It's the simple toys that last, and that have a lasting impact. In our house we occasionally clean out the closets of old toys. Massive piles of colorful plastic are thereby doomed to landfill (you'd be surprised how un-recyclable these things are). Each addition to the pile stirring feelings of mild parental shame; each missing a small piece essential to its function, or missing something altogether more essential than just a part. The toys that remain are missing nothing, except perhaps marketability. ... The giraffe, the duck with the floppy feet made of old bicycle tubes on wheels that go flap-flap as you push it around, the little wooden car, unpainted, colored darker brown where handling has stained it. (The pic below is from DoodleTown Toys, a 37 year old maker of classy wooden toys. Click the picture to see their web site, and some really wonderful tiny toys. I like the Doodle Dozer and the Doodle Pickup.)
These unpainted, unpowered, analog, silent, and imagination-ready toys don't get old, and don't get thrown away. When you're done with one of these toys, they are given away to serve for a season in someone elses home. They are simple but come to life when a child projects their imagination onto them. Kids need a blank space to project onto.
With these toys, the less provided, the more room we have to add our own stories, to really make a toy a part of our story. They are the truly beautiful toys, that are quiet enough (in every way) to allow our children to think, to begin to dream. It's not really that there are too few of them, it's that there are too many of the other kind ... noisy, plastic, electronic, brightly colored toys-with-an-agenda that clog the shelves.
Some toy designer somewhere is thinking about adding even more lights, more sounds, more chips to toys. Toys have to compete with computers now, is how the story goes. It talks to you! It's more lifelike! It follows you around! It responds to your commands! It sings-and-shows-you-the-notes-on-an-LCD-screen-so-you-can-learn-to-read-music-before-you-turn-three!
My son has a robot toy that occasionally gets woken up (with the push of a button, if the batteries aren't dead) to do it's pre-programmed dance (to pre-programmed music). But that's it. It will break soon, or we'll get tired of providing the four D batteries required, and it will go to whatever place these clever-complex toys go when they die (I have my theories). Sometimes I wonder if we aren't already there, when he tells me all about this years' model with it's much more realistic robot dance.
Once, when my daughter was very little, her grandparents came home from a trip with a stuffed monkey from the airport (warning). Yes, I'm talking about you, Mom and Dad. Its fur was a kind of hyper sparkly white, and it held a red satin heart that had some earnest expression of affection written in white cursive on it. When they handed it over, and showed her how to squeeze the heart, that little howler monkey from hell began to shake ... and ... shriek. Repeatedly. I remember the look on their faces: a kind of embarrassed thrill. They had clearly scored points in some grandparent competition but seemed uncertain about their victory. There was nothing to do but bask in the ridiculous, momentary joy of their granddaughter and dodge the momentarily incoherent protests of her father. They don't have to worry. Even if I will remember this event, ahem, for the rest of my life, I think better of them than this. They are much more thoughtful than the howler monkey episode suggests. They are progressive and intelligent and my kids have not had more than their share of silly gifts. It's a grandparent thing. I will have my moments when I get there, I'm sure.
To balance this painful memory, I recall the time my dad used his jigsaw to cut a rifle shape out of plywood for me. No paint. No moving parts. No logos or names on it. Talk about room for imagination! So cool. Or the times he helped me trick out cardboard boxes for play. Now there is a plaything to make a wooden car seem high-tech. In a flash of brilliance, a toy museum in New York inducted the humble Cardboard Box into its hall-of-fame (next to Barbie and GI Joe and an old Atari).
Empty boxes are ready to be filled with stories. Yes, kids will shriek with joy when they get the hot new toy, as seen on TV. Yes, it's great to get a really big gift. But the truly blessed will recognize that it's not the size of the gift ... it's the size of the box it came in.
At the end of any holiday, a kid should have a cardboard box to climb into, if only to shut out the noise and light and have some discretionary quiet time. If it was socially acceptable for grown-ups to climb into a cardboard box, with a blanket and stuffed bear perhaps, maybe there'd be less people climbing into a bottle at the end of the day.
My best cardboard-box memory has a techy twist: I set up a box in the garage and punctured it with a string of Christmas-tree lights so that I could pretend I was inside the blinking cockpit of an X-Wing fighter. Yes, I converted my simple, low-tech box into a high-tech cockpit from the future! I see the irony, but it was my choice. I made that X-Wing fighter. It was my imagination fueling the creation, and the thing lasted precisely as long as my imagination did: a few days. There was no grief when the whole thing was broken down and the Christmas tree lights went back on the shelf. Nobody was upset about wasting good money, and I got a memory a hundred times more powerful than any packaged, licensed, authentically-styled, battery-powered Star Wars X-wing with authentic sounds and lights could ever provide.