Play Time 

Toys These Days Certainly Have Changed.

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When I first read about the National Toy Hall of Fame (NTHF), I dismissed it as just another ho-hum gambit by some struggling municipality whose parking meters weren’t bringing in enough money. I may have misjudged it, however—at least, that’s how I feel after nosing around the NTHF website for a while.

Fifty-three toys have been inducted into the NTHF in Rochester, N.Y., since it opened in 1998. The list surprised me. I expected it to be long on electronics—it isn’t—and I assumed the cap gun, which was a mainstay of my boyhood cowboy games, would have a place of honor—it didn’t. But the list did include a stick, a blanket and a cardboard box.

I may be wrong, but I’d bet that if you were called upon to make a greatest-hits toy list, it would not include a stick, blanket and box. Not the first draft, anyway. Perhaps that is because Toys-R-Us doesn’t stock them. Or because they are not given as gifts. Or that “toy” has come to mean a gizmo with a silicon chip, a compartment for AA batteries and a marketing campaign.

Or, perhaps, memory betrays us. I had forgotten the rainy days when there was nothing to do except build a hideout with blankets. Anchored with couch cushions, draped over kitchen chairs or a card table, blankets transformed the living room into a fort, a ship or a cavern. Of course, a blanket was capable of more. According to the NTHF, it could be “a king’s robe, a bride’s veil, a superhero’s cape, a Roman soldier’s cloak, a princess’ flowing gown and a wizard’s flying carpet.”

Also faded is the memory of a puppet theater made from a refrigerator-size cardboard box. Ditto for the shoebox diorama with a clay dinosaur in the foreground, a smoking volcano painted on the back panel. I don’t remember the fate of either box, but I appreciate the wisdom of the NTHF’s observation that “inside a big cardboard box, a child is transported to a world of his or her own, one where anything is possible.”

Another possibility raised by the NTHF is that sticks are “not only possibly the oldest toys, they’re possibly the best!” I don’t recall playing with sticks. I did make a slingshot out a Y-shaped tree branch and strips of rubber cut from an inner tube, but it wasn’t really a toy. That my childhood games included a stick used as a wand, bat, lance or sword seems probable. Sticks are “the original building blocks for creative play,” the NHTF claims. “Sticks also promote free play—the freedom to invent and discover. They encourage playing outside instead of inside.”

As a kid, I spent as much time outdoors as possible. Early on, the boys in my neighborhood were pistol-packing cowboys in the mold of Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger. Our game scenario never changed: The sheriff and deputies pursued a gang of desperadoes, engaging them in a succession of gunfights. Our pistols fired percussion caps on dime-size rolls of red paper. Misfires were common because the firing mechanisms were so faulty.

It was easy to disarm when I became a Cub Scout. In place of cap guns, Scout rituals called for a pocketknife, a pup tent, a campfire and a subscription to Boy’s Life magazine. The advertising in the magazine soon convinced me that I needed a BB gun or a bolt-action .22 to plug varmints.  My parents disagreed, but guns topped my Christmas wish list for many years.

Cub Scouts didn’t affect my outdoor routine, but the changing seasons did. Winter was spent building snow forts and pelting passing cars with snowballs. Then, as the daffodils bloomed, we chalked hopscotch courts on the sidewalk and shot marbles on the sodden lawn. Spring was also a time for kites, bikes and tetherball. When school ended at the end of May, we took to the street with Wiffle bats and balls. At day’s end, we played hide & seek in the twilight until our parents called us in to bed. Labor Day found us shooting Horse on a garage-mounted basketball hoop or playing touch football in the street.

Nowadays, you rarely brake for kids riding bikes or playing football in the street. Nor do you see them climbing trees, mowing lawns or playing with sticks. I assume they are indoors, safe from bad air, varmints, wind chill, skinned knees and perverts. As young adults, they will be less inclined than previous generations to ski, hunt, fish, camp or visit a national park. Why? Videophilia. They suffer from “the tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media”—a syndrome first described in 2006 by scientists Oliver Pergams and Parry Zaradic. When I was a kid, I was happy to sit by a campfire charring marshmallows on the end of a stick. Not so with many of today’s kids—no bars, no texts, no way.

I doubt many kids would trade their electronics for a blanket, a stick or a cardboard box. Is that cause for worry? Maybe yes, maybe no, depending on your own case of videophilia. I worry about a kid who is hooked on video games or reality TV. A kid who can’t transform a blanket into a flying carpet or make s’mores is also cause for concern. Nevertheless, this year’s popular Christmas toys include a Leapfrog tablet with a “child-friendly browser,” a Furby with its own app, and Wi-Fi voicemail for toddlers called Toymail. Not much call for a Lone Ranger pistol-and-holster set, and that is no cause for worry.

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