The fact that adults regard children as a version of themselves is never more clearly demonstrated than by toys. Normal toys generally make an adult world in miniature. This world consists of nothing more than miniature copies of human objects as if society sees a child as nothing more than a little person, a dwarf who has to be equipped with the objects suitable for his size…


…The child, however, does not make objects which have any kind of meaning. The child is indifferent to whether its constructions can be given an adult name. What the child is concerned with is not a consumer act but an act of creativity: A child can make objects which move, which can roll. The child creates life, not property. These objects drive themselves for they are more than just inanimate, complicated products. But all of this is something relatively rare: The ordinary (French) toy is an imitation which encourages consuming, non-creative children…


Roland Barthes (1969:49)


To a certain extent Barthes is right but toys are more complicated than that. In the following four chapters, we walk in Barthes’ footsteps but will take the liberty of looking at his statements in far greater detail.

Definition: Toys are:

  • copies of real objects
  • copies of historical items and objects, but can also be
  • imaginary things based on both realityand fantasy

A toy can also be:

  • an analogue for an object about which the person-at-play seeks cognition, knowledgeand experience through play - in play, the analogy replaces the object itself.

The toy as a “gift” is clearly expressed in the modern consumer society as toy gifts as a part of family life represent innumerable forms of cultural expression. The toys refer to the various core values, attitudes, norms and traditions which are themselves based on a variety of economic, political and sociological principles. Toys are given particularly in connection with celebrations (Christmas and birthdays) because the giver wants to please the receiver. But toy gifts which suggest ceremony, intimacy and belonging, community, bonding, commitment, debt of gratitude and claims between giver and receiver (see Sutton-Smith (1986:15-21) and Mick (1991:143-159) are also an important and interesting brick in the complicated socio-psychological patterns within families.

When parents give their children gifts, what are children expected to give in return? Obedience, affection, gratitude?

The toy gift can also be regarded as the band which ties the generations of a family together in a time where insecurity and disintegration characterises the family and the relationships between the generations. Many parents have a guilty conscience and never have time to play with their children and the gift functions as compensation.

Some types of toy were invented just to give “substitute affection” or to replace the lack of parental affection, time or desire to be with and play with their children. Pets are popular because they return the love while toy animals and agent dolls as gifts are intended to substitute a lack of security and lack of time spent together. Superficially, it would seem that children in modern society have no use for all these toy gifts filling shelf after shelf and whole cupboards full of toys.

According to Winnicot (1971:51-52), gifts contribute to persuading children gradually to give up some of their expectations for direct and lasting (human contact) parental contact, being together and interplay - which were all something more prevalent in earlier, more collective societies.

In modern technological society, consciousness of children’s gradual turning away from close human contact is probably a necessity. A new adaptation to loneliness and separation, to individual achievement, to manipulation with symbolic objects and products at many levels has already overtaken and replaced the collective work processes which were more evident in earlier times.

Part of Winnicot’s theory is that there are specific toy gifts which are regarded as absolute necessities and that the toy’s significance and special role is part of a socialisation towards this adaptation. Certain objects have cultural motivations and their significance as “transitional phenomena” means that they act as mediators between the child and his environment/society. The child gives his parents “a gift” by showing his interest in the toy - so that the parents can continue their busy lives with a clear conscience.

Gottfried’s (1984) research shows that children in nuclear families spend a large part of their time alone and surrounded by their toys in their playpens and in their rooms.

In modern society, the solitary concept of play, individual play and isolation are just as important a part of the child’s play existence as social play was in the past. Individual play involves a need for greater variation and supply of toys. Time spent in child care institutions, with sisters and brothers and playmates can of course modify the isolation of individual play, separation from parents, loneliness and self-absorption. On the other hand, the social concept of play, being together, acting in community demands greater variation in play.



Table of Contents