As a University student, it may be dawning on you that you are evolving into a Real, Live Adult. Whether you‘re almost done with your education or still have to slough through grad school, the reality is that your childhood is officially a sentimental glimmer behind you. In the next five to ten years, you’ll likely have your first real job, your own bills to manage, possibly a wedding to plan and — as the few lingering remnants of your former hipness dissipate — even children of your own. Personally, I reacted to this realization by sprinting to the nearest Toys “R” Us in the hope I could bury myself in nostalgia and maybe snag a plastic dinosaur or two.

I found myself surprisingly disheartened. Rather than the store consisting of the rows and rows of magic I remembered from my childhood, everything seemed to be cheap, commercialized plastic. Boxes of board games with prominent cartoon characters slathered all over them greeted me as I walked in, peppered by the occasional sexist play set (as a friend of mine puts it, “Hey, little girl! You wanna mop, don’t you?!”). And I couldn’t locate a single plastic dinosaur without a brand name or twelve slathered all over it.

It occurred to me somewhere between the World Wrestling Entertainment action figures and the eye-assaulting wall of pink that signals the pony aisle that I was probably romanticizing my childhood. If I think hard enough, I can faintly recall the deluge of toy commercials that overwhelmed me between cartoons — and most of the programs themselves had a line of cheap collectible merchandise. I remember that whenever I was playing with the latest plastic monstrosity, I would cheerfully serenade my family with the television jingle, complete with a rushed “Batteries not included.” I even invented my own commercials for fictional products. But after an hour or two, I’d promptly lose interest and the precious item my parents had paid $19.95 plus tax for would be banished to the wasteland of my closet floor.

Despite this, I still think Toys “R” Us is at fault for lacking childhood magic. There were toys I adored for years when I was a child, and they tended to be the simplest. When I was five years old, for example, I picked out a fat stuffed dragon I named Dragulot. He lacked a television tie-in or a popular brand name, but he had a cuddly fat belly and doubled as a puppet — a promising companion for an only child inclined to theatrics. I imbued him with a personality and the two of us remained inseparable all the way through grade school, and (should I be admitting this in a campus-wide paper?) he’ll be moving in with my boyfriend and I this summer. When I went to Toys “R” Us, I found a $300 animatronic dragon with flashing lights and roaring noises. He did not look cuddly.

Capitalism may not be a demonic specter that desecrates all it touches, but I do think that aggressive advertising can diminish the worth of a toy. What a good toy should boil down to is one that lets kids fulfill their own creative urges. Children are easily persuaded — as my devotion to singing jingles in the bathtub can attest — and it isn’t difficult to wow them into wanting to buy a product with a cartoon, bright advertisement or clever song. But the toys I have the fondest memories of were ones I picked out myself, with no tie-ins and downplayed brands. With all the trimmings stripped away, I could pick a toy that genuinely appealed to me and my interests. Arts and crafts booklets, stuffed animals and nondescript playsets featuring whatever animal or fantastical era I was enthralled with at the time all enjoyed many devoted weeks of play. But if I was merely wooed by a product’s advertising, I’d find myself losing interest a few hours later when I realized the colorful world of the commercial wasn’t easily reproduced by a six-year-old.

Fortunately, there are more low-key stores out there — like Tree Town Toys in Briarwood and Mudpuddles in Kerrytown — that offer the sorts of wondrous doodads I remember fondly. A lot of them encourage creativity, but most importantly, they’re simple. The brand names are subtly indicated for the grown-ups on the tags, but when a child wants a stuffed animal, she’ll only have to figure out whether she really wants a teddy bear or a cuddly tiger — not choose which has the best jingle. It’s a good lesson in learning how to make your own choices, and that’s what growing up is all about.

Eileen Stahl can be reached at efstahl@umich.edu.

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