Last year I watched a short film entitled “Toccata for Toy Trains” which was made by the Eames family in the 1960s. The colorful film shows the journey of a toy train from city to city. The fun aspect of the film is in the use of cute three-dimensional objects. It does not aim for realism. Goofy paper cutouts of people wave from hand-carved block wagons. The Eames people apparently made the film in opposition to model trains—not the toy trains portrayed in their short film. At the time, model trains made by companies such as Lionel were growing increasingly detailed and more accurate to their life-size counterparts, thanks to improved manufacturing techniques and the demand from scale model fans around the world. The quaint wooden carriages were becoming a toy of the past as more dynamic and realistic model locomotives were on the rise.
The Eames film borders on condescension as it proclaims the best toys to be the oldest, the most charming, and most fanciful ones. It mocks the older generation that takes their childhood love of trains to the next level. While the film is correct that model makers may not be playing with their toys in a way that is as fanciful as a child, model makers are still using the “toys” to learn more about their world and to make a miniature reality of their own. A child adds their imagination to the simple materials available to them, while an adult modeler uses detailed materials to recreate their perception of reality. Even if a modeler is recreating something that exists in the real world, they are increasing their imagination or ability to imagine by teaching their mind how the actual objects look and function.
The question then becomes whether it is more important for a toy to look pleasing or for a toy to be fun to play with. If anything, the Eames film mocks the seriousness of model enthusiasts by portraying toys as what they will always be: mere images of the real thing. Since it is impossible to recreate real life, why try? It is easier to use the toy as a reference point and focus on the play and imagination aspect instead. Many modelers strive for their models to be exact reproductions of the real thing, and yet the models and their real-life counterparts can never fully be the same. So it seems that cartoony toys are the best.
Where the Eames film starts to fall apart, though, is that the objects in the film still do resemble trains. In condemning more realistic model trains, it also condemns its own props, which are still recognizable models of trains. However fanciful they may be, the toys still have the smokestacks, wheels, bells, whistles, and cabs found on real locomotives. They may not look the same in color or proportion, but the toys symbolically invoke the actual objects with their appearance.
A more interesting short film could portray the pastime of playing with toy trains without the use of toys at all. A couple of bricks could be tied together in a row with string, and then pegs could be laid on top of the bricks and a child could tow the whole thing around in the dirt. This child is still playing trains, even though the objects only resemble a train in the way they are used.
So it is possible to play with toys that look nothing like their real life counterparts, and it is possible to play with toys that look exactly like their real life counterparts. As long as the appearance of a toy does not get in the way of the play experience, it is still a good toy. If constructing a toy of accurate appearance delays the fun of play, then it is not a good toy, but if constructing a toy of accurate appearance IS the fun of play, then by all means it is a good toy. It depends on what the user is seeking in their experience with it.
Playing with toys is hardly ever considered learning. Learning is usually correlated with reading books, studying for tests or writing essays. However, the best learning takes place when the student is closest to the subject they wish to learn about. The student can, up close, observe how the subject looks and how it functions. Thus playing is one of the best ways to learn because even though the student may not be able to access the real subject in its full and original form, they are able to understand it further by imagining it or interacting with a model of it in person.
For example, a child may be fascinated with boats and discover for the first time the challenges of buoyancy by trying to keep a tin can afloat in a pool of water. Here the child has seen real-life boats and has captured the concept in his mind. He begins to examine the form and function of boats through his play. Even though he is not using a real boat, many similar features of a boat are present in his setup, and whatever realism is not present the boy fills in with his imagination. He is still examining the realities of the world even though he only uses spare materials and his mind.
Friedrich Frobel, a German teacher and the inventor of kindergarten, said that play “is absolutely unconscious of purpose”. This does not mean that play does not have a purpose, but means that play isn’t focused on the knowledge or learning that may result from doing an activity. It is focused on engaging with the subject itself; it is an encounter where curiosity takes over. And thus play is when a person is no longer thinking about the physical objects in front of them, but is thinking about what the objects represent and how they interact with each other, however closely the objects may or may not actually represent their real-life counterparts.
The best toy is the one that doesn’t get in the way of the player and their imagination. If it has too many parts or takes too long to assemble or is too fragile, then it is not proper for a child whose imagination dictates that the world of the toy be exciting and expansive. A simple and even crude toy will suffice as the child pulls it around the yard, runs it through the grass and throws it through the trees. If a toy is not visually appealing or accurate to its source of inspiration, then it is not proper for an adult who wishes to recreate the world as they imagine it. A realistic and attractive model is best for this adult who will painstakingly come to better understand the world by replicating it in miniature.
Both the child and the adult are using their imaginations. The child seeks to expand their imagination as they are excited in the possibilities of things yet to be understood. The adult seeks to conform their imagination to reality as they are fascinated by intricacies and details. The child uses creative play to widen his scope; the adult uses constructive play to keen his senses. These may not be the distinct functions found respectively in the young and the old; in fact, it would be ideal for a person to be able to practice both. Hopefully the toy does not get in the way of him or her doing either.