How can toys’ characteristics be viewed from a semiotic perspective?

  • Peirce emphasises that a sign always means something to somebody, even though this somebody is not necessarily a person or a consciousness!

Sutton-Smith (1984) relates that a toy can be regarded as a sign of the time in which it is produced with an accompanying description of the attitudes and opinions characteristic of the particular era, which naturally are based on earlier or inherited comprehension and traditions.

From these observations, it is possible to analyse toys’ characteristics and meaning for play - but from a semiotic perspective.

Signs or things (here the example is toys) do not necessarily have to be characterised on the basis of conventional meanings.

A characteristic of a toy’s role, value, intention, etc., can easily flow freely and assume any meaning at all, as it so often does in our imagination, imaginary pictures and daydreams. After all, a child will often play that a pebble is a cow, a doll is a baby, etc.

A sign includes:



Between index, icon and symbol, there is “space for interpretation” which makes it possible for us to use diffuse and abstract ideas about the three phenomena’s internal relationship - provided that imagination is present.

index              (the real/actual) = a cow, a baby

icon                (the imaginary) = imagination, imaginary picture, etc.

symbol           (the symbolic/sign) = toys (cow figure, baby doll)

(Incidentally, there is a problem with toys that, when the index (cows and babies) change “appearance” - in accordance with the era, needs and fashions - there is the risk that the symbol or toy will, a few years later, no longer be modern - but antique.)

Derrida (1970) explained that “there is distance between a sign’s “symbol” and its “index”. There is space for interpretation between them and in this space or area there is plenty of opportunity for the interpretant to play and to experiment mentally, form creative imaginary pictures, something fantastic - icons.

(It is in fact only because we apparently lack the ability to express ourselves clearly enough verbally that we believe that the symbol or sign concerned must necessarily assume the same meaning as its index.)

In his analysis, Saussure (1974) believes that words in language are an expression of “signs or symbols” (which have a potential meaning in addition to a meaning for the connection to reality). Saussure’s analysis is thus a mirror image of Derrida’s explanation.

One can, therefore, regard toys as sign systems which provoke a variety of alternative fantasies, opinions and attitudes because understanding of the index is different for each individual person - and that some people maybe also have a reduced capacity for using their imagination.

Sutton-Smith’s idea (1984,a) on this matter seems particularly relevant as toys are normally produced “as if” (an icon with a special meaning). In our imaginations, toys should represent a baby, cow, car, plane, house, tool, etc. On the other hand, closer observation of the toys reveals that there is an ambivalent relationship to the index it represents. A doll is meant to symbolise and not to symbolise a baby.

The importance of play becomes paradoxical because a toy is both what we say it is and is not: The doll must indicate that it is a baby - but also that it isn’t a baby! There must be some connection! Apart from being very small, a doll has far fewer baby-like details than a real baby. It doesn’t move quite like a baby does, if it can move at all.

It doesn’t make the same sounds (or makes no sounds at all). It doesn’t produce dirty diapers and doesn’t feel like a real baby - as it is naturally made most often of synthetic materials.

But despite all these negative signs and examples within the general linguistic framework, the “baby” is even so a baby in some way. The various signs merely distort the meaning of the symbol “baby” and baby’s index. It is therefore possible to state that children see toys thus:

  • The most apparent signs, e.g. play with the baby doll, are sensed “negatively” (as play with the baby doll communicates that it is not what it is meant to be)
  • The sign, in the form of the toy as a baby doll, is distorted (because synthetic materials are used which alter things so much that there is no doubt that this is a variation, a template of a baby) - but
  • even so, the sign, in the form of the baby doll, is also positive because it is called Baby

This is why “baby” in play as an idealised form (in the form of a baby doll) can be and is a sign for many different things:

It can be:

    • An expression of folly
    • Lies and deception
    • Childishness
    • A joke shop novelty
    • Pretence
    • Play idealisationfor small girls (who will later become mothers)
    • Human projection, or
    • “Baby” is present in today’s game. . .



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