1/6/2021–It’s now been a couple of weeks since Christmas and a good time to reflect on what all those “educational” toys teach us.
How many of us saw those commercials where the sleek slinky coiled spring gracefully navigated stairs and leapt from hand to hand, and begged our parents to bring one home?
When we sent ours walking down the ramp, it took one step then curled into a ball and rolled sideways over the edge. Within a day it had irretrievably tangled itself into a mobius strip, introducing us to non-orientable surfaces in three-dimensional Euclidean space.
I remember spending my paper route cash on this magical orb that was supposed to bounce over a house. It did. Never saw it again.
It took considerably more savings to order the Alpha rocket, along with three engines, igniters, and the nifty battery-powered launch system. After waiting four to six weeks for it to arrive, I spent another week sanding and gluing it together, painstakingly painting it, complete with flame decal. Finally, the big day came. The family watched as I slipped my rocket onto the launch rail, hooked up the tiny ignitor wires and stepped back the prescribed distance. Filled with importance, I led the countdown, then pressed the launch button as we all yelled 3-2-1.
It was not the majestic rumbling liftoff we knew from Cape Canaveral. One moment it was there; the next moment it had slipped the surly bonds of earth, leaving a thin wisp of smoke. Like the Super Ball, it went where no man had gone before, and never came back.
These were a wild success in our household. After getting our first can for Christmas (yes, they came in a can), my brothers and I were so enamored that Dad brought home another can so we could attempt more complicated structures. They were made out of wood–real wood. The frustration here came from the random fitting of the joints. You would build your magnificent merry-go-round, but once you set it in motion, half the sticks would fall off because they were too loose, and the other half you couldn’t pry loose with a pair of pliers. Back into their cans they went.
Every boy’s dream in those days was to have an electric train set. The excitement of setting up the track and sending off your first freight quickly waned with the frustration of resetting the tiny wheels back on the undulating track at least twice every lap. Even when you got it running seamlessly, a 10-year-old boy realized it was not very exciting watching a plastic train retrace the same sad circle over and over again. We salvaged the play value for awhile by pulling the Tinkertoys out of the closet and building barricades for the engine to blast through, but every cool wreck required reconnecting the track and endless resetting of wheels. Back into the closet went the cans and the cars.
Trains were replaced by slot car sets. Those commercials of excited pre-teens racing their tricked-out dune buggies were all fantasies. When you put your own set together, the first thing you learned was that in every turn the little cars flew off the track, through the ineffective plastic railings, and against the basement wall. Instead of a race car driver at Indy, you became the little old lady driving to church.
It’s amazing to think now that our parents and major toy companies ever thought it was a good idea to give 10-year-old kids a periodic chart of chemicals, along with glass pipettes, test tubes, bunson burners and even the alcohol to burn in them. But they did, and we spread them out on the kitchen table, experimenting with the melting points of dangerous chemicals, mixing incompatible elements in corked tubes, and producing clouds of acrid smoke, which we breathed in headily, unmasked, ungloved, and un-goggled.
The frustration here was that we could never create anything valuable to a 10-year-old boy, such as an explosion or a stink bomb, unless you count permanent damage to mom’s kitchen table, and our lungs. So we poured them down the drain, undoubtedly creating a generation of three-eyed fish and one-legged frogs.
All we learned was that nothing ever lived up to its promise.
So maybe they were educational after all.