You can imagine how very pleased (and frankly moved) I was when I received an invitation to speak at Penn State University this coming Wednesday. I will be addressing the Josephine Berry Weiss Interdisciplinary Humanities Seminar on the topic of what I see as thesteady movement from “free play” to “pay to play” over the course of the 20th century.
Toys are tools of play. They are not play itself. Accordingly, all a person really needs is a good imagination. Heck, you can even do it with a bad one. I can remember turning a wooden chair upside down in my bed, covering it with a blanket and blasting off into outer space. I can still bring back the almost indescribable feeling that experience gave me. I really (well kind of really) thought I was in a spaceship.
Toys have of course always been available in the 20th century but the cost of engaging in play has consistently gone up. It is no accident that a cardboard box and a stick have made it into the Toy Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. They are examples of free tools of play.
I would not be surprised to someday see empty thread spools (with a rubber band, a slice of candle and a broken match stick you can make a little tank that will deftly speed across the kitchen floor); used up metal ink cartridges (they with a roll of caps, a match and a piece of pencil lead make for one great functional cannon); a piece of paper (fold it into a paper plane, cootie catcher or football and you can have hours of fun) and a piece of string (Cat’s Cradle being just one game you can play with string) gain well deserved entry as well.
Beyond the free tools of trade there are also numerous low cost play platforms (note that play platforms were not the invention of the video game industry). How many games can you play with a simple rubber ball, a checker board, and a deck of cards or a piece of chalk?
Not only have the tools of play increased in cost but the entrances to play environments have as well. What was once a free trip to a public park has morphed over time into a not so free trip to an amusement or theme park?
Why has this happened? There are probably numerous reasons but my guess is that we have just gotten better at creating more advanced and sophisticated forms of play. Jacks and jump ropes simply get lost in a world with so many choices.
We have also mastered the art of marketing. We do an amazing job of not only letting people know about our products but creating demand.
I am a proud member of the toy industry and take great pride in the joy we bring people every day all over the world. Our creations don’t just bring pleasure but teach and point the way to adulthood.
I do wonder, however, if children, their parents and the world don’t miss something when little girls no longer remember jump rope chants; when little boys forget how to make paper airplanes and families lose the simple joy of appreciating a day just running around outdoors. Wouldn’t it be nice if the toy industry created a public service ad that reminded people of these simple and free or nearly free experiences?
What do you think?