Do you remember your favorite imaginary persona from childhood? We all have them. Some of us have a cast of thousands, and some of us have one or two trusted identities we would slip into again and again. I had a few favorites. In one I liked to dress-up with a grey wig and glasses and come to my grandmother’s door as some sort of roving salesperson – not quite vacuum salesperson and not quite Avon lady. Yet classy. And apparently near-sighted.
Another favorite of mine was, of course, Wonder Woman. Shocking. Looking back now, it seems so obvious that in those stories there lay the seeds of the person I am today. I love sales and marketing. I’m an entrepreneur. I teach krav maga. And well, we make fierce female action figures, (Shameless plug here: IAmElemental action figures were recently selected as one of the 25 Best Inventions of 2014 by TIME magazine) so the Wonder Woman gig is totally self-explanatory.
Play is powerful. In the stories we tell ourselves as children live the seeds of the adults we become. They are perhaps some of the most important seeds, because they are self-selected. The work of children is play. Through their play, children explore and understand the world around them, and also themselves. If the stories we tell ourselves are the business of play, then toys are the tools. They help kids do their jobs better. Toys help spark the stories, and ignite the imaginations and fantasies of children. When your tools are limited, it’s harder to do your work. (For more great stuff on play, check out The Genius of Play.)
Consider the tools the kids in your life have to do their work. Are the tools as multi-layered and varied as the stories you would hope they can dream for themselves can be?
Toys, and for us at IAmElemental, action figures, are at the core of an important part of our message: give a child a different toy, and they will tell a different story. When a child or adult walks into a toy store and sees a pink aisle and a blue aisle and a certain type of toy on each of those shelves, an important seed is planted about the kinds of stories girls should want to tell and the kinds of stories boys should want to tell. When there are no girl action figures, it says, “girls don’t tell that kind of story” and that cuts two ways: 1) it says to girls, "you aren't part of stories where we save the world and have superpowers" and 2) it says the same thing to boys, when there aren't non-sexualized girl figures to be active agents in *their* stories. But here’s a secret: kids play together. And they do nothing but share stories. Here’s another annoying fact of life known to every adult who has come within 3 feet of kids: toys get all mixed up together. Kids play with those cars, and those little building blocks (you know the ones, with the tiny, tiny pieces) and the dolls and the stuffed animals and the action figures all at the same time. What holds them together is the storykids tell each other as they play. Those stories don’t often fall along perfect gender lines. I would say that girls sometimes might enjoy a toy from the blue aisle and boys might like one on the pink aisle. That type of cross-over can spark new ideas, new stories and certainly shakes up the regular business of play.
In her new book, “Playing Big” Tara Mohr speaks to this idea as she encourages women to find their voice, mission and message. She encourages us to know our fears, face them and play bigger. I agree with much of what Mohr has to say. I would argue that the idea of “Playing Big” begins at the very beginning: with play. And the stories we are encouraged to tell ourselves. Kids are given clues to story ideas by the toys they are given. And they are given permission. By you. The adults in their life. We can influence those self-stories by changing the toys kids have around them when they start to weave their fantasies.
This holiday season, as you purchase a toy or two, I encourage us all to think more broadly about the power of play and what stories the toys we give our kids will spark. There is room in every toy box for a few more story-starters than the usual suspects and for toys that don’t fall into strict gender lines. It is time to continue to shift how we conceive of play as a culture.