In Defense of Old-Timey Toys

While container ships languish in harbors and parents and grandparents become increasingly nervous that the latest-and-greatest toys won’t make their way into Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve, perhaps we should all relax and take a deep breath. Plenty of things kids like to play with are still readily available. Things that don’t require electricity or batteries or, heaven forbid, computer chips.

All six of my grandchildren and their parents gathered at my not-very-big house last weekend for an early holiday celebration. Because I don’t have room to store a lot of stuff, I try to keep playthings simple. I have books, many of which the kids are now reading on their own. I have a big bucket of wooden building blocks. Matchbox cars. Sidewalk chalk. Paper and markers. Jump ropes and Nerf balls.

Some of these toys I occasionally enjoy myself. Others, I actually ordered so I could play with them even when the children aren’t around.

My late mother once told me that the only sport she was ever any good at was jacks and I believe that to be true, though I also believe that playing jacks isn’t really playing a sport. Some time back, I ordered a set of ten metal jacks with two red rubber balls and my grandkids and I have had a blast with them. It took the kids a while to figure out how to toss the ball underhanded into the air, scoop up jacks with the same hand and catch the ball, but—hooray!–they soon mastered the skill.

Remember the “Fifteen Puzzle”?  It has a square base with tiles numbered from one to 15 inside, along with one blank space. The titles slide vertically or horizontally. The goal is to put them in numerical order, which is not much of a challenge until you get to the 13, 14, 15 row. Then you really need to think about what you’re doing. Five grandkids have already figured out how but they still think it’s fun.

Then there are bounce-back paddles, comprised of a thin piece of wood with a rubber ball stapled to it with an elastic string. The challenge is to see how many times you can thwack the ball with the paddle without missing. In one of my favorite episodes of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Rob goes to an isolated mountain cabin in hopes that the solitude will allow him to focus on the novel he’s been struggling to write for way too long. Unfortunately, he finds a bounce-back paddle on a closet shelf and spends his time playing with it instead of writing. This is the main reason I don’t own a bounce-back paddle. I have enough distractions when trying to work on my own novel without adding another to it, though I’m sure the grandkids would enjoy this low-tech toy if I had one.

I don’t own a yo-yo or a spinning top or a Chinese jump rope that could be strung between chair legs for the same reason. I do, however, have a cylindrical metal trash can in my office and am not averse to wadding up scrap paper and shooting baskets from halfway across the room, which is a far more impressive sport than jacks no matter what my mother might say.

But back to simple toys for kids. The best by far is a standard deck of playing cards. In addition to the usual card games, it can also be used for kids’ card games. Take out all the queens except the Queen of Hearts and you have Old Maid. Take out the tens and face cards and you have Crazy Eights. Use all or part of the deck to play Go Fish or Memory or Slap Jack.

Who needs electricity? Who needs batteries? Who needs computer chips? Christmas can come without any of those things. And perhaps be all the merrier for it.

(December 11, 2021)