Play Mobility

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Emily has had a long standing and intimate relationship with Playmobil. It was the first toy that "clicked" with her. I tried Brio trains, I tried Lego, I tried Fisher Price, I tried Polly Pockets,  I tried Groovy Girls....and she only had eyes for Disney Princesses.  My feminist cred was deeply damaged. How did I end up with a girl who ONLY liked a bunch of princesses. 

It wasn't until she encountered Playmobil in Ms Deb's Kindergarten that she found her love. 

At first I wasn't sure what to make of it. Ms Deb's classroom had a Playmobil police station, which Emily and Sarah promptly dis-assembled to make into a house.  For the girls, I think it was the ability to recreate the desired play space that was most attractive. They were imaginative enough to be able to fully discount what they Saw, and recreate it into what they wanted. 

For that first Christmas, I presented the Modern House, with attachments and furniture. I vaguely expected her to discard it the same way she did the 1200 dollars worth of Brio Trains ( which later got gifted to Ms Deb's classroom) to have it sit in buckets in the basement for eternity. 

To my shock and delight, the House was consumed with such relish and delight that Terrance and I were more than stunned. This child who was to be diagnosed with ADHD later that year rarely, if ever, spent more than 5 minutes with ANY toy.  Now, she was sitting with and actually Playing. As in Making Up dialog and arranging and rearranging scenarios.

Since that first gift of the Modern House in 2002, Emily's Playmobil collection has grown and grown. Arctic Explorer, Shopping Mall, Grocery Store, Hospital, Fairy Set, A good portion of Pirates, Wedding Sets, Farms, The Rabbit Easter Sets, Egyptian Sets, and every year a new advent calender, which is later lovingly repackaged and stored with the others.

One of the things I loved about the playmobil figures IS the non-specificity of Gender. In many cases, a simple change of hair styles can adjust a male character to a female. I didn't have to contend with the overt gender messages that Barbie and her cohorts were promoting.

I did notice, and was concerned with, the lack of diversity in the figures. She had LOTS of white people, which in New Hampshire was the norm. It was then that I sought out and bought the African- American and Hispanic American family sets - 2 of each - to blend into her ever growing milleau of people. 

That action met my need for Em to have dolls that represented her family and she mixed and matched to her hearts content.  One of the many things I have loved about my daughter is her ability to simply accept - she is a kind and generous soul. She has never questioned why women might marry women, or men might marry men, or people of different ethnic backgrounds might marry. In her world view, it is just how it IS.

This has been reflected in her imaginative play as well. It is not uncommon to see a variety of figures standing in a variety of roles in her play scenes. Pirates may be paired with the Rabbits, and The Doctor might be riding the Red Dragon on any given day,

A recent post at another blog sent to be by Mayumi set me to thinking. Had I noticed this issue of African representation? Why hadn't I noticed this? What did I think about this, given Emily's long standing relationship ( and my many thousand of dollars investment) in/with Playmobil? 

I think the overall criticism is valid - Particularly given the Western world's relationship with Africa as a paternalistic colonizing force. 

However, in some ways I wonder about any toys ability to authentically depict ANY culture. The culture represented by Emily's basic Modern House is certainly that of a Western upper middle class family. However, the House wouldn't even neccessarily reflect a family in Japan of similar economic status.

The stores (butcher, bakery, ice cream shop) are staples in Our current neighborhood in Montreal- but are certainly not something one would see in every neighborhood.  

My next question  then becomes more paramount: "Is there an acceptable level of political incorrectness we are willing to tolerate in order to allow our children to fantasize/engage in imaginative play?"

This is a tricky one. And I admit I don't have an answer with which I am entirely comfortable.

In the world in which we currently live ( Montreal), Emily knows people from all around the world, including Africa.  She is cognizant that representation does not equal reality - particularly as an American living outside of her own country. 

(In writing this, it occurred to me that she has been formally educated in Quebec for longer than she had been in the US at a ration of 2:1. Wow. )

She has now experienced kids telling her that she is "not black" as she is not African. Emily and I had a discussion last week at our local grocery in which the man who helps put the produce in our green bucket told us that the young girl at the cashier told him he was "too black". They are both of Indian descent and he is much darker skinned.  I replied that it all depended on where you were - that in the States I would not define him as "black" and that also in the States, my daughter is defined (legally) as "Black". The cashier and older man were shocked - She wasn't Black! Emily laughed and said "Oh! I am definitely Black!"

So I return to my question - 

"Is there an acceptable level of political incorrectness we are willing to tolerate in order to allow our children to fantasize/engage in imaginative play?"

And I guess I am. 

Em knows that all Scandinavian peoples aren't vikings, just as she knows all Africans aren't in animal skins with a spear. She knows not all Moms cook and not all Dads coach soccer. She knows that First Nations peoples and Native Americans are not represented fairly in many venues, film, books, legends, and that one persons "discovery" was another persons theft.

However, this is because Terrance and I have made a point to Talk about these issues, constantly, with her.  Rather than boycott Playmobil, I prefer to talk with her about what images may be trying to say and if it is an accurate or fair representation - and Why or why not.

For our family, finding a toy with which Emily could unleash her imagination and focus her attention was paramount. I am willing to do the other work around the bits and pieces we may find troubling or disquieting to preserve that refuge and imaginative space for her.

5 Baleful Regards:

Rebecca said...

thank you for this wonderfully insightful piece. Hope you are well.


Dawn said...

Beck - I think you saw me haul all that Modern House stuff from the office where I had it shipped!

Cagey (Kelli Oliver George) said...

Another great post, Dawn. You're hitting them outta the park.

I think about these things, too. Having kids that Neither/Or will do that to you. Even my own husband vacillates on the issue - sometimes, he will proclaim that they are not Indian, other times he loves picking out those qualities in them that are, indeed, Indian. I just call them Americans, knowing that is not enough.

We are pretty open about these issues, at least the obvious ones such as skin color. However, I dread the day when my kid realizes that people actually associate a value on the shade and tone.

Amira said...

This was a great and thought-provoking read; I really enjoyed it.

Unknown said...

Thoughtful analysis. Thanks for sharing, Dawn!

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