord of the rings riskThe brand and toy combo also has to make sense otherwise kids will just be perplexed (and they won’t want it). Branding and timelessness (quality) have to go hand in hand for it to work or you get stuck with a bit of rubbish with a character your child barely recognises stuck on it. When branding is done right though it can be incredible. Here are some examples of branding done right: Games Workshop’s ‘Hobbit’ set, ‘Lord of The Rings’ Risk, and Lego’s ‘Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles: Turtle Lair’.


Warhammer-battle-marchYep we’re looking into stocking the fantastically epic tabletop war game Warhammer. If you’ve heard of Warhammer you can probably skip the next paragraph or so but if you haven’t (or want to know a bit more) then read on. Warhammer is a tabletop fantasy battle game played with soldiers which are made, painted and customised by the player. The game comes in two main varieties (thought there are a number of sub-games as well), these are Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 (better known as 40K, set far in Warhammer’s future). Players roll dice to decide on movements across the gaming surface and have access to a host of special moves and behaviours based on the race of their soldiers.

When I say ‘race’ we’re talking more in terms of species, as the primary groups in the Warhammer universe are very different from one another, they include humans, elves, orcs and, depending on whether you’re playing 40k or original there are a host of other species and breakaway groups which you can play as.

chaosI won’t try and explain more here as there is a vast online community based around the game which can provide you with much more accurate explanations regarding the specifics of the game. What I will say is it’s a great game to play with friends, it’s necessarily social in nature whilst incorporating a lot of the elements which kids enjoy about computer games. I played for a short while as a teenager (my figures were all from the ‘Chaos legion’ group) and thoroughly enjoyed customising my figures and meeting up with friends to play battles. I can’t say I was particularly good at the game but it was a good laugh and was a great excuse to file into a room with your mates, eat junk food and generally have fun (without a screen of any kind in sight) for a few hours.

I think this is the main pro to take away from this game. It has a reputation for geekiness and definitely appeals to a certain group of kids but at the heart of it it gives kids a chance to enjoy each others company and it stretches out the age of play (I’ve discussed a few times the fact that kids seem to be giving up on play at an ever-younger age). I genuinely can’t think of a better way for children who perhaps don’t really enjoy team sports, or who are maybe a little introverted, to focus their energies into a big group activity like this, where there’s still a strong element of face-to-face contact. What’s more in larger battles there is the opportunity for real world team playing and group strategy.

White-Dwarf-Jan-2014I’m currently more than a decade out of date with the goings-on of the world of Warhammer. Games Workshop (the company behind the game) publishes a magazine called White Dwarf (which we’ll also be stocking) which describes the changes in gameplay etc. so I know what I’ll be up to soon. As I said at the start of this post, we’re currently just looking into stocking the game so if anyone has anything they’d like to share about Warhammer (and whether you think it’s a good idea for the shop) I’d love to hear from you whether you have positive or negative things to say. On our end we feel quite positive about it though and we hope you guys will be too.

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.

How to play

Giraffe eating a dinosaur

Puppets are a great way to stimulate pretend play, pop over here to have a look at some of the puppets stocked by Fun Junction.

This sounds like a bit of a ridiculous question but can you remember how to play? Strange as it sounds I’ve heard of adults who have genuinely lost the ability and there also seem to be a great number of parents who struggle with certain types of play. One of the key difficulties seems to arise during what we might call ‘pretend play’. The primary worry I hear is that there is a feeling of obligation that you, as the parent, will be expected to plan out a whole story and create a host of characters out of the toy figures in front of you. This is an intimidating prospect, especially where playtime comes at the end of the day when your mind is dulled after a day at work, or a day filled with housework and running the kids around to meet their busy social calendar (our kids always seem to have better social lives than we do).

Fortunately this isn’t really what’s involved in pretend play. I’m sure your kids would love it if you mapped out a whole story for them and then played it out before their eyes with a vibrant array of exceptionally voiced characters (who wouldn’t?!). To be honest though, that’s not playing, that’s more like a high-end puppet show. Scale it back, and remember how you used to play, but if that fails here are some tips:

  • Go to my previous post ‘5 hints for telling a good story‘ some of this is specific to reading but the explanations of how to change your voice and animate character traits should be useful.
  • If you genuinely struggle with pretend play then DON’T, and I’ll repeat DON’T, use a character they know from TV/films. Doing this will result in one of two things: EITHER you’ll crack it and perform that character flawlessly (or at least well enough for your kid to be happy with it) OR you’ll be terrible and your kid will just laugh at your attempts, disrupting play and bruising your confidence. If you crack it then there’s a strong chance that that is the only character your child will let you play as and this will get tedious fast (this character could also become a crutch, limiting you from enjoying all the fun that pretend play has to offer). Neither of these outcomes is particularly great.
  • Pick one or two character toys to play with and give them a character ‘quirk’. Don’t make them a ‘baddie’ or a ‘goodie’, of course that’s what kids often do but as an adult you can bring something different into the mix. Here’s an example, try a character who thinks everything they are presented with is edible. Your child will likely find it hilarious as they chase after the character trying to explain that they shouldn’t eat a cushion/a sock/ the TV/ someone’s hair.
  • Allow your character to develop. Even if you’re only playing for ten minutes or so you’ll find an easy ‘plot point’ in allowing your character to change their mind about something. If you need it, the development can be also used as a means of setting a time limit. Using the example above, the character could come to realise that not everything is edible as dinner time approaches (‘OK, OK, so I can’t eat your shoe but can I eat whatever it is that’s making that lovely smell?’ ‘Yes, that’s dinner!’ ‘Great let’s eat dinner!’).
  • Finally have fun, have as much fun as you can. They’ll only be playing like this for so long. Also, to keep things interesting, try occasionally throwing in some behaviour that breaks the status quo, this should help your child to think on their feet and it can lead to much more entertaining playtimes as well.

I’m always interested to hear how other parents play so feel free to pop a comment below and tell me about your own experiences. Hope these wee tips help someone out there. As always, thanks for reading and if there’s anything else you’d like me to post about please get in touch, Cheers, John

Harry Potter and Rise of Fantasy

Harry Potter dragon cerberus three headed dogNext month at Fun Junction is fantasy month and to be honest most of the crew are big fantasy geeks. I’ll read just about any fantasy fiction out there Karen (‘the boss’, and yes she is a Springsteen fan) is the same and our facebook guru (and inventor of Winston) Jo is like a walking Harry Potter encyclopaedia. I can safely say we’re looking forward to this.

Thinking about fantasy though, I can’t imagine a shop would have bothered with a whole month dedicated to fantasy and magic before the arrival of Harry Potter. ‘The boy who lived’ brought an awesome genre into the public eye and allowed millions of people access to a form of escapism that used to be associated solely with children and ‘geeks’.

Harry Potter expelliarmus by kidchewyI was a fan of fantasy  long before Harry Potter (I was/am a geek, for proof see my Starfleet uniform in this previous post) but I have to confess that I unfortunately initially overlooked the young Gryffindor as I though the books were just ‘kids books’. On reading the books I felt pretty stupid as I’d been missing out on something fantastic (get it ‘fantastic’? ha ha boom boom…ahem…sorry). I think that this, the awareness of childish things as fun for adults too, is possibly one of the most important contributions which J K Rowling has made to the world. Once you realise how enjoyable something ‘meant for kids’ can be, you start to wonder what else you’re missing out on (previous posts have looked at adult play and age appropriateness in much greater detail).

Lord of the ringsWhat’s more, Potter opened up the world of fantasy to the masses, I’d even go so far as to say that Lord of the Rings wouldn’t have got the budget it did if it wasn’t for the success of Potter. Tolkien’s masterwork is phenomenal but prior to the rise of popularity of fantasy in the 90s and 00s I don’t think the budget would have been there to do it justice. I have to admit though that I think the exclusion of Tom Bombadil was a crying shame, he was one of the only characters who changed the pace of the book, if only for a short while, and his presence added depth and an extra hint of mystery to the first book of the trilogy.

is twilight fantasy?The genre of fantasy is seen to include witches, wizards, dragons, fairies, goblins, vampires, were-wolves, mermaids etc. etc. With such a wide cross section of creatures this means that even the Twilight series can count as fantasy, as would many other ‘magical’ stories. With Fun Junction’s approaching fantasy and magic month this leaves the crew with a question, just exactly what counts as fantasy and what doesn’t? Are there any particular stories/characters/creatures that you think we definitely should/shouldn’t include? And possibly more importantly should we dress up? Thanks for reading, hope to hear lots of ideas from you all, Cheers, John

The toys that make us

My Space/Sci-fi 30th BrithdayI’ve been talking a lot about the role of toys in generating identity, both in new posts and in my Tuesday re-posts. Part of this is due to the reception I’ve received from a twitter group called ‘Let toys be toys‘. My other reason for continuing along these lines lies in the fact that I’ve always been interested in the link between the children we were and the adults we have become (and yes that is me in Star Fleet uniform).

stewie coffee family guy

Awesome coffee art by ‘baristartist’ Michael Breach

Years ago I met up with a friend for a coffee. He was having problems in his life, mostly relationship worries but also on the wider scale of deciding what to do with himself after university. He asked me for some advice, and I pointed out that when he was a child he didn’t have these worries, so why not access that part of himself so that he could look at these problems from the outside. When we were younger we escaped ‘real life’ partly due to the fact that, as children, many of us were sheltered from the stress of the ‘real world’ but also due to the fact that when we are younger we are often so authentically engaged with what we’re doing that we can’t see anything else, in the truest sense play lets us escape.

This escape through play can take many forms but the one that seemed relevant to my friend (and to any of us who have hit that point at life at some point) is the play we used to realise our aspirations. As children we all pretended to be a fireman, a nurse, a palaeontologist, an astronaut etc. etc. The games we play as children often let us test drive an idealised version of a job/career/lifestyle.

In true philosopher fashion I answered his questions with a question: what did you want to be when you grew up? If we think back to our goals as children and look at how close, or how far, our current life is from realising these goals I think it can tell us a lot about how we will view ourselves as adults. Feeling disheartened with your life now may be linked to your awareness that you haven’t lived up to your own expectations.

Robin Williams in 'Toys'This leads me to wonder what role our toys plays in deciding the adults we’ll become. This doesn’t boil down to matching a type of toy to some adult equivalent in vocation, it’s something more subtle. If the way you imagined the ‘real world’ as a child differs dramatically from the ‘real world’ you live in now what will this do to your emotional state? How happy would your eight year old self be with the man/woman you are today?

I work in a toy shop so my eight year old self would probably be very happy with that. Sure I don’t work in a fortune 500 company or drive a sports car (I can’t drive at all actually) but at eight the wages etc. didn’t matter, back then I’d have been more interested in how fun/cool my job was, and thankfully it’s both.

Me at 3 years old getting a present of a big remote control truck which was quickly taken apart and 'investigated', got in loads of trouble and my mum still tells people this story

Me at 3 years old getting a present of a big remote control truck which was quickly taken apart and ‘investigated’, got in loads of trouble, my mum still tells people this story

Back then I wanted to know everything I could about the world, in fact this was a trend that had already been going on for years (see the picture to the left). I wanted to know what made machines work, I took things apart and put them back together again. This is where I’d be expected to say ‘and that’s what made me chose a degree in engineering’ but I didn’t. As regular readers might know I picked a degree in philosophy. That said I can see how this evolved.

As a child I wanted to know how machines worked, I also wanted to know as much as I could about the world around me. As an adult I combined these two lines of enquiry: I now want to know how the world around me works. Stripping a remote control truck into pieces on our bathroom floor led years later to stripping ideologies and long held ideas apart and I did my best to put them back together, or at least to figure out why these ideas didn’t work (by the way if anyone ever asks what philosophers do you can tell them that).

In many senses I am what I wanted to be (though I’m still holding out for superpowers and/or a trip into space) and in that respect I can feel content that my play evolved naturally into a life. How did your play bring you to where you are? Have you lost contact with your inner eight year old or are you on good terms? Answers on a postcard (or, you know, you could just use the comments box below). Thanks again for reading, Cheers, John

Tuesday repost: Challenge accepted!

After last week’s post about computer games and the difference in play offered by more traditional games I thought I’d put together a wee post about board games, I’ll put together one about multi-player games later in the week but I thought I’d get the ball rolling with this. This re-post comes from a post I made back in February about ‘solitaire’ style board games. I’ll admit that solitary puzzles are exactly the kind of one person activity I was putting down last week but the difference is in the tactile element and the fact that in cases where they leave you stumped, solving these can become a group activity. On top of that they’re wonderfully, frustratingly fun.

rush hourI often post about slightly ‘younger’ toys, this is probably because my sons are 2 and 4 (soon to be 5) so my home experience is limited to this. This week I thought I’d try and get outside this box and talk about some toys aimed at older children: those toys/ games described as ‘logic puzzles’. They can range from the simple (yet frustrating) tangles of metal that you get in a Christmas cracker, to larger, more complicated sets with multiple pieces and varying scenarios (such as Thinkfun’s ‘rush hour’ pictured above, which you can get here). These kinds of sets incorporate multiple pieces which have to be moved around in designated ways, sometimes by consulting a plan from an accompanying set of cards. In the case of Think Fun’s ‘rush hour’ you have to get a car out of a traffic jam by only moving the surrounding cars backwards or forwards (no turning!).

36 cube is like sudoku on steroids, your brain will melt. One of each colour per line and each peg is a different size and can only fit in certain positions on the board.

36 cube is like sudoku on steroids, your brain will melt. One of each colour per line and each peg is a different size and can only fit in certain positions on the board.

I love and loathe these sorts of games in equal measure. Because of my stubborn streak (and I have to confess a little over-confidence in my intelligence) once I start one I have to complete it which can, in some cases, take hours. I’ve solved most of the smaller puzzles in the shop at least once and some many more times than that. Completing a logic puzzle can give you a wonderful and guilty mixture of achievement coupled with a feeling of superiority (“I can do this and you can’t!”). That said, I have genuinely given up with some puzzles, e.g. I have never solved a rubik’s cube and I gave up on Think Fun’s ’36 cube’ game after 4-5 hours. I think I like the challenge but there’s a limit on how much of my time I’ll put into it and that’s kind of what I’d like to ask people to comment about today.

What’s the ‘sweet spot’ between the eureka moment when you complete something challenging, and the frustration of inability? For me it is probably the factor of time that makes the difference: if it takes too long I’m just not going to try any more, that perhaps sounds lazy but part of me becomes increasingly aware, as time goes on, that I’m playing a game. There are so many other things I could be doing with my time and as fun as games are, solitaire games in particular can only warrant my attention for so long. It’s different for conventional board games because then there’s the socialising aspect to make the time more meaningful, since the game itself is normally just something to do while you enjoy other people’s company.

This said I often come back to a logic puzzle to try my luck again thinking: “Maybe I wasted four hours on this yesterday but I know how it works now so I’ll get it dome in about twenty minutes”. I’ll delude myself like this, repeatedly in some cases, but I must admit I don’t see myself returning to a Rubik’s cube or 36 cube. I just can’t ‘get them’ and ‘getting’ them will probably take more time than I could ever bring myself to put in.

I wonder if there could be other factors, other than time, that might make someone abandon a puzzle; perhaps a lack of confidence (I guess that’s part of my cop-outs too) or even using the ultimate excuse and blaming the toy for being defective (e.g. giving up because you think it’s been made wrong). As always comments are welcome, and feel free to taunt me on my lack of Rubik’s skill pointing out how intellectually superior you are for having solved it (you know you want to, that’s part of the fun). It would also be interesting to know what logic puzzles have really got under your skin. Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

EDIT (20.07.13): I completed a Rubiks cube the other night! Finally, I can claim membership to this elite group. Remember, it’s all about the centres, the opposing sides are always the same so theme your moves around them.

Reselling us our childhood

seriously how did I not know until today that there's a lego movie?!!!There’ s no doubt about it, the most recent franchises which are popping up are all recycled 70s and 80s favourites (or at least approximations of that theme). It seems as though industries aimed at kids have got savvy to the fact that today’s parents grew up in that time period and so they already identify strongly with certain franchises. For me it’s superman, ghostbusters, gummy bears, care bears, the ewoks, transformers, ghost rider, the x-men, teenage mutant ‘hero’ turtles (here in the UK they changed ‘ninja’ to ‘hero’ due to some controversy or other, to be honest ninja makes more sense but the theme tune doesn’t sound right to me) and to a lesser extent thundercats. I know that in my heart of hearts I will find it harder to say no to purchasing any of these products than anything else and a lot of people in the toy industry know this.

New teenage mutant ninja turtlesThe strange thing is I can’t get mad about this, all the best to them so long as they bring me more re-invented characters from my childhood. This industry is like someone I want to hate but I just can’t do it, they have the charm of my childhood mixed with modern technology, bringing toys, TV and film to heights I could only dream of as a kid. The new turtles cartoons are awesome, I love what they did with the new turtles (the discovery of ‘pi-zzaa’), I’m eagerly anticipating my chance to go and catch man of steel, the transformers movies were awesome especially the last one with Leonard Nimoy and the bit where (oh wait just in case I spoil it for anyone) anyway you’re like ‘Awesome!’ and then you’re like ‘No wayyyy…whaaaaaaat?!!!!’ (sorry that’s my nineties teenager talking, he gets out sometimes, apologies).

The industry is even able to manufacture this nostalgia with movies like ‘Wreck it Ralph’ where the general feel is based around classic 80s arcade games but bears no direct relation to anything from our childhood. It makes those of us who grew up in this time feel as though the world revolves around them and I say keep it coming, I’ll gladly hand over my cash for more of this kind of thing. However, underneath my appreciation of this is something deeper, I’m starting to realise that if this trend continues my sons and I will share commonality in a way that I didn’t see with my parents. During the 80s TV, films/movies and toys all changed dramatically and the computer games industry was in the very early stages of it’s development.

Lego man of steel 76002I would talk to my mum and my dad about their childhoods and though it sounded nice and though I could find some commonality I have to admit their reaction to characters that I was crazy about was less than I hoped and that grated a little. It wasn’t their fault, these were brand new characters that had never existed when they were kids and they did their best to remember their names etc. but the erosion of 60s and 70s TV stereotypes meant that my mum frequently thought the transformers were all baddies and the humans goodies and I just couldn’t seem to explain the autobot vs. decepticon dynamic so that it stuck.

Ben 10 and other recent contributions follow a similarly grey ethical dynamic which my parents’ generation find hard to follow but we kind of get it, OK so I see big scary alien but thanks to the TV shows I watched as a kid I withhold judgement on what camp he falls into until I get a feel for the kind of things this character gets up to.

I’m hoping this helps me to stay connected with my kids, it doesn’t hurt that my enjoyment of these kinds of shows when I was a kid means that I still enjoy that kind of show now, so I’ll happily sit through a ben10/ care bears/ turtles marathon. The industry may be cashing in but by recycling these old franchises they’re also ensuring that parents and children have something in common. My message to anyone out there who is responsible for this industry development: keep up the good work. Oh and now that Disney owns Star Wars is there any chance of some new Ewoks episodes (or at least a DVD release of the old ones) ? Logan’s a bit young for Star Wars yet but I’d happily sit though a bunch of Ewoks episodes.

Leonardo's electronic stealth sword

Anyway thanks again for reading. All the toys pictured above are available at Fun Junction stores (Perth and Crieff). So what are you most happy to see come back? Is there anything you think has gone wrong in this franchise recycling extravaganza? Oh and while I remember, may I turn everyone’s attention to one of the best movie trailers I’ve seen in a while (I hope to God it’s real), when this comes out I AM THERE!