Intention Matters in Playthings

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There is an old saying in design by Louis H. Sullivan that goes, “form follows function.” Nowhere, is that truism more important than when it comes in what objects and environments that we create to support children’s play.

There is frequent comment when it comes to toys, that the best “toy” is a stick. When we put these two ideas together, an interesting observation pops up. It just may be that what makes a stick such a good toy is that is it purely functional, it supports leaves and in so doing is an essential part of the plant from which it came. That is to say; its form is pure function which imbues it with natural authenticity and integrity.

When we look at human-made toys some approach this level of “realness.” Lego blocks come to mind as having this quality, and I propose it is this simple form following function that resulted in Legos becoming the world’s most successful toy.

I will also suggest that as Lego adopted themed blocks that they veered away from this standard much to the angst and dismay of its fans. That Lego made this change as a purely business decision tells us a great deal about the state of our society.

Indeed, other toys approach this level of design integrity. Cas Holman’s work with Imagination Playground Blue Blocks and Rigamajig come to mind. The classic Red Flyer Wagon, Lincoln Logs and wooded blocks deserve mention as well. Why should we care that children’s toys and play apparatus strive to reach this level of authenticity?

When a toy is given a theme, the play narrative tends to move progressively from the child to the entertainment industry, and particularly to Disney and Marvel. We must ask ourselves what is the narrative advanced by these companies? For the most part, the stories are much the same, good vs. evil, the importance of domination and aggression and that life is a zero-sum game. The more these toys become whole systems the more the child’s interior narrative moves in these directions.

Is such indoctrination harmful to children? Ask any preschool teacher how their students behave when a new blockbuster movie comes out, and it leaves little doubt that there is a measurable impact as they struggle to purge the resulting aggressive behaviors from their programs. But far more to the point is that the child’s natural internal sense of what is right behavior is corrupted or at least temporarily diverted.

The real problem is that this is not a fair fight. The capacity of media to push forward its vision of how the world works is extraordinarily powerful and enveloping. Our efforts to help children learn compassion, empathy and cooperation must wage an uphill battle.

All this venting on my part is to add a corollary to the form follows function rule. That is this, “What is the intent of the function”? With the stick, the intention is to be part of a living system. With Super Man and the Joker, not so much.

 

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