I have three grandchildren and they are a beacon of light in the world and bring me immeasurable joy when I get to see them (which isn’t nearly enough if you ask me—are you reading this son?) I keep several toys in a cabinet for them to play with when they come to visit and I was going through them recently. The thing about kids is that they have this annoying knack of growing up when you aren’t looking. The toys I have are getting a bit young for them, so I will need to replace them with more age-appropriate toys. As I shopped for toys, I had a bit of an epiphany…which was corroborated when I was watching Saturday morning television. Toys have changed.
When I was young, we had toys. Cool toys. Toys we loved to play with for about an hour—then we got bored with them and moved onto other toys. Lincoln Logs, Legos, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets and slot car race tracks were some of my favorites. In most kid’s rooms, toys were stored in a plywood box with some degree of decoration—contact paper or paint unless your parents were minimalists and left you with bare, unfinished plywood—which was called (surprise surprise) a toy box. Of course, for the most part, this box sat empty with the lid up and its contents strewn over the floor of the room (some things never change) long after the play session was over. I had this electric football game once, the kind where you turn it on and the board vibrates the players all over the place and you hope one of them gets to the end zone; not just their end zone, but any end zone. But the toys I had were nothing like the toys my kid brother had. Oh, did he have some toys.
When I was somewhere around 10, Hasbro brought out the Inchworm. It was a little plastic scooter that you hopped up and down on and it moved. It looked cool. My brother seemed to enjoy it, and, of course, that made me want to ride it. I couldn’t have my little brother having a cool toy that I couldn’t play with. Problem was that I was too big to play on it (or so my mother insisted) without breaking it. There was also the Big Wheel. Again, I was too big for it. Curse my birth year! Oh, let’s not forget the Pogoball. It held wonderful potential for fun and broken bones. My mom wouldn’t let me near one—wouldn’t let me near a pogo stick either for that matter. When I was young, I had a little metal car with peddles that made it go. My son had a power wheel which ran off a battery. He didn’t even have to peddle! Yep, times, they do change.
Now, I did have some cool toys, like GI Joe, back before the term “action figure” became vogue. My Joes were 12 inches tall and fully poseable and fully jointed and came with uniforms—no, not costumes and not clothes like some Barbie doll—these were UNIFORMS because GI Joe was a soldier. Soldiers were cool. Some of the soldiers were firemen, some were infantry, some were pilots and some were tankers. They all had different uniforms and Joe could do any of these jobs simply by changing uniforms. I also had the mobile support vehicle and the fold-up command headquarters and my brother had the helicopter. These were cool, and Joe was always on a mission somewhere. In fact, sometimes his mission required that he ditch his vehicle in favor of Barbie’s corvette, as long as Barbie was beside him. Of course, these missions happened to coincide with the times my sisters were both out of the house. Ken got jealous, of course, but Ken was a girly man…he had clothes—not uniforms, and Ken didn’t have the Kung Fu grip. It’s no wonder Barbie kept dumping him.
Today’s toys are a far cry from these imagination-driven toys. Even GI Joe has changed. He shrank to 3-and-a-half inches tall and his uniforms are molded to his body. His name is not even Joe anymore, but rather the term GI Joe applies to a team. These are not “soldiers,” they are a team of elite counter-terrorism specialists. Now, this does sound cool, but it doesn’t leave as much to the imagination. In fact, Hasbro even scripts the play time by providing cartoons and a comic book to model the play time. Kids can’t even come up with their own adventures anymore.
My brother had other cool toys that I was too old for. Transformers came out when I was in high school and college. They looked cool and it took a degree in engineering to get the fool things to change form. In fact, many older kids and adults (not me) ended up breaking the toys trying to get them to change. He still has them too. All my childhood toys are long gone.
Toys today are much more interesting in their design and marketing, and they have a huge cool factor, but they pale in one very important aspect: imagination. Kids today are told how to play and what to play and not given the opportunity to invent their own scenarios for playtime. Toys come with movie and cartoon tie-ins that limit how kids interact with them. I doubt GI Joe has gone on a date with Barbie in 35 years. It doesn’t help that she is now three times his size.