Michelle Gillett: Turn off the screen and go to a toy store


STOCKBRIDGE >> I make a trip to The Ark, one of my favorite toy stores, whenever I visit my daughter and her family in Berkeley. But I didn't get to wander through its aisles looking at the puppets and books games and puzzles and stuffed animals two weeks ago when I was there. The Ark has closed, no longer able to compete with toy sellers like Amazon and Toys R Us. I felt the same pang of nostalgia and loss as I did when FAO Schwartz closed its doors. There is so much pleasure at being in the midst of well-made and interesting toys.

Christopher Byrne, the creative director of TTPM.com, an online toy review says, looking at toys in stores "is not really an American pastime anymore. Kids still love looking at toys, but they're doing it on their iPads and their phones and their different devices. The image of the saucer-eyed child looking at some object of desire is the same, but the child is looking at a tablet."

But is it the same? Are toys becoming as passé as the stores that featured them?

Look at Barbie, once the most popular doll in America her sales have been declining for the past three years despite Mattel's efforts to keep her current/ Her sales went down 16 percent last year, and fell by double digits each quarter throughout the year.

Barbie made her debut wearing a black-and-white striped bathing suit, high heels and sunglasses on March 9, 1959 at the American International Toy Fair in New York City. She cost $3. Today's Barbie can slip her feet out of her heels into flats, has widened her waistline, and dumped her boyfriend, Ken, and is still reasonably priced. You can buy Entrepreneur Barbie, who comes with her own Linked-in page, smartphone and tablet, for $12.99.

Identity crisis

But despite the efforts to modernize her, sales are not increasing, nor are sales for The American Girl Doll, who has given up her historical identity. Initially, the 18-inch dolls taught American history through books that came with the dolls and covered topics like child labor, poverty, racism, slavery and war. But the emphasis has shifted from "strong, feminine characters," as Amy Schiller reported in Atlantic Monthly, to a character who is "boring, shallow, weak, unoriginal, yet so sassy and cool that she deserves the world."

The "Modern" American Girl Doll deals with problems like divorced parents and moving across the country away from her friends. Schiller reports that the company's three original girls — "World War II patriot Molly, Scandinavian farmer Kirsten and Victorian aristocrat Samantha — have been archived, and dolls like Lanie the amateur gardener and McKenna the gymnast have been shifted into center stage."

But are little girls really changing their minds about their role models? Shifting their allegiance from dolls to more gender neutral toys? Maybe. But I think the real reason toy stores are closing, and dolls and other traditional toy sales are dropping is that these days, boys and girls favor technical devices.

New research shows that the touchscreen has overtaken every other toy for children. The Michael Cohen Group (MCG) released the results of its recent nationwide survey, which polled 350 parents about the play habits of their children 12 and younger. "The poll found more than 60 percent of parents claim that their child uses a touchscreen. They have overtaken dolls, action figures, board games and other traditional toys — and experts say their popularity is still rocketing."

Technology changes so fast, it is hard to know what happens when free apps replace free play outdoors, and imaginative play is less interesting than video games, and children would rather nurture a moshi monster on the screen than rock a real baby doll to sleep.

Berkshire locales

There are 44 more shopping days until Christmas which means there is plenty of time to shut down your computer, skip the one click shopping on Amazon, and drive to a local toy store — Tom's Toys, Matrushka, The Gifted Child (also in Lenox)in Great Barrington, Persnickety Toys in Pittsfield, Where'd You Get That? in Williamstown carry a wide variety of toys. All the area museums sell interesting and creative gifts for children in their shops.

Don't let our local toy stores go the way of The Ark, adrift in a flood of devices, and don't enable your children and grandchildren to lose touch with creative play as they lose themselves in their touch screens.

Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.


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