Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Thunder Burp Machine Gun

I was born in 1962, a year some people place at the tail end of the "Baby Boom," while others insist I'm in the "Gen X" vanguard. But as we seek to pin a label on me, having lived my entire life on the cusp between idealistic hippie and ironic slacker, I've found that the real generational dividing line comes down to toys. If you claim to have played exclusively with rocks and sticks, you're a Baby Boomer; if you had a full toy box, you're Generation X.

I had a bedroom full of toys. I also played outdoors almost every day with the Azar, Weibel, Saine, Beale, and Cozart kids, roaming in packs around the neighborhood (or at least our suburban cul-de-sac), all ages mixed together, making up games with the stuff we found along the way. But I also owned SST Racers, Clacker Balls, Creepy Crawlers, piles of stuffed animals, Matchbox cars, board games, action figures (which we called "army men"), and an arsenal of toy weapons, including one very nifty number based on the TV program The Man From U.N.C.L.E., that transformed in seconds from an innocent-looking movie camera into a rat-a-tat-tat machine gun.

So what happened to create this divide between generations? The Thunder Burp Machine Gun happened, that's what.

There is a lot of grist for commentary in this clip (e.g., toy guns pointed right at the audience, shooting elephants, explosives in the hands of small children), but the real significance according to a fascinating NPR piece from last month, is that this commercial debuted on the first episode of The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955, and was the first time a toy had been advertised on television outside of the Christmas season.

. . . the Thunder Burp . . . according to Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, was a kind of historical watershed. Almost overnight, children's play became focused, as never before, on things -- the toys themselves.

"It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys," says Chudacoff. "Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object."

By the time I was out of diapers, the big budget marketing of toys was in full swing. I doubt there are many of us born in the second half of the 20th century who can't fondly sing a full collection of toy commercial jingles. While Chudacoff goes on in the interview to legitimately bemoan the "commercialization" and "co-optation" of child's play as well as emergence of "safety" as an overwhelming concern of modern parents, and while the piece also contains a lot of very good information about how these factors have significantly changed the psychological make-up of children, including a diminished capacity for self regulation, I found myself, like a cynical, cutting edge Gen-Xer, focusing in on the toy part. (Although please don't let me discourage you from clicking over and reading what the transcript/article has to say about its central thesis: good stuff.)

We have toys beyond balls and dolls at the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschools, for sure, mostly of the "vintage" variety, and we occasionally receive nice donations of virtually new things when one of our alumni families undergoes a closet purge, but as I look around on most days, we're pretty clean-cut when it comes to avoiding the commercialization part.

Just last week, for instance, we played with cardboard boxes, bed sheets, paper clips, clothes pins, Post-It notes, flour, vinegar, baking soda, gardening tools, hand saws, wine corks, sticks, planks of wood, bubble wrap, cotton balls, baby oil, play dough, "Easter" grass and plastic eggs, a hamster wheel, books, no-name wooden cars, and a variety of art supplies. In fact, the only thing I can think of that had a toy brand name on it were some ancient Fisher-Price "wire mazes." This isn't done consciously as much as it is a natural extension, I think, of our commitment to the "loose part" theory of childhood play, a model we followed long before the Queen Of Loose Parts, Jenny, from Let The Children Play taught us the term, but has now become a kind of ethic around here, especially since the revitalization of our outdoor classroom last year.

And up until the last week or so, I've thought of "loose parts" only in connection with the outdoors, but I've recently realized that it's taking over the indoor part of the school as well, all of these pieces down at child level, with no "script" to follow. There was a time not so long ago that I was far more insistent that things more or less "stay where they started," but I find myself losing that urge as the loose parts are taking over.

Chudacoff also points out that much of children's play until the middle part of the century was "unsupervised" and "self regulating," and while a cooperative preschool provides nothing if not supervised play, we do tend to be at our best when we can back off, avoid directing, and only help children solve their problems when they clearly can't do it on their own, and even then the help should be in the direction of assisting them in finding their own solutions rather than dictating one from on high.

If you think encouraging loose part, self-regulating play outdoors is messy or "junky," however, it seems even messier and junkier indoors. I don't think its a mystery why so many Baby Boomer childhood memories of play involve backyards, roadside ditches and garages -- that's where mom wanted you because play was, and still must be, messy, both physically and emotionally.

I think I very much would have wanted the Thunder Burp Machine Gun had I known about it, probably at least as much as I wanted that Wheel-O for Christmas, but probably not as much as the "real wristwatch" I saved up my money to buy. And as fondly as I remember my many toys, I'm very clear that it was that time spent outside or in the garage, monkeying around with the kids and the random things I found there, that was the real formative part of my childhood.

The genii, of course, is already out of the bottle on toy marketing, and every kid is going to own a Barbie or a Star Wars brand light saber or a merchandising item from a Disney movie. Even if you're the most disciplined parent on earth, an aunt or grandpa will slip one to your kid when your back is turned. And indeed, your child may even miss something socially important when it comes to future cultural literacy if you're too hard core about it. But that doesn't mean you can't also have boxes and sheets and popsicle sticks and rubber bands and paper clips at their finger tips as well.

And unlike the parents of the kid in the Thunder Burp commercial, if they get to loud or messy for your tastes, you can always send them outside.

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Play for Life said...

I too was born in 1962 - I guess that means we had the best of both world but I would prefer to think of myself as an 'idealistic hippie' as opposed to an 'ironic slacker' although I do recall a pretty full to overflowing toy box!

As the 3rd of 4 girls it wasn't until my brother came along in '69 that we had 'boy' toys ... sad but true! Matel toys certainly ranked highly at our house but a cork pop gun was about as close to a 'Thunder Birp Machine Gun' as we ever got in our toy box.
Donna :) :)

Elise said...

b. 1978, so I'm a tail GenXer. And being culturally illiterate b/c of adults like you was the best gift ever. Now my goal is to propagate that illiteracy in my own. Thanks for the community.