Toys for Tots

Babies aren’t the smartest critters. If their inability to grasp cause and effect, to recall past events, or to speak intelligibly weren’t proof enough, one need only look at the toys made for babies.

For the most part, the similarities between baby toys and toys you’d give a dog or a cat is somewhere between unfortunately coincidental and downright insulting. Let’s start with rattles. The thing is so fully and precisely summarized by its name that any description you might give is just gilding the lilly. Seriously, it’s just a thing to shake and make noise. Its grown-up model, the maraca, is really just a rattle pretending to be a musical instrument. Jack never took more than a passing interest in rattles, save one, which he still shakes like it owes him money. Why the others didn’t strike his fancy is known but to God.

Jack has a few plastic balls that have bells or other noisy bits in them. He chases these around with glee and the kind of untarnished curiosity belonging only to babies and… cats. Except, Jack took about six months to learn how to awkwardly crawl around, and a cat can scale walls in utero.

Baby puzzles really stretch the meaning of “puzzle” to cranium-scraping lengths. The one presently vexing Jack has a whopping three pieces, each the size of a bread plate, and as differently shaped and colored as they could be if they were designed by M.C. Escher. Jack delights in removing these pieces, chewing on them, and then casting them aside as the mere concept of puzzle-working is, like the puzzle itself, beyond him.

This is not to say, of course, that my littlest boy is a dummy. He’s not. Rather, he’s just at the stage of cognitive development which makes one wonder how humanity ever dragged itself out of caves to build pyramids.

His birthday was a few days ago, and my mom brought him an assortment of toys, most of which he truly enjoys. That my older boy, now four-and-a-half, also enjoys them probably doesn’t say a lot about him, except that he sees green as well as anybody. One toy is a spiraling ramp down which one can drop balls or a penguin (why a penguin?) and watch them circle around. This has been hours of entertainment for him. A cat or a puppy would have lost interest by now, but Jack has really shown a stubborn and persistent interest in what’s basically a parking garage simulator.

Another gift was an “activity cube.” This is a battery-powered cube with lights, asinine “songs,” spinning shapes, and gaps just big enough to insert toys that can never be extracted again. It’s festooned with primary colors as all children’s toys are.* Needless to say, the music produced for this contraption is awful. Kids music, on the whole, is pretty dreadful, but these mini-songs are just terrible. Here are the lyrics from one:

“The dog in the star/barks all night both near and far./Woof woof woof woof woof!/The dog in the star.”

Yup. Somebody got paid money to write that. Somebody else got paid money to judge it as being better than the other dog/star-related songs produced for this toy. At a minimum, there were two people being paid more than I’ve ever made at any of my jobs to write a song that makes me wish I couldn’t hear. There are three other songs about animals living in or otherwise occupying shapes. None of them is any better.**

I can’t imagine that it’s that hard to make baby toys. One need only combine shapes, colors, animals, and shrill noises. And yet, we as parents have collectively decided that we’d rather trade hard-earned dollars for easily-discarded plastic than offer our kids a cardboard box full of wood scraps. The regular lament of parents is that their children would rather play with the box and wrapping paper in which their presents come than the presents themselves. This is universally true. So why do we bother with the presents?

For Jack’s first birthday, Jen and I eschewed sentimentality and opted not to get any presents for him. Out of guilt, we retroactively declared his new pair of shoes purchased several days before his birthday to be a birthday gift, but still, knowing that he’d little note, nor long remember anything we gave him, we opted for the cold-hearted parenting track. We have no regrets. Neither has Jack.

As babies turn to toddlers, their interests finally begin to eclipse those things which do little else but evince natural law. Things that, when shaken, make noise become inadequate to stimulate***. A ball, for ball’s sake, is a pale imitator of a ball for game’s sake. Winsome and whimsy don’t cut it. Joshua plays with trains, stickers, and the odd video game. It’s striking to see him poking at a game on my phone while Jack bangs together any two somethings within his reach.

In a former life, I worked in an historic house museum. I saw lots of toys which illustrated for me the myriad ways in which we have intellectually hobbled today’s children. Those toys were often little more than scaled-down models of real-life objects — carts, horses, doll houses, and the like. They demanded imagination and denied replaying stories from TV.**** Similar products exist today, though they are outmatched for fascination by touchscreen games and pretty much anything that uses batteries. Children’s capacity for original, divergent thought is inextricably intertwined with their ability to imagine. Toys which do not encourage, facilitate, or even allow imagination are stunting our development as a species. Author Michael Chabon asserts, and I am inclined to agree, that one of the best toys ever made is Legos. He opines that the nearly limitless avenues for imaginative play afforded by those blocks — er, bricks — are what all toys should explore. He also states that the worst thing that Lego ever did was make little Lego people. It immediately imposed scale, i.e., limits, on the limitless, and forever oriented everything that could be built toward the human form. What about alien forms? Why can’t Zorlock drive your giant drill car/sight-seeing trolley?

So, as my littlest boy giggles to himself as the validity of gravity is affirmed and reaffirmed by his toys, and as my oldest boy draws and writes on whatever surface he can find, the microcosm of children’s toys is apparent. The greater truth is that kids make their own gravy fun because they’re better at playing than grown-ups are at coming up with things to play with. Whatever gets lost between childhood and adulthood is invaluable, unnamed, and irreproducible. So that’s why my little boy got boxes for presents.

I swear it’s not because we forgot it was his birthday.

*I’m sure there’s a ton of research on the matter, but it often seems as if people think that babies can’t see orange, green, and purple.

**I hold two degrees in music, and at no point in the acquisition of those degrees did I ever find out why or when musicians decided that children must suffer through music until they discovered older music.

***The percussionist in me has never fully found these things inadequate.

****Also, there was no TV.

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