How do toys’ characteristics provoke creative thoughts and actions?

The child can convert toys into toy stories (both linguistically retold and/or thought out in the imagination) which can contain or represent all possible creative fantasies about play with the toy. Of course, this does not confirm that the toy alone contributes to this just because e.g. it is a good toy and looks interesting.

Sutton-Smith’s research (1986) which is used as examples in this section of the book was inspired by Pellegrini & Yawkey (1984).

The research topic was favourite games of 75 children aged between three and 13 years. 80% of the children mentioned that a toy/toys were a significant and important part of their favourite game.

By observing the children’s games with toys and then interviewing them about them, it was established that, in 90% of their games, the children (regardless of whether they were boys or girls) spent time on their own internal fantasies about themselves or about the toys and on chatting, conversing and relating what they wanted to do with them. (They were not hypnotised by the toys' special characteristics as such.)

The children used such terms as “imagine, imagining” or accounted for the game they had played by narrating stories about what they made, did and said - without mentioning the toys themselves to any significant degree.

In the remaining 10% of games, where the children described the toys or actions with the toys without any form of direct dialogue or narrative, we can conclude that the children probably had stories or dialogues in their minds. There is no difference between the way the boys and the way the girls accounted for the extent of their stories and dialogues during the game.

The girls

The degree of importance of the narrative factors in the children’s games were, however, clearly gender-specific, relative to certain types of toys as the girls’ favourite roles and reactions were associated with dolls, soft toys, office, family, home, school and doctor play. The girls also assumed most often the role of adult in their games with the toys.

Where the older girls were concerned (aged six and over), the adult role was part of play whether toys were part of the game or not, e.g. being older or grown-up, having children, making a home, being an animal or looking after animals, being the teacher or running away!

With only very few exceptions, these family-home-school games were reported by girls exclusively. Despite the fact that the games reflect the traditional gender-specific interests of girls (in approx. 60% of cases), girls at play (who are still subject to gender-specific traditions) also had to negotiate or in some original way account for their own experiences of home, i.e. life style, the family’s specific or creative everyday programme.

Only when the games included certain types of toys, e.g. LEGO bricks, machines or construction systems, was the narrative reaction less abundant - probably because the children spent a lot of time keeping track of or maintaining order in the systems or the technicalities of the toys.

The boys

In 60% of cases, where boys were concerned, they played traditional gender-specific interests and games with the toys which comprised cars, planes, trains, rockets and larger construction systems, toy “battles” with wars and manhunts between action dolls and horses and competitions.

The boys dominated the girls in dialogues, as mentioned above, but only when certain specially “complicated” toys were used by boys and girls together.

From Sutton-Smith’s (1986) research, we find that children’s descriptions of their favourite games are dominated by their gender-created and gender-specific narrative play traditions rather than being specified primarily by the stimulating characteristics of the toys. 

Both James & McCain (1982) and Jessen (1991) draw similar conclusions concerning the influence of e.g. TV programmes on children’s play: that the programmes deliver “scenes”, which (when copied in play) are summarised or mixed with the traditional patterns in children’s play. Seen relative to children’s play with traditional and experimental toys, this shows that:

  • The more familiar and well-known the thing is, the more familiar and well-known the recognitionwill be and
  • The older things are, the more the toys will be subject to the traditions of group play which are deeply affected by the social and cultural tradition.

It is thus the creative role in play which is most apparent as opposed to the stimulating characteristics of/in the children’s play with toys.

When children are small or they find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings with unfamiliar things, it can be expected that the toys’ stimulating characteristics will later influence their activities. With reference, however, to the regrettably few investigations of this (especially Pellegrini (1984)) supported by the children’s own imaginative narratives and accounts of toys, research seems to indicate that:

  • For many children toys are motivating factors to creative development which always rests on traditions.



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