07 December 2009

Toys for Who?

(Photograph copyright 2009, all rights reserved)

Christmas is coming. I finally faced that fact last week and went online to do some shopping. It went surprisingly well, especially the clothing shopping. How many of us have gone looking for say, a nice warm sweater for someone only to find that the one you want isn't in stock at the store that sells it, or if it is, the size is never right? I stopped doing all that running around years ago. It's tiring and aggravating and by the time I'm done with the shopping I'm so cranky that it's not even fun to watch someone open the gifts any more. I've become an almost 100% online shopping girl and my life and marriage are happier because of it.

However...I don't just have adults to shop for any more. The Cool Niece is going to be three in February, and while she's already a book addict (thank her Mom for that), toys are required. Now, I have no children. It's been a VERY long time since I've been to a toy store, and I have no idea what's out there. Clearly things are considerably more complicated now than they were when I was a kid, but the basics are still around as far as I can see. I think it's pretty ridiculous to buy a laptop computer for the 4 to 8 year-old set. I've never been a fan of overcomplicated toys that "do" stuff. I figure that if a toy has a specific purpose, then it's a pretty boring toy. After all, how many times can a kid look at the same flashing lights before deciding that they've exhausted the possibilities?

Therefore I cast my eye on building and construction toys. The Cool Niece has blocks big and small, and also Duplo, which is the outsize Lego for little hands. I remember the buckets of Lego I had when I was a kid, and the big cardboard tubes of Tinkertoys were guaranteed to hold my attention for hours. I clearly remember spending half a day at a time with a friend building incredibly complicated structures, trying to use every brick in the bucket to build a house...or a bridge....or a forest. Sometimes we included the Tinkertoys as well. After all, it's easier to get height when you use them.

Clearly the kid is too young for such things now. Next year or the year after is soon enough for that. She would just get frustrated with the small pieces. I settled for a Mr. Potato Head , which should satisfy her current fascination for putting things together. It also comes with a suitcase full of extra parts which she'll enjoy greatly because for some reason she likes tidying up. The Boy picked out some really lovely picture books for her, so we're set for this year.

And thank goodness we are. I ran across this in the New York Times this morning. It seems that the construction toys of yore have become too complicated for even parents to put together. The woman interviewed was frustrated beyond belief with a toy someone had given her son that defeated her entirely. I read this and thought....wait a minute here? This is Lego! Lego is about hours of creative fun!

Alas no. Lego has managed to almost completely suck the creative fun out of its toys. I went to the website and saw literally dozens of toys, all of which must be assembled according to instructions. There is no creativity there. You build a truck and there it is, a truck for the kid to play with. I have to ask what the point of that is. Why not just buy a bloody Tonka and have done with it? Seriously why go through that? No kid is going to dismantle and rebuild the Lego version of some of these complicated things. It seems incredibly counterintuitive to me.

I was pretty disgusted by the whole thing, so I did more searching and found the Lego Large Brick Box . Thank goodness, I thought, the company hasn't completely sold out! Then I looked again, and was shocked to find that even in these supposedly enlightened times, there's a pink box for girls and a blue box for boys. In fact (and this is a topic for another day) when I Googled "building toys for kids", what I got was "building toys for boys", which is a sad statement as far as I'm concerned.

There are other terrific building toys out there as well. Tinkertoys is still sold in its iconic tube, although the parts now are made of plastic rather than wood. Yeah, I know that dates me. It's still made by Hasbro and you can still buy instruction sheets which tell you how to make more complicated structures out of the basic parts. It's also relatively inexpensive, with a 200 piece set for under forty bucks.

Meccano is still around as it has been for a century now. It's for older kids, of course, but it lets them play with electric motors and learn how things go together. What I didn't realize about it is that ALL of the sets built over the entire lifetime of the company are still the same standard sizes. This means that theoretically, your child can use yours and even your father's old Meccano to make even bigger projects. I think that's pretty cool.

The Boy and I are design wonks, so I was happy to find a really large scale building toy from Offi that allows kids to build rooms inside of rooms and forts in any shape they want. It's made of heavy cardboard interlocking sheets and when the kids are done with it, it's completely recyclable.

I noodled around online seeing a whole lot of new building toys for kids, some that looked great and others that seemed pretty lame to me, like a "tree of life" complete with birdhouse that looked like something that maybe would appeal to an elderly craft fan, but that a kid would build and then squash with that battery operated front end loader that they got for Christmas last year. Eventually I found a terrific site that covers most of the bases. It's called Mastermind Toys . It's a nice site with categories separated by age and interests, perfect for a neophyte toy shopper like me.


  1. Thanks for the link. I have a cool granddaughter who is going to be two so I'm also looking for ideas.
    My granddaughter loves her wooden xylophone, also some regular marakas and tambourine... but her parents have nixed the idea of drums, hmm, I wonder why?
    Above all she likes to poor water from one container to another or on the ground and watch the water vanish... and ponder it all. A scientist in the making!

  2. PS: that's an amazing photo. You really have an artist eye....

  3. I've been disgusted with legos for years. I will never forget when I was 10 my grandfather walked through the door with a box of legos about as big as I was and I thought I'd gone to heaven. I played with that set for years (and for every birthday I woke up to some incredible lego creation my parents built for me while I slept). Now they're all pre-fabbed instruction laden stock sets. Ugh! I think I need to ebay an old set and store it for posterity. I'm SO not a "good ol' days" whiner but this kind of thing makes me consider becoming one!

    Different blocks for boys than girls?? Excuse me - I have to go be sick.

  4. Scarily, that photo was taken in an underpass for the Metro trains. Yes, they really ARE all rusty and squeaky. Those tracks are around a century old, after all.

    They make my father-in-law both nervous and outraged. He's a mechanical engineer, you see. He's convinced that one day the whole train is going to crash down onto the street somewhere.

  5. WTF? I thought it was some old Mayan temple. Not there are any NEW Mayan temples but you know what I mean...

  6. Gotcha! Gotta LOVE that "macro" function on these new-fangled cameras.

  7. Well, I'm a huge LEGO fan, too! Like you guys, I grew up making space ships and buildings and space stations...okay, more space stuff than just about anything, but still. Anyway, I know what you're saying about the sets they sell today, which, by the way, are damned expensive if you ask me! But, I encourage you not to think of LEGO as having sold out or whatever. Think of those sets as adventures! You certainly don't *have* to build the project prescribed on the box! Hell, I used a car one just last year (along with tons of regular blocks that I still had in my closet, believe it or not) with my cousin's kids to make (you guessed it) a spaceship and we used some of the rotating parts as excellent laser mounts. Granted, what we built wasn't nearly as cool-looking as buying and constructing the $120 LEGO spaceship, but still! So, LEGO is still an adventure if you let it be. Just throw out the damned instructions and let the kids play, LEGO style!

  8. They do still sell boxes of blocks, and they aren't terribly expensive. It's just that most people don't have the imagination to come up with something they don't have instructions for, I guess.

    The Cool Niece is definitely getting the Legos next year!

  9. Hi Aunt Messy,

    I also grew up with boxes of "unspecified" legos and loved them, but for some reason thought my kids would like the kits. So we bought them, and they tried looking at the directions, did it for a little while, and then became bored. I was sad, remarking how I spent hours, days, making all kinds of things from legos when I was a kid. Both my kids looked at me hopefully...."Can we just ignore the diretions and make what we want?" What a riot! They are almost too "good" and did not want to not follow the directions on the box.

    That led to hours of playing fun. They do have basic sets that are not kits to build something specific, but nothing like in my day, when they sold huge boxes with shutters, windows, wheels, blocks of every size, color and shape, all without a plan.

    We ended up looking for old favorites on Ebay, and found some great older boxes of basic blocks with fun add ons (but still with no directions or specified object to make) there in great shape for our kids. They loved Legos, after having gotten off to a very bad start.

  10. Hey Bella! If you go to the Lego web site, you can still get packages of just windows and doors, wheels etc. I love this because online shopping makes for a FAR more relaxed Christmas for me.

  11. To be fair, I had Lego-kits-with-directions when I was a kid and I'm 33, so it's not a recent phenomenon. I liked some of the Lego kits with directions, too -- my favorite was a space ship that I spent lots of time swooping around the house with.

    But of course I built other things with them, too.

    The lady in the NYT article appears to be missing the point of Legos, which is that you let the KIDS build with them. You don't build it for them! If the kids aren't old enough to follow the directions to build the model in question, they can build something else with it (and next time... buy a more age-appropriate toy!)

  12. Hmmmm. I have not looked in a while. I was buying this stuff about ten years ago. It seems they have brought back a few excellent things they had discontinued. (Or perhaps we just did not find them, but I do remember looking and even calling about it.)

    Aunt Messy, I know you love cats, as do I. My name is actually my cat's name. BUT do you also love dogs? I have a dog's head nestled into my lap just now....Ahhhh.

  13. Bella, is the dog's head attached to the rest of its body?!

  14. My kids are 6 and 3. I continue to be appalled at the stereotyping that is rampant in kids toys. For wee girls, the choices are 1. baby dolls, 2. stuffed animals, 3. something with flashing lights. For little girls, the choices are 1. a Painted Hussy Doll, 2. the Domestic Chores Kit, 3. The Disney Princess False Hopes Play Set.

    And just try to find a doll house for a boy (not covered in pink sparkles) that isn't astronomically priced.

    <...this rant edited for length, and cited for hyperbole and preaching to the choir>

    Some things our kids like: a marble run track (build the track and the marbles run down it), paints and other craft stuff (puff balls, rick-rack, sequins, pipe cleaners [now called chenille stems], teeny boxes, googly eyes, etc., play food (especially the new ones that the kids can 'cut' or 'peel'), an old electronic keyboard, a box full of cool buttons, dress-up clothes/costumes, play-doh, a massive cardboard box, flannel/felt board, those jumpy balls, a train set, a mountain of packing peanuts, tea/serving set (my son asked for one when he was 3), and anything that makes an annoying noise or sings the same song over and over.

    And there is one toy that every kid who comes over is always thrilled with. It was a gift. It is a target shooting game. It has a revolver, a "wooden log", and 4 cans/bottles. They sit atop the log (on little pop-up buttons). One "shoots" the gun at the log, and if the aim is right, the bottle pings up into the air as if shot. (Fun to freak the kids out using the TV remote to trigger it on the sly.) Not my favorite toy, but the kids LOVE it. After the musical instruments (drum being the very favorite), the target shooter is a favorite at playdates.

    Hope that's helpful!!!

  15. @skoorbza - Ah! That marble track thing! My kids LOVED that! It was so fun.

    @smagboy - SMAG! My doggy is such a sweetie and yes, her head is attached to her body.

  16. Add me to the "Defend Legos to the Death" pile. I still buy them for myself, for others, for Toys for Tots... Any excuse to get a set, I will take.

    I only played with "boys' toys" as a kid. I had Mego superhero dolls uhhh I mean Action Figures, Matchbox cars galore, a few Tonka items, and LEGOs LEGOs LEGOs. I did have a dollhouse of sorts, but didn't play House - just Superhero. Like it was their Hall of Justice or something. I still have a dollhouse, but it's one that I built long ago, with an Addams Family theme. Uncle Fester and Cousin Itt aren't available in stores, so I had to make them.

    Not too long ago I made a valiant effort to rid myself of all Lego sets, and sold them all through Craigslist and Ebay. And then - GYARRR!!! - they came out with the Indiana Jones sets! So it was back to the stores. Other sets and themes followed. But see, what I do is make the sets per instructions, then dissassemble them and put them all into the same box. Then I have no choice but to play with them free-range.

    And folks, you can also design your own sets at lego.com and then buy whatever pieces you need to make them for real. True, they're not the cheapest things ever - my Haunted Mansion facade would set me back $500, and Mrs. Lovett's Bakeshop and Sweeney Todd's barber shop (two stories of bloody fun), about $250 - but *designing* them is free and pretty fun, too. The insanely high prices for my sets are due to my own runaway ambition. Your mileage may vary.

  17. Bella - I grew up with dogs, but in the country, not the city. We had a wonderful border collie named Trixie who was the boss of her world, which consisted of the home quarter (160 acres). She gave up herding goats (they hit her with their horns, ouch) and geese (they pull fur) and satisfied her maternal instincts with raising kittens when they were old enough to play in the yard. She let them eat her food and sleep in her heavily insulated dog house, which was outrageous because NO ONE was allowed in her Sacred Space. She also taught them how to hunt mice.

    So did The Boy, but his experiences were not universally positive. For example, when the Boy was little they had a Saint Bernard. He was a great dog and especially wonderful for pulling a sleigh, but he was IMMENSE, and that was the problem. The dog would run up to the kid, who was at eye level. It was all about the hugs for him. He wasn't great at stopping, so The Boy has clear memories of being on his backside in the yard with a sore (and occasionally bloody) nose after being tipped over. Then there was the aunt who always had rotten tempered "retired" police dogs. I think they were dogs that scrubbed out at training, but that's speculation.

    Would we get a dog? Not in the city. Besides, Chicago is in the low teens as a high today and I have a cold - would I want to take a dog out? No bloody way! We're planning on a rural retirement and The Boy has expressed interest in either a Basset or Bloodhound, but we'll have to see.

  18. Legos... I feel like there were Legos & these Lock-N-Blocks, but I'm wondering if they were just Legos after all. I'll have to look. If they WEREN'T legos, I didn't like Legos as much. But these things, whatever they were, did indeed provide me & my sibs hours of fun. I'm a very girly-girl who LOVED pink & dolls & pretty things, but yeah, building God knows what kind of structures was great fun. It's sad that they think they need to tell kids so specifically what they should do with the blocks. Maybe it's best to just give the kids the toys in some big container w/o instructions.

  19. Lock-N-Blocks were like legos but they connnected on the ends too. I had those and regular legos. Though the lock-n-blocks were about duplo size....

  20. I have been shopping for block of beeswax crayons. Alykat loves to colour.
    The photo is awesome Messy. There is beauty in decay. Miss you and everyone else. I wish you all the best for the holidays.

  21. Heleva sweetie, are you all right? You vanished and we were worried! I LOVE your picture.

    I found beeswax crayons for you on Amazon.


    The block crayons:


    Don't be a stranger, please.