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Forget The Fads, Stick To Classic Toys


Hanukkah begins tonight, and since many people wait until the last minute to do that holiday shopping, some are probably still trying to figure out what to get for their favorite little people.

Last week, we talked about the newest electronic gifts, like this one.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Introducing Fijit Friends, a girl's interactive best friend. Fijit Friends say more than 150 different phrases.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as voice of Fijit Friend) Hi, Willa. You look fabulous. Thank you, Willa.

MARTIN: Have I mentioned how much I hate that thing? But anyway, that's one of the new interactive toys out this season. But today, we want to go old school. We'll take a look at the classic toys many of us loved as kids, and we'll talk about which ones will still delight youngsters today.

Chris Bensch is the vice president of collections at the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. His job is to actually play with all the great toys, new and old, and also curate the collections. And we've called on him to give us a few ideas.

Chris Bensch joins us now from member station WXXI in Rochester, New York. Welcome. Happy holidays.

CHRIS BENSCH: Same to you.

MARTIN: I think everybody probably always asks you this question, but what is it that makes a classic toy, or that distinguishes a classic toy from one that people are just going to forget about as soon as the wrapping's in the trash?

BENSCH: I think it's the toys that have so much inherent play value, and that they cultivate the best qualities of imagination and socialization and creativity that kids, teens and adults can have when confronted by the right toys and games.

MARTIN: Now, you are not a parent, but you are a toy expert. So tell us about personal favorites, things that you think - if you're still looking for that gift for Hanukkah or for, perhaps, Christmas, that parents should consider - parents, anybody who's going to give a gift should consider if you haven't thought about it already.

BENSCH: Well, I've been a kid, and that's one of the great things about working at the National Museum of Play, that whether we have kids or grandkids ourselves, we've all been kids. If I were getting gifts today, I was a car kid growing up. I loved identifying car models, so Hot Wheels and Tonka trucks are at the top of my list. They are collectables, but they're playthings, too.

MARTIN: Hot Wheels are still hot, aren't they?

BENSCH: They are.

MARTIN: What about - and, you know, I hate that I'm using this language, but I don't know any other way to say it. What about for girls?

BENSCH: For girls, you know, we just inducted the dollhouse into the National Toy Hall of Fame. And lots of people have been saying to us, what took you so long? And that's right. Dollhouses have been around for more than 400 years. One of the great things about dollhouses is it's all about process. The girls and the women I've talked to talk about the thrill of decorating, redecorating endlessly. And it's that shaping of this miniature environment where you're in control, and that's so powerful for kids.

MARTIN: And I know that a lot of parents today don't like the idea that some toys are for boys and some toys are for girls. But for whatever reason, it's kind of the last place where that language is commonly used. So we're going to continue to use it. But are there some traditional toys that both genders traditionally enjoy equally?

BENSCH: I think that comes down to some of the creativity toys, whether that's building toys like Lego or, in an earlier time, Erector Sets that have lots of appeal, or creativity toys like Crayola crayons and Play-Doh that don't have so much of a gender image attached with them. They can take you so many different directions.

A friend's son was using his Crayolas recently to design infinitely long scrolling scenes of his imaginary video game. So there's an instance where he's been inspired by video games and the kind of activity in that, and now he's been taping together sheets of paper and drawing a wonderful world that he is going to program someday for a video game.

MARTIN: I know that a lot of the toys on your list of toys in the National Toy Hall of Fame - the Mr. Potato Head, Lego, as you said, roller skates, Scrabble, Silly Putty, skateboard and, of course, the ever-popular Slinky. Is that part of the problem with classic toys, or part of the appeal and the joy of classic toys and part of the reason that some people may shy away from them is that they're inexpensive? By and large, they're pretty inexpensive. Do you think that people are afraid of being seen as cheap?

BENSCH: I think that's part of it. And I've been reading about a grandparent phenomenon where grandparents want value for their toy-giving money. So if there's a teddy bear that's just a teddy bear, that's fine. But if it has an embedded chip and it can sing you 25 different lullabies in five different languages, that's got value. And grandparents will skew up toward complexity, toward extra features, when maybe that's really not necessary.

And we should have the courage of our convictions and the capacity to let that open-ended play happen.

MARTIN: OK. Hear that? Go - I was going to say, go cheap. Go affordable.

Finally, before we - you know, just about anybody who's ever given a gift, particularly to a child - adults tend not to do this, OK. But to children, and they go, oh, yeah. That's fine. And then, you know, 10 minutes later, you turn your back. They're playing with the box and having the best time with the box.

BENSCH: Haven't we all been there?

MARTIN: Why? What is up with the box, number one? And is there any way to try to predict when it is that it's really going to be the box that's more fun than the toy? Have you ever figured that out?

BENSCH: I haven't. And, in fact, I look back at my own childhood and have looked at toys. I liked doing creative things. I loved my Legos, other building projects, and my parents would try to pigeonhole that. They gave me an origami kit one year that goes down in my holiday memories as one of the biggest losers of all the gifts I ever received. It was kind of there, but not quite, and I never got why that was supposed to be fun.

And everybody should have some humility in knowing that they're not going to hit it out of the park every time with every gift they give to that special child. So when they play with the cardboard box, have the pride of knowing that the cardboard box is in the National Toy Hall of Fame for being a great creativity toy.

MARTIN: OK. Chris Bensch is the vice president of collections at the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. He joined us from member station WXXI in Rochester. Chris, Happy Holidays. Thank you.

BENSCH: Thanks so much.

MARTIN: Book lovers, we have not forgotten you. If you're still hunting for the perfect book to give as a gift this season, please tune in tomorrow for our holiday guide to children's books. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.