Millions of toys will change hands this Christmas. In money terms they will represent about half the £700 million which it is estimated that the British toys and games market is worth. But this year the Christmas offensive by the toy firms will be more desperate than usual.
The British toy form Lesney has announced that it continues to make a loss, while Japanese toy exports are up 96 per cent.
Radical changes are occurring in the kinds of toys which children (and their parents) buy. Traditional toys are being replaced by space age gadgets and electronic games and this has a devastating effect on the British toy industry. Airfix—the firm that makes Meccano and Great Model Railways—has collapsed, to be taken over by the American firm which makes Action Man and Star Wars. And while Lesneys trebled their losses, the American firm Fisher Price announced that it is to treble its factory size in Britain.
Toy imports from Japan and America have been rising steadily ever since 1975. But there is little mileage to be gained from simply seeing this as yet another area in which outmoded British industry is being over taken by the Americans and the Japanese.
What is interesting is to look at the kinds of new toys that we are buying now and thinking about how that affects children.
Toys have existed in every civilisation. Remarkably, there was little variation in the basic kinds of toys which appeared in different societies in the past. Balls, rattles and even yo-yos turn up in different places, not in sequence but often centuries apart as do dolls.
The first toy industry developed in Germany. Craftsmen began to produce toys for sale, making the newly invented optical toys and mechanical models of the period, as well as traditional dolls’ houses and dolls. Gradually factories for manufacturing toys were built. By the beginning of the twentieth century, toy making was one of Germany’s most important industries. One quarter of the toys were exported to America.
The embargo on imports from Germany during the First World War sparked an independent toy industry outside Germany. In America mothers even destroyed toys with a ‘Made in Germany’ label on them.
After the war, in the 1920s, there was a move away from war toys and tin soldiers. This trend was to be reversed during the 30s when re-armament stimulated the production of toy anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and barrage balloons.
But an important development was taking place at the same time. The work of the educationalist Froebel in the latter half of the nineteenth century and of Maria Montessori in the 1920s stimulated interest in toys and their effects on children’s ideas. Froebel stressed that children learned through discovery. Maria Montessori believed that children wanted to ‘work’ rather than ‘play’. Such ideas led to the production of the first educational toys.
Firms like Fisher Price now flourish producing just these kinds of toys. Fisher Price are famous for their bright coloured and durable toys for nursery age children. The successful formula is no accident. The toys are designed after intensive investigations and observations of children’s play. The company runs a nursery in New York where children are observed playing with Fisher Price toys through a one-way mirror. The observations are interpreted and passed on by a psychologist employed by the company. The result—an immensely successful ‘scientific’ commercial venture.
This scientific approach to toys is worrying. The problem is not the slick high-pressure research and marketing techniques—capitalists use such methods everywhere. What bothers me is that this approach to toys profoundly affects the way our children experience the world. Toys are essential to children’s mental and physical development. Some aspects of this are obvious—learning to manipulate and handle various materials for example. What is less obvious are the ways in which toys enable children to adjust to society.
If you think about it the limitations of the world imposed by rigid models like dolls’ houses or toy hospitals are infinitely greater than those imposed by balls or tops which leave children a great deal of scope for learning about the world through experiencing it, rather than seeing its values in miniature in their toys. That’s not being anti-toy. But the more complex the toy, the more rigid the set of ideas it imposes upon a child. And the trend as shown by the profit figures, does seem to be toward more complex toys.
Feminists have long pointed to the way that ‘dolls for girls’ forces sexual stereotypes onto young women. The solution to that is not simply ‘dolls for boys’. All the toys we give our children reflect the values of the society we live in. When buying toys for children we should bear that in mind. Kids need room to think as well as being in touch with the latest developments. Complicated educational toys could stifle rather than help our children precisely because they are so exactly researched.