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Toyland

Here and there in the living area are plastic guns, light-sabers, plastic caricatures of trucks with oversized plastic wheels completely dominating the small plastic truck body on top, a small plastic representation of a tv-rock musician’s guitar, plastic boats, trains and planes too. In the kids’ bedrooms the toys comprise the floor covering, with a little help from clothing hiding among them. About five inches down, carpet is visible through gaps between the toys. Many of the toys have noise-makers built in. There are probably enough batteries hiding in here to run the house lights overnight. One startling throwback is a small wooden shield made of 1/4″ plywood, carved in a home shop, sanded and hand-painted with a cloth strap stapled to the back.

In the entire rest of the world, one square foot of this would be a fair-sized toy collection for the average child.

The family I’m visiting has three boys and one girl. My son’s family is gender-reversed with three girls and one boy. The size, structural material and distribution of the toy collection is the same. Also the same, and so much different from prior generations is the noise when children use their toys. Thumbnail-sized speakers produce most of the sound. Boops, beeps, crashes, synthesized voices and noise some might call “music” are bid forth with the push of a button, key, or press of a trigger.

Children jabbering and teaching themselves to imitate the sounds of the world around is some of the finest music humankind ever produced. Now it is gone.

My dad built our first guns. Chunks of wood were hijacked from their trip to the fireplace and turned into pistols and rifles destined for many hours of wear. That led to lessons in hand tools, power tools, lumber and sandpaper enabling us to create innumerable guns of our own design – like my rubber-band-Gatling-gun, along with toy boats, cars, planes and ride-down-the-hill-coasters. One of the more important features of these toys were the imaginations that animated them. Young developing brains turned pieces of pine into lever-action Winchester rifles and varnished mahogany Chris Craft powerboats.

The imaginations animating the toys of today’s North American children live in Asia.

Ironically, my creativity and skill with wood tools is why I’m in the boys’ house trimming windows, installing a door and a kitchen sink and getting this lesson in modern toys. I have difficulty expecting the made-in-China plastic stuff to impart important life skills. They certainly teach nothing about making do, making your own or using imaginations creatively. Along with trashy quality, the sheer volume of doodads teach that no one thing is important. Very much like the people who built them and, I’m afraid, the people who grow up in this plastic, charge-card toyland.