Editor’s Note: the holidays are upon us, and Lee Biernbaum writes a light-hearted piece on picking out good toys for your kids.
If you haven’t been paying attention to the latest freak outs about Starbucks cups or the fact that many media outlets have already published their gift guides, you may not have realized that the holiday season is fast approaching. But let’s get real, you’ve noticed and if you’re a parent, you’re possibly dreading it. The “holiday season” means, among other things, an onslaught of conversations about kids’ toys. Which toys are hot this year? What toys do your kids want? Would you mind if your aunt Dora got them a drum set this year?
So before all that happens, let’s do some real talk.
Many kids’ toys are awful.
I don’t just mean the mountains of cheap crap that exist to drain $4 at a time from the drugstore (or the seasonal way to phrase that – “be used as stocking stuffers”). I mean the ones that are unnecessarily loud, inane, and randomly ill-thought-out. As a dad who is about to be on the receiving end of this year’s onslaught of generosity directed at his children, I beg any of you who buy toys for kids to read this. Together we can fight the awful in the modern toy industry and maybe preserve some parental sanity at the same time.
Why Many Kids’ Toys are Awful
I can identify at least 3 major causes that allow this to continue unabated:
- Kids have no taste.
- Parents, grandparents, and well-meaning friends are easily seduced by things that seem cute (especially if they are licensed by a favorite team, show, etc.) but were really designed in about 5 minutes.
- Some families live in houses with “playrooms” far from earshot of the parents who then don’t have to listen to the awfulness generated by the worst offenders. This is not my family, nor is it many families.
Examples of Just What’s Wrong
Random and Not Really Fun
Here is a book – St. Louis Cardinals 101 (My First Team-Board-Book). What family member of a St. Louisan wouldn’t want to buy that for their new-parent relative? And that is exactly the problem. You’ll note Amazon doesn’t have a “look inside” option for this book – probably because if anyone really did look inside they would sell zero copies. If the book is for babies, there’s nothing really to read to them (captioned photos and drawings of baseball equipment aren’t much of a read-aloud winner). If it’s for the next generation of kid fans whose earliest sports memories will be from the late 2010s, a black and white photo of a pitching star from the 1960’s is pretty irrelevant to them.
I love baseball, I love books, and I love the Cardinals. This book somehow manages to fail on all those fronts.
Not Age Relevant
Many Exersaucers/Jumparoos are adorned with lots of ABC’s and 123’s which I guess are designed to make them look like “educational” toys. But even if a child who is exersaucer age could/should be learning letters and numbers (they should not), why just three of each? You may suggest “it’s just decoration,” but the song- and noise-generating buttons on the one we had specifically focus on these letters (and JUST these). It’s dressed up to look educational but provides no useful lesson to a kid of this or any age.
Side rant – I think Fisher Price employs only one woman to record all the talking and singing for their toys. I assume this is so she can haunt the nightmares of parents forever.
Toys like the Fun Years My Workbench are insane. The hammer plays recordings of “realistic sounds.” I’m pretty sure my kid can generate her own realistic banging sound by… you know… banging it like it’s a hammer.
But remember, kids have no taste. They like things that make noise for its own sake. Why encourage them?
The Fisher-Price Sing n’ Learn Shopping Tote is another prime example of a random noise making toy. My daughter loves playing with the various toy foods it came with and has even brought the bag to the store with us so she can participate in grocery shopping- great! But, you see, there is a giant button. It plays songs about grocery shopping and saying “please and thank you.” They’re nice lessons, but why does the shopping bag need to do this at all? She was already using it perfectly as a bag! “So turn it off,” you say. But she’s a toddler who understands off switches to be her mortal enemy.
So far, insane and insipid, but not ill-willed…
The World’s Most Annoying Toy
If there is a special circle of hell for annoying toy designers, then the person at Fisher Price who designed the Lil People Little Movers Airplane should be admitted first. It’s not enough that it talks and sings every time you interact with it in any way (god forbid children enjoy 3 seconds making their OWN noises)… no, no, this plane sings the same 30 second song any time the plane’s wheels move… at all. Seriously check out this Youtube video! That song in the background, that’s the song. The whole thing. Every time the wheels move. Every… time… the… wheels… move…
Sadism is truly the only excuse for this behavior.
Are you Just a Luddite and/or Grump?
No…maybe? I’m not opposed to electronic toys on principle. I spent my childhood playing video games and own a smartwatch, which is obviously the least essential technology of our day (and I love my smartwatch).
That said, things that make noise just for the sake of making noise are idiotic. Things that make illogical noises are infuriating.
Electronics are great. Pretend play is great. But electronics sprinkled into toys at random often crowd out pretend play.
How to Pick Toys that Don’t Suck
Here are a few things I recommend you ask yourself this holiday season when picking out a toy for the special munchkin in your life:
1. Is it fun? Can you imagine it staying fun for a week? A month?
Cute is a good start, but it isn’t enough. A good toy gets used a LOT, and when you’re space constrained, a toy that’s fun in multiple ways at multiple ages (even just 6 months apart) is a good sanity-keeper. If it does only one thing, it gets forgotten and becomes junk when the one thing gets boring. If it lets a kid do many different things (or best yet, encourages kids to come up with many different things), it can stay in our living room toy-box for months.
2. If it’s electronic, does it have a reason to be?
- Toy smartphone? Yes. (Electronic in real life, electronic as a toy – sweet!)
- Toy drill? Yes. (See above.)
- Toy hammer? No!!!
3. Do the functions/sounds/whatever have anything to do with the actual thing?
We have a Fisher-Price Learning Kitchen that makes kitchen noises (running water, etc.) when the kid interacts with it. This is good.
The toy airplane (yes, I’m back at the airplane), makes announcements that make me think the designer read a book about airplanes without ever having been in one. Why does placing the flight attendant in his/her seat cause the plane to tell you to fasten your seat-belt and make engine noises? Why? WHY?
4. Does it have an off switch and/or volume control?
Sometimes the baby is sleeping so we need to use it quietly. Sometimes we want to encourage kids to play their own way. Sometimes the kid may want to use the toy for something not planned by the designer.
5. If it claims to be for pretend play, does it give the kid room to actually use their imagination?
Doing my best Judge John Hodgman impression: this really is the crux of the issue.
If the toy has a “correct” way to play dictated by the manufacturers, it’s not very good for pretend play. (I’m looking at you Melissa & Doug Stacking Train – the cars have differently spaced posts so the blocks can only be assembled ONE way. This discourages kids from building what they want.)
If the airplane doesn’t stop making noise long enough to let a kid make her own noises or plan out her own flight, then what’s the point? (Yes, I know, the airplane again, but really… it’s just the WORST.)
Author Info: Lee is a father of 2 who lives in Boston. He is an economist, an election worker, and an advocate for livable cities. When he’s not taking to Twitter (@leebier) with righteous indignation (the best kind!), he can be found practicing his latest dad humor on his delighted children (who are still too little to know better). He and his wife blog about city living with children at Kids in the Stairwell(on Twitter and Facebook).