Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Box Is Better

My blog entry from a few days ago about technology got me thinking back to the toys of my own childhood. The most technically advanced toys I had were my Lite-Brite and my Easy-Bake Oven, both of which ran off a single 30-watt lightbulb. They were pretty spiffy, but I don't remember them being my favorite toys. One of my favorites was a big play oven that my dad had made with some pressboard, white paint, and some knobs cannibalized from an old range. Another was a tall rag doll with elastic straps on his feet so you could attach him to your feet and dance with him (I suspect it's his fault that to this day I always want to lead). And there was always great excitement in the house when it was a rainy or snowy day and my mom made homemade play-dough. The oven didn't actually cook anything, the doll didn't talk or cry or wet himself, and the play-dough was just a lump until you made something out of it. In other words, the toys I loved most were toys that needed my imagination to come to life.

There's something to be said for cheap toys. How often have we joked about kids on Christmas who throw away the toy and play with the box? There's a very funny video of my stepdaughter at age 2-1/2 opening a large, beautifully wrapped Christmas present to find an elaborate train set. Her parents ooh and ahh excitedly over the trains, while she completely ignores them and proceeds to dive into the box, hiding under the packing peanuts and popping up with delight, over and over again. She was much more entertained making a game out of the box than playing with the train set.

Yesterday morning I began to suspect that Ryan will be the same way. He's been very chewy lately, gnawing on his own hand and munching contentedly on his burp cloths or any other fabric that comes near his mouth. I've tried offering him some of his fancy teething rings and toys, but he has no interest in them. And then yesterday morning he spent nearly an hour mouthing the zipper on his jacket, chasing it with his mouth, and happily chewing on it again. This is not a child who needs fancy toys and gadgets.

I suspect that most children are the same way, at least until they are given, and get used to being surrounded by, toys that do all the thinking and imagining for them. Why make up conversations with a doll when she already talks? Why create your own superhero with a towel for a cape when you have a complete costume that comes with the hero's backstory? Why make up silly songs when your toy provides its own music?

A box doesn't talk, or have a backstory, or know any songs. But because of that, it can become a spaceship, or a laboratory, or a kitchen, or a fort. You can change it from the heroes' lair to the villains' den in the blink of an eye. It can be an Indian tepee, a schoolhouse, and an igloo over the course of a single morning. It has no limits except your imagination!

I'm sure that at some point Ryan will want to spend all his time playing video games and watching DVDs and television (or whatever the new technological equivalents are by then). But I truly hope that before he reaches that stage, he spends a lot of time just playing with boxes.

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