Mr. Potatohead vs. Nintendo - Who wins these days?

Wednesday, October 10, 2001

Sunday's newspaper article on the toy shows in Memphis and Cape Girardeau was completely fascinating.

It's not just because we never get over our love for great toys -- I'm not sure how the curators in both cities will keep visitors from playing with the displays.

The truly amazing thing is how much toys have changed.

Consider the perennial favorite, Mr. Potatohead. The first Mr. Potatohead kit was just the eyes, mouth, hat, etc. As in: "Some assembly required, potato not included." Can you imagine, in this day of Nintendo and Virtual Reality games, reaching into the potato bin, handing a large spud to your son or daughter and saying, "Have a blast!"

Of course, a plastic potato is included with the kit these days. I actually own a Mr. Potatohead massager with ridges on the bottom of his sneakers. An outlet store was selling hundreds of them for $1 each, originally $10. I bought extras as stocking-stuffers.

My guess: The concept of a vibrating children's toy is just too weird for most people.

The Easy Bake Oven is another low-tech toy. As a young girl, I carefully combined my cake mix with water and hovered over my lightbulb-powered oven waiting for that chocolate heaven.

If I had a daughter, I wouldn't ask her if she wanted to play with an Easy Bake Oven. "But Mommy," she'd say. "You don't cook. Why should I?"

In a fit of nostalgia prompted by the newspaper story, I bought a Wheel-O for my office. I use it when I need a diversion. Millions of them were sold between 1958 and the late 1970s, but could you imagine handing one to today's Sega generation? "Come here, son. I bought you a magnetized wheel on a metal stick. Enjoy!"

Another question: Do today's sedentary children still play with pogo sticks? I haven't seen one being used since Steven Grimes pogoed straight into the wall of our apartment complex when we were fourth-graders. After that, we stuck to our second-favorite thing -- Star Wars action figures. (It was the '70s.)

The days of pogo sticks and Wheel-Os were also days of wolfing down dinner because there were a couple of hours of daylight left and your friends were waiting outside. They were days of ignoring your mother shouting your name because it was getting dark and she wanted you to come home.

They were days of pretending sticks were swords and towels were long hair and refrigerator boxes were mansions. They were days of playing house and having to be married to Peter Frampton -- ugh! -- because your best friend already claimed Shaun Cassidy.

Not yet a parent and watching my adorable 21-month-old niece already addicted to Veggie Tales videos -- she calls ketchup "Bob" because there are tomatoes on the bottles -- I wondered if today's children are as imaginative as we were. I wandered into an arcade -- those video games looked so real! (Remember your first Atari tennis game? Two inch-high sticks, a square "ball" and a little blip sound when you made contact.)

Had CD-ROMs and DVDs taken the place of creativity?

And then I remembered Barbie.

Barbie has endured. Yes, she's a bit of a skank these days, given her barely-there outfits and purple hair, but American girls still own an average of eight Barbies.

Barbie doesn't talk. She doesn't walk. She doesn't plug in. All she does is sit there until you do something with her -- usually cut her hair and then regret it.

In other words, maybe Barbie isn't giving girls an image they should live up to, but at least she requires some mental effort. The children who play with her have to create her life, select her clothes, decide where she's going and who she's going to be with.

And that takes imagination.

The kids are all right.

Heidi Hall is managing editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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