Friday, March 27, 2020

They'll Need Something to Do When the Novelty of That New Toy Wears Off

I was born in 1962, a year some people place at the tail end of the Baby Boom, while others insist I'm of 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.

In 1955, a TV commercial for the The Thunder Burp Machine Gun debuted on the first episode of The Mickey Mouse Club. It was the first time a toy had been advertised on television outside of the Christmas season.

According to Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, this was an historic moment for toys. Almost overnight, children’s play became focused, as never before, on things. “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 think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object.”

By the time I was out of diapers, 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. In other words, we were there at the birth of the commercialization of childhood and grew up as both its target and its product. Of course, being on the cusp, these toys were an addition to, not a replacement for, the rocks and sticks but as the decades have passed, mass produced, mass marketed toys have come to co-opt children’s play. 

Today, it’s hard for most of us to imagine childhood without toys.

For most of human existence, toys simply weren’t a thing. Children played with objects, of course, and they may have even made their own toys -- dolls, balls, games, and whatnot -- but for the most part, children thrived without them. Today, many children are virtually drowning in toys. Their rooms, closets, and classrooms are stuffed with the descendants of The Thunder Burp Machine Gun. As a young parent, I tried to stem the flow of toys into our house, to little effect, as every adult who visited us showed up with toys for our child, not to mention birthdays and holidays, all of which are toy giving bonanzas.

Our children haven’t changed, however. We’ve all seen the truth behind the joke that young children spend more time playing with the boxes the toys came in than with the toys themselves. Of course, sometimes that’s because the toys themselves are so poorly made that they break before the boxes: planned obsolescence that we mistakenly blame on the carelessness of children. Even well-made toys have their demise built into them. And we’ve all witnessed how quickly the novelty of new toys wears off. Today’s favorite will be found under the bed collecting dust in a matter of days. Most toys come with a “script” built into them, a “right way” to play with them that psychologically limits children. Adults reinforce these limits by forbidding children from, say, throwing their trucks or dismembering their dolls, but even without our nagging, the script is usually enough to cause children to lose interest.

Children never grow bored with rocks and sticks, or for that matter with cardboard boxes, bed sheets, paper clips, clothes pins, gardening tools, hand tools, wine corks, bubble wrap, cotton balls, pinecones, leaves, planks of wood, spare tires, logs, running water, or pretty much anything else that is not a toy.

In 1971, architect Simon Nicholson wrote an article for a magazine called Landscape Architecture entitled “How Not to Treat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts Play.” Perhaps it wasn’t the first time that the phrase “loose parts play” was used, but it was this manifesto that in many ways kicked things off. In the nearly 50 years since its publication the idea has grown, first slowly, and then suddenly in recent years as more and more early childhood educators have made Nicholson’s theory, instead of toys, a centerpiece of their play-based programs.

That the theory emerged from architecture is fascinating to think about. It echoes, in a way, the work of Reggio Emilia founder Loris Malaguzzi who was at about the same time postulating that children had three teachers: adults, other children, and the environment, the environment being the primary purview of architecture. Nicholson’s theory, as he phrased it in that original article:

In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.

Nicholson was not talking exclusively about early childhood, but about educational environments in general. He included playgrounds and classrooms in his discussion, but also places for all ages, like museums and libraries. His big idea was that we are most inventive and creative when allowed to construct, manipulate, and otherwise play with our environments. He argued that when we leave the design of spaces to professionals (and I might add, the design of playthings to toymakers), we are, in effect, excluding children from the most important, and fun, part of the process. We are, in his words, “stealing” it from the children.

Even if we haven’t consciously adopted the theory of loose parts play, every early childhood professional, even those working in otherwise highly structured environments, knows this to be true. None of us would, for instance, build a block structure for the children, then expect them to learn anything by merely looking at it and listening to us lecture. We know that the children must take those blocks in hand, must both construct and deconstruct, must experiment, test, and manipulate. We also know that their play, and therefore their learning is expanded as we add more and varied materials to their environment.

The theory of loose parts applies the principles of the “block area” to the entire environment, encouraging us to let go of our ideas of how a learning environment is supposed to be and to instead fill it with variables, things that can be moved, manipulated, and transported. This, as Nicholson points out, is where creativity and inventiveness live. It lets the play be about the activity rather than things. It’s important to remember that his theory continues to be a radical one, even as it is in many ways simply a return to traditional values. This is about more than tree cookies and toilet paper tubes and clothes pins. It’s about more than old tires, shipping pallets, and planks of wood. At its core, the theory of loose parts is a theory about democracy, about self-governance, and about the rights and responsibilities of both individuals and groups to come together to shape their world according to their own vision.

The world is always ours to shape and when we are not shaping it, it is shaping us. Nicholson’s insight was that our environment is too often a kind of dictator, one that is restricting rather than expanding our possibilities. As we work with our “third teacher” it’s important that we keep this in mind and always ask ourselves, “Is this stealing the fun from the children?”

And when it comes to toys, I think the answer is a qualified “Yes.” Of course, children have fun with toys for a time and within limits, but in many ways, the mountains of toys that have come to define childhood are shaping their development in ways that limit their ability and motivation to shape their own world, as they await the next toy to come into their life and entertain them.

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-Ofor 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 disposal. After all, they’ll need something to do when the novelty of that new toy wears off.

And now, another in my series of short videos for parents who find themselves suddenly homeschooling their preschoolers. I'm making these videos for parents. If you're a teacher, please feel free to share it with the parents of the children you teach. If you want to watch all of my tips videos, look at the bottom of previous posts here on the blog, or visit the Teacher Tom TV YouTube channel:

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