Real Toys

01/18/2006 10:46 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The frenzy of the holiday season is behind us--suddenly, it's gone. Nothing left but scattered remnants and a couple of random memories that stand out, peripheral moments mostly. An hour I spent in downtown Boston, for example, waiting for the 3:15 Accela out of South Station, heading back to New York City (I'd had enough), the Monday before Christmas.

Wandering aimlessly through streets transformed since I last walked them, as a boy, back in the 50s, I turned a corner and found myself standing between Macy's and Filene's, on Winter Street, I do believe. Those particular store fronts hadn't changed much, especially the window displays. That Proustian time-warp thing swept over me--the very feeling of being 8 years old, back in the day, when the world was young and toys were real.

I was drawn to the windows on the Macy's side, to puppet-like mannequins, three feet high, arranged in tableaus, cotton wool snow everywhere, you know the kind of thing. poignantly corny--Mom and Dad on the couch by the decorated tree, mechanically raising and lowering champagne glasses as their blind heads turned back and forth while, in a spotlit cubby above, kiddies in their beds, rubbing their eyes with little clay fists, feeling nothing.

But it was the next window that nailed me down where I stood. It was full of old toys, not antiques--40s through the 60s, around in there. The little ones were originals. The big ones were represented by models, like a miniature version of that sled with slats of white wood set lengthwise along red metal runners attached to a handle bar in front, allowing for steerage--I had one exactly like it. We all did. Ditto the fat-tired Schwinn and the Red Ryder BB gun ("This one's for you, Little Beaver," read the display, or words to that effect).

I fixated on two little toys in motion: Roy Rogers on a bucking (actually, rocking) bronco, swinging his lariat on high, and a sea lion with its head thrust up, a beach ball rotating on its nose. They were like the puppet mannequins only more so. The motions were so tick-tock they could only suggest what they depicted. The difference between toys and living beings was emphasized by how far they fell short, at least to my eyes, gazing back through them at days gone by. Little shells of painted tin, rocking and spinning, on and on, tucked away in a corner of that window--the very embodiment of time,

Then later, reflecting on toys the way they were, I saw my way more clearly through the controversy over the digital gizmos that dominate the gift lists of kids today--are they a Good Thing or a Bad Thing.
As with (almost) all things mediated, the answer is--a mix.

On the level of skills, especially skills involving complexity and velocity, immersion in a gadget laden environment prepares kids for lives that are going to get more and more complicated--and rushed. And that's not just because those lives will often be lived on digital platforms, where technical aptitude is clearly an advantage. It's also because face to face interactions, from the most casual to the most intimate, will be more complex and pressing. Just think how little time you have for even your most important relationships nowadays, and then think about how undefined, how subject to constant renegotiation, they are when you do have time for them. Virtual toys of are preparing kids to manage all that.

On the level of imagination and reflection, however, certain losses are evident. If you are deploying toy soldiers around the room to act out a battle you are inventing as you go along or walking stuffed animals through an elaborate social occasion of your own devising, you have to supply so much. You project what's in your mind onto the world. And you have to sustain the result. It's not just "getting an idea" and actualizing it--that kind of creativity is as much involved in virtual toys (think of SimCity, say), and probably more so, because of the complexity the gizmos allow. But the gizmos do the sustaining. Once you get the idea and actualize it, you can forget it and move on to the next one.

Think about it this way. If you've never read Pride and Prejudice and you see the movie and then, after seeing the movie, you read the book, there won't be much dissonance. Keara Knightly will be Elizabeth and Donald Sutherland will be father and, in general, except for noticing plot changes, you'll just "see" the movie in the book. On the other hand, if Pride and Prejudice is a book that already means something to you, then the movie, no matter how good it is, will inevitably clash with the world you discovered in the book--and not just because Jane Austen put it there, but because you did. You imagined the whole thing.

Real toys are like books. They beg for imagination.