Play Time

A family of four sat across the aisle from me today on the flight to Phoenix. The boy had no toy, and pestered his dad with questions about whether he would rather be a polar bear or an iguana, a butterfly or a gorilla. The girl, a nugget of a toddler in pink-and-white-striped tights, contented herself with an apple and a paper bag to play with.

Toys, ubiquitous in childhood, can consist of brown paper and a piece of fruit. A stick or a stone. Or more, much more.

My nephew Jasper has a six-year-old’s delight in Legos. His collection of pieces numbers in the hundreds at least, probably the thousands.

Jasper w Legos

He builds worlds. I spent a fraction of play time with him recently constructing a Lego jail with barred windows and a couple of Lego bad guys. I wanted to give them green Lego fish to hold, thinking they deserved a good meal in prison, and he went along but later removed the food. It didn’t fit in his particular vision of this play world.

At Jasper’s age, my world was defined by dolls I fed, dressed, succored. And my dolls’ accoutrements, which I loved. I recall the deliciously plastic smell of Little Kiddle dolls, tiny figures that came in a case complete with a wardrobe, their synthetic pony tails shiny and combable. Playing with them, talking to them, in the air conditioning of my brother’s room during a heat wave. I also had vintage playmates a little bigger, Ginny dolls, courtesy of my grandmother, which came with their sliding-door closet and a perfect crib with a side you could raise or lower.

Ginny doll

My mother favored paper dolls, the kind you punched out of heavy paper, “because you could play that by yourself.” She always was independent. In the attic of her childhood home we found metal toys, a creaky ferris wheel, mysterious Little Lulu comics.

Little Lulu 135a

What are toys to kids? It’s easy to say: just fun. Experts disagree. The Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti spent 18 months capturing images of children and their toys all over the world. Toy Stories bespeaks the universality of toy play, no matter if a kid lives in Malawi or China. Toys, Galimberti found, are both protective and functional, but the precise degree of either varies from culture to culture.







And many other photos of places and children that are equally compelling.

On the plane today, the young traveler finally took out a white teddy bear and hugged it to his chest. I thought of the polar bear he’d been bugging his father about. Was this, somehow, that bear?

A child has a world in his mind and a world in his hand. That’s power. Ask Jasper.

Jasper's restaurant


Filed under Jean Zimmerman, Photography

7 responses to “Play Time

  1. You were an interesting child. Of course you’re a saint yourself now, aren’t you?

  2. And what about the dolls that you can pay to have look like you? Well, you don’t pay the dolls, but…

  3. regina

    I used the dogmatic catholicism of my world as play, with fantasies of saints and a winged pantheon of golden goodness. I used piousness to battle my brothers. If they bossed me around or bullied me, I would say very solemnly, “Charlie, I will pray for you.” Pissed him off more than anything. Mary was my earthly mother and heavenly.
    I played with my doll so intensely and loved Ella Marie so much, I registered her as a pagan baby and baptized her.
    I always knew I would be a mother of girls and i think it had to do with all my dolls being girls. How could/would I mother boys (despite my real life brothers) I disliked sports as much as math and boys only liked sports.
    The play of my two boys delighted and entertained me. Very different + they do love sports and it was OK—I managed just fine.


    American Girl Dolls? Today’s little girls. A tiny bit of history in the stories, sometimes.

  5. Lori

    When I was a child I eschewed dolls. My playthings were books, a microscope that I could take apart and reassemble with ease, a globe, a chemistry set, a fish tank, and the whole world outside. My sisters played with dolls. I didn’t have brothers, but my boy-cousins played with trucks. I tried both and decided I liked my own playthings better.
    Which isn’t to say that dolls or trucks or legos aren’t good toys.
    It’s all a matter of preference.

  6. Gil Reavill

    Fish In The Jailhouse — Tom Waits
    Peoria Johnson told Dudlow Joe
    I can break out of any old jail you know
    the bars are iron the walls are stone
    all I need me is an old fish bone

    they’re serving fish in the jailhouse tonight
    oh boy
    they’re serving fish in the jailhouse tonight

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