When did toys get so complicated?

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

There has been much discussion in our household recently about my daughter’s impending birthday.

Most of the conversation has been about the “must-have” toys on her wish list of presents.

Until now, birthdays have been a relatively easy to cater for – tea in the garden, a few party games, a chocolate cake and a small selection of presents picked out the day before in a trolley dash down the aisles of Toys R Us.

But this year is different.

At almost five (or four and 11/12ths as she likes to say) she has started to point out what is hot and what is not.

And where once a doll or teddy would have sufficed, I am now looking at a list that may as well be in a foreign language.

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Surely I can’t be the only parent who has never heard of a Puffle, a Moshi Monster or the Littlest Pet Shop?

It took me two hours of Internet surfing to find out more – but I am at a greater loss now than I was at the start.

All three are grotesque looking bits of plastic or fluff but they all have the same aim – collect the lot.

Sound simple? Of course it isn’t. The toys come in different series (some boasting more than 100 varieties) with even more in the pipeline.

Aside from the toys themselves, there are stickers and cards to collect and swap and a whole range of merchandising from T-shirts to pencil cases to purchase alongside.

If that was not enough, the Puffle (full name Moschomicrotherium Puffleii) and the Moshi Monster have websites designed for little collectors with forums for webchat, subscription fees to pay to adopt virtual pets and puzzles and games to complete.

Hang on a minute folks - when did toys get so complicated?

I distinctly remember the best toys of my childhood. We had huge boxes of Play Mobil which would occupy us for hours. My mother would make her own play dough and we had a little easel and a selection of paints and crayons. There were favourite dolls of course, a range of board games and our bicycles.

I am not saying there were not fads and crazes because my sister and I both went through a Sylvanian Family phase and there were brief dalliances with both Care Bears and Trolls which were grotesque creatures with neon hair.

But generally speaking, the best toys – the ones you always went back to - were the ones without bells and whistles.

They didn’t talk, sing, move, wet themselves or play music. There were no flashing lights and, because the World Wide Web was still some way off, there was certainly no online extras.

Sometimes I wonder if all the gimmicks, ad campaigns and paraphernalia which surround the launch of a new toy today are hiding something.

After all, if a toy is a good one, it shouldn’t really need such a lot of glitter and gloss.

But I suppose the reason for the effort is that these days you need to stand out from the crowd.

There is just such a dizzying array of toys to choose from that, without the added extras, you don’t stand a chance.

As a result children today often have to sift the wheat from the chaff a lot more than ever before.

And often they will get swept up in the fever of a brand new product, only to find the toy is not very exciting and is simply a passing fad.

Last week we visited my parents in London.

My daughter had an appointment at Moorfield’s Eye Hospital for her squint because, when we moved to Suffolk, I was keen for her to still be treated by the same doctors as before.

It is usually a long wait in the clinic but it is well-kitted out with toys to keep the children occupied.

On one table was a pile of Lego blocks.

“What do you do with these?” my daughter asked, frowning.

I was astounded. How had she never come into contact with the most versatile and creative toy of all time?

We sat down together and spent an hour building a house with the red bricks, a garden path with the brown and a patch of lawn with the green.

And when she was called for her check-up she was genuinely upset to leave the game behind.

Generations of children have let their imaginations run wild with the familiar blocks; building towers and castles and wagons with little people.

It is one of those classic toys which never fails to engage children and adults alike.

On our return home my daughter scurried off to her bedroom to dig out her Moshi Monsters (she has just five, which her Grandma bought her).

But moments later she returned downstairs with a pen.

“I would like to add Lego to my list of presents for my birthday,” she announced.

I was delighted and hastily scribbled it down.

“There are a lot of sets to choose from,” I replied.

She looked intrigued so we sat down at the computer to look at the selection.

But it seems even the classic toys have had to up their game amid the stiff competition from new products to the market.

Lego now has around 35 different themes – from the basic brick sets to a superheroes collection, dinosaurs, aliens and one called Kingdoms. They have added a range of lifestyle products including clothes, outdoor games, backpacks and stationary and on top of this, the company boasts a range of computer programmes using virtual blocks to build in cyberspace.

If that were not enough, I had completely forgotten that there was a theme park dedicated to the toy in Windsor with a Legoland Resort Hotel on site, which opened just a few months ago.

One of the bits of wisdom that you pick up as you get older is that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

But this is a concept unfathomable to children.

Needless to say we have now booked in for the Legoland experience as a birthday treat and I am praying classic toys will be triumphant. After all, many decades of Lego building can hardly be classed as a passing fad.

Please send me your emails to EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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