Toy manufacturers are in a business; there’s no denying that.  I think they earn most of their money producing things that already exist.  Simply put, there are no new toys.  We have the balls, strings, blocks, sticks, and sculpting material.  Put them together in some combination, and you have a toy.  Look for “new” toys on the shelf: chances are they’re some variation on the ball, string, block, stick, or clay theme.  In other words, building a better mousetrap.

But what about when it isn’t actually better?  What about those toys I see in the Toys ‘R Us circular that I can’t fathom an adult thinking, “Oh!  That’s such a great toy!” and buying it.  Moreover, I can’t picture a child playing with it after 7:45 Christmas morning.  And what about those toys that seek to fill a “need” that wasn’t actually there in the first place?  The types of commercials/ads pushing these toys first have to convince you how miserable your life is, and what horrible problems you have.  Then, they present their product, and you’re cured of your insatiable depressive existence on this earth. 

At one preschool/Head Start center I visit, each classroom seems to have grey plastic shoes in the dress-up area.  They look like an old man’s jogging shoes, complete with red accented plastic, but thse are no real shoes.  They’re for teaching children how to velcro, snap, and tie shoes.  What’s more, they’re not actually designed for kids to put on their feet, yet they’re in the dress-ups, as if a child might put on a silly hat, glamorous gown, and try to wedge their feet into these plastic vessels.  Try as I might, I couldn’t find an image of these ridiculous “toys”.  I guess the Head Start bought out the stock of the fake grey plastic un-shoes several years ago and instituted it center-wide as a sort of mandate. 

“All house-keeping and dramatic play areas will heretofore be outfitted with a set of plastic shoes model 147A, 147C, 147T, and 147Q.  Failure to adhere to this guideline will result in immediate enrollment of children you thought you expelled for eating crayons and pooping in the sandbox.”

Anyway, when I realized they were not even functional as dress-up shoes, I began to think how silly it is to create a product that imitates a real thing, yet would seem to serve no additional purpose.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to practice tying  shoes by, um, tying shoes?  And if the argument is made that it’s hard to learn to tie one’s own shoes, then wouldn’t it serve dual purposes to have kids tie each other’s shoes?  Then the teacher spends less time crouched on the ground gripping sticky, dirty, sandy laces, and the kids develop special standing when they become resident “Tiers” (hmmm…that doesn’t look right.  Tie-ers?  Lacers?  Lasers?  Sneakers? Knotters?). 

Here are some of the fabulous offerings from respected toy makers for those in the market for fake shoes you can’t wear…I mean, “dexterity toys”: Here, and here.

To draw some parallels, in speech pathology there is a movement afoot which posits that some children need to do so-called “non-speech oral motor therapy” separate from actual speech therapy.  It involves blowing whistles and horns, blowing bubbles, blowing cotton balls across the table, and sucking through straws.  As much fun as this is (especially for those producing and selling the whistles, horns, and straws), for kids who don’t have actual, demonstrated motor deficits (i.e., your normal, articulation therapy candidate), we in the speechie world have found that the best way to work on speech is to actually practice speech. 

Can you imagine learning to play a musical instrument by drumming your fingers on a table and never touching an actual piano?  I can understand rehearsing music mentally, clapping out beats, and cellists practicing finger positions silently on their arms, but never to touch an instrument, in service to playing an instrument?

Or how about learning to chew food by practicing first on packing peanuts, bubble wrap, kitchen sponges, and aquarium tubing?

Or learn how to drive a car by sitting in a carboard box with a paper plate stapled on as your steering wheel?  Or, worse yet, by taking drivers ed while playing Need for Speed?