At our new daughter’s Coming Out Party she was bestowed with many gifts – beauty, grace, virtue. Actually none of these, but a modest pile of kiddie culture did make its way through our door.
Her big sister, who has appropriated all of her presents to date, was particularly enamoured with a Pooh Bear pram tie. Pooh Bear figures prominently in her toddler prattle and play, particularly the bottom drawing-on incident which she re-enacted, rather closer to the mark, thankfully with non-toxic textas. As I struggled with the pram tie packaging it informed me that this was not just a toy but a developmental aid.
Stringing Pooh, Tigger and Piglet over my baby’s head assists in achieving the following cognitive milestones: ‘coordination, dexterity, hearing skills and helping baby adapt to new sights’. I kid you not. My 10 week old is hard at it whenever we are out taking a stroll. For not an opportunity can be missed in her maturation and a ‘comprehensive range of nursery products’ are available that will have her speaking and acting like us grown ups quicker than if she had merely been exposed to a gum nut and a couple of sticks.
Her grandmother had one doll, five siblings and an orchard for her developmental aids. Nevertheless, she manages to string a sentence together quite well and can even read and write. Barbie was banned from my toy collection, which meant that I got my Barbie fix from playmates at school, and still ended up an avowed feminist—only with a unique ability to accessorise. When it comes to kiddie culture, things often cut both ways.
There has been a lot of talk, since the adaptation of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings to the screen, that visually transcribing such works limits the imaginative engagement of children to books. Imagination, in this context, refers to the ways kids visualise text. We like the idea that as readers kids become like authors, constructing their own scenes as they wander through the pages. Should we, then, stop illustrating children’s books? Or should we stop being so closed minded ourselves about kids and their playtime, and what they should be achieving and at what rate.
Our three year old is a case in point. She is an avid fan of Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclarey, which we have read and watched on video. From watching the video she can recite most of the series, which I guess means that it will assist in ‘word recognition’ on the page. This has not limited her imaginative play with the characters. Most of the neighbourhood dogs, her bath ducks and all of the family have been cast as Hairy Maclarey characters. I am Hairy Maclarey, shortened to ‘Hairy!’ in public places, her father was cast as Hercules Morse , who is reputedly ‘as big as a horse’ and I have also been assigned the role of Dragon from Shrek. In the casting of her imagination any resemblance is purely coincidence, of course.
Even the classics have proved fertile ground. Goldilocks became a big favourite just as her sister entered the scene. Three guesses which bald-as-a-bean newborn broke into the house, ate her sister’s porridge, busted her chair and appropriated her bed. But if Goldilocks could be adapted to a fable of sibling displacement, it could also reinstate traditional gender roles, making me middle-sized bear cooking the porridge in an apron, even though it is Papa bear who cooks in our house.
At xmas, baby bear probably got more toys than are good for her. Early childhood experts have been known to speak of the over-indulged child as, in fact, an abused child. Certainly excessive consumption structures desire as insatiable, and its rapid cycle of possession and disposal is environmentally unsustainable. But do her new toys defy imagination by being too detailed and too directive in their uses?
The blow up kiddie pool became a Hairy Maclarey character’s old basket under the stairs, and the dolly dress-up fridge magnets (of very hegemonic femininity) were put to good use as blow flies when clamped between hair clips. The wrapping paper became her teddies beds. I could have bought her one or two expensive well-made featureless toys, as advised, onto which she could project her fantasies and abstractions. Instead I went for the $2.00 shop’s gaudy paraphernalia which fell apart within the hour, only to be metamorphised into a variety of kiddie supplies including doctor’s equipment, sandpit cooking utensils, dolly’s headdress, xmas tree lights and even a cradle for the ‘Baby Geez’. It seems when it comes to children’s toys, and what we expect it to teach kids, it is only their overly aspiring parents that are lacking imagination.