Chapter 6 The Roles of Toys and of Play

As mentioned earlier, toys today are typically identified as commercially produced objects which children can play with. It is, however, difficult to distinguish between:

  • toys as toys or instruments and children’s play as play or
  • children’s play as a copy of something or other, e.g. as a ritual which is motivated by their parents’ work.

Toys are also most often treated as if they have absolutely nothing at all to do with children’s creativity and imagination.

It is often stated that toys even destroy children’s imaginations, as mentioned in Barthes. In the meantime, play (in modern play research) is always regarded and described as the essence of creativity, e.g. Huizinga (1949), Caillois (1961) and Singer (1990).

Toys are charged either with being too realistic or for lacking similitude and adaptation functions.

Sutton-Smith investigates this contradiction between the roles of the toy and of play in “Toys as Culture” (1986) and presents four theses:

  • toys within the family
  • toys and development (the pedagogical aspects)
  • toys and technology
  • toys and the toy market

supplemented by a fifth:

  • toys and Art

Sutton-Smith relates that both parents and children obtain toys on the basis of vastly different motivations. (also called “prepurchase factors”.) The toy’s use is exploited to the full, i.e. the consumer attributes utility values to the toy dependent on individual motivations which are conditional on personality, social condition and situations and opinions at the moment of purchase. In other words, when toys are purchased, ideological benefits are involved.













After the toy purchase, the owner of the toy defines the benefits more or less clearly or more or less consciously. The following eight ideologies or views (revisions) apply:

The irrational: Impulse buy, made without further thought as to why one bought the toy

The useful: what positive uses could be apportioned to the toy?

The childish: the toy provokes feelings for childhood and for being a child

Adopting a role/position: that the toy strengthens the role and position in a game but also that ownership of the toy gives the owner strength and power

Imagination: that the person who buys the toy allocates the toy imagined values, importance or simply that he is just plain satisfied by owning it

Idealism: That the toy meets the ideal requirements of the person who will play with it.

Information: That, on the strength of its presence, the toy can teach the user new and different ways in which to play.

Identification: That the person who plays with the toy “is or becomes” the toy or that the toy becomes a part of the owner’s identity.

A toy can therefore be regarded differently according to the perspective from which it is seen: e.g. a toy as a gift brings family members together or is an instrument to promote development, is an automatic machine acting as an aid/useful object which is part of the normal pattern of consumer culture.



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