Democratic Toys

The toy manufacturer Fisher Price released a play set for the home office. Kittens and puppies feature as your coworkers when you flip open your laptop or make a call on your smartphone. The telecommuter headset, to-go coffee cup and charts depicting hockey-stick growth complete the scene.

It was like a sucker punch to the soul.

Why? That got me thinking about toys and how they convey to children (and the adults who buy them) what is desirable and visible in society, as well as hold up a mirror to what is really there.

Talking this through with Chris Lawrence, he pointed out that the toys are important for role play. Kids see the adults around them doing things like videoconferencing, or cleaning or going to the supermarket or visiting the doctor, and they want to imitate it.

It made me realize that the heartbreaking thing isn’t the toys themselves and that kids wants to play like their parents, but that the Fisher Price Home Office kit makes visible the deeper grind of many desk jobs within an extractive hyper-capitalist system.

So, what jobs do toys depict? And why?

Take a stroll through a toy store, which I am now more obliged to do these days, and you’ll see a telling tale. Racks and racks of police gear. Firefighters and construction workers. Kings and queens and princes and princesses. Trains, dolls and crafts. Magic. And now the Fisher Price Home Office.

It struck me that many toys are high authority. Imagining yourself as a king or police officer is a rush. And there isn’t a lot of cash being made selling the role of the indentured servant or Death Row inmate.

Why are we, kids and grown-ups and toy makers, all playing into the power structures of medieval Europe or the prison-industrial complex of the US? These structures are of course with us today, but we should be critical of them and dismantle them—not teach our next generation to keep it going.

So now I ask, if toys both reflect society as it is, and also encourage it to be as we want it to be, then where for the love of Earth is democracy in any of this? Where are the democratic toys?

Learn to count with the ballot box! The Citizen Assembly Erector Set! Council Member Ken and Mayor Barbie! Mondragon Corporation: The Co-Op Board Game! A demonstrators’ craft kit!

Democracy is completely invisible in children’s play today. Let’s not stunt our collective imagination by hiding democracy from play. Democracy isn’t a fantasy. It’s all around us, if we actually look and care about it. We can make democracy visible and desirable through play, and then we might even have a generation of empowering and creative ways to shape the world equitably.

See, fun for all ages! Kids even like a good mess.

Image: Unohdettu, Veikko Stålhammar, Finnish National Gallery. Public Domain.

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