Having recently spent quite a bit of time with a two and a half year old boy and his considerable array of toys, I feel I have acquired a familiarity with the world of contemporary toys.
My first reflections on today’s toys led me directly back to the 1967 movie, “The Graduate,” in which the graduate, a young Dustin Hoffman, was approached by one of his father’s friends, and told, “I have one word for you- plastic.” The children’s toys of today are a fulfillment of that prophecy. They are smooth and rounded and shiny and colorful, and often quite complex. They are created with a plethora of buttons, knobs, levers, wheels and other features that might well confound an adult but is easily mastered by a tot.
There would seem to be some competition in the industry to see who can make the most arcanely interesting toy. Many are equipped with electronic devices operated by battery, some with fairly powerful speakers. It is with these device that one of the flaws can be found in an apparent triumph of plastic and electronics. At any moment one may be aroused from a quiet reverie by a young female voice speaking from the interior of a large box or a dark place under the furniture, asking, “Will you come to my house?” Or perhaps a plastic chainsaw will start up unbidden. Even so, the ingenuity involved in molding and fitting dozens of plastic pieces together to make a multitasking and durable toy is astounding. Of course pieces can break or come apart, and the more complicated the toy, the more likely this is to happen, depending on how well the complex and vulnerable parts are hidden and protected from little fingers. Toys
with lots of external moving parts are naturally more susceptible to damage.
These colorful and intriguing toys have a way of stimulating the imagination of the adult creative mind. “Perhaps,” one thinks, “I could design the best toy ever.” To do such a thing requires a certain understanding of the minds and desires of children. One has an image of child psychologists, market researchers and various company executives sitting around a large table gazing at a red, yellow and blue plastic centerpiece, and trying to fathom the mysteries inherent in the relationships between children and their toys. My first rumination on children’s toys also led me back to Barcelona and Gaudi Park, where Gaudi’s creations bear a resemblance to the plastic toys of today. The surfaces are curved and smooth and brightly colored. Gaudi’s works have a futuristic look to them, as do current toys. It isn’t very hard to imagine a city of the future with lots of smooth, rounded surfaces
painted red, yellow, blue, orange, green and violet. At some times in the future, people will tire of staring at various shades of grey and brown, along with unrelieved flat surfaces, straight edges, and sharp corners. Yes, I am fairly well convinced that cities of the future will look like gigantic versions of children’s toys.
An adjunct to the plastic toys is the soft book, which we also didn’t have in my very early years. These books come with numerous appendages, and they are colorful, although in a different way than the toys. Unlike the toys, these books do not foreshadow a future method of reading. These books confuse the stream of imagery so essential for adult reading.
One of my favorite toys is a multicolored tower with three intertwined spiral ramps. There is an elevator that moves up and down on a kind of ratchet. There are several colored doodads at the top and bottom. At the top of each ramp there is a gate, which opens when the correct button is pressed. The idea is to put your little car at the top of the ramp, facing downward against the gate. The three spiral ramps, one red, one yellow, one blue, not only open their gates when their buttons are pushed, they each emit a sound that doesn’t stop until their car has reached the bottom. The red ramp emits a siren-like noise, the yellow ramp sounds like a tractor revving its engine, and the blue ramp makes the sound of a large bell ringing in quick succession. When all three buttons are pressed more-or-less simultaneously, and all three cars begin their perilous descent, and the siren the tractor, and the bell are sounding off, it all
seems destined to stir up a frenzy. The fact that the excitement only lasts four seconds doesn’t seem to mitigate the effect.
Whether or not children’s toys portend the architecture of the future, they do have a futuristic, even alien, aura about them. If only someone could figure out how to keep these things from talking when they should be silent.