Toy Monday: Retro Toys and Games

Child with Hands Full of MarblesYou’ve probably thought about introducing your favorite childhood toys to your own children.

My children have been playing with their wooden pinball game this week. It has a wooden plunger, pins (nails), metal balls, shoots for the balls to fall into. I’m sure it is not safe for children under 3 years old, so I’m glad we’re past that stage. I can never quite tell what inspires them to fixate on a particular toy for a period of this, but pinball is the toy of the moment. We bought this because it reminded my husband of a game he played as a child, classic pinball called bagatelle.


My Childhood Classic Toys

In some cases, I’ve just given my old toys to my children. At other times, we’ve tried to replace the toys I’ve told them about because I’ve managed to make them sound interesting. That was the case with Emerald the Witch doll. I told my daughter about the purple skinned, green haired witch with flashing green eyes, and she was very interested to play with this doll. After we watched dolls go on eBay for hundred of dollars, we decided that it would be a much smarter move to just dig around and find my old doll, which we did. Now my old doll has joined a crowd of dolls next to my daughter’s bed. For both of us, the search itself was a big part of the appeal with this doll.

My children also have access to a closet full of my old board games: Scrabble, Parcheese, and half a dozen other games that have become classics. We do play these games frequently, both the children alone and the whole family. I kept other tabletop games as well. Kerplunk still works, but some of the simple mechanical games don’t work anymore.

I have found that the simpler the games, the longer they last and the more likely they can be passed on.

I do wonder why the cool classics have been updated to become classics in plastics. Mr Potato Head has long had a plastic body, but I remember somewhat closer to his birth in 1952 when you stuck the decorations into an actual potato. A friend of mine worked at Fisher Price. When she told me that they still prototype all of their toys in wood, I begged for them! No success, of course. They didn’t take my advice to revert to the classic wooden toys either. No surprise.

A couple of my building toys, Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys, are now made of plastic. But, there are wooden Frontier Logs and Fiddle Stix available that are closer to the originals. We have these, but my kids don’t really gravitate toward them as I did when I was so completely focused on Tinker Toy engineering for many years. I thought a nice, classic metal erector set would get more play, but they just built the building showed on the box and left it there for months and months. These have not turned out to be the imagination catalysts that I had hoped.


Classic Games

What other classic games have I introduced my children to?

  • Hopscotch
  • Cup and ball (cup on a stick to catch a ball on a string)
  • Yo-yo
  • Marbles
  • Jump rope
  • Jacob’s Ladder (they have a version my grandfather made)
  • Ring toss / horse shoes
  • Jacks
  • Cat’s cradle

Most of these are less about branded toys and more about the games played with them.

Of all of these games that I seem to remember filling up my young days, my children only play very much with the jump rope. The rest come out occasionally for a couple of days, but they haven’t captured my children’s imaginations.


Historical Games

One set of games that did capture my children’s imaginations were the games they learned when they went to camp at a nearby living history farm. They played 19th-century games like Annie-i-over (or Annie Annie Over), in which children throw a ball over a roof or a wall then run around to tag someone on the throwing team.

They also played a couple of stick and hoop games, which were apparently segregated by gender. The game for boys was Hoop and Stick, in which the boys use a stick with a head like a double-headed golf club to roll a metal or wood hoop (metal is heavier and works better). The object is to keep the hoop rolling. Girls played Graces, in which they use a lightweight stick to toss then catch a small wooden hoop tied with ribbons. “The hoop looks really pretty with lots of ribbons tied to it,” my daughter told me. “And for me, it was a lot harder than the boys’ hoop game.”

These weren’t my games, but I really liked the idea of my children learning games that my grandparents and their grand parents were likely to have played.


Pinball, the Kind with Pins and Balls

The retro game that my children seem most attracted to is still pinball. For them, I think the connection comes from playing Bagatelle at their Granny and Grandpa’s house. My mother-in-law played with this same game as a child, as did her own father. They like putting their hands where their father, their grandmother, their great-grandfather and others have put their hands as children. This is the classic Bagatelle board game that is still made. My children love this hundred year old Bagatelle game and our newer little classic wooden pinball game.

Once you get a good look at these great pinball games, you might be inspired to make your own wooden pinball game. Making a DIY wooden pinball game is quite simple. A little planning and painting could result in a family classic that can be handed down for generations.

I think the key to successfully introducing your children to classic retro toys and games is to share your love and enthusiasm. Your childhood joy is at least part of the attraction for your children.

Image © Peter Hansen | Dreamstime.com

What Is a Parent to Do About Children and Consumerism?

Teach me to shop, MommyHave the wish lists started pouring in? Count the brand names and advertising-driven items. When I asked about something on my daughter’s list, “Where did you hear about that?” she told me she heard it from friends. Heard from friends translated easily into Want It. Advertising to children looks like the marketing gift that keeps on giving.

Who is training our children to be good little consumers? We are. We give them money and encourage independent habits. This sounds great until you realize that this gives them the power that makes children so attractive to marketers. There they go.

Even as you build low-impact, natural family traditions for your children, you need to be aware of everything else they are facing. Be aware of how you may even be undermining your own efforts. You can’t ignore the commercialization of your children’s lives if you want them to resist a consumer lifestyle.


Children as Well-trained Consumers

Children are trained consumers at a very young age. Even if families participate in Buy Nothing Day and other anti-consumerism activities—or not quite consumerist activities like conscious consumption, various forms of ethical consumerism, and even Enoughism—most children have enough exposure to targeted marketing that they know exactly what to do. Children are integrated into their demographic, and they begin to ask for products by brand almost as soon as they can talk.

Why is so much marketing directed at children when there is such an outcry against commercialization of childhood? Because children spend or influence spending for more than half a trillion dollars a year. That’s more than $500 billion. Try that again and count the zeros: $500,000,000,000. Those zeros are the reason marketers target children.

As a market, children function in three ways:

  • As direct consumers spending their own money.
  • As influencers of adults who spend money.
  • As a future market, all brand loyal and ready to buy once they have their own income.

So, what’s the problem with that? Aren’t we just preparing children for the reality of the consumer lifestyle? Not exactly. A British study found that children are depressed and anxious because of the pressures of consumerism. Consumerism is not a benign influence on our children. Commercialization hurts our children.

What were we thinking (besides all of those zeros)? Why did we let this commercial environment envelop our children in the past 20 or 30 or how many years? How long do you think it is, really? I certainly was raised smack in the middle of an advertising culture, and that was a lot of years ago. We might think of marketing to children as something new, but the roots go back more than a hundred years, according to Lisa Jacobson, author of Children and Consumer Culture in American Society: A Historical Handbook and Guide.

OK, already! We get it. Our children are bombarded. That much is absolutely clear.


What is a parent to do?

Your best defense is very simple: educate your children. They will be exposed to commercial messages in some form no matter how much you think you are limiting their exposure, so give them what they need to be their own best advocates.

Help children develop skills of media literacy. Help them understand the intent of advertising so they won’t be as likely to embrace advertisement as reality. Once they begin to understand the strategies used to market directly to them, they may find it fun to break down and discuss the meanings of advertising, product placement, commercial tie-ins, and so on. Let them begin to find the marketing themselves. The more you put the game of marketing in their hands, the more they will find (beyond what you probably even imagined), and the smarter they will get about their own consumption.

Critical thinking skills won’t be as helpful with the youngest children, though, because they just don’t have the capacity yet. Particularly in children under about age eight, the age at which they can begin to discern layers of meaning and less than admirable intentions, you just need to protect very young children from commercial abuses. Limit their exposure.

Need more ideas? Here are 50 ways to challenge commercialism.


Resources & Reading

If you want to know more about helping children avoid or deal with commercialization, marketing, and consumerism, here are a few resources that dive into the issues. A lot of individuals and organizations recognize the problem and are working to improve, combat, or just get around the problem.

About Kids’ Health. About Kids’ Health is a site sponsored by the Hospital for Sick Children or Sick Kids in Toronto. Their article, “Target Market: Children as Consumers,” seems most concerned about food marketing, but it also includes a great list of actions parents can take to protect children.

Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood. The Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood publishes guides, holds summits, and generally tries to put tools in the hands of those who can help children before they know they need help.

Center for Media Literacy. The Center for Media Literacy takes a proactive approach of teaching children media literacy from kindergarten to college. They have a big collection of articles and resources to guide you if you are ready to jump in.

Future of Children. The journal The Future of Children published an issue on Children and Electronic Media last year. Great place to go if you are looking for academic works on the subject.

Global Issues. Global Issues is a personal website with information gathered over years. The section on “Children As Consumers” has several informative sub-sections.

Media Education Foundation. The Media Education Foundation has created a series of documentary films on commercialization of childhood, including Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood. I’ve used some of their films in the classroom before, and I particularly like that they provide extensive resources to give their films context. This is the best list of resources I have seen on commercialization of childhood.

Media Lens. Media Lens offers an excerpt from the book This Little Kiddy Went To Market: The Corporate Capture Of Childhood by Sharon Beder. In their intro, they “invite you to imagine a world in which Beder’s work was “on every school curriculum”, as John Pilger recommends. Imagine if children were provided with tools of intellectual self-defence to counter the relentless campaigns of corporate manipulation. It is simultaneously depressing and heartening to consider how much happier, healthier, more compassionate our society would be as a result.” I especially like her section on exploiting the lack of cynicism in very young children, as if cynicism were an armor all of us need (which it probably is, sadly).

New American Dream. For a whole family, whole community approach to moving beyond consumption, see New American Dream.

Who Minds the Child? Who Minds the Child is a Canadian nonprofit raising awareness of the negative effects of consumerism and media on children and society. They advocate flat-out resistance to “the pathological pursuit of profit and power by the few and help create a healthy, sustainable world for the many.” The organization is influenced by research by Jenny Hill, which you can read in full on the site.

This post is for the Green Moms Carnival on Greener Traditions hosted in December by Green Phone Booth.

Image © Igor De | Dreamstime.com

A Few of My Favorite Local Food Resources

Lucious TomatoesHarvest time is the perfect time to ask yourself about your local in-season abundance.


How Local Is Local?

How far does your food travel to reach your table? On average, 1,500-2,500 miles. Food miles are certainly not the only consideration, but this is one more factor you can use to consider the environmental impact of your life. If you eat fresh foods in season, you can also cut down on the energy needed to transport or store foods. A lot of people focus on a 100-mile diet as local, but in the sparsely populated west you may need to expand your reach to 250 miles.

The reasons to support local foods are far more complex than even the complexity of figuring out their environmental impact. We could put our trust in 3rd-party labels that assure us that food from far away is grown to specific standards. Or, we could meet the farmers and ask them. We can and probably do use both methods to learn about the food we eat.

As more individuals and organizations work to rebuild sustainable food systems, you will find more and more resources to help you meet the local food challenge.

These are some of my favorite local food resources.

Local Slow Food Chapter.
The Slow Food movement started in Italy in contrast to (hold on for the surprise) fast food. Slow food is not the same thing as local food, but I have found that local slow foodies are among the best resources for local food. In addition, with slow food you get a focus on slowing down to enjoy food with family and others.

Local Food Thanksgiving.
The Eat Well Guide and the Consumers’ Union have teamed up to encourage a local food Thanksgiving. Participants are encouraged to use at least one local food in their holiday meal then submit their recipes, which you can then share.

Healthy Skepticism.
Ask yourself if national brands’ “Real Food” campaigns are really local. I include this article on greenwashing local foods from Hamilton Ontario Slow Food Convivium head because it is a great example of how mass market brands use “sophisticated deflection of the aims of the sustainable local food movement” to help us close our eyes to what local food really means.

Local Events.
Locavores in Hamilton, Ontario, hold a week-long Localicious event involved local chefs and restaurants. Many cities now have enough of a local food movement to support this kind of event.

Local Food Wheel.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay or New York City areas, there is a great local food wheel available that shows which local foods are available in which season. I don’t live in a either of these cities, so I’ve had to come up with my own sad and incomplete version of this local food wheel.

Local People
The best resources on local foods are going to be local eaters. Find out if any of your grocery stores are local. One of the chains local to me, a regional chain, stocks a lot of local foods from turkeys to potato chips to fruit. If you do some research, especially if you pool information with other local foodies, you can often find a big variety of local foods.

Start by looking for a local chapter of Slow Foods then keep digging.

To all of our readers in the U.S., Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you have managed to find some local food.

For my family, we have local turkey, hyper local pumpkin, and local flour all from within 100 miles. Much of the rest of our holiday meal comes from within 250 miles. Once you get in the habit and adjust to the food of your region, it’s easy. Good luck!


Image © Lyn Watanabe | Dreamstime.com

Grandma Knew Food

Cooking with GrandmaFor the last couple of weeks, I’ve asked you to think of questions to ask your grandmother and other older relatives over the holidays, questions about how they diapered babies and how they moved their babies around.

This week, I want you to think of questions about food. Find out what your grandma knows about food. Our diets have changed so much over the past 70 years that we might not recognize the foods of our grandparents and great-grandparents.


My Family Stories

Both of my grandmothers have been gone for a long time. Fortunately for me, there are many curious writers in my family who asked questions and recorded the answers. Before I was born, my father asked all of his nine brothers and sisters and his parents about their lives. A lot of the best stories I have about early 20th-century life come from the stories my dad collected.

For example, my grandparents’ 1st wedding anniversary fell on Thanksgiving Day 1914. My grandmother planned to have all of her family over for a big meal of pigeon pie. Her younger sister recalled that all of the pigeons were cleaned and preparations were humming along, until my uncle decided it was time to be born. The food was moved down the street to my great-grandparents’ house and the meal went forward, while my grandparents stayed behind at their house and attended to their new baby.

There is even the hint of a story about diapers in my family history. My grandmother’s father visited and entertained his five little grandchildren “by blowing bubbles in a pair of [the baby’s] rubber panties.” More about grandfatherly silliness than diapers, but cool to know anyway. This was recalled by my aunt who was 9 years old at the time. She died a few days ago at the age of 93. How great that I have this tantalizing peek into 1925.

I really wanted a clearer picture of home life, but I guess those weren’t the questions on my dad’s mind when he asked his family members what they remembered. The questions you ask shape what those who follow you will know.

I do remember my grandmother’s cooking. When most of her ten children and their many children would visit, she would cook a turkey and fresh rolls in her wood stove. I’m sure there was other food, but the distraction of turkey and homemade rolls leaves me with a blank. My favorite, though, was when I was with my grandmother alone and she would make fresh bread. While the bread was still hot, she would slice a piece for each of us then spread it with her own honey, which had a lot of wax in it. Then, we would set the honey-slathered slices aside on the counter. I would sniff and stare until the honey had cooled and hardened slightly. Then we would eat our treat, crunchy honey on soft wheat bread. This is my most vivid memory of my grandmother’s food.


Holiday Foods

The foods that we eat on holidays tend to be some of our longest-kept family traditions. For my other grandmother’s family, that means holiday cookies. Fortunately, my grandmother kept detailed recipes, and one of my cousins had these printed and given to all of my cousins. Now, all of us can make the familiar holiday cookies we remember.

Are there foods that your grandmother makes that you wish you could make, that you want to be able to share with your children and grandchildren? During the holidays this year, when your family gets together, hang out in the kitchen and ask about the food.

• How much?
• How hot?
• What consistency?
• How long?

Then, while that is cooking, ask about the foods of their childhoods. Ask if they remember their parents or grandparents talking about food. Reach as far back into their memories as you can.


Essential Step: Write It Down

Since you have managed to gather these golden nuggets of information, do your children a favor and write down everything you learn. Share with your siblings and cousins.

Make it a habit to find out how your grandmother and all of your older relatives raised their children, made their food, and lived their lives.

Happy Holidays, and good luck asking what Grandma knew. Come back and tell me what you find out.

Image © 4774344sean | Dreamstime.com

Toy Monday: Handmade

Black Friday is coming. I know you’ve seen or heard advertisements about it from companies large and small. Why Black Friday? Because this coming Friday is the day in the calendar year when most retailers go into the black financially—all because so many people brave the danger to rush out to drive themselves crazy and buy something cheap all on the same day.

If you are really looking for a bargain this Friday, I have a suggestion.


Buy Handmade

When you are considering holiday gifts for your child, consider buying natural toys from small toymakers.

With handmade natural toys you get

  • wild variety and beauty
  • high quality with extreme attention to detail
  • naturally safe materials like untreated wood and organic cotton & wool
  • likelihood that you will know or can find out the provenance of the toy
  • support for small manufacturers
  • confidence that your toy is made by people who are happy in their work as toymakers


Handmade Toy Alliance

A group of toymakers, retailers, importers, and other small businesses came together a year ago as the Handmade Toy Alliance. Many of these toymakers are making cloth dolls and wooden cars and puzzles and sock monkeys and building blocks by hand because they want to create safe and natural toys for children.

Now, under a new U.S. child safety law (Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of CPSIA), many of these safe, natural toys are threatened because small businesses have no way to comply with laws written in part by and certainly favoring massive international toy companies. It is likely that there will be changes made to the law that will allow these small toymakers to prove the safety of their products without the cost and testing burden written into the law right now.

These changes are not guaranteed, though. If no changes are made to the law or to the interpretation in regulations, most of these natural toys will be things of the past.

This year, while it is still legal in the United States, consider buying an endangered handmade toy for your child. Skip the crowds and Black Friday and choose a naturally safe toy.


The Handmade Movement

Handmade isn’t just for toys. The movement to buy handmade builds on a deep philosophy of DIY. Last year tens of thousands of people pledged to buy handmade. If you are ready to move beyond just toys, check out the resources from Buy Handmade on the broader movement, on conscious consumption, and on the challenge against mass production and selling.