Toying with Identity: The Importance of Play

When I was a child, one of my fondest Christmas pastimes was sitting down with my brother to “ooo and ahh” over the Toys R Us Holiday Catalog (known also as “The Big Book”). This was no weekly circular ad: this baby clocked in at eighty to a hundred pages filled with ads for toys. The latest and greatest, newest, shiniest, coolest toys were found in The Big Book. I remember circling and placing stars next to what I wanted that year, or what I thought looked cool: Barbies, art supplies, board games, video games for the Playstation 2. My brother was always after video games too, but in a higher capacity than I was. He also wanted science kits, Hot Wheels, and K-Nex building sets.

Why was this so important to us? Why was it so important that I have that exact Barbie doll or that my brother have that exact K-Nex building set? Why couldn’t I settle for an off-brand fashion doll, and why couldn’t my brother be happy with Legos?

While adults may see their children as being picky (and that might be true to some degree), another large element in choosing toys is the intended outcome of said toy. In the twenty-first century, goods are marketed not necessarily based on their practical purpose, but on the feeling or emotion we will receive by purchasing and using them. This is further compounded by the way toys are marketed to children. For example, if I received a Baking Fun Barbie for Christmas, I would expect to experience the same amount of fun that the girls in the advertisement were having. I would expect to feel happy and carefree baking with Barbie (or pretending to bake, anyway).

In addition to this, toys and play are crucial parts of a child’s development. Especially in our materialistic society, we expect children to learn social cues and norms through play. This is not limited to educational toys either. Play socializes children to interact with the adult world in the ways that we as a society have deemed acceptable and normal. From play, children learn to share and work together to accomplish goals, whether they be building the tallest block tower or making the tastiest pretend cake. This might seem trivial, but these skills will later grow into those that are used in the adult world (building a tall skyscraper and cooking a meal for one’s family, for example).

Children are especially keen on imitating adults. When I acted out scenes with Barbie and Ken, I went off of what I knew from social scripts I had learned. Barbie and Ken went on dates together; Barbie and Ken kissed. Barbie and her friends went shopping because that was what girls did together. Girls were not romantically interested in one another. Barbie cooked for Ken and took care of her younger sisters Kelly and Skipper. Thus, I learned social standards of femininity and heterosexuality at a young age through play.

On some level, my brother and I gravitated toward the toys that we did because they addressed the gender identities we were expected to perform. He, as a boy, was expected to build, construct, and experiment while I, as a girl, was expected to learn to take care of others and care deeply about my physical appearance. While I remember truly having fun playing with Barbie, my brother, of course, was never given the option to have dolls. (He did have a GI Joe action figure very briefly, but he didn’t find Joe very interesting, so I captured him to use as a friend for Ken.)

Now, of course, all children have their own preferences, and these often cross gendered lines. In addition to video games, one of my brother’s favorite toys was a cooking playset. And although I loved dolls, I also enjoyed running cars down my brother’s Hot Wheels track. Does this mean we were feminists or subverting radical gender norms at a young age? Not necessarily. In fact, I would argue that when children choose toys, they select them because the objects resonate with the identity they see themselves as possessing. By asking for art supplies, I announced (either consciously or unconsciously) that I saw myself as a creative person. This is also true of gender. I rejected toys like fake make-up and purses because I did not see myself (or my gender) as aligned with that kind of femininity.

Especially in our age of materialism, toys (rightly or wrongly) mean a lot to children and their sense of identity. I’m not advocating that toys are the be-all and end-all of a child’s development (because they aren’t), but it would be unwise to overlook their importance. Certainly, there is much more to a toy— and a child’s process for choosing a toy—than its price tag.