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.