Friday, December 18, 2009

Whither Creativity?

Wow...hard to believe it's only a week until Christmas, isn't it? Sometimes time moves so fast it's like you're being carried along by a fast current and if you don't grab onto a moment now and then, you're swept out to sea before you know it.

I'm not really done with shopping. These days, with family spread across the entire nation, we don't make a huge deal out of presents--mostly we buy for whoever is local, which for me is my brother and sister-in-law and three little nieces. And of course, in practice, this generally means I give the grown-ups stuff like coffee and chocolates and books, and the kids get the bulk of the presents. The oldest is now almost four and pretty aware of this whole Christmas thing (and is a social butterfly who will talk your ear off given half the chance), and the middle gal (my little god-daughter) is two and a half and smart as a whip. She has a wonderful curiosity about the world around her--likes to take stuff apart and build and tinker, and when Dad was here, she stood and listened the entire time whenever we played music.

On Tuesday after work, I went to Tarzhay in search of age-appropriate toys and such. I had a few ideas in mind--playdough, maybe, and for my god-daughter, I was hoping to find a Fisher Price xylophone, or one of those toy pianos that are essentially a xylophone inside a piano shell, or a very cheap miniature keyboard. Didn't everyone have some variation on these when they were little? Or maybe some little dolls, I thought, or those over-sized pop-together beads, or blocks. Of course I didn't expect to find the exact toys I had growing up, but I figured there would be *some* similar toys.

What I found:

  • There were blocks, but they all seemed to be part of kits, with a single pre-conceived end you were supposed to work toward--even for the little-kid sets.
  • There were music making devices with keyboards or buttons, but in *every single* case, the buttons played full songs, not individual notes
  • I found sets of "Little People," which were actually kind of cool--the Little People I remember were essentially pegs with heads--armless, legless torsos with just a few vague painted-on details. These were fully molded. However(!!) every single one of them was holding something or attached to a setting. They seemed made to be posed in a scene, not played with.
  • Lastly, with few exceptions, everything was affiliated with some TV show or movie. To me, there's something unspeakably sad about having your kid watch hours of television a day, and then when they *aren't* watching TV, bombarding them with toys, games and books all based on those TV shows. Even in the coloring book section, I found only two that weren't trademark characters of some kind.

All in all, everything seemed specifically designed to stifle creativity and prevent individual thought. OK, so that's a curmudgeonly exaggeration, but even so.... I did find a really cool Mr. Potato Head for the oldest niece (it has a little suitcase to hold all his stuff and keep it tidy, which is nice) and playdough and a few other little things, but...gee. What happened to play being for letting your imagination run wild, not following a script? Thinking about it, most of my favorite toys didn't do *anything* on their own. Toys that did were fun for a brief period, but then the function ultimately became boring and that toy was abandoned. On the other hand, we played for *hours* with the trolls we made out of salt dough and painted, and stuffed animals without voice boxes or videos, and dolls made out of sticks/stones/balloons/socks. *We* provided personalities and histories for them, *we* named them and gave them voices.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that's the way it should be.


sjb said...


When I was a kid, I would get Lego sets. They had an instruction booklet to create a specific spaceship/castle/whatever. But with the acquisition of more sets, then the creativity (and hours upon hours of entertainment) arose in building original stuff from all the pieces at my disposal. For years in between, Lego sets were full of one-off pieces that were good for nothing except building the spaceship/castle/whatever, which meant that the set looked neat, but the potential for creative play later was much reduced.

I hear Lego's going about fixing that bit of idiocy.

mpclemens said...

Exactly the reason my two-year-old is getting a bag of wooden blocks from her sister, and a ball from her brother. Too many toys play by themselves, and exclude the child. Battery-operated noisemakers don't last long in our house -- either the speaker gets taped over, the batteries get removed, or it finds its way to the "Donate" box.

Little Flower Petals said...

Too many toys play by themselves, and exclude the child.

That's exactly it, isn't it? Self-sufficient toys. What's the point?

Ah, Legos! Oh, we loved Legos. We had scads of them--enough that every so often Mom, tired of stepping on the darned things, would offer us a penny for every Lego piece we could locate around the house and return to the containers and we generally made a buck or more apiece.

Most of ours were actually the cheap imitation Legos (Megablocks?) which *mostly* fit with regular Legos. One of the benefits of those was that, at the time, you could buy a huge bucket of the standard shapes for not all that much. Dunno that there's anything like that anymore.

My little nieces are still a little too young for some such toys, but I'm hoping by the time they're older, I can locate things like Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs that don't cost an arm and a leg. And I'd love to find some of those big old wooden blocks!

Strikethru said...

Your observations are totally spot-on. I was just in the toy aisle of Target the other day (and bought the most horrifying sellout of a present for my daughter, a whole row of Disney princess dolls.)

There is a movement out there for more of the handmade old fashioned type toys -- blocks and wooden stuff and dolls, you can find a lot of it on Etsy and some of the nicer 'indie' toy stores (though always or mostly expensive, these options). I say you can't go wrong with plain old art supplies and coloring books.

deek said...

I have to confess that my oldest is wrapped up in the world of Cars and we got him plenty of Disney licenesed Cars toys this Christmas.

But, they are just cars, right? He's got a big box of Matchbox/Hot Wheels and we race and play with them several times a day. He likes to line them up to watch TV, like a little drive-in.

We've stayed away from all the Disney princess stuff, as my brother has pretty much engulfed his two girls in that and I don't wish to follow.

I'll just be happy when my boy is old enough to sit with his old man and play some Dungeons & Dragons:)

Little Flower Petals said...

I'm probably being a little harder than I should be on the branded characters. After all, movies are stories, too, and some of them teach some pretty good lessons, as well as connect kids with the real world. Just as one example, when my dad visited in September, we all went to the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, and since it was hot, we spent much of our time in the aquarium. The two oldest nieces had just seen "Finding Nemo" at a cousin's house, and as a result, they were *more* fascinated with the fish (particularly those they'd seen in the movie) than they would have been otherwise. So it's not all bad.

I did find a xylophone, by the way--Little Tikes still makes one, and Toys r Us had it. I still didn't find any plain old baby dolls, though. After browsing up and down the doll aisles I finally happened on one that looked completely basic, but when I went to pick it up, the thing *laughed* at me.

deek said...

I hear what you're saying, LFP and I agree. Its all about moderation, really.

As a kid who grew up with matchbox cars, GI Joe action figures (the little 3" ones), he-man and transformers, I'm all about making sure my kids use their imagination and not burn it by watching too much TV and movies.

I've also been into video games from Intellivision and Atari, up through current gen systems plus computers and all that they have to offer (and steal away from my free time).

In my book, I feel as long as I'm able to interact with my kids in their interests (which I am hoping I will be well-suited to do seeing I'm a big kid myself), then all will be good!

And seeing my son is of a very small percent that can identify a typewriter in the midst of other computer keyboards, I feel I am doing my job:)

Anonymous said...

You are correct about these "stifling" toys. When my four-year-old gets a specific toy made for one purpose, he often loses interest. However, give him just a simple action figure or toy sword or Playdough and he'll play with them endlessly. We stopped bringing toys when we go camping. They tend to get neglected because he's too busy playing with sticks and rocks and stumps and such.

Anonymous said...

You might like Waldorf toys (, They're focused on imagination, so blocks, baby dolls, scarves, and so on. There's some really nice (though expensive) stuff there.