Nowadays, people take the idea of toys for granted – things specifically made for children to play with, but which have no use in the real world. It is part of the Western ethos to feel sorry for children in other parts of the world who do not have toys, and it is taken for granted that children living in rich countries ought to consider themselves lucky to have so many toys.
All of these assumptions are worth questioning: most people would agree that the underlying principle behind the idea of toys is that they are meant to prepare children for some aspect of adult life. If this is the case, then fewer toys might be better than more toys: wherever possible, it might be preferable for children to play with the proper, adult objects themselves, than with miniature representations of them.
Taking this principle a step further, it should be remembered that the first things that children ought to be finding out about are the wonders of Nature, and that Nature is itself the perfect toy, providing children of all ages with unlimited opportunities to play, without the need for extra, man-made toys.
This explains why, in the past, children living in the countryside often only had one or two toys – which were often handmade by people in their own village.
The Problem With Modern Toys
One, overriding problem with modern toys is that they are produced with a view to making a profit. Fifty years ago, one could perhaps have said that they were only partly produced with a view to making a profit, and that manufacturers also had a desire to enrich the lives of children, but today it seems that the sole motivation of toy manufacturers is profit.
The idea of making a profit out of children’s desire for toys goes against an age-old tradition of not trying to make money out of children. Children are essentially too innocent to be included in any form of commercial transaction; they intrinsically believe everything that they are told, and have no idea that anyone might lie to them. That is why they have always been protected from the world of business, in fact one could say that this is one of the things that differentiates play from work; play carries no responsibilities and has no consequences, it is detached from adult life, and no one makes a profit or loss from play, whereas work is what adults engage in, and they have to have to be able to look after themselves in the world of work, or they may find themselves being exploited in some way. All this is ignored by the modern toy industry, which has discovered that it is possible to use television, and other advertising, to make children want things that might not have any real value.
Toys can be made as cheaply as possible from the poorest possible materials, but will still be bought, because parents have no choice but to biy their children the things that they have seen on television, or which they have seen other children playing with.
As time has gone on, the toys being sold in this way have born less and less resemblance to anything that exists in the real world: the emphasis has been on making things more brightly coloured, noisier, more gimmicky, and more complicated than ever before. Increasingly, toys have become an extra form of merchandising related to another commercial enterprise, such as a sports club, a film, or a programme on the television – so that the child becomes cocooned in a world in which people are trying to make money out of them.
Who is to Blame?
It is tempting to blame big business for the mercenary state of the world’s toy industry, or else to blame governments for not regulating the industry properly; but in reality, the problem is more deep-rooted than this. In effect, the fact that people do not see anything wrong in the exploitation of children for money, is an indication of a deep malaise in society as a whole, and no one can consider themselves completely excempt from blame. It seems that over the course of the past two hundred years successive generations have succeeding in constructing a society in which there is no place for children. It is not possible to give children good toys, because they do not live in situations in which they can spend their time simply playing and enjoying the experience of being young.
The Core Difficulties
- Lack of Proximity to Nature: When very young children ‘play’, they are essentially trying to gain an understanding of their own body, and how it relates to the world around them. If they are growing up in a world made up principally of Nature, this is a simple process in which everything works in natural harmony with everything else. In this environment, everything from a stone to a leaf makes an interesting toy, and the child learns that these simple toys are an integral part of a bigger and wider world, which they themselves can explore as and when they learn to move around on their own. Unfortunately, children no longer have a chance to grow up in this sort of environment, and, instead, are confined for most of the time within man-made buildings, filled with man-made objects, non of which are synchronised with each other, or with the innate nature of the young child.
- Few Sensible Role Models: When children are a little older, another important aspect of ‘play’ comes into force: they watch the behaviour of adults, and make up games that copy what they have seen. The aim of this sort of play is to help children to prepare for adult life: in its most basic form, children will watch their parents, and will then play at looking after babies and young children. In traditional societies, they may also play at cooking, performing certain trades, farming, being the village elders, and singing and dancing, etc. In these games, they may actually make use of the actual items that the adults use – i.e. the proper grown-up items themselves are the toys – or in some cases people may make them miniature replicas of the full-size item, which is a little closer to the modern idea of a toy, but in most cases children would have used simple, everyday objects, such as a piece of cloth or a stick, and endowed them with whatever properties that were required for the game, by the power of their imaginations. One problem that modern children have is that modern adults are not good role models: playing games based upon the behaviour of today’s adults does not provide a solid foundation for life.
- The Attitude of Society at Large: the theory behind having a human society is that everyone in it takes some responsibility for the welfare of everyone else, particularly of the children. In the ideal, if a child was suffering any form of ill treatment, or was lacking anything, everyone and anyone that they met, or who knew them, would step in to help. If this principle was working in our society, just seeing a child with a plastic toy that had been made simply with a view to making a profit, would so outrage people that they would do something about it. At present the opposite happens, and it is parents who try to protect their children from the excesses of the commercial world who are met with criticism from friends, family and neighbours.
Thus a brief study of the subject of toys serves to give an insight into the challenge facing modern parents. On the one hand, as soon as they allow their children to be manipulated by commercial companies for profit, they have effectively lost any chance of providing them with a safe home and a good education; whilst on the other hand, if they make any attempt to take any other course of action, their efforts will be undermined by just about everyone with whom their children come into contact. It is indicative of the problems that parents face throughout their children’s education; and if they could solve the problem of toys, they would be a long way to solving most of the ills of society.
Soon to be posted: Articles looking in more detail at toys for children of different ages.