A child’s toy made up of little beads that release the “date rape” drug if swallowed? Gee, that strikes me as a bit dangerous. And it’s even less reassuring following the series of high profile toy recalls – for lead in paint, and small parts and magnets that can be swallowed – of previous months. Anyone else want to join me in whittling their kids’ Christmas and Hanukah gifts this year?
But wait – as usual, the New York Times provides a voice of reason. Columnist David Leonhardt investigated what a lot of parents have wondered lately: just how many toys are out there with lead that haven’t been recalled? He bought about 50 toys off the shelves and found lead in just a handful, and that was below allowed limits.
But it’s not only lead or other dangerous substances used by Chinese manufacturers that’s of concern, but also, and primarily, as toy company Mattel acknowledged, design flaws from the U.S. toy companies. What’s also clear in any case is that the problems in toys come from companies’ unregulated cost-cutting and profit-seeking – and importantly, as a whole other set of concerns, it’s the same kind of behavior that can mean these toys made to amuse Western children are in some cases made by Chinese children.
Making toys this way has helped keep them cheap and plentiful, and as a consumer, who can argue with lower prices? It’s better not to see how the sausage is made. Still, there are more and more reasons to think about what you’re buying for your kids. Consumer Reports’ publisher Consumers Union has started a campaign to try to influence retailers and the government to make toys safer. But that would still leave further questions of how they’re made, and how much junk kids really need.
There’s the organic/crunchy/alternative world of shopping, which is so fun to make fun of, looking more reasonable every day. And then there’s a variation on that that might be boosted by these continuing toy scares – call it the new traditionalist approach to play. You can purchase less (although of course there are books and toys aplenty to buy if you like) because the idea is to bring back traditional games, like marbles and jacks and hopscotch, and red rover and running around and basically things kids’ grandparents might recognize. Traditional toys might still be badly made, and possibly under oppressive conditions, but at least you’re buying less and the toys’ problems are pretty well laid out by now (yeah, you can choke on a marble too, but odds are it won’t drug you). Proponents argue that it’s much more in keeping with what kids need to develop healthily and happily, and that if you give kids a chance they’ll be much more interested in a regular old book than a story-telling robot.
I’ve been learning a bit about the traditional play approach because my own kids’ school emphasizes traditional games and tales. I don’t know if that’s more educational than other kinds of play, but I did have a good, nostalgic, time teaching a class how to play red rover one day. (Traditional play and interests are carried even farther in Waldorf schools, for example, where first-graders learn to knit, but computers are kept out of class until high school.)
As long as it’s not pushed too far or too artificially, there’s not too much to make fun of with traditional play. And it’s certainly simpler to find a box of chalk to draw on the sidewalk than to worry about how the fuzzy wuzzy blabber-bear electronic message board with speaker, music and pulsating lights was made.