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Children And Toys For Activity

( Originally Published 1916 )



IN one of the largest toy shops in one of our largest cities, a group of children, different enough in ages to be brothers and sisters, are inspecting the attractive display. In front of one counter they linger, five, ten, fifteen minutes. Other counters they pass by with marked indifference. Here one of the clerks is demonstrating a mechanical railway. The little train of cars shoots through the tunnels and flies over the bridges. It completes the circuit, coming back to the starting point, but the children continue to watch it on another round--and then another, and another. There is something fascinating in the movement of the toy cars. But time is pressing, and there is still much to see. Then we notice for the first time that the parents of the children have also become fascinated by the tiny railroad. But they recover themselves first, and urge the children to move on. And to move on, they need urging.

At another counter are to be seen mechanical clowns and monkeys. One of the clerks winds up a toy, starts it on its round of contortions, and then winds up the next. Here a large crowd is always to be seen—and heard. For the antics of these performers are so amusing that everyone who comes within sight of them lingers and laughs.

On a broad, low counter, completely surrounded by children's faces, is a miniature landscape upholstered in green excelsior, and bearing on its ample expanse a complete village, with surrounding farms and dairies. There is the church with the upward-pointing spire; and the schoolhouse, with its tiny flag. And there is the blacksmith shop, with its stained-cotton smoke. And all the people and all the horses and cows—and, look!—there's even a cat on the back fence! Well, we have almost forgotten the children, as we stand here admiring one detail after another. It would take at least an hour to catalogue all that is to be seen in this marvelous imitation of a real village. And it is hard to tear ourselves away—to say nothing of the children.

The parents of the children seem highly pleased. They are not merely reflecting the joy of the children, they are not merely revealing their own amusement in the wonderful things they have seen. They are congratulating themselves on the success of their shrewd scheme to make the children tell them what to buy for Christmas, without letting the children know that they are doing it. They have been making mental notes of how the children behaved as each novelty presented itself. They hope thus to discover what will most interest the children.

And can anything be more reasonable than consulting these interests when you plan to get children toys? The only mistake that these thoughtful and painstaking parents made was in confusing the attractiveness of novelty and motion and color with the real interests of the children. They did not realize that the toys to reach these interests were lying in boxes on the counters that were passed quickly by.

The child should have the opportunity to admire the beautiful, in nature and in art; but it is not for this that he should have toys. The child needs on occasion to be entertained, or amused; but it is not for this that he needs toys. He wants toys to play with. They have been making such beautiful toys for us in recent years, and such clever mechanical contrivances, which interest the old as well as the young, that we have almost forgotten what a toy is for. In thinking of a toy, the question should not be, What can the toy do? We should rather ask, What can the child do with it? Most of us experience much perplexity when it comes to selecting toys for children. We should be relieved of much of this if we accepted as our first principle: The toy is an object that will enable the child to do something.

In selecting toys we must keep in mind what the particular child is already able to do, and what he needs to learn to do. These are the real interests of the child, who likes nothing better than to be doing. Occasionally a child will show marked individual tastes, and special abilities. But aside from these comparatively rare cases, the child's interests are largely determined by his age.

When the baby has acquired sufficient control of his arms and legs to be able to find his toes and fingers, he needs to have something to handle and to grasp. The rattle, the ring, and the ball are quite sufficient to keep him busy and to interest him.

When the child learns to move about, it is no longer sufficient that he have something to grasp and to shake. He must now have something to lift and carry. Moderately large blocks, for which the small finger muscles are not put into play, nests of boxes and of balls will enable him to do as much as he can possibly think of doing. We must not be carried away by the " cuteness " of very small blocks and boxes, and think that they are especially appropriate for the small child. For several years to come, the child will need to handle objects that he can grasp with the whole hand, rather than such as are picked up with the tips of the fingers. The fine movements come much later in the development of the child's nerves and muscles.

Presently the child comes to know things, as we can tell by his knowing the names of things. Now a doll will be welcome to the little girl—or to the little boy, for that matter. And representations of all the familiar animals are nice to hug and to drag about. But the first consideration in the selection of a wagon or cow or teddy-bear should be its ability to endure a great deal of hugging and dragging—and even of throwing, if need be. It is not at all necessary for these objects to be so much like the " real " things that they represent as to arouse admiration. They need merely to suggest the dog or the horse, or whatever it is, for the child is largely concerned now in imagining, and the objects are symbols, or lay figures. There are tough, wooden animals in various sizes, that are quite as useful in every way as the woolly or fuzzy ones. The furs and feathers often found on toys of this class may be impressive to adults, and they may make it possible to spend more money on a toy for a young child; but they are entirely superfluous from the child's point of view, and they frequently render the toy less durable, to say nothing of catching dirt.

From the time that the child is about two years old, until well along into. school, days, blocks of various kinds are useful for the child's happiness and development. A chest of large blocks, while comparatively expensive, is in the long run a good investment. They should be large enough for the young child to use, and there should be enough of them for the older child to erect " real " stairways and forts. Large blocks are not so likely to get lost as smaller ones, and they will last for years, and will serve not only a succession of children, but several of them simultaneously, if necessary.

Small blocks of wood or of artificial stone should be given to a child only when he is old enough to handle rather small objects, and after he has learned to put his things away, as otherwise too many pieces would get lost. With such blocks it is possible to develop rather elaborate architectural ideas, and they can be bought in small lots, so that a collection of them may grow to considerable size in the course of years. Many children will continue to find interest in these blocks until they are twelve or thirteen years old.

The durability of a toy may do much to unify the interests of a child over a prolonged period. This is especially important when children come to the age in which they can understand the relations of things to. each other. A doll that has made a home for herself in the heart of a child, soon comes to need a carriage. Later she comes to need a wardrobe; and later still she must have a suitable habitation. In the same way, the horse must have a wagon, and this must have a suitable load ; and both require a stable. As the child becomes more familiar with the activities going on around, his play interest will call for the materials and objects necessary to represent these occupations. It thus becomes possible to add gradually one toy after another that will contribute to this interest.

The doll's house, instead of being completely furnished, as something good to look upon, should rather be a bare framework that may serve as the basis for ,a long series of interesting and profitable activities. The furnishing of the house, the sewing of hangings and covers, the cutting out of pictures, and so on, will not only keep the child busy and out of mischief. These activities will stimulate thought, will exercise resourcefulness and invention, will cultivate application, as well as give training in the special skills demanded by the work. There is a wide range of choice when it comes to equipping the kitchen and the laundry. All the things needed can be bought singly; and it is better to get one or two well-made pieces at a time than to buy ,a whole " set " of flimsy contraptions.

The same principles apply to getting toys for other play interests that are modeled on the occupations of the community. The girl or boy who is playing store, or farm, or dairy will welcome gifts of toys that add to the equipment—as a pair of scales, or a new milk wagon. Getting toys in relation to some central idea has the further advantage of holding the child's interest by giving him something to look forward to.

Children from the age of three or four years need, in addition to toys for their make-believe play, materials for making " real " things. All kinds of " cut-outs," scrapbooks for pasting, paper, pasteboard and wooden strips for weaving and basketry, prepared " clay " for modeling will give the child a great deal of satisfaction as he finds himself producing visible effects and controlling the materials. The ground-glass drawing frames and water colors are very useful, as they furnish pleasurable activity that develops the child's powers over his eye and hand.

For employing the constructive interests, there have been recently offered several ingenious contrivances in metal and wood. Some of these consist of strips of perforated iron, with rods, wheels, screws, nuts, etc., out of which the child can construct trusses, bridges, cranes, wagons, and dozens of other objects. The sets come in different sizes, but all the parts are inter-changeable, and can also be bought separately, so that a collection can grow as the inventiveness of the child calls for more material. Wooden construction blocks on the same principle are made in several styles. Here the parts are joined together by dowel pins. These can be used by younger children, as the parts are larger, and their handling does not require such fine movements. But I would not give any of these to a child until after he had had considerable experience with free blocks, from which he could learn something about balance, and stability; for the locked blocks often Iead to structures that would be architecturally or mechanically impossible.

Of the hundreds of new indoor games, there is little to be said except that nothing has yet appeared as an improvement on chess, checkers, and authors. If we are looking for something " new," let us remember that to the child all things are new. But if we must buy a novelty, we should be careful to avoid any game in which the chance element is too prominent. All the games that are accompanied by a set of dice or a spinning wheel should come under suspicion.

Common sense will tell us that in buying tools and the implements for outdoor games, quality should be the first consideration. We must not let ourselves be tempted to get " complete sets," for if these are of good quality the prices are likely to be prohibitive. It is better to get one or two good pieces and slowly build up a collection. It is better also to combine the gift funds of several members of the family and buy a few substantial articles than to get a larger number of things that look gay enough at first, but soon go to pieces, and to the scrap heap.

Durability in toys is of primary importance. Size and beauty of finish are secondary. In dolls, for example, it is possible now to get, if not quite the indestructibility claimed by the manufacturers, at least a practical immunity to the loving caresses and neglect of the young owners.

I have tried to suggest what we should keep in mind in selecting toys, and to show why it is not safe to be guided merely by the attractiveness of the display, or by the interest aroused in us, or even in the children. Thus, the mechanical toys hold the attention for a time, but they are cast aside too soon. The best that can be said for them is that once in a while a boy will break one open to see what it is that makes it go. The elaborate detail of the miniature village will arouse admiration, but it gives the children nothing to do ; and after the novelty has worn off the " toy " means nothing.

Unfortunately much of what is offered us in the shops is made to catch our eyes and our coin. The decrepit dolls, lame ducks, and wheelless wagons constitute a monument to an unenlightened parenthood, too easy-going to determine what it wants, too ready to accept uncritically what is offered. The effective reform must come from parents who know what they want, and consistently buy only durable and worth-while toys, refusing to support the manufacturer of tawdry and flimsy imitations of real toys.



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