Playmobil and Imagination

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Toys that welcome imagination

Playmobil, the German building set invented by Hans Beck in the early 1970s, is one of the most enduring toys worldwide. The Children’s Store has carried this line for over 30 years. The brilliance of Playmobil and toys like it was on my mind as I was read an article about the new Hello Barbie being released in November 2015. This doll has a chip inside her with thousands of prerecorded responses that are triggered by the child speaking to her. So this isn’t just pulling a string to hear a doll “speak.” This is a Barbie doll that, to a child, will seem to be conversing. I found this amazing, but also kind of disappointing. I remember the best part of playing with dolls as a child, besides changing her outfits every 5 minutes, was changing her personality and surroundings just as often. Barbie in her tennis outfit was a different Barbie than the one in her wedding dress. Will Hello Barbie constrain a child’s imagination because her personality is too formed?

Before Playmobil became a toy giant with hundreds of themed sets each year, it began with the iconic Playmobil figure, still basically the same today. Beck came up with a figurine that fit in a child’s hand and had a large head, a big smile, and no nose. Just the way kids draw people. Its sets are different from Lego in that it is less about building and more about playing. Playmobil is definitely defining a theme for each set with the tiniest props provided, but what happens to it after that is up to the child.

Playmobil keeps up with the times and even has a new animated TV show on Netflix called Super 4 with toy tie-ins, but they haven’t changed their basic concept because it works. New themes come out every year, and as with most of the toy companies we deal with, I am amazed that there are still new things to be thought of. That’s what I love about this business—new technology is embraced, but the basic idea of helping children have fun and learn remains.

Screen Time = Play Time?

music-818459_640Keep on playing!

I read an article the other day about the harm of screen addiction for children. In the New York Times article, Jane Brody wrote about the extreme cases of internet addiction in China where rehab centers have been set up for teenagers who have completely lost touch with the real world. But she also spoke of the less severe, but just as troubling trends here in the U.S. with middle schoolers spending hours on their devices and even toddlers being given a cellphone to occupy them. I know the temptation to get some peace by plopping the kids in front of the TV (the only option when my kids were little) and I turned to it often. It was always a surefire way to please them and tablets and cellphones work the same way. However, if screen time becomes the default then this isn’t healthy, especially for the youngest ones. Brody states in her article that, “It starts early, often with preverbal toddlers handed their parents’ cellphones and tablets to entertain themselves when they should be observing the world around them and interacting with their caregivers.” There’s a great final scene of the Noah Baumbach film While We’re Young where the main characters are staring with a look of shock at a 2-year-old seated opposite them at the airport happily playing and seemingly texting on an iPhone. They wonder if they are ready to be parents in this new world.

 

I see the kids in my store playing happily with the trains, building block towers on the play table and creating stories for the families in the dollhouse. They are talking to themselves and to their parents and you can practically see their little brains at work. My children are older now so I’ve gone from desiring some down time where I didn’t need to entertain them, to wanting them to look up from the Netflix show they are watching on their iPods and talk to me! I worry sometimes that they have forgotten what they used to do for fun before they got these devices—Read! Play outside! Call a friend! This is what my husband and I are constantly preaching. I see these trends as making toys, games, puzzles, and books all the more important. Even toys that have batteries still require the child to do more than passively watch something! My son is at camp for 3 weeks with no electronics allowed. No email, no TV, no phone. I know he’ll come home having had a great time. Now, to just remind him of this device-free fun to practice at home!

Happiness comes in small packages

Part of what makes it so rewarding to give a child a gift, is that the smallest thing can make him or her so happy. And sometimes what will thrill that child the most will be something about the toy that you never even imagined.

My friend told me a story the other day about her kids that provides a great example. She had brought her 2 kids to The Children’s Store because they each had a little money to spend however they wanted. A big treat! Her daughter zeroed in immediately on the perfect toy. Her son, however, walked around and around, gazing at all the choices. This reminded me so much of my brother and me when we were kids—I was decisive, quickly choosing what toy I wanted while he would look and look, always worried that he was missing something that was EVEN better. My friend’s son finally picked his toy—a Spy Watch. I asked her how he liked it when he got home. “He loves it. He’s the hit of the first grade,” she answered. What aspect of the watch made it so popular? Was it the stopwatch feature? The night vision light? Nope, she answered, “It was that the top flipped up!” Who can guess what will thrill a 6-year-old. This is why you shouldn’t stress when buying a gift for a child. It doesn’t have to be big and flashy. Don’t feel bound by a very specific request. Often it is good to go with a hunch because you never know where the thrill will lie!