A Very Different Toy Aisle

Hey eyrniraesz
Readers — Remember: If you ever need to get some perspective on how skittish we’ve become, look to another country or, today, another era. – L

Dear Free-Range Kids: I heard this episode of Engines of our Ingenuity on NPR today.

Even though the point of the episode was how much better homemade toys turned out to be, what really grabbed my attention was the list of materials he had at his disposal to create things with.

The 1930s often found me walking aisles looking for toys. But they were aisles ofhardware and drug stores.
That’s where I spent my allowance on the sulfur, saltpeter, and carbon needed to make gunpowder — on solder, glue, twine, alcohol and acetone. But, even before I was old enough to haunt those stores, my personal toy factory supplies had lain in the corners and crannies of my own home.

Remarkable. I, too, remember having access to all kinds of materials in the garage to build with and experiment with. We knew how to handle dangerous stuff. No way could a kid buy the things he listed today. I think that’s sad, and as a teacher I think it has dumbed down our kids. They don’t have any context in the real world to apply to learning.

I know I’m preaching to the choir. It’s just that what struck me about his story about his childhood in the 1930’s is how NORMAL it seems to him. It seems normal to me, too. I’m pretty sure it’s not normal anymore.

Best regards, Holly Ellis

19 Responses to A Very Different Toy Aisle

  1. CrazyCatLady August 26, 2013 at 10:36 am #

    My kids find more fun stuff around the house that are not technically toys than anywhere else.

    Right now my youngest is scheming about how he can bring a goose in the house – by making a diaper for it. (Geese have no muscle control down there…and poop more than some dogs, so they don’t come in the house unless the poop is contained.)

    My oldest makes jewelry – out of things like tiny locks, feathers, rocks and scissors and pens that have fallen apart. The items she makes sounds not so pretty, but when all together with a few beads, she gets constant praise.

    My middle is more of a book type of guy, but when he is into reading the Encyclopedia of Immaturity or The Dangerous Book for Boys, he can usually find the things he wants around the house.

    The WII that my sister gave the kids at the beginning of the summer still gets played…mostly when friends come over and want to play (though most of the time I shoo them outside anyhow!)

  2. Eileen August 26, 2013 at 11:09 am #

    How does one “know how to handle dangerous stuff”? Does that mean that a parent instructed kids on how to handle toxic and/or flammable things? Or does that mean you were kind of careful and got lucky?

    My kid lit aerosol hairspray on fire to create a flame. He didn’t get hurt thank goodness, but he got a lecture for doing it.

    Not sure the fact that he did that, and I never did as a kid proves anything other than he was more daring (perhaps careless) than me.

    I believe that kids (teens particularly) today have plenty of opportunity to do risky-ish things….and most do.

  3. Papilio August 26, 2013 at 2:10 pm #

    This reminds me of that story about my father and his brother when they were 14 and 15 and eh, playing in the yard. Something with fire and a small metal container with still some fuel in it, like a gastank, I don’t remember those details. Anyway, there was an explosion, the tank flew all the way over the roof of the house and landed in the garden on that side, missing their 1yo sister by a few feet. The boys winded up in the hospital for a few days with burns; my uncle still has scars on his chest and stomach.
    They all survived, and I’m all for educating kids about potentially dangerous things, but to say it should still be normal for kids to play with explosive stuff…….. Neh.

  4. marie August 26, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    I went looking for something about CVS asking for identification when a customer wants to buy nail polish remover…and found that three days after the initial announcement, they decided not to do that.

    With watchdogs like that, I’d say a kid is pretty darned lucky to be able to find something dangerous lying around the garage. Or the bathroom.

  5. yan August 26, 2013 at 6:06 pm #


    Why did he get a lecture about it? Kids, OK mostly boys, will do that. It’s in their blood. A lecture isn’t going to stop him, it’s just going to make him hide it.

    Teach him how to do it safely. When my son got fascinated with lighters and matches, I showed him what happens when you light off a lighter. Take a disposable lighter, put it on a campfire, and stand way, way back. The flash-bang is quite impressive. And he learned that he needs to handle those carefully.

    Same with matches; we got a box of strike-anywhere matches, and showed him the correct way to light them. Off your zipper, front teeth, and even fingernails. Along with the pain and blisters when things don’t go according to plan.

    But at least now he knows how to handle them, and if a friend wants to do something really stupid, he knows not to go there.

    We don’t use aerosols, but I can see a demonstration in the offing; the difference between lighting off hairspray (relatively harmless) and spray lubricant (potentially a trip to the hospital or worse).

    I have the same philosophy about knives, guns, etc. Teach kids how to handle things they are likely to come across safely. My daughter has no interest in shooting but she knows how to make a rifle safe.

  6. Silver Fang August 26, 2013 at 7:34 pm #

    Unfortunately, we’ve made things that were normal just a generation or two ago, criminal offenses today. Remember in the 50s and 60s when kids could shoot off firecrackers and bottle rockets? Try to do that today and you’re an arsonist. Remember in the 80s when kids came home alone, opened up a can of Spaghettios and watched TV till the parents came home? These days, that’s neglect.

  7. Peter August 26, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    Yan, don’t be so quick to disapprove of parental admonishments.

    When I was a kid, I was told not to touch my father’s propane torch. Of course I did. But I always made sure that what I was doing with it was ultra-safe because if I did hurt myself or burn something important down, I’d be in real trouble for playing with the torch.

    While I agree that it’s not a bad idea to show what fire is capable of doing, not all of us have the convenient outdoor environment to demonstrate these things or we don’t have the personal skills to know how to handle it–much less show our kids. So a simple, “Don’t play with fire!” is an acceptable substitute.

  8. Andy August 27, 2013 at 6:40 am #

    Lighting aerosol hairspray in a living room by your hand and lighting a lighter in a campfire under parent supervision while standing far far back are not quite the same.

    Most of us can not take the kid and drive to campsite every time impulsive idea strikes their head. Learning to control such ideas is an important part of childhood and lectures are one way to teach that.

    Second, there are plenty of boys who learned to experiment safely and not to put random stuff on fire. We do no service to boys by expecting them to be unable to think before acting.

    Speaking of gender, we do no service to girls by assuming experiment is in boys blood but not in girls.

  9. Eileen August 27, 2013 at 8:42 am #

    @Yan, he got a lecture because it was something that was dangerous and unsupervised. He also did it at someone else’s house. His attempt (that I found because there was a photo that ended up on our computer) was outside, but a friend’s was inside a house. Clearly they weren’t mature/responsible enough to even consider the consequences of doing something like that inside a house.

    Given that the warnings on a can of hairspray were not respected, I don’t think that I need to teach him how to light flammable things on fire because a) they shouldn’t be lit in that manner, and b) I really don’t know how to safely do it.

    Yes, I understand that kids are going to experiment and do somewhat risky things, but that doesn’t mean that there’s a “safe way” to do everything….or that even I posses the knowledge on how to do it safely.

    So, if allowing my kids to create a torch with a can of hairspray is free range, then I guess I’m not a free range parent.

  10. Eileen August 27, 2013 at 8:57 am #

    And this is probably going too far off topic, but I do wonder about how parents are expected to encourage/accept experimentation with these type of things, and then manage their kids when it comes time experiment with drugs and alcohol. Almost every kid and their parents are going to face that point in their lives, regardless of how free-range their kids have been raised. Sometimes, there just ISN’T a safe way to “experiment” with drugs. Sometimes, what parents say does indicate important reasons NOT to do something.

    We simply can’t prevent kids from doing anything dangerous (that’s part of free range parenting I understand), but I also do not subscribe to the idea that every situation can be managed into a “safe way” to do it. Not everything a kid does needs to be framed around being “curious” and “inventive” and “creative”…..just as much as not every normal situation (walking to school, riding a bus) is fraught with “danger” and “risk”.

  11. MP August 27, 2013 at 9:44 am #

    When I was a kid I thought nothing of grabbing my .22 and target shooting in the back yard. All survived. I had been taught how to handle a gun and I only needed to be taught once.

    See, I would never have pretended a Pop-Tart was a gun, because I had the real thing anyway!

  12. yan August 27, 2013 at 6:40 pm #

    OK, didn’t mean to ignite a firestorm…

    My point was, if you in fact have a budding engineer or scientist, s/he is not going to stop just because of a lecture. It’s like telling a swimmer not to swim, an artist not to paint, or a musician not to play.

    I speak from experience; I am an engineer, in my 50s, and I still blow stuff up, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose. Fortunately I lived through my rather unguided childhood and my more guided adulthood.

    Find some way to channel that into productive activity, that tells him why there are limits on what he should and should not do.

    All a lecture will do is make him hide it, with potentially worse results. There are clubs and organizations that do science with youth. Maybe that’s a possibility?

  13. yan August 27, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

    As to the alcohol and drugs (and sex) it sort of flows from kids understanding that there are limits on their behavior for a reason. If I blow up a lighter into a 4′ fireball, my kid can see that’s probably not a good toy. But teaching him how to light off strike anywhere matches is cool and a lot less dangerous – and if he gets a blister then he also learns limits.

    The problem is when kids are given limits “because I said so” without any reasons, or worse, are told that “sex is bad, don’t do it”, and then they do it, and it’s fun and they discard all their other limits as well because they realize they’ve been lied to.

    There’s a great Nova on the East German swimming team that won all the gold in the 70s – and some of the kids died, others died later from a variety of diseases, and so on. It should be mandatory viewing for all kids. Drugs can enhance your performance, at a terrible cost later.

  14. Taradlion August 27, 2013 at 7:10 pm #

    I played with fire, including hairspray cans, as a kid (12ish)? My mom didn’t “let me”, she didn’t know. Frankly, if at 12, I had set fire to something, I do think people would have blamed ME, now, I think a lot of blame would be aimed at parents.

    Most of my friends, certainly my parents and their friends, talk about all the stuff they did that would have given their parents a heart attack. My grandpa went swimming in the Charles River during a hurricane…his brothers had to “rescue” him with tree branches off a footbridge. His mother (my great grandma) didn’t know until he was an adult. I guess, that’s part of it, parents are ALWAYS suppose to know where their kids are and what they are doing….

  15. Tsu Dho Nimh August 27, 2013 at 8:47 pm #

    How does one “know how to handle dangerous stuff”? Does that mean that a parent instructed kids on how to handle toxic and/or flammable things?

    Yes. My dad not only gave us a chemistry set, he supplemented it with neat stuff that pharmacists can buy (or could back then) and he showed us how to safely handle the flames and the solvents and …. most importantly, how to figure out the expected results of the reactions and ask him about them.

    When we got a pool, he showed us how to safely handle the acid and chlorine, gave a tiny demo of what happens when you mix them (chlorine GAS!) … and we took care of the pool.

    Or does that mean you were kind of careful and got lucky?
    You can’t count on this.

    As well as a lot more fun ingredients, there were also a lot more information available on how to safely handle hazardous materials.

  16. Tsu Dho Nimh August 27, 2013 at 8:52 pm #

    I’m all for educating kids about potentially dangerous things, but to say it should still be normal for kids to play with explosive stuff…….. Neh.

    My dad and I blew out a stump with home-made explosive. It was an awesome bonding experience.

    If you have a safe area to work in, it’s a good thing.

    IMPORTANT: I’m currently near EMRTECH … the major explosives testing lab in the USA, where Mythbusters goes to make things go BOOM. I hear loud KA-BOOMs several times a week.

    They run “Boom Camp” every summer here for wannabe explosives experts.

    So blowing things up is normal around here.

  17. Tsu Dho Nimh August 27, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

    @Eileen … I do wonder about how parents are expected to encourage/accept experimentation with these type of things, and then manage their kids when it comes time experiment with drugs and alcohol.

    Because my parents NEVER lied about the consequences of experimenting. They never exaggerated or minimized, and if they didn’t know, they said so. And they showed me how to find out.

    It all started way back when he said, “It’s hot” and it was, when I was a toddler. When they made me get up to go to school even though I had stayed up until midnight reading (and they knew it). When we had a running commentary along with the TV about the way the script screwed with the facts for the sake of drama.

    And when they let me take the consequences of strolling into class an hour late after lunch because we ditched and went swimming … and didn’t come swooping into the school to rescue me.

    When my dad said, “Don’t mix brake fluid and dry chlorine because you will have a violently burning fire that emits chlorine gas” … I trusted him then because he could show me the research.

    When they said, “It’s addictive and you risk ending up needing to take it forever to feel OK or go through really painful withdrawal, and it’s illegal to buy so you would also risk jail.” … I had a long history of knowing that their information about what needed to be handled carefully – but was manageable with precautions – versus “stay away from this because there is no safe way to deal with it” was reliable.

  18. charlene August 28, 2013 at 9:35 am #

    When I was young I made instruments out of wood blocks, string and nails. When my kids were 4 and5 I gave them both their own toolbox and they love to create things! I never got into chemicals, but pretended dirt was gunpowder. My son is really into mixing things up, so I have a supply of stuff like baking soda, vinegar, etc that he can experiment with. Still don’t have any crazy chemical s in the house. Probably, because I wouldn’t know what to use them for.

  19. Aimee September 5, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    I saw a documentary recently that had historical film footage of the 1930s Dust Bowl, and specifically a shot of a family who had packed up their belongings Joad-style to leave in search of a better life. The final act of “packing,” by the dad, was to plop two kids, maybe ages 6 and 8, onto a pile of blankets in the back of a pickup truck, legs dangling off the edge of the pile.

    Interesting… when you are worried about where your childrens’ next meal is coming from, you’re a lot less obsessed with about carseats, booster seats until 80 lbs, and seatbelts.