Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Children Do Not Need Toys To Have A Playful Childhood

It's difficult for most of us to imagine a space for children that doesn't include toys and lots of them. Classrooms, playrooms, even entire homes are taken over by these mostly plastic, mostly brightly colored things. Even teachers and parents who seek to impose limits, often find themselves awash in toys. They come in like waves upon the shore, borne by well-intended relatives and other benefactors seeking the favor of children or a new home for a toy that was "barely used." It's so bad that regular toys purges are required.

It's a phenomenon that emerged during the second half of the 20th century when manufacturers began to increasingly employ modern marketing methods to target children, and through them their parents. It's been such a successful enterprise that most of us consider it perfectly natural that if children are present there must be toys. In fact, many families travel suitcases stuffed with toys because they cannot imagine their children without them. This, of course, has not always been the case. For most of human history children didn't play with toys at all, but rather the real things they found in their world and from what I've observed over the years, when left without toys, most children, perhaps after a period of adjustment, don't miss them. Indeed, forest and nature school educators report that children in environments without toys to distract them engage more deeply and explore more fully.

If you place a toy lawn mower alongside a real lawn mower, we all know that the toy will be ignored in favor of the real thing. Real hammers are always preferred over toy ones. I once purchased a clutch of chid-sized brooms for the classroom, but the adult-sized brooms were always preferred. We often think of childhood as a time apart from the adult world, but children have other ideas as they are forever ignoring their toys in favor of the real world of boxes, sticks, and the pots and pans they pull from the kitchen cabinets. They will always prefer the fort they have made from their bedsheets over the manufactured playhouse. They will always choose your real telephone over the hollow plastic one.

This isn't to begrudge children all their toys. There is always a place for a few well-curated balls and dolls, some puzzles and board games. Building blocks of some sort are likewise welcome as are costumes. And although I classify them as transportation more than toys, wagons and trikes are fine things. It's not toys as much as the mountains of toys that's the problem, the ubiquitousness of them, the garish, plastic chaos. Children do not need toys to have a playful childhood. The long history of humanity shows us that. What they do need is a safe, lovely place in which they are free to make their own "toys" of the real world.

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