x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The games babies play

Toys and playtime are about more than materialist desires. They can shape the way a child develops.

It’s a tried and true Christmas cliché: parents spend hundreds of dirhams on presents and, after eagerly unwrapping the gifts, the children end up playing amid the boxes. PrimaryPicture

At Dh14.95 for a set of 17, Pruta is a bargain. Besides keeping food fresh for days, these plastic boxes from Ikea make excellent playthings. Astrid is fixated on them. She spends hours pushing the different-sized containers through the bars of her cot, chewing the lids and toppling towers made from them.

Nothing can surpass the lure of these simple boxes. Perhaps it is their Swedish design. They have ousted all rivals. The jangling duck lies abandoned in the corner. The noisy, flashing car sits silent and motionless, gathering a patina of dust.

Astrid’s behaviour confirms a Christmas cliché. Parents queue for hours, spend hundreds of dirhams on presents and, after eagerly unwrapping the gifts, the children end up playing amid the boxes.

It is odd, particularly when most toys claim to be designed by experts. Everybody knows a wooden spoon or a cardboard box will keep a child just as happy as the latest toy. Everyone except, it seems, toy manufacturers.

Like fast-food chains, toy manufacturers are driven by sales rather than long-term satisfaction. They serve up the toy equivalent of Big Macs: products lacking in nourishment, whose satisfaction evaporates quickly, leaving nothing but longing for another product. No wonder, when you consider the market for toys in the European Union in 2008 was worth €14.2 billion (Dh78 billion).

The market has had a long time to reach this point. Toys are almost as old as civilisation. The earliest examples are human and animal figures found in excavations in Sumer – home of the earliest known civilisation – which date back to 2,600BC. The earliest written reference to toys is in a Greek text from around 500BC that mentions a yo-yo. Play is a primal activity. But as the anthropologist Edward Norbeck observed: “Various cultures lack a generic term for play, and lack the concept of work and play in binary opposition.”

Keeping play fluid, amorphous and fleet-footed is a fine idea. Once play is pinned down, parcelled and gift wrapped with a bow, it can be sold. We have reached new levels in this commodification of play. Toys are sold to parents as a representation of an expression of love and they are sold to children as a wild parade of seemingly endless novelty. It is a win-win situation – for the toy companies, at least.

Toys are about more than materialist desires. In Out of the Garden: Toys and Children’s Culture in the Age of TV Marketing, Stephen Kline questions the “common belief that the family and school are the main agencies of socialisation”. Toys, he argues, significantly shape our behaviour as we grow up.

Iran’s judiciary agrees. In 2006 it cracked down on Barbie, the blond-haired doll first manufactured in the United States. Officials raided toy shops, stuck black tape over exposed plastic parts and confiscated stocks from toy sellers. A few years earlier, Sara and Dara – Iranian versions of Barbie and Ken – were launched to counteract the so-called cultural invasion. These actions reveal a genuine fear about how playing with toys can affect children in significant ways.

Perhaps it is paranoid bluster, but not necessarily. Since the 1960s, the world has been recreating itself through toys. It began with Scalextrix and Lego and moved on to Nintendo and Sega. More and more toys have become a simulacrum of the world. They are miniature prototypes of the cornucopia of adult life. It is easy to forget that toys can shape the world as well as mirror it.


Gina Ford lies in tatters by the bed. Scraps of torn pages are scattered on the floor. Astrid is trying to stuff page 125 – “routines for the first year” – in to her mouth. She shouts out, smiles and claps her hands.

It is a significant moment. It is the first time that The New Contented Little Baby Book has led to such contentment in Astrid’s life.

The book’s routines profess to be “the secret to calm and confident parenting”, but we have found them to be too strict and restrictive.

Astrid rips out another page. I glimpse some words on the paper – “place your semi-drowsy baby in a darkened room…” She starts to chew the fragment. Most of the time, the book’s descriptions seem to bear little resemblance to our baby.

That’s OK. Different approaches work for different parents and babies.

Usually I’d step in and stop the destruction, but as Astrid laughs and reaches for another page, I have no urge to stop her.