Toy Story

Imagine you’re not quite two years old. Talk about shock of the new. Hey, at that age just being able to waddle upright is still a thrill ride. Not to mention the galloping mystery of language that now allows you to make exhilarating declarations of noteworthy developments. (“Poop!”)

For your parents, the world has become suddenly and vividly bristling with dangers, but to you it’s just one big gadget. So far, you go through life alternately startled and fascinated, delighted to be surprised by things you expected to happen.

Take your interest in the lever on the toilet tank. Now there’s a mechanism you’ve been studying for some time. Only within the last couple of weeks you’ve been able to reach the handle if you stand on tiptoes. Sometimes you can even get it to flush if you bring all your strength and concentration to bear. A triumph! Purposive cause yields riotous, gurgling effect — and it’s the same every time.

There are people who devote their careers to thinking like toddlers. They design diapers. They create kiddie haberdashery for The Gap. They publish swell picture books with flaps that open and close. They dream up toys. Like any industry, those who cater to the almost-two-year-old set should know their customers inside out.

Toys for kids this age are in many ways miniature introductions to the workings of machinery, and therefore a form of rehearsal for what comes later. What is technology, if not artificial intervention intended to make things happen that otherwise wouldn’t? And what gives kids more glee?

Every machine has to be imagined to be invented, and in our culture we start by giving our children machines to stimulate their imaginations.

There are different classes of toys, of course. The dollies and teddy bears are the crash-test dummies of the under-two crowd. Dollies are for hugging and pushing around in a stroller and flinging down the stairs, presumably as a dramatized reminder to oneself that the stairs can be treacherous. One wouldn’t want to end up like Baby Dolly down there, splayed over the bottom steps, limbs twisted in grotesque configurations.

Then there are the scaled-down versions of the adult world: the Choo-choo trains, the model farms, the Fisher-Price kitchen ensembles, the little wooden animals in the little Noah’s ark. Toys like these are as old as humanity. Noah’s kids probably whiled away the 40 days and 40 nights of the deluge playing with small carvings of pairs of giraffes and elephants.

And then there are toys that are mechanisms themselves, toys that require an action to trigger some delicious reaction. Turn this handle to hear a tune and the jack-in-the-box will spring out explosively. Whack this ball with the mallet and it’ll disappear down a hole, trundle around a circuitous passageway, and reappear elsewhere.

Some of these can be as simple as a backyard slide (Experience the adrenalin rush of near-free-fall through the wonders of the inclined plane!) or as complicated as the indoor plumbing system that makes the toilet flush when you pull the handle (Let us now move on to explore the mysteries of hydrodynamics!).

Traditionally, though, these action toys have operated via some classical mechanical device. The water wheel turns because gravity pulls the water over its paddles. The funny crab walks sideways because Mummy wound up a spring inside it. But there is now an entire class of toys that are as new to the parents as they are to the toddlers, because their workings are run by microchips.

Personally, I’m dubious of these chip-driven gizmos. Take, for example, the Wiggly Giggly. This is an orb the size of a cantaloupe that looks like the planet Jupiter and weighs proportionally as much. Its swirling green surface is pockmarked with splotchy purple indentations, like the finger holes of some bizarre bowling ball. These house the tiny speakers from which its strange lamentations emerge. Roll the Wiggly Giggly across the floor and it makes a mournful sound like a beluga whale being strangled.

This is the sort of toy that makes the adults squeal with delight the first time they encounter it, while almost-two-year-olds shrink back with a look of deep concern. Within weeks the adults have come to hate the thing while junior couldn’t care less about its weird computerized death gargle, except perhaps to wonder what might happen when you place the Wiggly Giggly in the toilet bowl and introduce it to the mysteries of hydrodynamics.

Too many of the chip-based playthings are like that. There are toys that demand work and effort and imagination, and then there are toys that just offer spectacular effects, requiring nothing of the child except the motor skill to flick a switch and turn them on. Sure, both can be mesmerizing, but the rewards of the latter are little more than staring agog. And then we wonder why we end up with a spectator culture of adults who demand that their amusements be effortless, instant and incessant.

Still, one can never anticipate all the uses to which a toy might be put, even a mono-functional chip-based widget like the Wiggly Giggly. In 1979, Marshall McLuhan, one of this country’s all-time great talkers — and no mean thinker — suffered a stroke that wiped out his ability to speak. The man who so loved words was struck mute. His family presented him with a Speak & Spell, an early chip-driven toy for toddlers that uttered consonants and vowels when one pressed letters on the oversized keyboard.

That’s why we should always invest the utmost thought and care into the design of our children’s toys. Want to see what the outlines of tomorrow will hold? Take a look at what the almost-two-year-olds are playing with today.

Globe and MailĀ July 8, 1999