With this doll your child would never sleep again

edison dollJust found this post on global toy news.  has successfully dredged up a nightmare of dolls-gone-by into the open: Edison’s phonograph doll. Released in 1890 this doll came with tiny records prepared with spoken passages for your dolly to ‘say’. I have to say I have never heard a creepier rendition of ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’ in my life. What’s more is that this doll (according to Gottlieb) cost the equivalent of what would be $250 (just over £160) today.

This made me wonder about the many, many higher priced toys on the market that end up as cultural oddities in later years. Things like Kota the ride on dinosaur by Playskool, which was pegged as the ‘next big thing’ about three or four years ago but which simply disappeared. If I remember right (and we never stocked it so don’t quote me on this) but as awesome as Kota is I’m sure he was priced at nearly £300 when he first came out in the UK. In terms of functionality and the potential time a child will play with it until it becomes boring, then even at £150 this toy is alarmingly pricey, given that it’s basically a ride-on Furbie.

Perhaps toy buying has changed though; in demographic terms I think you’d be hard-pushed to guess at how much an individual might spend on toys for their kids. Obviously those earning more can afford to spend more but to be honest that’s not what you see.

In many ways it seems to have a lot more to do with the type of childhood the parent had, their aspirations for their own children, and the type of relationship they have with their child. Throw into the mix the cacophony of different child-rearing philosophies regarding how much, or how little, play a child should participate in and it becomes anyone’s guess as to how much a parent will be spending on toys.

I’m not going to try and put ballpark figures down here, nor would I want to point out what different parents spend in the shop (it’s hardly for me to say) but I will point out that working in a toy shop can blow your expectations out of the water when it comes to how you think different people spend their money.

That said I’m amazed that anyone ever bought one of Edison’s dolls. Whether it’s the slightly skewed, vacant stare, or what looks like a pair of fangs (image at the start of this post is Edison’s doll), this doll seems designed to haunt your dreams. The soulless squeal of it’s voice is especially disturbing as it begs for God to watch over it. Enjoy your nightmares:

jack-reusen-cover-front2Oh and if you need cheered up don’t forget to pop along to www.jackreusen.co.uk to find out about Jack and his adventures with his friend Thea (a girl who turns into a polar bear) in a world of magic and mystery (books aimed at children aged from six years to adult).

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

Children and power

superman and the flash duke it outWhy is it so important to be the ‘fastest’, the ‘strongest’, etc. etc.? It’s a question I’m asking myself more and more now that my two are hitting that wonderful ‘isn’t it fun to hit my brother’ stage. I understand that competitiveness is to be encouraged but sometimes it seems genuinely nonsensical. I’ve had squabbles over who can fly the highest (basically bound by the laws of imagination; i.e. infinite) and other utter insanity that I just can’t get my head around. So again (and again) I find myself asking myself, why is it so important to them?

Ordinarily I can get myself into my kids’ shoes fairly easily, despite the fact that so much of their play makes no ‘real-world’ sense, there’s normally some internal logic to it. However, this imaginary one-upmanship looks like nothing more than an exercise in futility to me.

At the start of Toy Story, Andy has the toys duke it out in this kind of competition but the key thing is that his imaginings stop after about two rounds (basically because there’s only one child playing):

“I brought my attack dog with the built-in force field.
Well, I brought my dinosaur who eats force-field dogs.”

The story is alarmingly, brain-achingly, different with two children in the mix. Thankfully I’ve had a dry spell of this for the past few weeks but there isn’t a doubt in my mind that the spectre of the debate over ‘strongest’/ ‘fastest’/’furthest’/’most immune to damage’ etc. etc. returns.

It will no doubt start along the lines of “well I’m lava proof!…well I’m as hot as the sun!…”well I’m sun-proof!…” and it will degenerate (along with my sanity) from there.

Is it just me that get’s utterly sick to the back teeth of this or are there others out there with a similar dread for what I call the pretend-power arms-race? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below. As always thanks for reading, Cheers, John

We are what we do

SCH SM Boss Smurf (W)“Papa smurf has really taken his CES (Chief Executive Smurf) job to heart, round the office the smurfs have started calling him ‘Alan Smurfer’ (though none of them say it to his face, they don’t want to be told ‘you’re smurfered’).”

I write product descriptions, it’s not my only job (not by a long shot) but some days it takes up most of my work hours. Recently I had a couple of pretty mammoth sessions and as I got more tired I unintentionally got a bit more creative (as you can see above). With this in mind I’d like to share some of my favourite product descriptions that I’ve written in the past few days.


schleich dragon hunter gremlin ankylosaurusSchleich, Dragon Hunter

“If you threw a Gremlin, Battle-cat from He-Man, a dragon and an Ankylosaurus in a blender…well you’d have a broken blender for starters…but if they somehow converged into one creature then THIS would be it (and if you don’t get the references in this sentence we now feel very old).” You can buy him here.


Sometimes you look at a group of linked toys and a story just emerges spontaneously. That’s what happened with business Smurfs. It started with ‘Marketing Smurf’:

SCH SM Marketing Smurf (W)Schleich, Marketing Smurf

“Last month’s smurf numbers are smurfing smurfable, if we keep up the smurfle media campeign and really push our bricks and mortar smurfs we’ll be in for a smurfer of a year!”

But once he was on-board the others all seemed to find their own place in the office, next came ‘Accountant Smurf’:

schleich accountant smurf figurineSchleich, Accountant Smurf

“We’re going to have to switch to generic coffee in the break room if we want to get our smurfspenditure down to smurfable levels but I don’t want to be the one to tell lazy smurf, it’s the only thing that smurfs him smurfing.”

After these I wrote Alan Smurfer or ‘Boss Smurf’ up (you can see his description above) and couldn’t help but feel that the middle management in this place would feel a little strained. This is where Manager Smurfette stepped in:

schleich smurfette manager figure figurineSchleich, Manager Smurfette

Smurfette is at her smurf’s end, why did she ever agree to manage this team of smurfless smurfs? The CES (Chief Operating Smurf) is demanding increased performance, while the accountant keeps smurferring on about lazy smurf’s coffee consumption, and the marketing team keeps telling her “It’s all smurf! We’re building smurfial media presence’ but that doesn’t translate into cold, hard smurf!


jack-reusen-cover-front2There are a heap more product descriptions but I don’t want this post to run on and on. Before I finish up I thought I’d do a wee plug. I’ve written a story book for children aged five and up (and for reading age of six or seven and up) called ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame.’ It’s part one of a series and we’ve got a fully fledged website (and blog) about the book and the characters, if you find your way over there I’ll be very grateful. The kindle edition is out now, click here for a list of links for purchase in different countries.

As always thanks for reading, I feel like it’s important to be creative wherever you can and I hope you enjoyed a few of my wee sparks of creativity. How do you express yourself in your workplace? Do you find it easy to let your creative side out for a spin or do you feel as though you have to curb it until you get home? I would love to hear your own experiences in the comments below or even over on Twitter, Cheers, John

The eternal problem of getting gifts wrong

sb10069978x-001Christmas is coming. There’s no use pretending it isn’t, and I apologise if you think I’ve just used a dirty word, but parents everywhere are already being given hints by their kids as to what they might be asking Santa for.

These little tips at this early stage can be a blessing and a curse in equal measure. On one hand you can listen to these tips, take them seriously, get ahead of the buying frenzy and be sure that Santa will be set to provide. However, on the other hand there’s the problem of timing: Is it too soon? Will they change their mind? Will something better come along between now and Christmas?

I’ve been experiencing this struggle, with growing trepidation, for about four or five years now (the first couple don’t count, they’re too young to really have a preference). In that time we’ve (fingers crossed) yet to make a mistake, though we have had a couple of close calls. The key thing for us was to make sure that the Santa letter was written before any purchases were made, that way we can hold the children to their list. That may sound a bit mean but Logan especially is becoming quite familiar with the finality of his list.

But what do parents do when their child, for one reason or another, finds it particularly hard to deal with that kind of finality? I’m genuinely intrigued by this, of all the parenting juggling acts that seem necessary for parents this is, by far, one of the most potentially stressful. How do you ensure you get exactly the right thing for Christmas day whilst preserving the magic for your child?

Also how do buying habits differ for parents of children with developmental delays, I may be wrong but given the delay in development I imagine there is a longer period in which you risk being caught out. In cases like this even greater tact and creativity must surely be in order. There is one woman I know of who is in her twenties and still believes, and I have nothing but admiration for her entire family (especially her siblings) for their ability to keep the magic alive for her through such a long stretch.

I’d love to hear any special tricks or techniques any parents/carers may have come up with to figure out the right gift, buy it before they’re sold out, and ensure that their child doesn’t take a huge u-turn on their chosen gift come Christmas day. Any and all comments are very welcome (and feel free to pop over to twitter to talk about it too). Thanks, as always, for reading, Cheers, John

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