Tonawanda News

December 10, 2012

Against the tech-toy tide

We all have toy stories. A battered teddy bear. A train played with until its wheels fell off and its battery compartment (if it had one) wouldn't close. A cherished doll. A tiny metal car that won every race its young owner started, or an action figure that always, always saved the day.

--
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — We all have toy stories.

A battered teddy bear. A train played with until its wheels fell off and its battery compartment (if it had one) wouldn’t close. A cherished doll. A tiny metal car that won every race its young owner started, or an action figure that always, always saved the day.

What was your favorite toy as a child?

There’s a photo of me, 4 years old, beaming underneath the Christmas tree with a baby doll slung under one arm and a toy ambulance at my knee. I will freely admit that I have no idea what became of the doll. The ambulance was my favorite plaything for years.

Another year, it was a toy kitchen set. Or a stuffed dog. I went through the My Little Pony phase with other daughters of the 1980s, back when they were just a toy and not a pop-culture phenomenon. I had a stable full of the equine characters, all with their own backstories and traits mostly dreamed up in my 8-year-old or so mind.

All my toys had backgrounds. This stuffed critter lived in a den at the top of my bookcase (which was actually an enchanted mountain). This doll wanted to be an artist (and had a ton more talent that I actually did). This race car was driven by a the first female driver on the track. (Danica Patrick, eat your heart out.)

It’s funny, but more than 30 years later, I can still remember some of those stories. Heaven knows where most of the toys have gone, but the stories remind, taking up space in my 30-mumble brain that would probably be better used on such things as remembering where I left my car keys this morning.

As my boys get older, it’s fascinating to listen to them start to spin their own tales.

I lurked in the background the other day, listening to Sam carry on a monologue with himself about his stuffed Perry the Platypus and a plastic toy car. I don’t know exactly where Perry was going or what he was doing or where, precisely, a platypus learned to drive, but Sam was very serious about it. I’ve heard similar intense conversations with himself and his toy trains, or his Star Wars figures. (And their ships. In Sam-World, ships talk, you know.)

Even Jim, who keeps most of his stories (I don’t doubt he has them) to himself, is fixated on a bright-green, stuffed frog named, amazingly, Froggy. I don’t know what its story is in his mind (although he loves to talk about how Grandpa won it for him at a carnival), but watching him hop around the room with it makes me happy.

But as the boys get older, I can see things changing.

The toys they seem to love most this year aren’t necessarily toys as I think of them. They’re gadgets.

The elder one’s most precious possession is his Fisher Price music player. The younger is fascinated with iPads and smart phones. (Sorry, dude. You’re not getting one before your mother does.) They’re interested in movies. They want more games for the family Wii player.

And in some ways, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m leaning toward at least a slight technology upgrade this year in part because I want my kids to understand and be comfortable with it. The Wii is a blessed option to burn off some of that little-boy energy in the dark days of winter. The movies represent family togetherness on a cold winter night.

But ... sometimes I wonder. What became of the baby dolls, the toy ambulances, the action figures, even the (gulp) Barbies of the world? Do kids above a certain age still want them? Or is it just onward and upward? A woman watched my 4-year-old son noodle around with an iPad at a local store the other day and gushed about what a perfect gift it would be for her 4-year-old granddaughter.

I was torn between amusement and dismay. (And, OK, maybe just a little bit of jealousy.) Wouldn’t the child prefer a doll? What about a Tonka truck? Are we really giving iPads to preschoolers these days?

But on the other hand ... how cool. How utterly amazing that in this day and age, a child can be exposed to something with so much potential at such a young and formative age. She’ll grow up knowing things that I don’t know at 38, and she’ll be comfortable with technology those 10 times her age occasionally find confounding.

It’s amazing, really.

In the end — as with so many things — I think it’s about balance. The cool gadget ... and the toy pirate ship. The music player upgrade ... and the action figures.

And as this column was nearly finished, I had the following exchange:

I’ve been pestering Jim since mid-November about what he wants for Christmas. He ignores me for the most part, or tells me with a big grin, “I want a Christmas milkshake.” (Translation: Eggnog.) OK, then.

But I asked him again tonight as I was tucking him into bed, expecting that imp grin and another halfway joking request.

Instead, he looked me straight in the eyes and said decisively, “I want a choo-choo train.”

Long live imagination.

Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at jill.keppeler@tonawanda-news.com.