Gareth B. Matthews
Review of The King’s Toys by Margaret Mahy in Alice Low (ed.) Stories to Tell a Six-Year-Old (Boston: Little Brown, 1997). Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 14(2): 1.
When the king was just a little thing, his mother, who was very strict with him, would not let him have any toys at all to play with. Instead of giving him playthings, she had a room designed especially for him to practice spelling in.
When the king was almost a grown-up, his mother went on a long trip. In her absence the king decided to get himself a toy, his very first toy. The king consulted his librarian about what toy to buy and the librarian suggested a teddy bear. So that is what the king ordered.
The order for a teddy bear was passed from underling to underling until finally it was Jack, the kitchen boy, the very youngest member of the royal staff, who was delegated to select a teddy bear for the king. When it arrived, the king was so pleased with his new teddy that he ordered another toy. This time the librarian suggested he get a rocking horse. Again, the task of selecting the toy for the king was passed down the line until it was Jack who got the assignment of selecting the king’s new toy.
The king was so pleased with his rocking horse that he wanted yet another toy. And so it went until the king’s spelling room became filled with toys; it had turned into the king’s toy room. Then the king ordered that his golden throne be brought in and the king sat on the throne and watched for the toys to do something. But nothing happened.
The king sent for the butler and complained to him that the toys didn’t do anything. But the butler had forgotten what toys were supposed to do. He called in the king’s footman, asked him what toys are supposed to do, but the footman didn’t know either.
Finally it was Jack who stopped in and set the king straight. “Your majesty,” Jack explained, “your toys are waiting for you to do something with them, to play with them.”
“Play?” cried out the king, and he spelled the word: “p-l-a-y.” “But how do I play?” he asked.
“I’ll show you,” said Jack. And soon the king got the idea. He and Jack began to play together.
When the king’s mother returned from her long trip, she found the king playing with Jack, his kitchen boy, whom he had now made his Minister of Play.
Why do children play? The question seems almost like “Why do birds fly?” Children play because that is what children do.
But that is much too easy. Certainly some children are allowed to play much more than others. Some children are made to work much sooner than others. Some children are much better at playing than others. Some parents encourage play by buying toys; some don’t, either because they don’t have the money or because they assign less importance to play.
Some parents and some schools encourage even very young children to play sports, but fail to encourage, or perhaps even discourage, imaginative play. Some parents and some preschool teachers encourage social play, but worry when a child wants mostly to play alone.
There is a move today to abolish “recess.” Some people are horrified at this thought; others think that nothing will be lost, if all that is being abolished is unsupervised play.
Many parents and educators worry about the amount of time children today spend watching TY. They would be happier if children spent much more time in sports, or competitive games, perhaps even in imaginative play. Partly, no doubt, their distress expresses a nostalgia for their own lost childhood, in what seems to them a far less threatening society. But partly there may be a sense that children who spend much of their young lives in front of a TV screen will lose out on some of the genuine values of play.
I have shifted the question from “Why do children play?” to “Why should children play?” Both questions are much more interesting and much more problematic than one might at first have thought. Parents and teachers who have not subjected their attitudes towards children’s play to reflective scrutiny should do so. They may want to consult the “experts” on play. But, in significant part, the issues that surround the role and importance of play in a child’s life (or in the life of an adult!) are existential ones. They have to do with the kind of life we want to live, and want our children to live, the importance to us of creativity, imagination and the social virtues one may hope to develop in social and competitive play.
Since the role of play in a child’s life is an existential issue for the child, it is important to discuss the questions I have been listing with our children. A good way to initiate that discussion may be to read Margaret Mahy’s delightful story to, or with, a child. Like Jack in the story, our children are probably better at playing than we are. They may also be surprisingly good at thinking about why they play, and why it is a good thing they do!