For the first few years of my life, my best friend was the little boy across the street. I don’t know how I managed to get so lucky, for we were best friends from day one. His mother and mine were best friends, so it was just natural that we should pal around together. There weren’t any other children on the street, so it was great that we liked each other and enjoyed playing the same games. But one day his otherwise wonderful mother discovered a terrible thing: educational toys. I happen to think they’re a pox upon humanity and a special curse upon children. And I have my reasons.
I was always considered a strange child because I didn’t want anything to do with dolls. They were, after all, quite dead. Why pick one up when you could pick up a living kitten or puppy or go out to the farm and play with the chickens or the pig or the milk cow? So I was a bit of a snob when it came to dolls. And around the house there were always dogs, cats, turtles, an hysterical live chicken whose neck my grandmother hadn’t brought herself to wring, wild birds, parakeets in cages, the occasional duck, and any other living thing I could sneak into the house.
Johnny’s problem was that he had too many toys. Educational toys. We would always be excited when a new one arrived and he would carry it across the street, breathless in anticipation of its many delights. Unfortunately, that was always the high point. The reality never met the expectation. I had never seen such things as Legos or Lincoln Logs. I had glue and twigs that could be snapped to any length and used to make realistic looking log cabins. Why would I want to fool with some silly thing that came in a box? Those things were frustrating. You could only do so much with them cause there were only so many pieces. You could be halfway through building Fort Apache and discover you didn’t have enough pieces left to build a decent fence around the thing. Then somebody had to go to the store – which, I suspect, was the whole idea.
But we did try these monstrosities. The days after Christmas were always the worst: box after costly box of the latest educational miseries were discarded in a corner until it came time for him to lug them home and say, “Oh yes, we enjoyed them very much.” I suppose you could call that educational – we learned how to tell a convincing lie.
Inevitably we would end up putting whatever it was back in the box and going outside for some fresh air, where we played with the animals or just ran around in general like little hooligans. From this we learned many lessons, among them the great value of kindness. You can throw an alphabet block against the wall and it won’t complain: it will just leave a mark and stay there, wherever it landed. But you have to treat a cat nicely or you are in mortal danger. Dogs can bite, geese can pinch in a most painful way, and birds can peck. You can’t get away with anything with an animal. They let you know.
We had shoot-’em-ups and loved sitting under the great big tree outside our side gate. Here it was too shady for the grass to grow, so in the dirt we carved out an elaborate system of highways to carry our toy trucks. I don’t know why we didn’t like cars, but cattle trucks and dump trucks were the most prized.
And when we got bored with this we would make up plays. Cable television had recently been vastly improved in our town, and detective series were eagerly devoured. So of course our plots got pretty convoluted. Perhaps the dump truck had overturned and we would need someone in a police car – cue frantic search for anything that would pass as a police car – and the investigation would begin.
I was always the preschool femme fatale, snapping the neck off one of those little wax two-inch-high soda bottles and pretending it was straight gin or bourbon or – as I saw more television, champagne – and with a candy cigarette between my fingers, I would lean against the tree that stood in for an enormous marble fireplace. I would coolly explain to the detective – Johnny – just why I had murdered that heel of a husband of mine, or would flutter my eyelashes and explain why I hadn’t. Of course we imagined the place had wall-to-wall white carpeting and that typical Hollywood feature, the white telephone.
But these happy times would invariably be interrupted by the call from across the street of “Johnny, time to come home and play with your toys!”
We would sigh and I would bid him a sad farewell as he trudged across the street to “enjoy” one of those marvelous playthings.
Perhaps our plays were a little melodramatic, but I didn’t grow up to murder my husband or to even be required to deny that I had. And despite all those pretend glasses of champagne, the many packs of candy cigarettes, and all that vamping, I still don’t drink, smoke, or flirt with police detectives. And, sadly, I’ve never even seen a white telephone. And the very word “Playskool” still makes me cringe.
I really believe that most things touted to stimulate a child’s imagination do just the opposite. They limit, they guide. At best, they suggest. But true free play will always seem the best to me. Simple toys of everyday items can be a whole world to a child. Did you ever throw a blanket over a chair and have your own private cave? I rest my case.
To read another take on children and play, see the article at the Boston Children’s Museum website.
A report on threats to preschoolers’ big-body play can be found at the The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) website.
©Jill Teresa Farmer