AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Some Remarks on Playthings

Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 732-736

Few museums are without a touching little collection of toys--the playthings of children ages ago. They are all much alike-Egyptian, Roman or English--and though rudely fashioned, are strong and sufficient for their purpose, and worthy to be, as they possibly were, handed down from parent to child; or, as was not unfrequently the case, buried with their little owner. One wonders as one looks at them how many of the toys in use to-day will survive to the end of the century. A good proportion, it is safe to say, will be broken before the end of the week!

It is almost proverbial that modern children break a great many of their toys within a very short time of their becoming possessed of them. This is regarded by different parents with varying forms of disapproval, and while some mothers lament over it merely as a costly and aggravating form of "naughtiness," the more thoughtful regard with far-reaching apprehension, the wanton and ever-recurring destruction. But in both cases (and the two forms of maternal vexation are common) something has been left unsaid. The real sting lies in the unwavering cheerfulness of the culprit, who is rarely disposed to think himself any the poorer by these mishaps. Nor is he! It is often remarked that children like their oldest and shabbiest toys far better than the new ones bought to replace them, and that a string of empty cotton-reels will often be treasured and played with again and again, while a costly plaything is flung aside heedless of the result. Is it not partly because they demand real substance, and will not let their affections be caught by mere flimsy show--by toys which have not strength in them ever to reach the shabby stage at all? And are we not, by this perpetual proffering of worthless things, cultivating, or doing our best to cultivate a taste for flimsiness in every direction, which is telling deeply, not only on our own manufactures, but on all who manufacture for us?

It may be urged that the cotton-reels, which I have taken as an instance, continue in existence and outlast many other things, simply because it is almost impossible to destroy them. But even so, this is no fault; it should be the essential characteristic of the earlier playthings. Children are naturally destructive, and will very often pull things to fragments for the sheer joy of doing so. One cannot altogether prevent this--possibly it gets better for the child that one should not--but the phase while it lasts may well be regulated, and the energy and interest thus expended, gradually led on to the delight of construction instead. This can hardly be done but by the wise management of playthings, and by allowing, as far as possible, only indestructible ones at first. Queen Victoria's dolls are a happy instance of a cultivated child's care and constructiveness. Very likely the little Princess had also costly and ready-dressed dolls, but of these we hear nothing, and their career was no doubt short and uninteresting. On the cheap wooden-jointed ones were lavished all their owner's ingenuity and they probably were the only dolls who ever really peopled her imagination.

The ordinary toy-shop is a depressing place for an intending buyer who reflects on these things; for not one-twentieth of the articles sold there, will or can give more than a few hours' amusement, which ends in a demoralizing manner. They are not made to last, but to catch a whim, or cheaply give a short unsatisfactory pleasure. Besides this, many of them are positively dangerous. Poor paint that will not bear wetting (much less the sucking not improbably in store for it); little tin articles of various kinds, from miniature milk cans to railway trains, with edges almost as sharp as a knife's; furry rabbits and cats, whose skins are frequently dressed with arsenic; india-rubber animals, which are invariably provided with what is known in the nursery as a "squeak"--a thing temptingly easy to detach and use as a whistle--the performer, of course, running considerable risk of choking meanwhile--such toys there are, and few others! Things easy to swallow are, by the way, surprisingly numerous, considering for whom they are intended, and are generally quietly removed from any gift that arrives, by the prudent mother or nurse. All these go to make a friend who is in the habit of bringing the ordinary kind of present to a child, a very frequent cause of anxiety to a careful parent.

Toys are not, in the large majority of cases, bought by the individual who is going to use them, which is obviously unavoidable, but it is unfortunate, for not only would the probably be better made, but different things altogether would I think be in demand if it were otherwise. That is, of course, supposing that the buyers could indicate their wishes. The playthings of older persons are generally remarkable for the excellence of their workmanship. Balls, bats, rackets, fishing-rods, bicycles, and other things of the kind, are models for the most part, of the skilful combination of strength and durability with the other desired qualities, and they are eminently fit for their purpose. For though we often unwittingly buy unsuitable articles of many descriptions, as we buy children's toys, yet where our own play-things are concerned, we know exactly what we want, and reject inferior ones as far as possible. If we could apply the same knowledge and determination when choosing those for children, the contents of our nursery toy cupboards would be different from what they usually are, and very much more desirable for their little owners.

Books, unfortunately, are worse than toys, if not selected with care--which, oddly enough, they rarely are-for a pretty cover seems to blind the gift-buyer in a way that would be hard to believe, if one had not repeatedly suffered from such productions. It is not parents who buy them,--but the kind nurse has her day out, with her wages in her pocket, or an affectionate, but ill-judging friend comes from a distance,--and with the best intentions and touching kindliness in either case, the worse than worthless trash is presented. Some children quietly neglect it, some read and assimilate the entirely false and vulgar views of everything touched upon. For instance, religion is usually brought strongly to the front in such books, and enervating and unscriptural piety is plentifully, nay, nauseously supplied, in wretched prose, or still more miserable verse. Animals in the form of "pets" is another favourite subject, and much that is meaningless and silly is written--and that badly--on it also.

Some years ago, an effort was made to supply stories for children of a more interesting and useful sort; and a number of tales were written by various people, and published under the title of "The Parents' Cabinet." They vary, but are all tolerably well written, some excellently, and though stilted at times to modern ears, they are entirely harmless, and bear the supreme test of being generally liked by those for whom they were produced. They have recently been republished, in six octavo volumes, with the title changed to "Happy Hours."

But for the early years of our children, let us, as far as may be, stand firm--though, indeed, it is no easy or graceful task--against the injudicious gifts of even, if necessary, our dearest friends; and keep as much as possible to the best that literature has for the young. That, happily, is plentiful. The Bible abounds in stories, so does most ancient literature,--that of Greece especially,--and history teems with treasures for them. Much that has been carefully selected from these various sources, may now by readily obtained in a simple form; but an intelligent mother can herself do all that is required to adapt them for the infant mind, and with these, and the usual fairy tales, and the classical nursery stories, she need never run short. At any rate let these be supplied liberally, so that the modern miserable production, with the alluringly pretty picture on the back, may be counteracted, if not fairly driven from the field.

With regard to toys equal firmness is desirable, though possibly not quite so necessary. Happily one need not go to the length of condemning all the gifts of this sort to our children that do not happen to be entirely what one would have selected if a choice had been given. They are often very pretty, and generally there is much to be said for them. Indeed, a large proportion may be helped and adapted so as to play their little part in an exceedingly creditable manner. The fragile animals from a small Noah's Ark, which would be hopelessly broken if they came into their owner's hands (not to consider the probability of their being played with on the floor and there haply, trodden on by little feet), will, if arranged on a shelf out of reach, still give pleasure and outlive the wave of destruction that otherwise would have entirely overwhelmed them. The charming coloured illustrations of many picture toy-books, if strongly and simply framed, may, instead of being tattered and unsightly in a week, hang on the nursery walls of our children's children. Even smaller pictures and Christmas cards often survive years of honourable service if they are pasted into a stoutly made scrap-book, or on to a calico-backed screen. In a plethora of toys, such as occasionally has to be dealt with, owing to birthdays or Christmas, it is prudent to quietly keep in reserve the ones that present most difficulties. In times of illness, or even on wet days, if they are good for anything at all, they will be of high value, and will then stand a considerably better chance of remaining unbroken than they otherwise would.

For ordinary practical use I would recommend the strongest, solidest, simplest, and those only, with linen-backed picture books, and, if need be, a well-made rocking horse, until a child has advanced so far as to be able to handle things carefully, when more fragile ones-as, for example, soldiers, or dolls'-house furniture (always a joy to the future housekeeper)--may well be added. Mr. Ruskin was perhaps too sternly, but not unwisely dealt with by his mother, who limited his early playthings to a bunch of keys and some well-cut bricks. Here, at any rate, was the solidity the Anglo-Saxon loves. Possibly the national tendency is to love it somewhat to the exclusion of other and even better things. But the influence--and it is strong--of most toys is to destroy this sturdy craving, and leave nothing in its place but a debased toleration for less worthy things.