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Toys for Imaginative Play
(This is important for both children and adults)


Imaginative play is an important element in child cognitive and moral development (assuming psychologists like Piaget and Kohlberg were right) and this has become something of an issue with the prevalence of 'wonder toys' and computer games. Wonder toys are fine for what they are but most could be labelled 'Merchandising - No imagination required' as the child is presented with a pre-structured environment that constrains their play. Computer games are fun but again they only offer a pre-structured environment as laid down by the programmer, they offer entertainment but without the risks and lessons of adventure.

Imaginative play allows the child to explore unconstrained possibilities and that helps them develop analytic and decision making skills that will be very useful in their adult life. Unstructured play with friends is important, allowing the child to develop social skills and an understanding of the dynamics of relationships, but solo play is (I feel) equally important as the child can explore ideas that he or she is unable to express and explain.

Toys have been readily available for the last few thousand years, increasing in availability as 'childhood' was increasingly recognised as a developmental stage, extending from as little as four years long ago to the period before puberty in more recent history. The oldest toy doll yet found is thought to be over 4,000 years old and toy farms, doll houses and toy soldiers date back at least a couple of thousand years. Mechanical toys, notably toy trains, came along in the later 19th century and really took off in the 20th. All of these offer the child their own world to play in where consequences can be explored without impacting their life expectancy.

At first the toy trains were the preserve of the rich as the mechanisms and even the track cost a lot of money but the development of technologies such as die-casting and injection moulding brought both the cost and the size down, meanwhile research and development produced elements such as reliable couplings, much cheaper track and better, smaller motors. These techniques were applied to toys of all kinds and even toy soldiers became increasingly sophisticated. The research had various spin-offs that fed back into the wider world,one type of motor now widely used in industry as well as for toy trains was developed by the volunteers at the Pendon Railway Museum in Oxfordshire (a place well worth a visit for anyone with an interest in 'miniatures' of any kind).

Miniatures are fascinating to many people, and the psychology behind that fascination is complex, but broadly speaking they provide a window into a world detached from the troubles and tribulations of 'real life'. They also have more practical benefits; playing with toy trains, toy farms, dolls houses and toy soldiers leads into 'making things' to fill in gaps where commercial products are either too expensive or unavailable. In so doing the individual develops coordination and motor skills as well as a deepened understanding of 'materials science' and engineering.

One of the exhibits at Pendon museum is a model railway, the Madder Valley Railway, but a better description would be that it is a small self contained world that has a railway running through it. It was built in the 1930s and at the time there was little available commercially so the builder had to make pretty much everything (including the railway track and the locomotives to run on it). This became something of an obsession with him and he solved the problem of his hobby interfering with work by giving up work and taking early retirement. The books he wrote (notably Miniature Landscape Construction' and 'Miniature Building Construction' both by J H Ahern) became a valuable source of ideas and inspiration for several generations that followed and they remain valuable today when you want something you cannot buy.

Playing with toys fosters curiosity as many kinds of play involve creating a narrative thread or plot that determines what happens. The play encourages the child to ask questions and seek clarification, leading them into an information rich environment where they soak up ideas and learn the 'rules' of real life. Toy farms have always been popular amongst rural populations as the kids have some understanding of what the various bits are and how they fit together in an ongoing narrative but they are somewhat baffling for a child that has never seen a cow. Toy soldiers provide a similar structure for the children of city dwellers and the 'war story' has resonance as humans often engage in warfare to settle disputes (particularly in challenging times but sometimes just to pander to the Great Leader's 'small willie' syndrome).

The toys people play with tell us a lot about the culture they were raised in, and they way they play tell us a lot about the kind of people they are and what strengths and weaknesses they have (of late employers have been paying more attention to the 'hobbies and interests' section of CVs for that reason). Reviewing the biographies of notable scientists and writers reveals a strong element of imaginative play in their childhoods. The writer H.G. Wells actually wrote the first book on 'wargames' using metal toy soldiers and cannons that actually fired match-sticks, although the metal back then was mostly lead and the match-firing cannons and similar guns firing plastic shells were banned some years back as it was felt they represented a potential choking hazard.

Once into adulthood people are advised to 'put away childish things' (in ancient Greece young women would make an offering of their dolls in the temple on the eve of their wedding as a rite of passage into adulthood) but that undervalues the subjective experiences and insights that are found in play. Toys also provide a great deal of enjoyment and arguably benefit to adults (and not just in the bedroom, but that is another topic entirely). Doll houses are popular with both men and women although the genders do tend to focus on different aspects, one chap built a garage with a workshop in which things like the vice on the bench actually worked and he had jars of nuts and bolts with scale screwdrivers and spanners to fit them.

Because adult life comes with responsibilities people often regard 'play' as a waste of time and effort and those social 'norms' that denigrated play as worthless continued up until the very recent past. People were ashamed of creative hobbies and correspondents writing articles for model making or model engineering magazines often adopted a nom du plume to disguise their true identity. Such pastimes were often decried as 'escapism' but another word for what is going on is 'exploration', the difference lies in the outcome. Sheltering in a world of established 'norms' is actually escapism at its worst, it is a function of what psychologists describe as 'ambiguity aversion', the fear of uncertainty.

In reality scientists and engineers 'play' with ideas and then try and build something to see if the ideas work in practice and the psychologists have found there are specific elements in what they do that make the process rewarding. A sense of 'mastery' can be gained from cutting out and gluing together a paper model house for your child, cutting the door so it can swing open and closed adds to the 'pride' you feel when you do it. Both provide buttressing for one's sense of 'self worth' and that is important to emotional well being and to maintaining healthy relationships with others.

Current research suggests that play of many kinds is important for many reasons and it provides nourishment for the psyche in many ways. People such as Dr Martin Seligman have covered this as part of the ongoing research into what constitutes happiness and fulfillment in the relatively new field of 'positive psychology' (psychologists had concentrated on trying to ameliorate the consequences of unwanted psychological states, positive psychology looks at what can be done to enhance and enrich the condition known as 'normal'). Their research, backed up by experiments and peer reviewed publication of papers has actually lead to changes in legislation and in organisations such as schools and armies (notably the US 'resilient soldier' programme) but research into play itself remains sparse.

Although the research has shown that 'play' is important for both child development and adult mental health those established 'social norms' remain in effect and many people feel embarrassed admitting to having a creative hobby that produces neither useful items or saleable goods. The urge is still there of course, it is part of being human, but it is often repressed. That is not a very satisfying way to live so we have developed mechanisms to allow us time to 'play', parties are good example, but the pressures of life mean that parties are infrequent. What tends to happen is that adults start to 'play' in other ways, at the time it was built the M1 motorway was described as the largest toy ever built as people took their motor cars along it just to 'see what they could do'. Frankly the choking hazard presented by match-stick firing cannons pales into insignificance against the hazards of playing with motor cars.



A place to call your own


Playing generally involves 'things' and things are inherently a bit messy; they take up space, they may be fragile and they may serve no immediately apparent 'useful purpose'. Some people play by making useful things and delight in solving the problems (such as knitting, dress-making or adding small stop-taps under each tap in the house so the washer can be changed without isolating the main water supply). Some folk just enjoy working with things like metal and some take a bag of scraps and turn it into a fully working steam locomotive. That kind of play is really an approach better suited to adults, I do not know many small children I could leave playing with a milling machine or etching sheet metal with ferric chloride to make the number plates for a locomotive.

Children are often told to 'tidy up' and 'put their toys away after playing', but for imaginative play the dividing lines between 'before', 'during' and 'after' are blurred at best. It is much better to give the child a designated space that is 'theirs' and this is one reason doll houses have always been so popular as they can be left in play and the child can resume where they left off when the next free time comes along.

The 'train set' also benefits from this approach as when mounted on a baseboard it can be left in play and returned to later. The Japanese are space starved so their have developed toy train sets designed to be easily taken apart and put together again, but in practice what tends to happen is they get set up on the floor and left there for days or weeks at a time.

Having a defined 'baseboard' is also well worth considering for toy farms or toy soldiers and a simple shelf is all that is required, but it does need to be a quite large. On the plus side with everything more or less constrained to a board means you are less likely to end up fishing particularly cherished toy soldiers out of the vacuum cleaner bag.

Some people put a sideboard in the child's bedroom for this, but they are actually just a little small, typically only 14 inches or so from front to back, and an extra couple of inches makes a big difference. Experience suggests the shelf should ideally be about eighteen inches (45cm) from front to back and about five feet (1.5m) in length. This is a function of human physiology, factors such as the geometry of vision and reach of the arm are paramount and this is actually about the upper limit for a toy soldier or toy farm board. You can go down to about four feet by 16 inches but at that level or smaller the child becomes aware of the space constraint.

As the size is determined by the user not the toys the quoted dimensions apply for both the traditional 'toy solder' scales of 1:32 or 54mm (people are about 2.5 inches or 6.25sm tall) and 1:72 or 20mm (people are 1 inch or 25mm tall). Toy soldiers in this context includes ancient armies such as Romans and 'barbarians', knights in armour, cowboys and indians, as well as more modern soldier sets. This size board also works for toy farms in the most popular scales including the 1/32nd scale such as the Britains range, 1:64th such as the die cast models from Ertl (corresponding to the S scale model railways and some 28mm model soldiers) as well as 1/72nd scale using people, animals and vehicles for toy trains in OO or HO scales (1:76 and 1/87 respectively).

The option I would suggest is a lightweight board that can be rested on top of a set of drawers and I would suggest adding a strip of thin ply or hardboard about a foot wide (30cm) along the back edge, extending six inches (15cm) or so up from each side to form a long T shape.

sketch of a shelf for toy soldiers or a toy farm

The backing tucked down behind the drawers makes it more stable and much less likely to slide off onto the floor and also allows the back board to be painted to give the scene extra depth. As it extends both above and below the main board the two sides can be painted to represent different kinds of terrain, perhaps green fields on one with the other being desert, or one side being 'sea' for playing with waterline model boats or for amphibious operations.

This board is the child's world, you cannot instruct them to tidy it up any more than you can instruct them to tidy up the whole of the real world. You do not mess with the things on the board, they may be in a particular place for a particular reason and if they are dusty that may be part of what the child is playing with. Such a board could be a battlefield one day, an airport the next and a 'space base' on an alien planet the day after that.

What we are talking about here is free-form imaginative play, there are no 'rules' and 'rivet counting' is optional, if the kiddie picks up a pack of toy dinosaurs for his knights in armour to fight that's fine, if flying saucers land in the middle of the battle of Waterloo and disgorge hordes of ancient Egyptians armed with rubber band powered Roman catapults firing plastiscene 'rocks' then so be it.

To make a double-sided board as described that is easy to turn over I would suggest buying a sheet of thin plywood, perhaps 3mm thick (3-ply). In the UK this comes in sheets 8ft by 4ft (2.4m x 1.2m), this can be cut to give you two eighteen inches by five foot pieces and the backing piece of 12 inches by 5 foot long and you are still left with a piece 3ft (1m) by 4ft (1.2m) at one end.

Make a simple 'ladder' frame of 1" x1" (25mm square) PAR (planed all round) wood, screw and glue the top and bottom pieces to this and screw and glue the back board to one edge. The result is a 'box girder' construction that is surprisingly rigid but very light. A coat of paint helps but I would advise against 'texturing' the surface with sawdust, sand or scenic grass material from the model shop as toy soldiers come on their own individual base and are liable to fall over on 'rough ground'.

Wargamers often have such textured surfaces but their troops come on big heavy bases which are less realistic, wargames also require a rather larger board, typical sizes are 4ft x 4ft (1.2m square) and 4ft x 6ft. There are some that can be played on a dining table, the 1:300 range of 'micro armour' introduced by GHQ allows you to play the entire battle of Kursk on a moderate size of table, but the smaller scales lack that anthropomorphic quality in which the player is interacting with the 'characters' as individuals.

The remaining piece of the plywood sheet can be cut up and used as a base for making big things such as a castle or a farm compound that can be placed on the board when required.

It is also a handy size for a small N gauge railway set (N gauge is to a scale of 1:148, 1:150 or 1:160 for British, Japanese or European/American models, people are about half an inch tall max). Cut down to 4ft x 2ft gives you a large enough baseboard for a small model railway and the remaining strip can be fixed to the back side for the 'backscene'.

For model railways people may use such a board with a section cut away on the top to form a 'river' - Add spacer pieces to the underside of the board with the cut-out part stuck to the bottom and dress the edges. That works well as a river, and it would make for a good 'feature' on a toy farm but in terms of toy soldiers it is too 'static' and I would suggest a simple river as described in the section on rivers and bridges is a better although less realistic option . When I was about 10 I was given a set of toy soldiers that came with a vacuum formed base representing a destroyed town with a river crossed by a small bridge. For a parent having only one thing to put away must have seemed like an excellent idea but I found the soldiers couldn't stand too well on the lumpy surface and the individual parts were too 'static'. A collection of moveable pieces would have been preferable and that is what I provide when I make up sets for kiddies (wargamers call this 'scatter terrain').



Safe storage for delicate toys


If a child engages with their miniature world they are likely to want to add detail to it and the resulting models (plastic kits, paper buildings etc) tend to be fragile. You may not 'get' models but you should show some respect to a child who finds them fascinating, they are likely to put a lot of work into making them and breaking your child's toys (even if unintentionally) is never a nice thing to do.

When I was very young (about eight I think) I built a little Airfix 1:600 scale kit of HMS Victory and I went to town adding the rigging and a couple of flags. I was proud of my work and it got put on a shelf in the living room. Unfortunately after it had been dusted a couple of times the thin paper flags were torn off, then the rigging started to suffer, then it got knocked off the shelf and one of the masts broke. That was a depressing experience and keeping things out of reach of my parents (who just didn't 'get' models) was factored in to what I subsequently did.

When I was about ten I got a nice long shelf for a model railway along one wall of my bedroom but the problems of reliable running and the limitations of end-to-end running put me off toy trains and it became a 'battleground' (I added a plank to the front and pinched some sand from a building project dad was working on in the garden). As this was in my bedroom it was 'safe' and it was well used for several years. To store the models I used a small suitcase and the soldiers lived in washed out plastic tubs. As time passed I got a bigger suitcase and a lot more tubs but as all of this remained in the bedroom they were 'safe' and lasted well.

Toy soldiers, farm animals and the like tend to be made out of fairly rugged plastic and 'toys' (as opposed to detailed models) can be stored in washed-out margarine or 'chippy' tubs. More detailed models and especially the larger hard plastic or metal models need a little more care, for example adding cardboard strips inside a 'pizza' box to form compartments works well, I used those for my N Gauge trains for years with no problems.

Open fronted shelving is a good option, the models may be stored in boxes or just arranged on the shelf (where they can be seen) but the shelf should not be too deep, 6-8 inches (15-20cm) is a good size as the models at the back will not then be 'hidden' but some (such as large aircraft in 1:72nd scale) may benefit from a couple of extra inches. Glass fronted shelving is ideal as it avoids the problems of dust but they are more expensive and not essential.

Some people like big models, 1:24th scale aircraft and the like, they are not really 'toys' as all you can actually do is look at them and they are fragile so the best option is shelving on which they can be displayed. I knew a chap once who remarked that his mum could never understand why his clothes were on the floor and the wardrobe was full of his carefully painted (and rather good) 54mm figures. Any model-maker would understand perfectly but sadly not everyone is a model-maker and tolerance is required on both sides.



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