There is a lot of chat again this time of year about not spoiling children by over-indulging them in presents at Christmas. This particularly applies to the giving of too much plastic-fantastic or battery-flashing smart-tech stuff. The proffered alternative seems to be extreme minimalism with many echoing the Guardian’s idea from last year of getting kids a stick for their stocking.
Now I’m a big fan of Project Wild Thing, the National Trust and all those other fantastic organisations who want to get our kids back to nature. I am certainly not one to knock the imaginative and practical play qualities of Nature’s toolkit. Roo has a ball playing with random materials filched from the hedgerow all the time. For me though, gift giving is about receiving something that is thoughtful or a treat. Something to which you would not otherwise easily be able to access or justify, whether due to lack of time, distance, physical ability or money. Perhaps something which the giver has poured so much care and thought into that it becomes a vessel for their love and instantly invaluable, no matter what form it comes in. On top of all this, there is the essence of gift-giving, namely the utter joy that the giving of a present to someone dear brings, particularly when the recipient of that gift is a child. Surely by dictating too far what form that giving takes is also to remove some of that joy?
A stick meets none of these criteria. A carved or carefully crafted-into-a-tool stick,possibly with the child’s favourite animal (or an attempt at it) lovingly whittled onto the end of it? Maybe. A specific stick that evokes memories of a treasured family time, relative or game – well, ok. A plain old off-the-tree sticky stick? No. That’s something a kid should be playing with every day already as a matter of course. Even inner-city, greenery deprived, streetwise kids can get hold of a stick though they may not know what to do with one. I wouldn’t blame Roo in the slightest for being underwhelmed or down-right confused if one of these arrived in her stocking from the big FC and even less so for those kids for whom the latest video games are top of their wish-list.
I agree completely with the sentiment behind the minimalist approach to gift giving for kids. It is wasteful to give gifts that aren’t wanted or needed, or which risk being discarded within a few weeks. Over-indulging children can run the risk of them growing up to value and treasure less the possessions they do have, contribute towards a throw-away culture and for kids to expect, or worse to demand, presents as their right, instead of welcoming them as a lovely, indulgent treat from those who love them.
Then there is the argument about counteracting the sedentary, introspective and supposedly unimaginative nature of a youth obsessed with technology. This is combined with the instant-gratification culture that influences the kind of toys developed for our children to play with today and which subsequently defines people by the things they buy rather than what they do with them. I see this. Most of the things I see in Mothercare, Toys’R’Us and plenty of other stores seem to be emblazoned with Disney or Pixar characters. When I went to buy Roo some basic play-people like the Fisher Price ones I played with growing up, I discovered that each character these days already has their role spelled out to the child with overly complicated fashion accessories and props etched onto their tiny plastic bodies. There is nothing wrong with having a favourite movie or cartoon character but any parent who has seen the scarily universal effect one episode of Peppa Pig can have on a roomful of small children will no doubt agree that variety is most definitely healthy!
Much harder to find are those blander, branding free toys and clothing for kids that allows creativity and imagination to grow wings and fly. In a commercial society where people have less and less time to do things themselves, so much is built with a specific, minutely-defined purpose in mind and this has been extended to kids entertainment. In this respect, I am all in favour of the humble stick with its multitude of uses for creative minds, necessity for kids to take time to break through the initial perceived boredom and figure out some fun for themselves and the philosophy which lurks behind it for embracing nature and enjoying a simpler, more imaginative world. Those kids who are not engaged in nature already though are going to need a little more help discovering the potential of the giant outdoor playground all around them than simply depositing a stick under the Christmas tree in place of something to which the have already given value.
For us this year, Roo and her baby sister will no doubt be given solo-use plastic contraptions that they will inevitably absolutely love. There is also a labour of love under-way that involves wood, tools and a garden shed and which would have been a birthday gift if only a London commute and long working hours didn’t get in the way. No doubt this will be left heart-achingly unnoticed in a corner until the appeal of the flashier toys has worn off.
So long as the reindeer don’t get lost , they will also be getting a few other gifts though, that whilst not quite a stick, will hopefully motivate them to get outside and get active, engage their minds in imagination and nurture a love of nature and foster interest in the planet they live in. For Baby, who at ten months is mainly interested in eating the wrapping paper and playing with the ribbons, this will include the odd practical item of no immediate interest to her but which allow us to get her outside comfortably in all the elements. Not wrapped but most definitely included in both their stockings will also be the gift of a mental commitment from their parents to get them out that door just as much as we possibly can so that they can find their very own sticks.