Toys and Children’s Play

Toys, Playthings and Children’s Material Culture

There have been factors influencing higher rate of toy consumption which established the idea of toys as the only means to play. Before 1890s, few American children owned enough toys to stock a tiny chest and most of those were home-made (Jacobson 2008). With the flooding information from experts and various social and economic circumstances, this changed significantly after 1890s.

Toys create a certain characteristic of peer culture. Marketers aim at children gangs’ leaders to be the key persons in promoting their products. Children, thus, have the agencies of their peer-culture making and in creating their own set of aesthetic values. In the study of Alison J. Clarke (2008), children build their own normative by the appreciation of the gifts given by their parents or older relatives. In one of the interviews in Clarke’s study, a ten-year-old boy says:

“What I’m going to tell you … is a bit embarrassing – so you’re not to tell nobody, right? My mum got me some Power Rangers pyjamas for Christmas! Can you believe that? I’m ten years old and she goes and gets me some Power Rangers … She thought I liked them so I was pretending to be pleased” (Clarke, 2008, p.257).

The quotation shows a certain normative created by children in different age groups. For children, there is the time they can play with or consume certain products, but there are also times when they do not, or should not. This kind of perception of “coolness” and the inability to select the appropriate toys fore children go along with the normative understanding of child/adult relationship. However; we can notice that children do base their reasoning on their own value, despite the fact that it could be from commercially targeted advertisement, and whether or not it is from the adult’s world. Parents thus need to know the assumingly correct way of choosing their children a gift and, at the same time, children are supposed to have the appropriate response to the gift whether they like it or not. Clarke considers this as a dynamic process of morality making shaped by the act of gift giving by the parents.

Toys certainly come with some certain features. Some of them especially the ones from the movies, comics, or television shows even come with characters. Children play this kind of toys along with the characters asserted to the figure. Barbie has her glamour lifestyle. GI Joe is a fighter. Superman is a super hero. The inherited characters define, to a certain level, the way children should treat the toy figures, and how children should play with them. With the attempt to connect toys’ characteristics to the issue of genders (for instance Bradbard, M.R. 1985; Robinson, C.C. & Morris, J.T. 1986; Martyn C.L. et al., 1995), Fleming (1996) argues on this, saying that the characteristics of toys do not necessarily define they way children play with them. Although he believes that these characters created by the toy figures’ appearance on popular media have significant messages, he argues that toys are not necessarily played according to the guide attached to them. Furthermore, even though there may be the aim of playing rather than aimless improvisation, toys “are infinitely adaptable and can take on meanings other than those they originally came with” (p.67).

According to the cases mentioned, it may be beneficial to look at the phenomenon of play as consumption under the lens of Douglas and Isherwood (1980) who argue that our enjoyment of goods are only partly from the physical consumption, we also consume the symbols. We tend to want to show to people of how and what we consume. Children, as well as adults, share the same practice of symbolic consumption. Under this logical framework, marketers realise the significance of children as a new market. McNeal (1992) theorises the reasons behind this marketisation on children that children can be seen in three social groups. First, children have money and they are the active spenders. They receive allowances from their parents and their relatives. Second, a child is an influence market, both direct and indirect. It is direct because children can request the purchase of their parents under their preferences. And indirect because parents tend to purchase the goods that their children like. Finally, children are the future market, therefore creating brand loyalty can benefit the future of the markets. This, to a certain extent, proves children as an active agency in the society.

“Commodities must be not only produced materially as things, but also culturally marked as being a certain kind of thing” (Kopytoff, 1988). Playthings and play spaces, hence, must be produced and marked as the material specifically for play. Toys are “playthings.” Playgrounds are “play spaces.” Therefore, the act of play itself is commodified. Furthermore, from the historical details mentioned, we can see that commodification of play has its surrounding continuous changes. This commodification process has its contexts namely; the recognition of childhood as a distinct stage of life, the power of experts’ knowledge, schooling, the mass production of goods, the commercial advertisement, and the power relation between parents and children. These contexts provide the pathways for children, as well as the parents, to enter the age when their play is commodified. Moreover, they are “educated” (Featherstone 1991) to become consumers as a means to prepare themselves to enter the adult’s world.


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