You can learn a lot by looking at the toys that kids play with.
One of the most interesting and enlightening features of my pre-Christmas season has been the 1985 Child World Christmas catalogue that stuck to the sole of someone's shoe and ended up in the middle of my room.
Now, I realize that I used to play with a lot of really stupid stuff when I was age four and up, but I am surprised how much the basic theory of toy design has changed since I was a tot. Most of what I found in this eight-page advertisement was merely frivolous, but occasionally there occurred such lapses in judgment that I was forced to wonder who was more mature: the toy designers and marketers (ostensibly adults) or the toy users (presumably kids).
The biggest change in toy design theory since my sandbox days seems to be the downfall of the traditional board game. Gone are such dinosaurs as "Operation!" "Tiddly-Winks" and "Chutes and Ladders." Child World promotes only a few games, like "Scrabble," "Parcheesi" and "Trouble"; the first two are presented both in traditional form and in "deluxe editions." The yuppie fave "Scrabble Deluxe" features raised spaces which lock the letters in place, presumably so that your $1000 Lhasa Apso does not meander by and mess up the game. As much as I can tell, "Deluxe Parcheesi" appears to be a contradiction in terms: you could play that game with pebbles and a dirt surface, for Christ's sake. "Trouble" is apparently worthwhile because it encloses the dice in a "popomatic" dome, keeping your child or -- more importantly -- the abovementioned Lhasa Apso from asphyxiating on the little cubes.
In lieu of board games, today's child is barraged with a whole assortment of dolls and plastic toy figures. Usually these synthetic creatures come in a group, as in the case of the "Snugglebumms," a close-knit and multi-colored familial unit comprised of: "Momma Brightly," "Papa Gently," "Princess Snugglelina," "Snugglebumm's Kids" and "Tuggles" with omnipresent flower cart.
On the more martial side, the Masters of the Universe offers us: "He-man," "She-ra," "Spydor Evil Stalker," "Stridor Horse" and "Evil Horde, Heroic & Evil Figures." The evil hordesmen cost $4.97 each and liberal portions of "Battle Bones" will set you back $8.97. If we conservatively define a horde as one thousand individuals, a small-scale conventional war would cost $5,450--there may be a manufacturer's rebate, I'm not sure.
There has been a striking bifurcation between toys that portray war and those that suggest the psychedelic peace symbols of the '60s. In the former catagory we have black and gray Voltrons, Zybots, Immortals of Change, Gobots, Grapplors, and the TV stars Masters of the Universe. The latter group includes the Glo Worm Musical World (remember the Plastic Exploding Inevitable?), Care Bear Cousins, Hugga Bunch Dolls, Pianosaurus, My Little Pony with Pony Wear Clothes and Jewelry, Baby Hugs or Tugs (take your pick, I guess), Rainbow Brite and Co., and finally the Cabbage Patch Dimensional Gift Set. It's war of the masses all over again.
Seriously, this doll stuff has got to go. Further dolls include pound puppies, teach and play kids, wide-eyed or sleepy real babies, kari-me babies, koosas, etc. Robots, too, now serve as companions, as shown by Omnibot, Omni 2000 (a steal at $399.97), Pester Puppy and Cat (why does the feline cost $20 more than the pooch?) and Alphie II. How are today's kids ever going to learn to deal with other tots who want different things for lunch and who who bleed if you bang them off furniture? Nothing is sadder than the five-year-old who has no friends because of his permanent attachment to his two-foot My Buddy Play Pal.
In a Skinnerean flourish, computers have taken over the roles once filled by biological units called parents. Electronic gizmos can teach your kid to talk, count, spell, add and read as well as to dodge alien fire and blow up spacecraft. But will these toys tell your child that there is a difference between bleach and Sprite? Can "Whiz Kid" instruct your child not to try to swallow the Nerf Pool Cue and Balls? Can "Little Professor" teach your youngster that Lhasa Apsos can cannot survive the intense heat and radiation barrage found inside a microwave oven?
Amidst all this fooliness there are two entries listed in the Child World which I find genuinely objectionable. The first is a minority version of a Cabbage Patch kid, called Bambo. Neither the appelation nor the fact that the girl doll's hair has been bleached blond can be construed as anything but a regrettable holdover from the days of Amos 'n' Andy. My suggestion is that these dolls should be beamed out into space along with broadcasts of that show.
My second objection comes in response to a dart game (a real one with metal points not felt tips) listed as for "ages 5 and up." To solve this obvious slip in judgement, I propose that the man who determined that age guideline should stand underneath the dart board while a randomly picked five-year-old shoots for bullseyes. It's stuff like this that makes me into a grinch.
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