OK, let’s start right out with a disclaimer: This isn’t going to be a regular old blog post about comic books. It’s a blog about comic books in a roundabout way. Sorry about that, but sometimes you just gotta write about what your thinking about, and today, I’m thinking about my kid.
Still with me? Then let’s get to it …
I spend a lot of time every summer going to yard sales. Since I’m a collector of toys and comic books, these are my main objectives as I go from sale to sale. Sure, I’ll buy furniture, knickknacks and the rest, but what really draws me in is toys and comics.
With toys in particular, I’m always looking for action figures. They’re small, easy to store in my small house and people practically give them away.
What’s better, more often than not, I can get them in spectacular condition — with their joints tight and complete paint intact.
In fact, many I find look like they were peeled straight off their blister packs, plopped into a Rubbermaid tub, marked down to 50-cents and then lugged out to be sold.
Really, it looks like most have never been played with.
That makes me wonder: Do kids even play with them? And for that matter, do they know how?
From some of the older kids I know, I don’t think they do.
I think a lot of parents just assume that you can give a kid a McDonald’s toy and send them off to their room where they should be amused for hours upon hours..
But as a new parent, I’ve found that’s not the case. Kids need to learn how to play. They need help getting started.
Since I’ve always loved to play, I’ve been right there with my daughter trying to show her what to do since her earliest stages of self-awareness. I’ve been doing everything I can to kickstart her imagination, an important role for any parent.
With that in mind, I offer you, the parent, some tips on how to get your young kids to play with toys. More importantly, I want to offer a few simple ideas how you can teach your kids how to play with toys in a nonviolent manner.
WHY OFFER THESE IDEAS HERE AT THE COMICS ON THE BRAIN WEB SITE?
Well this site is meant to be a place to foster the love of comic books, and right now comic book are front-and-center in the public’s eye thanks to movies, television and video games. That of course means that there’s lots of comic-book toys out there. And if I can bring one kid over from loving the “Spider-Man” movies to reading Spider-Man comic books to delving into the deep history of the character here at this Web site, I’ll be happy. A little self-serving? Maybe, but it sure could help a lot of kids too.
WHAT MAKES YOU, MR. COLUMNIST, AN EXPERT ON PLAYING?
I have a unique perspective on this. You see, I grew up in a house out in the country where I was constantly encouraged to play with my toys. That gentle push helped me to learn to play on my own. I really could wile away the hours playing with simple toys like “Star Wars” figures. I grew up in a relatively poor household, where I was lucky to get four or five such figures for Christmas. My wife, on the other hand, grew up in a more affluent household where she was showered with toys. But sadly, she admits, she never really knew how to play. She knew how to dress Barbie dolls and dunk her Masters of the Universe toys in the pool, but she admits to never using her imagination during play. She just went through the motions. During her childhood, she explains, she was always around adults who were busy with other things. That lack of “play instruction” has finally caught up to her as she’s often baffled at what she can do to play with our daughter. This, of course, has generated a lot of talk and ideas between the two of us, and I’d like to offer those ideas to you.
So, without further introduction, here we go:
GET A FEW TOYS
Yeah, this is a no-brainer: Get a few toys. But wait. Don’t dash out to the store buy the newest, fanciest, talking Characters with a computer inside that can tell you what temperature it is in Guatemala. Instead, get something simple. You don’t even have to buy it because chances are you’ve got some little toy that someone else already bought you.
The key here is to get some toys that aren’t automated. Don’t get toys that sing the alphabet or teach math or dance the Hokie Pokie. Get toys that are inherently static until the child manipulates it. A regular old stuffed animal will do.
Me, I opted for a set of “Justice League” action figures. If you’ve ever seen them, they are about as basic of an action figure that you can buy. Two arms. Two legs. Lots of plastic. No fancy weapons or action buttons. Just a figure in a human shape.
INTRODUCE THE TOY TO YOUR CHILD
Don’t just hand a toy over to your kid and tell them to “go play.” Show them the toy. Open it with them. Read the back of the packaging outload. Learn a little bit about the toy and talk to your child about it. If you are buying a new toy, buy something that you know about.
“This is Superman. He’s so strong that he can lift up mommy’s SUV. He can also fly in the sky. Daddy likes to read about Superman in comic books.”
For toys with violent themes, think about how to remove that aspect of the toy. If it comes with guns or swords, just take them out of the package and stick them in a bag. Maybe someday the child will ask for them, and maybe you’ll feel it’s appropriate to let them have it.
An important bit of additional advice: No matter how lame the toy you choose is compared to other newer toys with all those bells and whistles, get a toy that you, the adult, likes. It will be your job to make it more fun than that toy with all the bells and whistles. And believe me, if you show lots of interest in it, your little one is sure to follow suit.
INTRODUCE THE MECHANICS OF THE TOY
For simple items, such as an action figure, show your kid how to work them. Bend their arms. Twist their waist. Turn their head. Show them, hand it to them and let them do the same.
This is a key thing to do with your child early on and something you can teach even before the child can talk.
In fact, use it to help them learn words.
“This is Batman’s arm. Do you know where your arm is? Can you bend your arm like Batman?”
INTRODUCE AGE-APPROPRIATE TOYS
Every parent wants to think there kid is a genius. That means they routinely ignore the “suggested age” for toys. But you know what? The label is there for a reason. The toy companies don’t intentionally limit the purchase of their product without knowing what they get in return — repeat business as you come back for toys in the next age bracket. Toys are sold to particular age groups because they match the skill level of children of that age.
It’s when kids don’t have the skills to play with them that the toys end up not getting used.
You’ve heard the story: “We buy him all this great stuff, and he ends up playing with box.”
Well, the reason he’s playing with the box is that he knows what you can do with a box: open it, put stuff in it and close it. When you buy the latest, greatest electronic doo-dad for your kid and their little fingers can’t manipulate the on switch, you haven’t given your child anything more than a dust collector.
Instead, read the package and buy an age appropriate toy. Save that fancy doo-dad for another time.
Now that you’ve got your age-appropriate toy and you’ve taught your little one how to work it, start talking. But don’t talk as yourself, talk with the toy’s voice. Bounce the toy around as you talk. Make sure junior’s looking at the toy, not you.
Say basic things. Talk about what color the toy is. Talk about things in the room the toy sees. Just keep talking in character and get your child to interact with it.
“Hello, I’m Wonder Woman. My boots are red. Do you have boots? I see your boots. Do you know where they are?”
Now would Wonder Woman really say that? Probably not, but your child isn’t thinking about that. Your child is thinking “Boots? I have boots. They aren’t the same color as hers though. They’re pink.”
Slowly those thoughts will come out in little garbled words, and those little garbled words will soon expand into sentences.
Once the child is speaking, introduce new ideas. Ask the child to form opinions and discover truths.
“Green Arrow likes it when it’s sunny out. Is it sunny out or is it cloudy?”
What’s great is that some where along the way, your child will bring their own toy character into the mix. From there, you’ll have little conversations on what color the couch is and whether or not it’s hot or cold outside.
Action is what action figures are about, so that’s what you want to do next. But hold on, just because they’re action figures doesn’t mean that they spend all their time punching, slicing and shooting things. Instead, come up with things for the toys to do that don’t involve violence. Need some ideas? Here are thirteen:
Rescue missions: A toy has to help another toy trapped under a pillow.
Races: Have two toys sprint to the kitchen.
Climbing: Take your toys climbing, they have to struggle — grunting and growning –to the top of the couch seatback.
Swinging on Rope: Get a few shoestrings and and tie them to the toy and swing them from one spot to another.
Captured by the villain: With that same shoestring, tie up one toy and have another toy, led by the little one, come to the rescue.
Go swimming: Fill a mixing bowl with water and have them go swimming or take a bath. Have the toy dive for something at the bottom.
Hide and Go Seek: You hide your toy and have the other toys go find it. The whole time, you, in the voice of the toy, offer hints as to where it’s hidden.
Clay Play: One toy gets stuck in play and needs another one’s help out.
Repair Station: Toys help fix other toys. Have Batman repair a Tonka truck or Superman put the roof on the Lincoln Log house.
Doctor Visit: If your child has pretend physician’s instruments, have them give her human and animal toys a check up. Bandages, of course, are necessary in the form of toilet paper.
Parade: All the toys line up for a parade. One moves into the center, does its thing, and then moves on so the next can come.
Acrobats: The toys jump, flip and bounce off everything around. Under your character’s guidance and limitless energy, the toys bounce and leap off every surface around.
Wall Builder: With blocks or some other stackable item, the characters build a wall — or you build the wall and the toys knock them down.
It’s all fairly basic, and keep it that way for a while. Let the youngster get used to the idea and grow comfortable with it.
INTRODUCE A PLOT
Once action is introduced fairly and your child can play right along side you, add a plot. Start it out simple so your child understands the basics of a plot: Overcoming an obstacle.
Why were are building a wall of blocks? To stop the windstorm coming. What’s the parade for? To celebrate Wonder Woman’s birthday, but now she’s missing and its up to us to find her. How did Flash get tied up? Because Darkseid wants to learn how to become superfast.
As time goes on, you can add villainous attributes to the appropriate characters, but it’s not necessary right away. Just have them see a goal and aim to reach it.
INTRODUCE AN ODDITY
Within the same group of toys, eventually introduce something strange and ludicrous. You could have a toy say something that isn’t true or bring a shoe out, have everyone get inside and fly it around.
The point here is to stretch the child’s imagination. To expand her thinking processes and keep her giggling.
It might also help them talk and interact as they try to say “That’s not right. Shoes aren’t for flying”
(This is one of my favorite activities. Whenever we play with my daughter’s zoo set, I grab the giraffe and loudly announce, in the giraffe’s voice, “I’m a T-Rex!” We then spend a few minutes sorting out whether or not he really is a dinosaur.)
INTRODUCE ANOTHER SET OF TOYS
Once you’ve got a good play style going, bring a whole other type of toy to your child’s attention, and repeat all the steps above. This simple change can help open up a whole other horizon to your child. Additionally, it keeps your child from being fixated on one thing. It helps them be flexible. At the same time, it gives you a little bit of relief too. Rescuing Martian Manhunter seven days a week can get a little grating after all.
“No heroes tonight. We’re going to help Mr. Potato Head find a happy face.”
Once you’ve managed to build all these play habits into your kid’s mind, it won’t be long until they’ll jump into any
pile of toys and find an adventure waiting for them. I can only hope that from there, their curiosity and imagination is bound to grow — and maybe, just maybe, with your help, they’ll pick up a comic someday.
That’s all I can hope for.