When I was little, I had a very specific way of interacting with toys and playthings. This should surprise exactly 0.00% of those who know me, but I was a child who played by the rules. I followed instructions, colored inside the lines. When the Little Thinker cassette tape told me I should pause the tape recorder and draw a picture of what I was imagining, I did just that. Books were arranged by color on the shelf. Couch forts were symmetrical. Barbies were never naked. Order reigned.
Before you go jumping to any conclusions about a repressed childhood or overstrict parents, let me say that this is as inborn as my early rising tendencies or left-handedness. If anything I was raised in a house that celebrated free play, creativity, and the magical chaos of childhood. To quote Lady Gaga: Baby, I was born this way.
It wasn’t just about organization, though there was certainly that. It was also that I never really played with toys in ways that departed from their intended use. I studied the airbrushed kids in the catalog photographs and modeled my play after theirs, making sure to replicate every detail. I didn’t mix My Little Ponies with Cabbage Patch dolls. I didn’t take play food in the bathtub or Legos in the sand box. I played with toys the way they were meant to be played with.
I realize now that this is totally hilarious and not at all normal, nor could it have been all that fun. Once the castle has been constructed according to the directions and all the little figures placed as shown in the photo on the package, there isn’t much more to do. It makes so much more sense to play as my kids do – the entire house their stage and all the plastic tchotchkes merely players. Every once in a while my neurosis creeps close – like when I have to fight the urge to have the Little People bus driver always sit in the driver’s seat or the way I compulsively count the farm animals to make sure they’re all still in the barn (preferably in their appropriate stalls OMG stop it!) – but I squash it quickly because I love this, the way that they play.
I love discovering an old purse in my closet that has been filled with maracas, a train, some plastic dinosaurs, a shoelace, and a couch from the dollhouse. I love imagining the make-believe scenario that brought these small objects together and where they were traveling in a tacky crocheted satchel. I love being the guardian of the imagination that concocted that scenario. I love that I don’t really need to know what it was all about, and that it has already passed – a moment in playtime – leaving behind just the artifacts of its existence, pieces of plastic and wood worn by time and little hands, pieces that I will put back in their colored bins after bedtime, trains with trains, blocks with blocks, in the way that makes sense to me but not to them.
I love that they play this way, and not like I did. This is how toys are meant to be played with.