Toys as phenomenological projects

It is open to question how children’s games, their play and fictive (often invisible) stories, produce all kinds of functions in the world of objects through concrete play items (in the form of toys) - thus making the games phenomenological projects.

The “phenomenological project” in play  - i.e. the feat of maintaining curiosity and an open mind in relation to things as valuable and important (not only in childhood but also generally) - is without doubt the driving force in the content/text of play on many levels.

“I have often wondered why we pay so little attention to the fact that the instant a child receives a strong impression, one potent enough to imprint itself permanently on the child’s memory, the child is in reality a poet with his own special conditions for receiving the impression, repeating it or simply preserving it”, comments Carl Nielsen in his memoirs “”Min Fynske Barndom” (My Childhood on Funen) and continues:

“The power of poetry is basically a force, the ability to observe and comprehend things in a particular way. This means that we were all once poets, artists - each one of us in his or her own way. The careless way in which life and adults call the child away from the beautiful world of poetry and Art and into harsh, naked reality is doubtless to blame for most of us losing these faculties so the heavenly gift of fantasy with which every child is born either disintegrates into mere raving or is lost for ever.”

Nielsen’s description bears witness to the deep respect he felt for the child as an intuitive, experiential, sensing and playing being.

Similarly, in Walter Benjamin’s memoirs “Childhood in Berlin” (1972), (The Humpbacked Homunculus IV:304), we find a subtle account of what children see that adults don’t see because children move in the zone under normal adult eye level. They spot what adults fail to spot and see what the adults see from a different perspective. They experience differently and their experiences are different. And this is why anything can appeal to them.

Anything can be picked up, held and turned around, given a soul and assigned magical powers (as Hans Christian Andersen relates in his fairy tales). Things and objects act in a subtle way, like when Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking calls a garden pea a special name and transforms it into a very special pill which she takes so that she doesn’t have to grow up.

Ritual and the magic of sound are of course part of the process. A child can also go looking for “things” which are nothing more than a name (like Winnie the Pooh looking for a “heffalump”).

We might ask ourselves if we adults really know what a “thing” is. We have many names for it: thingummy, doodah, wotsit, gear, etc. Sometimes there is something magical or mystical about “things”, e.g. Hans Christian Andersen’s “curios”.

To supplement the above, there is Ørum’s (1993) critique of Nicholson Baker’s novel “The Mezzanine”, entitled “Down amongst the Things”:

“Under the eagle eye of the child, the artist or the phenomenologist, a humble object, even a prefabricated, shrink-wrapped cottage cheese sandwich, may become a treasure if attention is paid to the specifics of the object and its detailed combined possibilities. In other words, what is needed is a certain interest for or passionate intimacy with things. What is thrown back to the observer is pleasure. What the world gains is value. The eagle eye makes it possible to find connections, to see the common denominator despite massive differences in materials and contexts and to regard visual experiences as rewards for prior decisions.”

Anything worthless is visible to the child and within his reach - to observe and reflect upon, to use again in alternative, previously unimagined contexts.

Children’s play and fictive and invisible stories are fabricated and made up of all the functions of the concrete play objects (i.e. toys) in the world of objects, thus turning play into phenomenological projects.

Daily life is in fact more decisive to the child than epoch-making or violent new or historical events. Day-to-day contact with things and with other persons-at-play is fundamental.

When children differentiate between all the many fragments which make up daily life, the text of play can reconstruct the greater perspective. Questions which are important for the child can be encompassed in the little text of play which - in spite of its obscurity - forms the basis for the large text.

For example: The following three short texts by parents tell us something about their children’s world of play:

  • old fabric remnants can be put to all kinds of uses
  • a broken car radio antenna can become: a fishing net, a whip to make the husky dogs run faster, an arrow. In fact, everything can be many things more or less all at once.
  • They make a toy out of their fantasy, play with it and constantly make it into different things

In this way, the text of play gains a project in common with the phenomenology and what play relates can be described as a kind of phenomenological reduction by which we try to place ourselves at the elementary level of human perception and interaction ahead of all the general theoretical explanations. We can therefore interpret the world - or “put interpretations to the test” - and gain meaning on the strength of all the internal and external fragments and objects which are part of our immediate surroundings.

This world of fragments and objects, the world of toys with all its junk, bits and “odds and ends” - including so-called “worthless objects” - represents everything which consciousness cannot otherwise encompass, everything which the human being cannot exonerate, i.e. the (for most of us) lost world of objects and nature attainable only through thoughts and dreams. Play as a phenomenological project is therefore an attempt to divest things of assumptions we human beings have already loaded onto them in order to let things and objects “speak for themselves”.

For the adult, this form of aesthetics detaches play with toys and play with a wide variety of “worthless” things and objects from general ideological theoretical and interpretative institutions. Instead of complying with the rules for playing correctly, nicely or constructively with things (the “right” way to play and “good taste”), the person-at-play indulges an interest for trivial, “worthless and useless” things and objects; mass-produced packaging, worn-out, broken or purposeless objects which are also “ugly, tasteless and perishable”.

In his portrait of the artist and “collector” John Olsen, Laursen (1993) quotes Olsen as saying:

“Many adults know exactly what is pretty and what is ugly and especially what is valuable. Unfortunately, they are unshakeable. Children’s attitude to things is far more free and flows with their fantasy.   

One of the animals I am most fond of in my cupboard full of things is the skeleton of a dead cat. One day a class of school children came to visit me. One of the boys seemed to be very interested in the cat skeleton and then suddenly he said, “John, when I die, you are welcome to have me if I am just as beautiful as the cat you have hanging up in that cupboard.”

Strong words indeed from the little boy - but he was demonstrating enthusiasm for a piece of “natural life”. He was experiencing reality from its best side. For him the dead cat wasn’t unpleasant. He didn’t see death. He saw beauty!

So, beauty is in the eye of the beholder - everything depends on the observer! Or what we can call the phenomenological project within play:

Maintaining curiosity and candour about things as valuable or

important (not only in childhood but also generally)

is, doubtless and on many levels, one of the driving forces of the text of play.

However, this does not exclude the parody and irony attached to the totally banal world of objects and which makes the person-at-play seem slightly comical and naïve with his meticulous, sometimes ethical considerations (often an affected neurotic interest for detail). However, this very fact gives play a vital, fundamental and joyful - although not particularly widely recognised - function in society and in human existence, i.e.

  • in phenomenological terms, play is an indication of fundamental interaction and play with even the most banal things. Play therefore also helps human beings’ maintain their perception and interaction with the world around them.



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