Sutton-Smith’s eight benefits

Benefits connected to the irrational

The motivation for a sudden toy purchase is often irrational and spontaneous. Parents’ spontaneous, impulse buys of toy products are often motivated by a desire to achieve benefits “here and now”. The short-term aim is fulfilled as such purchases are often intended to keep the child quiet and get a bit of peace.

The irrational benefits obtained by the child getting the toy (or pestering the life out of his parents in order to get it) are naturally also short-term. No particular consumer group is especially predisposed to making impulse buys. Impulse purchases are determined by the situation and direct stimuli which the consumer encounters at random.

Benefits connected to utility

Benefits here are connected in some way to utility/gain or usage. Utility also means that the object is practical, sensible and useful. There is often the requirement that the object (toy) is clean and washable, that it is easy to deal with, easy to transport, etc.

Utility is also an expression of logic and visibility in the form of a good design and, possibly, decorativeness. In this connection, parents often state that a toy “suits” the child (see Steenhold (1993,d)) because the toy is used to support values and characteristics which they like to see their child possess.

Benefits connected to childhood

These are benefits the parents gain when they play with toys because the toys legitimise childish behaviour. Adults are permitted to become children again. Some toys almost invite the adult-at-play to behave in a childlike way: in fact a few of them even come close to demanding that kind of behaviour.

Children can see the benefits of getting their parents or other adults into a “childlike” position. But, just as often, children are embarrassed when they find their parents (most often Dad) behaving childishly.

On the other hand, some parents try to keep the child a child for as long as possible by underestimating the child’s development in relation to the toys they acquire for him. The opposite can also occur - that parents believe that their child can accomplish far more than he in fact can and buy toys for him which are intended for much older children.

Benefits connected to adopting a role/position

Being able to adopt correct roles and positions is central for us all. We can learn this in childhood with the aid of good props/good toys. Sutton-Smith (1986:227) refers in this connection to several interesting works (from the Renaissance to the present day) on roles and props associated with them - i.e. toys.

Adopting roles and positions is not restricted to play. Within the last three centuries, work has developed into a central parameter for Western civilisation. The ability to instil children with the right roles and positions using  small, useful and correctly designed “anthropometric” implements is therefore advantageous.

Benefits connected to imagination

Singer (1973) proves beyond doubt that children who spend a great deal of time playing play more imaginatively and creatively than children who play less often. The ability to imagine is developed through both solitary and social play.

Trienies, Einsiedler & Bosch (1986) have proven that 3-6 year olds’ ability to imagine in play is affected more by how lifelike a toy is than by its complexity. Complexity does, however, become significant for and attractive to children over the age of six.

The majority of very conscientious parents who want to buy creative toys for their children (toys which do not necessarily have to be complex and difficult to play with) recognise these conclusions intuitively and evaluate toys on their creative merits.

Benefits connected to idealisation

Sutton-Smith (1986:230) calls the “academic play theories” - theories developed by professionals who work with children in pre-school institutions, in therapy or in special laboratories - as theories for and by the rich! Sutton-Smith says that all such theories preach that, where play is organised and planned socially for children in the form of definitive play/games controlled by adults, the children are better prepared for life because, through play with toys, they have the opportunity to test out precise modes of behaviour which adults have selected and find suitable.

Whether these “academic” theories can actually be said to have been developed exclusively for the rich depends presumably on how we choose to define the term “rich”. However, there is all good reason to point out that these theories are patented and marketed to particularly socially critical consumer groups by political idealists. In turn, the consumer groups convert questions and answers into ideologies.

But ideals tend to be fragile - which could explain why “new” pedagogical theories which are almost identical “recycled” versions of existing theories - replace the old ones from time to time.    

Benefits connected to information

In this book I have repeatedly claimed and argued that toys are communicative objects which play a beneficial role for some consumers as concrete sources of information and as diffuse or abstract metaphors. Furthermore, I have often stated that toys support play and games when they function as forms of “simulated reality” (as Aristotle called it).

I have also mentioned that many modern toys developed after World War II function as trivial objects marketed to children in an uncultivated or tasteless way (a belief widely held by puritanical and socially-committed, “green” consumer groups).

However, the same toys also function as implements which encourage creative and pioneering ideas and thoughts which other consumer groups are capable of putting to very good use.

Benefits connected to identification

Identification is deep emotion which occurs when a person plays that he/she is the object itself - or at least as part of it. There are many benefits in this because the dream or imaginary state becomes extremely intimate. Opportunities for the person-at-play to identify himself with the toy have naturally become greater with the expansion of the toy industry over the past 30-40 years.

In the psychological context, identification presents the person-at-play with the opportunity to project feelings and conflicts with the help of the situations and themes of play. Identification objects are most often dolls, characters and functional figures and soft toys. Less frequently the identification object is an implement, e.g. a weapon.

In this way, the toys gain secret power which can develop into fear of power - the fear some people have of machines. At the same time, however, it gives the person-at-play the opportunity to experiment with both power and fear.

When adults see benefits in giving a child a certain toy, they are playing or experimenting with both fear and power because they want the child to learn to master both. Through this, the parents believe that the child will become more independent. In some cases, however, the child becomes less independent, i.e. dependent on the adults.



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