When I was first married 40 some years ago, there was little spare money for Christmas toys. We relied on well heeled relatives to fill the empty white area under the Christmas tree. We would dream up goofy inexpensive gifts both for our own children and for the myriad birthday parties during the year to which our kids were expected to bring gifts. Two steady hits were a large tin box of brightly colored Band-Aids and a $1.99 flashlight. Both gifts seemed to be a hit with little children. As our kids grew older, toys like hammers and a jar of nails, hand saws, games and kits took over. Good toys require imagination not money.

I watched a toy the other day that cost more than we then spent on the Christmas holiday – including the meal. It was a plush toy in which the child throws a switch and the toy performs a gymnastic mechanical routine while talking and laughing. The child watches. It did not seem like a toy, but rather like “Billy Bass” hanging in the den and singing “Take Me to the River” until the owner is driven crazy and beats it to a pulp or “lawn sales” it. Where’s the toy part?

Toy’s should stimulate children, not just entertain them. A good toy elicits both curiosity and challenge. The child must do, create or imagine something each time he or she plays with the toy, not just watch it perform. It’s like the difference between reading and watching television. The child reading must create visual imagery from text and do so without a soundtrack to dictate his or her feelings. They must hold the book instead a bag of potato chips and a remote.

Today, our children must constantly try to reconcile intellectually the often harsh emotional and practical reality of their own lives and the storybook lives they see, often for hours, every day on TV and in movies. Everyone lives in a nice house, appears to have plenty of money and things and their only anxiety is induced by some tedious plot line. Merely 60 years ago, children lived mostly in the real world and, for some, the world of books. Movies and radio provided occasional respite from reality. Today’s toy and entertainment technology has brought them and us into a new world in which we are mere audience.

As we go into through this holiday season, I’m challenging myself to buy or make gifts for my children and friends that are either practical or offer them some stimulus. I’ll resist being seduced into buying goods that promise a world other than the one to which we must inevitably return every day when the toy is put away, the TV turned off and the earbuds taken out of our ears. The best gifts are inspired by the recipient, not the marketer. They are more than a thing. It would be nice as well if they were made in Vermont or even America. (499 words)

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