I've been thinking about toys, play and imagination lately.
I read something in Whole Child/Whole Parent that I keep coming back to (paraphrased): A toy is just the means of discovery. Once a child has learned whatever he or she can from one particular toy, he will become uninterested in it. Toys and play give children opportunities to learn about the world.
This makes sense because I've seen it happen. If I take my three year old to a garage sale selling toys, he will be mesmerized and play with whatever they have for as long as I will let him. But if I were to buy every toy they had, he would be ignoring them in a day or two because the toys would offer him nothing new. The initial entertainment value of any toy fades really quickly--unless it is the kind that requires imagination to use.
Some time ago I read an article on play that I also keep returning to; it talked about how there has been a negative shift towards replacing play with educational activity. This is a mistake because children learn about the world through their play, and sad because children's imaginations are under-utilized when play gets pushed aside for 'more important' activities. What is a child if not a creature of imagination?
I try to stay away from feeding my kids tv and toys with batteries because (besides the jangling noises) I think of them as the junk food of play--they tend to be things that short-shrift imagination. Battery run toys do one thing, and one thing only. A talking toy piano will always be just a talking toy piano. But a bucket? A bucket can be a hat, a stool, a pot for cooking, a mold for sand--anything, really.
Naturally, I've been thinking back on what I liked playing with as a child, and I think I can pretty safely say that my favorite toy was my dollhouse. Yes, the dollhouse was always a dollhouse, but every new play session offered the potential for something new to be created in story. Even unused, the dollhouse sat waiting for someone to come and make up a new story to happen between the little walls. I still have the dollhouse in a crate in the basement, and all the tiny furniture I collected over the years tucked away in boxes, waiting for some other child to bring them back to life. I couldn't ever possibly feel the same way about an old video or remote controlled car I used to love as a kid.