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Child’s Play & Creative Toys


Child’s Play & Creative Toys

by Leslie Young

Is the play of a child an insignificant, casual activity, an activity to be “grown out of” as soon as possible? What can be seen beyond the superficial in the eager delight or earnest absorption with which some children enter into the simplest of games? If we consider the world of fantasy – so accessible to the young child – silly and impractical, and we try to supplant it earlier and earlier with textbooks, instructional videos and complex electronic games, introducing the questioning mind to the sophistication of the “real” world, is this a healthy short-cut? It is apparent that children in modern society, with its offering of a plethora of mechanized diversions, are in danger of losing the ability for spontaneous, creative play.

The way in which a child plays may be compared to his/her approach to work in later life. While adult work must adapt itself to the necessities of the outer world, children’s play arises from internal urges, independent of the need for justification by other people or the activity itself. These two paths seem to lie far apart, yet creative fantasy is still one of the most valuable inner capabilities at an adult’s disposal.
In industry, technology, science, and even in everyday life, creativity is critical in seeking new directions and answers, if we are not to be stuck in a rut.  Lacking initiative and imagination, the human being is un-free. Fantasy points towards the future in that it relates us to existing reality at the same time it transcends it. In the attempt to change and better what is, we also relate to what is in the process of becoming and growing.

Children are naturally equipped with fantasy and creativity, but very early in life these qualities can be cultivated – or squashed. One of the most important considerations of a parent or an educator concerns toys and the commonly-followed practice of giving youngsters elaborately “finished” objects. It is the nature of the industrial age to turn out many quickly-produced items to be used once and then disposed of, and it is in the nature of a child to quickly tire of these specialized toys that are so narrowly suited to one purpose. Actually, the simpler the toy, the more stimulated is the child’s gift for invention. For example, a group of five- and six-year-olds can use small logs, bark, pine cones, pebbles, roughly carved wooden figures of people and animals to build a farm complete with houses, stables, a well, pastures and fields. For days this can be expanded and changed according to the constantly shifting pictures that arise in their imaginations. The best toys are those which allow the fantasy as much freedom as possible.Child’s Play & Creative Toys - Circle of Hands, Sebastopol CA

Think of the detail in the modern doll, complex in its anatomy, technically so perfect that it can open and close its eyes, talk with a tinned voice, wet its diapers and so on. But this will never end, because the more detail there is in a toy, the more demanding a child will become. And, correspondingly, the more atrophied the powers of fantasy will become. Fantasy needs, like muscles, regular use to be strengthened. Novelty wears off and boredom begins. The permanent simper on the mask-like features of the so-called beautiful doll becomes constricting, while the very simple doll enables the child’s imagination to embody all possible views of the human being in an ever-changing, mobile way. One day the doll can be sad, one day happy, one day lively and bright, one day tired and mopey – a true friend who mirrors the child’s mood.

The materials from which toys are made are also of great significance because of the sensitivity and impressionable nature of a child. When a toy is only slightly shaped by man, the natural processes inherent in it can appropriately express their being to the child in his/her search for experience. The technical processes used in making plastics are abstract and meaningless to a child, and the neutral quality of artificial materials deprives and repulses the imagination. When stones, animals and utensils are all made of the identical manufactured substance, the child’s touch is deceived and finds no stimulation. Some people might argue that synthetics are more hygienic. Perhaps our adult sense for the superior beauty of wood, wool, or even a nutshell or pebble has disappeared. To walk into someone’s home and see an ingenious tower built of simple blocks, a wooden wagon with handmade dolls riding inside, children whose hands are full of brightly colored yarn and knitting needles, paper and beeswax crayons, or scraps of cloth and boxes out of which they are building a city and enacting characters in a drama of their choosing – this gives one quite a different feeling than does the sight of a room cluttered with the almost always half-broken, garishly colored Fisher-Price activity centers, the twisted heap of tiny plastic and metal race-cars, half undressed Barbie and Ken dolls, and children who sit robot-like, staring at the screen of a TV or computer game, exercising just the tips of their fingers by jabbing at buttons.

Which would you rather have your children doing: watching television, or happily making their own “television set” with a frame of cardboard and moveable figures which they manipulate like puppets in a drama of their choosing? Their growing ability to act out adult occupations or life situations in play means that they are learning to find their own way into real life. It is not mere childish play but, at one and the same time, real life and imagery, fantasy and reality. The fewer perfected things children are given, the more they must achieve out of themselves. This is decisive when making or choosing toys. The inner forces during play transform themselves into faculties of the highest importance for later learning in school and career.

Child’s Play & Creative Toys - Circle of Hands, Sebastopol CASo what shall we buy our children for holidays or birthdays? Rather than getting a dozen cheap plastic toys, it might be deemed preferable to spend all that money on ONE very beautiful and sturdily made object. This is certainly a way to combat the over-consumption and waste we are often faced with these days. A lovely picture book or, for older children, one that relates a meaningful message; tools used for making something useful; a clever puzzle; a musical instrument; a pad of paper and crayons; a variety of baskets or boxes for filling and emptying; sawn sections of branches in different sizes for building; a simple boy, girl or gnome doll – these materials can result in games stimulating even to adults. And although children may at first feel a loss about what to do with these things (especially if used to a more passive role with ultra-perfect toys), time and a little adult insight and participation in the play situation will help transition through this unnatural period. Children who know how to really play scarcely know what it is to be bored!

And where can simple but beautiful playthings be found? Sometimes in some toy stores, hidden away in an amazing assortment of junk – the search can be discouraging! Become acquainted with local craftspeople who make toys and sell them at farmers markets or street events. Some Waldorf schools have small stores, and their holiday fairs often feature great toys. Circle of Hands in Sebastopol specializes in simple, creative play objects. And last, but not least, Circle of Hands offers doll and toy workshops in which you yourself can make something to fulfill your child’s need for excellence in play. Along with the satisfaction gained by the rhythm and artistry of handwork, parents can learn about natural materials, rules of symmetry, and the technical aspects of craftsmanship in toy-making. Make use of these opportunities soon to give your child something truly beautiful.

Leslie Young is owner of Circle of Hands, Waldorf inspired children’s toys. 6780 McKinley Street, Ste. 120, Sebastopol.