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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The Philosopher in the Toy Shop

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

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

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

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

pulp fiction winnie the pooh

Gansta Pooh (Pulp Pooh just sounds…wrong)

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

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

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

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

Warhammer

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.

Tuesday Repost: You’re too old to play with that

I really enjoyed writing this post and it lead on to a lot more discussion, after writing this a good number of people quizzed me about it but without exception people seemed to be on the same page. Let me know in the comments what your own take is on age appropriateness for toys. Are we too quick to move our kids along? Do we all grow up too fast? For the big kids (and geeks) out there you can click on the picture of Riker below to see him hug his Picard dolly.

This is a little bug bear of mine and I can guarantee that at least three or four times a week I’ll have to go through this spiel again. The issue of the age appropriateness of a toy can arise whenever the child’s interests differ from the norm for their age.

A fairly benign case of this happens where a child plays at a stage above their age. When I’m asked what might be a good toy for such a child I’m faced with a slight dilemma: say we have a boy of seven who does a new jigsaw puzzle every week, based on this information I can guarantee his abilities will be higher than the jigsaw companies expect and as a result I would suggest picking a jigsaw puzzle that perhaps has age 8 or 9 on the box. This particular age on the box is a guide, it has nothing to do with safety (or anything so rigid) and has much more to do with the manufacturer’s opinion of what would be the appropriate age for this toy. This is based on general ideas about children’s play, so specific cases like our seven year old jigsaw fan are unlikely to fit within their paradigm.

However the person buying the toy can often be put off by the suggested age and in this case will opt for something which is likely to be below the child’s abilities. With something like a jigsaw this is likely to mean that the child will get bored with it, not the worst thing in the world but when you’re buying a gift you tend to hope that the recipient will enjoy it. This doesn’t happen too often though and most of the time people actually like the idea that the child they’re buying for exceeds expectations.

The real problem (and the main topic of this entry) lies at the other end of the spectrum. Some toys do not show a suggested age but instead place for example a 3+ mark on the box (which is placed to mark the manufacturer’s recommended ‘safe’ playing age), the problem is that it’s sometimes not easy for a customer to decipher between a 3+ safety tag and the suggested ages such as the ones described above.

There is a big difference between these, and when some customers see e.g. 3+ on the box they assume that older children won’t be interested in it because the toy is ‘for’ 3 year olds. This isn’t right and the children potentially miss out on something really fun. I’ll admit it’s easy to mix up the numbers on the box but this is where common sense should step in: does it look like something the child would enjoy? If the answer is yes then by all means get an 8 year old child a toy that says 3+ on the box.

The problem is even worse when the child is actually there in the shop and specifically asks for the toy only to be told ‘you’re too old for that’ or even worse ‘that’s a baby toy’. It seems we’re happy for a child to drive on and surpass their expected level for play (note play not maths, English or a sport) it fits our culture of striving for improvement in our children, and there’s nothing wrong with this but we see the opposite as something like an inverse of this situation: a child who likes toys aimed at a younger age is seen as somehow falling short when in fact they just like the look of it. Giving a child a younger toy doesn’t mark them as a failure since many toys can be played with in vastly different ways by different ages. Instead of accepting this though we are careful to avoid play which isn’t progressive: that is we discourage play which seems orientated around an earlier developmental stage. And we wonder why kids grow up so fast these days. Do you have any recollection of being told that something was ‘for babies’ as a kid? Have you done this to your own kids?

Tuesday repost: Hiding your play

I was recently talking to my mother in law about play/toy therapy (she’s trained in various kinds of counseling) and it reminded me of a set of posts I’d done a while ago on the importance of continuing to play as we ‘grow up’. I like this one in particular so this is the one you’re getting. Hope you enjoy it.

I recently came across a large number of online comments from mothers whose children apparently still play with toys at the age of 12 or 13 (though they apparently keep it under the radar of their friends). As anyone who has been following my blog will know I tend to circle back to the theme of age appropriateness quite frequently and this selection of posts, found when doing a simple google search about the average age at which children stop playing, really caught my attention.

Both my kids are too young for me to have real experience of the stopping play phenomenon so aside from the odd pre-teen sneaking into the shop so their friends don’t see I was kind of in the dark as to how late kids seem to really be playing. It’s fantastic and sad all at once: fantastic because my faith in play and in the perseverance of child-like nature has been restored but it’s sad because these older children and teens feel the need to hide their activities from friends who, by the sounds of things, are doing exactly the same thing. I suppose this state of affairs would also be humorous if it wasn’t for the inevitable fact that we can imagine a serious amount of over-compensation on the part of these older players, not to mention the missed opportunity of shared play.

One post I saw on a parenting forum was by a 14 year old girl who still played with dolls, this wasn’t one of these teens who fantasise about being a young mum (as you might see on Jeremy Kyle or Jerry Springer), the dolls she played with were more the dress-up variety and if I remember correctly they were from the sylvanian family range.

Playing lets us break away (a little) from our preconceptions about how the world works and instead we can play out how we would like the world to be. If these kids could somehow find each other then this could turn into a really great experience for them: rather than feel ashamed about something completely natural and plunging themselves into the world of the pre-adult (filled with violent, sexual and otherwise ‘grown up’ themes) they could enjoy a few more years of fantasy before they are forced to face the harsh realities of the adult world.

We glamourise the adult world either intentionally or unintentionally. The media can make adulthood look like a special club with special privileges with the admission fee being your childhood. More and more kids seem to be paying this admission willingly and turning away from childish things but looking at those parenting forums this really is just for show, they simply cannot hide the fact that they are still children and where they should feel proud of a wholly unique perspective on the world they instead feel the need to hide their nature and act like mini adults.

To those kids who apparently are living a double life please don’t hide your enjoyment of toys and play, there are tons of us who do it, trust me you’re in good company.

(Picture used above comes from http://www.getsurrey.co.uk/entertainment/film_and_cinema/s/2086262_walton_teens_lego_film_to_grace_us_festival an article about a young film maker that specialises in using lego)

Hiding your play

I recently came across a large number of online comments from mothers whose children apparently still play with toys at the age of 12 or 13 (though they apparently keep it under the radar of their friends). As anyone who has been following my blog will know I tend to circle back to the theme of age appropriateness quite frequently and this selection of posts, found when doing a simple google search about the average age at which children stop playing, really caught my attention.

Both my kids are too young for me to have real experience of the stopping play phenomenon so aside from the odd pre-teen sneaking into the shop so their friends don’t see I was kind of in the dark as to how late kids seem to really be playing. It’s fantastic and sad all at once: fantastic because my faith in play and in the perseverance of child-like nature has been restored but it’s sad because these older children and teens feel the need to hide their activities from friends who, by the sounds of things, are doing exactly the same thing. I suppose this state of affairs would also be humorous if it wasn’t for the inevitable fact that we can imagine a serious amount of over-compensation on the part of these older players, not to mention the missed opportunity of shared play.

One post I saw on a parenting forum was by a 14 year old girl who still played with dolls, this wasn’t one of these teens who fantasise about being a young mum (as you might see on Jeremy Kyle or Jerry Springer), the dolls she played with were more the dress-up variety and if I remember correctly they were from the sylvanian family range.

Playing lets us break away (a little) from our preconceptions about how the world works and instead we can play out how we would like the world to be. If these kids could somehow find each other then this could turn into a really great experience for them: rather than feel ashamed about something completely natural and plunging themselves into the world of the pre-adult (filled with violent, sexual and otherwise ‘grown up’ themes) they could enjoy a few more years of fantasy before they are forced to face the harsh realities of the adult world.

We glamourise the adult world either intentionally or unintentionally. The media can make adulthood look like a special club with special privileges with the admission fee being your childhood. More and more kids seem to be paying this admission willingly and turning away from childish things but looking at those parenting forums this really is just for show, they simply cannot hide the fact that they are still children and where they should feel proud of a wholly unique perspective on the world they instead feel the need to hide their nature and act like mini adults.

To those kids who apparently are living a double life please don’t hide your enjoyment of toys and play, there are tons of us who do it, trust me you’re in good company.

(Picture used above comes from http://www.getsurrey.co.uk/entertainment/film_and_cinema/s/2086262_walton_teens_lego_film_to_grace_us_festival an article about a young film maker that specialises in using lego)

 

You’re too old to play with that

This is a little bug bear of mine and I can guarantee that at least three or four times a week I’ll have to go through this spiel again. The issue of the age appropriateness of a toy can arise whenever the child’s interests differ from the norm for their age.

A fairly benign case of this happens where a child plays at a stage above their age. When I’m asked what might be a good toy for such a child I’m faced with a slight dilemma: say we have a boy of seven who does a new jigsaw puzzle every week, based on this information I can guarantee his abilities will be higher than the jigsaw companies expect and as a result I would suggest picking a jigsaw puzzle that perhaps has age 8 or 9 on the box. This particular age on the box is a guide, it has nothing to do with safety (or anything so rigid) and has much more to do with the manufacturer’s opinion of what would be the appropriate age for this toy. This is based on general ideas about children’s play, so specific cases like our seven year old jigsaw fan are unlikely to fit within their paradigm.

However the person buying the toy can often be put off by the suggested age and in this case will opt for something which is likely to be below the child’s abilities. With something like a jigsaw this is likely to mean that the child will get bored with it, not the worst thing in the world but when you’re buying a gift you tend to hope that the recipient will enjoy it. This doesn’t happen too often though and most of the time people actually like the idea that the child they’re buying for exceeds expectations.

The real problem (and the main topic of this entry) lies at the other end of the spectrum. Some toys do not show a suggested age but instead place for example a 3+ mark on the box (which is placed to mark the manufacturer’s recommended ‘safe’ playing age), the problem is that it’s sometimes not easy for a customer to decipher between a 3+ safety tag and the suggested ages such as the ones described above.

There is a big difference between these, and when some customers see e.g. 3+ on the box they assume that older children won’t be interested in it because the toy is ‘for’ 3 year olds. This isn’t right and the children potentially miss out on something really fun. I’ll admit it’s easy to mix up the numbers on the box but this is where common sense should step in: does it look like something the child would enjoy? If the answer is yes then by all means get an 8 year old child a toy that says 3+ on the box.

The problem is even worse when the child is actually there in the shop and specifically asks for the toy only to be told ‘you’re too old for that’ or even worse ‘that’s a baby toy’. I seems we’re happy for a child to drive on and surpass their expected level for play (note play not maths, English or a sport) it fits our culture of striving for improvement in our children, and there’s nothing wrong with this but we see the opposite as something like an inverse of this situation: a child who likes toys aimed at a younger age is seen as somehow falling short when in fact they just like the look of it. Giving a child a younger toy doesn’t mark them as a failure since many toys can be played with in vastly different ways by different ages. Instead of accepting this though we are careful to avoid play which isn’t progressive: that is we discourage play which seems orientated around an earlier developmental stage. And we wonder why kids grow up so fast these days.