In Summary
  • Sometimes the memories are preceded by the toy crushes and cravings that put certain toys at the top of children’s wish lists.
  • Yes, some of it is marketing, but even there, children respond idiosyncratically.

All the excesses of my own childhood are, of course, available on eBay, priced for the vintage market.

There are the accessories for the 1960s Thingmaker, from Mattel, with its metal molds to be poured full of plastigoop (I can smell it now) and cooked to a nice soft solid texture on the square little electrical stove, then lifted out of the mold with a pin and assembled into Creepy Crawlers or Creeple People.

I saw a vintage 1965 Thingmaker available for a mere $25, but full sets run to a couple of hundred dollars.

I don’t know if you’ll actually be able to find Chop Suey, a 1967 board game in which a bowl is filled with small plastic food items, and you have to pick them out with (wait for it) chopsticks as the bowl spins.

Culturally insensitive, perhaps, but very good for learning how to handle chopsticks; in the interests of defeating my brother in the contest for slippery little pieces of plastic, I developed reliable skills that have served me well.

Let’s not even talk about Barbie and her dream house. Most evocative of all for me, there on eBay are the 1960s vintage Easy-Bake Ovens, and as I look at the photo, a jingle starts to play insistently in my brain: “Be a Betty Crocker baker, make a Betty Crocker cake, in your Betty Crocker Easy-Bake oven!”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a statement on toys, advising parents of young children (from birth to school age) to go for high-quality “traditional” (that is, physical) toys rather than elaborate digital ones. It discusses the cognitive and developmental advantages of toys that give children scope for imagination and invention and, above all, toys that encourage play that brings parents and children together.

Dr. Aleeya Healey, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Albany Medical College who was a co-author of the AAP statement, said that the most essential message for parents was the importance of relationships in the lives of young children.

“The less bells and whistles a toy comes with, the more it lends itself to creative play and imaginative play,” she said. “The more the toy can do on its own, the more distraction it lends itself to.”

LOVE THE IDEA

As a parent and as a pediatrician, I love this idea; children need manipulative toys, blocks and puzzles that let them practice with their hands and their brains, they need props for imagination and for interaction, books that will be read aloud over and over, space and scope to invent stories and act them out.

The statement emphasises that toys don’t need to be expensive, any more than they need to be fancy. (Every toddler knows that the best toys are the cabinet full of pots and pans or the big cardboard box that something else came in.)

And yet, as they get older, children are as susceptible to marketing as I was, and they crave toys parents might regard as having dubious value like unicorns that poop glitter, Call of Duty Black Ops 4, or new outfits — known as skins — for their Fortnite avatars. Nowadays, however, the concern is not only marketing, but also increasingly sophisticated electronic toys, which substitute virtual interactions for the human interactions that are developmentally essential for children.

Dr. Alan Mendelsohn, an associate professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine who was a co-author of the AAP statement, said that there is a great deal of overlap between screens and toys now, and “parents are getting all of these messages about how screens and tablets and mobile devices and laptops are the thing that’s going to help their children to learn and become advanced in their development.”

In fact, he said, there is plenty of evidence that screens can cause problems if they interfere with parents and children playing together, and it’s that playing together that matters most, both while the children are young and as they grow. “Spending some time playing with your child or reading with your child builds the relationship,” he said. “It helps them as things get more complicated in later childhood and adolescence.”

As children get older, of course, they start to demand whatever bells and whistles are on offer. Those vintage Easy-Bake oven ads showed children — well, girls — producing spectacular spreads of layer cakes and cookies from the device, as Mother exclaimed in admiration. It was party time and the oven was the star.

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