Played Out

Classic toys now compete with the wow factor of electronic games. Are they doomed?

My 5-year-old granddaughter and I like to play the Tea Party Game, in which you spin an arrow to determine which cardboard food item—finger sandwiches, petits fours, fruit—to put on your cardboard plate, and at what point you get your napkins, utensils, and other necessities. The first one whose plate is filled and pretty place setting completed wins. She cheats, though, thinking I don’t see her re-spin, lightning-fast, when the arrow points to “Lose a piece.” If she already has a dessert and the arrow points to that category again, she claims it’s “on the line!” The competitive streak runs fast and furious in our family, and I do not judge.
This may not sound like fun, but it is. We get all riled up, and aside from making sure our cups and plates have the same flower pattern, each of us wants to win. The underlying purpose of the game is, of course, to show how to properly set a table; in fact, a sweet little flowered cloth covers the playing surface. The Tea Party Game is an old-fashioned plaything, one I fear will not survive technology.
These days, classic toys compete with the wow factor of electronic games on our iPads and touch-screen phones. My smart, rambunctious twin great-nephews got iPod Touch devices when they were 2, and there they sat, side by side in wooden high chairs at restaurants, tapping away. At 4, one twin can now beat his dad at Angry Birds, and they know how to search on YouTube. At last count, there were hundreds of apps aimed at toddlers on iTunes. Now, this is not to say some of those games aren’t fun and educational, but I worry about kids bent over tablet computers when they could be outside playing Capture the Flag.
The last time I visited my grandkids, they were both so absorbed in Fruit Ninja or Peekaboo Barn or Elmo Loves ABCs, they didn’t even look up from their iPads. In fact, the 2½-year-old tilted the device as if he were piloting a plane, trying to position flying chipmunks into a nest, or some such thing. Puzzles are worked by the scoot of a finger, and you pop reappearing bubbles with a tap. Awhile back, a computer expert came to fix something I’d routinely broken at home—a printer that keeps saying it’s out of paper when it’s not, as I remember. The late hour called for him to bring along his preteen daughter, who occupied herself with his smartphone while he worked. She sat before it, swinging her right arm back and forth over and over. Suspecting some kind of tic, I asked her dad what in the heck she was doing. “Bowling,” he said. One thing’s certain: In this version, the ball’s lighter.
I’ve always loved toys. I treasured my sandbox and wading pool, which had a transparent bottom so you could see the mashed-down grass underneath, and my roller skates, which I clamped on and zoomed in circles around our driveway apron like a Bay Bomber. I adored paint-by-number sets, my Magic 8 Ball, and a Ouija board, even though I would be dead by now had its actuarial prognostications been correct. I always wanted a playhouse, so I saved my money and ordered one from the back of a comic book. Disappointingly, it came in an envelope and turned out to be a folded vinyl cover for a card table. If you sat under the table, you were in a playhouse of sorts, except for the lack of windows and kiddie furniture. And every few minutes you had to lift the flaps for air.

Perhaps the museum will store the artifacts so future generations can observe them, like we do Egyptian mummies.

Most of all, though, I cherished my dolls. My Terri Lee doll came with a trunk that had a lever for her hanging costumes and a cardboard drawer for her hats and shoes. Scrawny Petunia was named, sadly, for the physical shortcomings of her owner, and Eloise matched her title character in the accompanying book. My wee Muffie doll might have been a poor relative of the more popular Ginny, but I adored her just the same. Out of respect for my maternal tendencies, my mother bought beds for all the dolls, including a bunk, a few cradles, and a twin set with inflatable mattresses. At night, I lined them up around my room, which, now that I think of it, resembled a hospital ward. But they were all safe and sound. I don’t know what happened to most of my charges, although years later, I rescued Terri Lee from a flood in my mother-in-law’s basement, and I keep her dismembered parts—her waxy brunette ponytail in place, Mary Jane shoes still hanging from her chubby feet—in a Ziploc bag on my closet shelf.
I wish I’d saved all my toys, as well as those of my children, including the Fisher-Price dial phone, farm, and musical radio; Lite-Brite; Shrinky Dinks; all manner of LEGOs; and a well-used Big Wheel. Many of my old favorites wound up on the Children’s Museum’s recent list of top 20 toys, chosen by the public last summer: View-Master, check. Lincoln Logs, check. Little Golden Books, Candy Land, Mr. Potato Head, check, check, check. Perhaps the museum will store the artifacts so that future generations can observe them, like we do ancient Egyptian mummies. How much longer can it be until toy stores, especially the big-box variety, go the way of Borders and Blockbuster: out of date, their offerings replaced by newer, more sophisticated gadgets?
When we watched too much TV, my mother used to say we were “hypnotized.” I wonder what she’d think of today’s kids mesmerized by 2½-inch screens, whether she’d believe interactive was as good as just plain active. If things keep going the way they are, this holiday season, tykes won’t thrill to a red firetruck or chugging train set under the Christmas tree—they’ll find instead a list of apps. The last time I checked, Amazon still stocked 16 Tea Party Game sets. Get ’em while you can.

Illustration by Andrea Eberbach

This column appeared in the December 2012 issue.