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Seven Lessons Learned from Classic Kids’ Toys

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We know the routine. After weeks of breathless anticipation, the fabled morning arrives and the children scamper to the Christmas tree with all the enthusiasm of tween girls at a Robert Pattinson sighting. They open up the toy of their dreams—the toy they’ve been pleading for since June—and then spend the rest of the morning playing with … the carton it came in. 

Since 1998, the National Toy Hall of Fame has honored our most sacred hallmarks of childhood—toys we treasured as children, fondly remember as adults, and perhaps even taught us something about life along the way. We can’t go through all forty-four that have been honored there, of course. But here’s a sampling of seven of the most fun and most sneakily inspirational presents to ever grace a holiday celebration. Box not included.

1. Mr. Potato Head: It’s Okay to Be Silly
You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to, and Hasbro’s been saying jackpot since 1952. Back then, Mr. Potato Head didn’t actually come with a potato head: Rather, it was just a collection of eyes, noses, ears, and hats that kids could stick into real potatoes in whatever outlandish manner they wished. It wasn’t until 1964 that a plastic potato head was included with the accoutrements.

For a while, Hasbro made its potatoes with slots that made it impossible for children to stick, say, the mouth where the eyes should go. But after a few years, they realized that part of the toy’s charm was the ability to do silly things with Mr. Potato Head’s face, and went back to the traditional round holes. And indeed, Mr. Potato Head—along with his lovely wife and various movie-themed incarnations (Darth Tater, anyone?)—is a silly symbol of diversity. Through Mr. Potato Head, children learned that a toy’s value was determined by malleability, not its beauty: Kids learned that toys could be just as fun—maybe even more so—if there was an ear where a nose should be.

2. Barbie: Yes, You Can Do It All
She’s not quite ready for a senior discount at Denny’s yet, but she’s not too far off. And at fifty, Barbie looks remarkably good for her age. Sure, there are rumors that she’s had more procedures done on her wares than Joan Rivers (we hear that she went in recently to have her waistline enlarged), but really, who would begrudge her a little plastic surgery when her whole body’s plastic? 

Not everyone takes kindly to Barbie’s eternal good looks. Some say her chest is too big and her waist is too small, and that she obsesses too much over fashion and not enough over third-year calculus. But here’s the thing: In an age in which the typical woman still makes 76 percent of what a typical man makes for the same job, here’s a woman who can be a doctor, a rock star, a cheerleader, and an astronaut—sometimes all in one afternoon. She can do it all—and drive a cool pink Corvette to boot. Glass ceiling? Barbie smashed through that during playtime a long ago.

3. G.I. Joe: Some Things Are Worth Fighting For
While Barbie was curing cancer and driving Ken to the beach, G.I. Joe was protecting bedrooms across the country from democracy-loathing evildoers. The forerunner of the action figure, G.I. Joe allowed boys license to play with dolls, too—if only because these dolls wore camouflage and carried guns and never, ever cried “mama.”

G.I. Joe has evolved a great deal over his forty-five years. In 1964, the figures evoked World War II soldiers and sailors, slowly morphing into a diverse, high-tech, Cobra-fighting hero. But whatever he looked like, kids knew that the Joe was more than just a guy with guns. He stood for something: courage, honor, and the idea that there are things in this world worth fighting for. And knowing is half the battle.

4. Play-Doh: Let Your Imagination Run Wild
It came in garishly unnatural colors and hardened into a Day-Glo rock if you left the can open overnight. But these weaknesses didn’t dampen the eternal charm of Play-Doh.

Before children knew the appeal of potpourri or that “new car smell,” children knew Play-Doh’s unmistakable scent was the odor of fun. Kids could mold it into everything from cars to butterflies to snakes (lots and lots of snakes), and Hasbro helped them out by creating a host of ancillary toys to mold, shape, and squeeze the stuff into all manner of forms, ranging from cuttable “hair” to cavity-laden teeth.

In 1976, a man built a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s mansion, Monticello, with 2,500 bricks of Play-Doh, illustrating that the magic of the stuff was only limited by your imagination and skill. But even when you didn’t feel like making anything at all (and, let’s face it, we all have days like that), there’s still something incredibly satisfying about feeling it squish through your fingers.

5. Slinky: Be Resilient, but Know When You’re at a Breaking Point
More than 300 million Slinkies have been sold since their invention in 1945, and no wonder; they’re a study in the odd things that please us, from watching them “walk” down stairs by themselves to the shleep-shleeep sound they make when you move them between your hands. They’re as simple and as tactile as a toy can be, which explains why they’ve been a favorite stocking-stuffer since the Truman administration.

Not that these toys don’t have some intellectual oomph. High school teachers sometimes use Slinkies to teach their students about radio waves, and NASA has used them to conduct experiments in outer space (alas, the stair-walking thing doesn’t work in zero gravity). But at its core, the Slinky is simply a study in resilience, the ability to spring back to form when it’s been stretched to a near breaking point.

This might explain why we became inexplicably sad when our Slinkies invariably developed a little hitch in their spring—a little bend or crease or knot that made them slink a little less. It taught us that everything—even the über-resilient Slinky—shows some scars.

6. Teddy Bear: Sometimes Just Being There Is Everything
Real bears are not, as a rule, cuddly. They tend to be large, toothy creatures that, if given enough reason, could easily rip our arms out of our sockets without so much as a gruff apology. Yet ever since plush teddy bears—named after the bear-hunting President Teddy Roosevelt—arrived on the scene in the early 1900s, countless children have made these critters their closest confidants.

It’s easy to see why. Stuffed with polyfill and good intentions, today’s teddy bears are the world’s best listeners, able to endure savage beatings, tearful confessions, and rib-cracking hugs without so much as a whimper. They’re so understanding that police and firemen often give teddy bears to children who’ve gone through traumatic experiences. The bear’s presence, officials say, tends to stabilize them.

The lesson these bears impart is as simple as the bears themselves: You don’t always need to have the right words, or do the perfect deed, to make people feel better. Sometimes, all you need to do is be there for them.

7. Tinkertoys: Look for Big Possibilities in the Ordinary

Sticks and stones, it has been said, can break bones. Tinkertoy’s sticks and spokes, though, can open doors to wonders galore.

Tinkertoys, like most of the best toys, are pretty simple: Each Tinkertoy package contains loads of colored sticks of different length (plastic or wood, depending on the type you buy), circular wheel-like spokes and tiny plastic flags—all of which can be connected to one another. There are no instructions, really—no “right way” to play with them. It’s up to a child’s own creativity to decide what to do with them. They could make a simple car, or a working windmill, or—if they attended Cornell University—a working robot.

Most of us never quite managed to get a robot out of our store-bought collection of sticks and spokes. But Tinkertoys did allow us to see oversized possibilities in the most mundane of objects. And we’ve built on that ability ever since.

By Paul Asay for BeliefNet


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