Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Toys with Character

Before Westley was born, I would occasionally visit the homes of people with children and think, "This will never happen in my house. No way. This is out of control." Because there would be toys everywhere. What seemed like thousands of them. And most were noisy, plastic, or based on licensed characters (usually some combination of the three).

I was, with that new-mother determination, bent on keeping licensed characters out of my house. I could say it was because I think licensed, media-linked toys stifle creativity and imagination, and put decisions about "play" in the hands of big corporations (and I think they do), but really? I just find most licensed characters and the toys themed on them unaesthetic. And I find their ubiquitous-ness exhausting. A few superheroes here, a splash of Muppets there is not a problem. But when everything - from flatware to crib sheets and everything that false range encompasses - has Elmo on it, I kind of want to gouge my eyes out. With a Superman spoon.

So far, I have managed to keep the linens, table settings, and other housewares relatively character-free. However, I am astounded - absolutely astounded - by how many of Westley's toys feature the casts of "Sesame Street" and "Yo Gabba Gabba." Especially considering my original, "not in my house" stance on licensed toys. I feel like I'm watching my dream of Waldorf dolls and wooden toys die, one Elmo doll at a time.* How on earth did this happen?

Well, for starters I suppose, I loosened way up on my TV stance. While we no longer have TV signal, Westley does watch a fair bit of television on DVD, and the characters have captured his imagination. Nearly everything he watches is (ostensibly) educational, but with their bright colors and easy-to-understand personalities, Muppets make an easy transition to the toy world. And I think Westley gets that. (Marketing and design folks certainly do.)

There's also the issue of affordability. I hadn't realized, when I visualized a playroom full of wooden and 100% recycled plastic toys, that making my dream a reality would require more money than my family has to spend on playthings. High-quality European toys are pricey! (Because they have to come all the way from Europe, naturally.) When you do most of your shopping at thrift shops and the occasional big box store, you're not going to find eco-friendly stacking toys made from recycled milk jugs. You're going to find Elmo. And Cookie Monster. And they'll probably require batteries and sing songs you can't stand. Because those are the toys that don't get saved, to be handed down in the future.

Fortunately, those are the toys Westley loves right now. He loves that he can haul Ernie and Cookie Monster and Brobee and Plex around with him. Those characters are still real to him. They're not the creations of adults wanting to market to preschoolers; they're his friends.

*Westley has three (nearly identical) Elmo dolls. I still don't understand the appeal, but clearly, Elmo is preschooler crack.