Freedom to play
If you get the chance, watch a child deep in play. They are rapt; outside noises dim. It is a concentrated state. Some will create verbal dialogues for characters seen or unseen. A child who knows how to play will not be bored. Given a few sticks and pebbles, they will create a castle, a maze, a game. This ability to bend and shape worlds is priceless. To often though, the socialization aspect of play is seen as the only function, thus the strictly gendered toys and games that make toy aisles identifiable by color. Not all toys are that way, and as the grownups in the picture, we need to encourage play that is not gendered in a heavy way. That is what was so appealing about several of the cartoons and toys that first came out when my children (now grown) were young. They got to be young watching My Little Pony, Pound Puppies, and a few others that tried mightily to be non-violent and avoid gender hierarchies. Both boys and girls watched these shows and no one thought it strange. I am thrilled that My Little Pony is still going strong, but am not so thrilled by the idea that boys who are fans are non-normative. Recently, there have been news stories focused on boys who are Pony fans and the repercussions, such as this one in Slate that is supportive, but assumes such strong gender strictures applied so very young are unavoidable. Since when? What’s going on here?
I have a box in my garage that I can’t give up. You can see the Pound Purry up top, lounging next to Cinda the Bear, and a Beanie Babies mountain lion. In the back is an Uno game. These were played with by both my children, although a boy named Ted will not have bears.
When Paige was two until much later, maybe up to age five or six, the time Ted had between her bedtime and his was spent setting up My Little Pony dioramas in the living room. Before the divorce, he would set up scenes with his dad, who as one of six (three boys and three girls) was able to show him how to braid the ponies’ manes. Great care was taken in selecting the right hair accessories. He-Man figures would stray into this universe too, but mostly it was the ponies and the large sack of ash wood blocks that made a different landscape and story each night.
This was priceless dad time, and a play time I continued as a single parent. It was also great imaginative play and if my house broke the all toys put away at bedtime rule, so be it. It was worth it for Paige to see and hear the story each morning and for Ted to get his time in with a parent
Both boys and girls collected Beanie Babies as well, although Ted was past that age when they arrived on the scene and collected comic books instead. For us, they were never seen as collectibles and I was always sure to cut the awful tag off the poor thing’s ear as soon as we got home. Think of how it hurt! And the name was never the right one!
Naming ceremonies are early wordplay and although children don’t realize it at the time, the endless back and forth analysis about and support for their chosen name gives children much needed experience in analysis and constructing an argument, two things most composition teachers wish their students in first-year composition had more experience in.
I can’t say I always got the toy thing right. I did buy one of these.
The Furby is making a small comeback I hear, and I do think the talkback it gives is linguistically fascinating. It also worked fine for boys and girls, but my two were exiting the toy aisle years by then and frankly, found the little guy a bit needy. Later, we were all a bit creeped out by him (it?) and I think I was supposed to lose this one.
That aside, I wonder now if there isn’t just as much cross or gender-neutral play as before, only it now has to be in secret. Maybe there is a secret hour while mom and dad are making dinner when boys and girls watch My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and keep their mouths shut about it at school where the line between boyland and girlland is clear and artificial. Do boys still learn to braid their sister’s hair in the morning? Do parents still say, “Tom, please braid Julie’s hair. You’re the best at braiding” or do they tell him to wait outside being manly. Oh, I hope masculinity is not such a frail vessel that it breaks when children play.