Toys are them

In preparation for Christmas, Hugh Pearman goes to Hamleys to check out the best toy designs.

When you talk about toys, it is simply not possible to be objective. Toys help to make us what we are, sometimes overtly – as with the Froebel building blocks that started Frank Lloyd Wright off on architecture – but mostly indirectly. The way we look at things, the way we engage with the world, is conditioned to an extreme degree by our own patterns of childhood play.

So when I came to check out today’s toys from a design point of view, two things happened. One was that I found myself comparing everything I saw with the toys I had played with as a child. Those were the benchmark – in my mind they had to be good, otherwise I would not have played with them.

The other was that the “design point of view” was largely meaningless. What makes a particular toy work for one child, rather than another, is far less to do with the toy, and far more to do with the child’s imagination. Toys are props – enabling devices. As most parents can observe, an empty cardboard box can be the best toy in the world.

The final element conditioning my response to toys was the interesting matter of gender. Toys are seldom unisex. Some (most, in fact) are designed for boys, some for girls. They do not necessarily differ much fundamentally – Mighty Max and Polly Pocket are both tiny moulded figures with tiny sidekicks who slot into complex plastic base sets – but Max is an all-action hero saving the world from the forces of evil in vivid colours while Polly – well, you can guess. She hangs around the house doing her nails and having parties in her pastel-shaded boudoir. I’m not joking. That’s how certain toy-makers create product differentiation. Since I have both girl and boy children, I find this distinction both irksome and expensive.

Anyhow, off I went to Hamleys. This is a rather expensive toy shop, but at least they let you try the things out, and this is crucial. Unlike other surveys in this series, this one is not primarily about packaging since virtually all toy packaging is both vile and horribly wasteful of natural resources. No, for once I actually wanted to test the design of the goods inside.

Let’s get teddy bears out of the way. Me, I can take them or leave them, but my children seem to like Canterbury Bears and I think I can see why. These are made by a company set up by John Blackburn, who I used to know as a distinctly radical conceptual artist but who, in those pre-Damien Hirst days, couldn’t make it pay and turned to bear-making instead. Canterbury Bears are expensive items – 32 for one of the smallish ones from the range called the Mob – but they have a quizzical, unsentimental quality, and that’s a rare commodity in the soft toys department, I can tell you.

As for dolls, that section was like a chamber of horrors for me. It was wholly gruesome, from the anatomically correct life-sized human baby types to the cutesy Cabbage Patch Doll variety. From the supermodel Barbies and Sindies to the fuzzy Sylvanian Families – OK, strictly speaking Sylvanian Families are not dolls, but collectible anthropomorphic animal sets, complete with human dolls’ house accoutrements that, and I speak from experience, fall rapidly to pieces.

Clearly only a child can make a choice in this weird department. The only one I liked – and this was also the only TV tie-in I would countenance – was a soft fabric-covered Homer Simpson, in his vest and underpants, at 11. It just seemed appropriately cynical, somehow.

Then there are bricks. No-one can disagree that Lego is a great invention and precision-made and a masterpiece of standardised componentry – and the big Duplo pieces for small children (18 months to five years) are particularly successful.

As with Lego proper, it’s best to avoid the themed kits and go instead for the generic boxes of pieces. Here the “super value” 100-piece box of Duplo at 16.99 looked good. Lego’s German rival Playmobil, incidentally, which is not really a construction kit at all, is hopelessly fiddly and inflexible in contrast.

You can still get real metal Meccano (now made in France) and awash with nostalgia, I favoured the 100 Master Builder set in its neat carrying case. But that’s boilerplate technology. The relatively new arrival in this area is the American-designed K’NEX system, which consists of a complex range of bony snap-together extruded plastic components. Trouble is, the things you make with it don’t look anything like what they’re supposed to be, and the results are disappointingly wobbly.

At a pinch I’d buy a set from the Power range (all such construction toys now offer neat electric motor drives) that allows you to make space monsters – which can look like anything you want. The creepy-crawlie set priced at 22.99, for eight-year-olds and up, did the business – but I still think the equivalent Lego Power range is better. I used to love Lego so much, I shoplifted it. Frequently. I was never caught. Please don’t ask me how old I was at the time.

More nostalgia led me to the Scalextric, made by Hornby. I beg you not to buy the full-sized “classic” version – no matter how good the scale-model cars look. Old hands like me know it hardly ever works, and takes up far too much space. Instead go for Micro Scalextric which is more reliable, much more space-efficient, and cheaper, with sets costing from 34 to 60.

Better still, get one of those great radio-control stunt cars. My ten-year-old son and I prefer Tyco’s Rebound Jet Turbo 4×4. The wheels are so big, it flips over to reveal another, differently styled, vehicle. It spins, it jumps, it bounces. And its battery pack runs out in about ten minutes and takes forever to recharge. But we think it’s well worth the 89.99 (cheaper, remember, in more prole-ish stores). Despite some spectacular crashes, it hasn’t broken yet after a year or more.

However, the best thing I found in Hamleys was much simpler and cheaper. Chunkies are as near as you’ll get to a non-messy painting set (age three plus). They’re very fat sponge-tip, washable colour-markers with a spring-loaded valve which means they don’t dry out even if you leave the cap off. The effect is like vivid watercolour. The big reservoirs are refillable. There are three primary and three secondary colours. I’d go for the three-pack at 7.50, but a bucket of six at 14 is probably more practical.

For older children, the best-looking art kit in the shop was Crayola’s Ultimate Art Store at 31.99. This has the wax crayons, the felt tips, the stencils, the stamp pads and so on all in one rather garish plastic box. Nice. Childish objects that come with their own storage are generally preferable to those that don’t.

Galt Toys have always been good, and my favourite from them is the Super Marble Run, which I have never known any child of either sex dislike. There are many versions of this from various makers, but Galt’s, at 24.99, is the equivalent of Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s Big One – a roller-coaster that is also a construction kit, with various configurations.

As for those American Fisher Price toys – is it just me, or are they going off? The latest versions of their classics – baby’s activity centre, child’s parking garage – seem flimsier and cruder than their long-lived Fifties-originated designs, which have only been superseded fairly recently. I chose an old standby, the child’s cassette recorder/player at 39.99. It looks more colourful and designerly than it once did, and it has a neat moulded recess in the back in which to clip a spare cassette, but I’m not sure about the detachable mike instead of the old built-in one. Most children with anything about them would pull the wire out within minutes.

So it was with some relief that I came across a plastic moulding that has surely remained unchanged for at least 30 years and probably longer: the Viewmaster 3D viewer – that’s the thing like a squared-off pair of binoculars, with interchangeable card circlets of transparencies. These wholly mechanical, incredibly tough devices are still magical. Made by Tyco, they cost from 5.99 or less for the non-copyright images to 12.99 for the Disney tie-ins – but the technology, or lack of it, is the same for both.

I suppose I should mention computer games consoles. Of the three rival makes – Sega, Sony, and Nintendo – Nintendo currently has the best, 64-bit computer technology, though the resultant graphics are not so much better than its 32-bit rivals as you would hope. It annoys me that these things still exist – incompatible games-only computers that you have to plug into a television set to work. Nintendo’s slot-in games cartridge in particular looks like a throwback to the earliest days of home computers: at least the other two use CDs, though these appear to be unusable on a normal computer.

I’ll skim over the new electric ducted-fan model planes you can buy (one or two makes now available), much though I love the idea of them. These may be great in a few years but at present, due to weight problems, they can absorb only a tiny charge of electricity, which means their flights are anything but long-haul. They are also worryingly fragile, being made of ultra-light polystyrene. Here is a good toy idea waiting for technology to come to its aid.

But as for me, I’m happy with things requiring no power source whatsoever. Just put me in the corner with the Lego, the Marble Run, the Viewmaster, the Chunkie markers and a plentiful supply of paper and I promise I’ll be good at least until tea time.

THE BEST

1 Chunkie washable ink markers, by Perrin and Nissen: pack of three, 7.50, bucket of six, 14.00. With these non-leak, valve-actuated, big-reservoir refillable sponge-tip pens, it’s like painting in watercolours without the mess.

THE GOOD

2 Super Marble Run by Galt Toys: 60 pieces, 24.99. Build your own gravity-defying roller-coaster.

3 Micro Scalextric sets by Hornby: 34-60. These are functionally better than the larger-scale classic sets, though the detail on the models is necessarily cruder.

4 The Mob teddy bear range from Canterbury Bears: 32 each. These bears have attitude and a conceptual-art background.

5 Homer Simpson vest and pants soft fabric doll: 11.00. This is an alternative to Barbie, Sindy, Cabbage Patch…

6 Meccano Master Builder Set: 100. This set is for nostalgists and budding engineers from seven years upwards.

THE GOOD

7 Tyco Viewmaster 3D viewer: from 5.99, or 12.99 for the copyrighted Disney tie-ins. Dozens of picture discs are available. This is a real classic, as good as ever, and better than any battery-powered rival.

8 Tyco Rebound Jet Turbo 4×4 radio-controlled stunt vehicle: 89.99. This is corking fun for the ten minutes or so the rechargeable battery pack lasts.

9 Lego Duplo range: Super Value 100-piece pack no 1764, 16.99. This set for very young children is a precision-made, brilliantly designed construction kit.

10 Fisher Price children’s cassette recorder/player: 39.99. I have slight worries about Fisher Price’s once-famed durability, but overall this is a good bet. It should survive drops from a great height.

11 Crayola Ultimate Art Store, ref. 5531, by Binney and Smith: 31.99. Crayola continues to make excellent colouring and stencilling kits – this is the full-monty range-topper.

12 K’NEX Power sets. Spindly American construction system with electric motor: 22.99. Set 22101 lets you build moving space monsters.

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