Imitation is the Playing, not the Plaything

Gabriel Josipovici, in an essay on toys and realism, quotes Walter Benjamin to emphasize the point that “the more elaborate and realistic a toy is, the less a toy it is”:

Today we may perhaps hope that it will be possible to overcome the basic error-namely the assumption that the imaginative content of child’s toys is what determines his playing, whereas in reality the opposite is true. A child wants to pull something, so he becomes a horse; he wants to play with sand, and so he turns into a baker; he wants to hide, and so he turns into a robber or policeman…The more appealing toys are, in the ordinary sense of the term, the further they are from genuine playthings; the more they are based on imitation, the further they lead us from the real, living play…Imitation is at home in the playing not in the plaything.

This will be evident to most parents who have watched a child tear open boxes on Christmas Day, only to ignore the contents and spend the day making worlds out of the boxes.

After watching my six year old daughter place energy and imagination into creating fully furnished homes, for her Sylvanian figurines, using cardboard boxes, felt tip pens and remnants of cloth, one Christmas I bought her The Grand Hotel. Of course, after an initial (day long) flurry of settling her figurines into the Hotel, it has remained almost untouched since that day, three and a half years ago.

What I misunderstood was that she wanted to draw, to create, to invent. Which she continues to do in any way she can. I learnt a useful but expensive lesson. Reading Benjamin, via Josipovici, reinforces what experience has taught.

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