Friday, November 18, 2005

Thinking inside the box
The Strong Museum in Rochester, New York is home to the National Toy Hall of Fame. The collection has more than 70,000 items, but the hall of fame listing is a minute fraction of the total. To date, 34 toys have been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. The NTHF website explains why they think toys deserve their own hall of fame:
Toys are among the most important human artifacts. They are learning tools. By guiding play, they foster imagination, creativity, and critical thinking. They socialize us and teach fairness. They reveal what we believed and valued, encouraged and endorsed, dismissed and feared. They remind us of who we were, who we are, and who we hope to become. They help us imagine what’s next.

The criterion for inclusion in the Hall of Fame are:
  1. Icon-status: The toy is widely recognized, respected, and remembered.
  2. Longevity: The toy is more than a passing fad and has enjoyed popularity over multiple generations.
  3. Discovery: The toy fosters learning, creativity, or discovery through play.
  4. Innovation: The toy profoundly changed play or toy design. A toy may be inducted on the basis of this criterion without necessarily having met all of the first three.

The past winners have included some generic toys like alphabet blocks, jacks, jigsaw puzzles, jump ropes, and teddy bears. Others are famous brand-name toys like Barbie, Etch A Sketch, LEGOs, Slinky, and Tinkertoys. Like any similar honor, people lobby for certain toys and question the inclusion of others.

This year, they decided decided to honor a plaything that every small child and parent, uncle, or aunt of small children will understand: the big cardboard box.
I think every adult has had that disillusioning experience of picking what they think is a wonderful toy for a child, and then finding the kid playing with the box," said Christopher Bensch, chief curator of the Strong Museum. "It's that empty box full of possibilities that the kids can sense and the adults don't always see."

Low-tech and unpretentious it may be, but the cardboard box has fostered learning and creativity for multiple generations - a key qualifier for inclusion in the museum's seven-year-old hall of fame. And its appeal as a plaything or recreational backdrop is universal.

All over the world, "packaging is something that's accessible to kids, whether that's cans or tins or wooden crates," Bensch said, and the cardboard box "makes a point that you don't have to spend a lot, have a certain income level or charge it on your credit card to have your kids have a great play experience."

Personally, I always liked the big boxes movers use. A dish pack was big enough for two of us to hide from our sisters and rugged enough to stand up to a ride down the stairs.

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