Sunday, February 26, 2006


I went to visit a friend who lives in a beautiful rustic packhouse on an old tobacco farm in Durham. It used to be part of a little batch of farm outbuildings inhabited by hippies, but the hippies mostly burned down the rest of them by accident. From the rolling fields, one has an excellent view, over hill and dale, all the way to the Shearon Harris Nuclear Facility.

Judy sells educational toys for Montessori schools online at She invented an amazing game called "Imaginary Island" after watching kids play with some flash-cards she had drawn and hand-colored with illustrations of land and water forms.

The game has 84 square pieces about 3" square; some squares are all green or green with mountains or lakes, but most squares are half ocean. Some have rocky shoreline and some have sandy beaches; some are straight, some include fjords, glaciers, peninsulae. There is an isthmus and bays and all the crenellations a shoreline may contain. There are hundreds of ways to play with these pieces. There are game pieces (lizards, turtles, squirrels, etc) and dice and compass and game cards and it's an amazing world.

But the thing I liked best about this game was the way it felt to touch and hold the pieces. They are made out of something strong and hard and very flat - they will never warp like jigsaw puzzle pieces. They are not plastic, they are very hard dense heavy stuff. And the fronts (with the land and water forms) and backs (with the names of the forms) are made out of some paper which is smooth and silky. When I had one of these pieces in my hand, I didn't want to put it down. I marvelled at how straight and perfect the edges were, and the substantial clicking sound they made when you put them down or put them in their box.

The box! Strong, and straight, made by hand out of strong silky wood by some guy in Tennessee. The game pieces all fit into it perfectly.

OK, to me the point is this. This set is so beautiful. After I put my island together, well, it was so lovely, with its deep, subtle colors and smooth satiny pieces which fit together so beautifully. My island was an object I could look at and touch. (I couldn't stop handling those pieces.)

Judy says kids go nuts for the islands they make - their imaginations take the game much farther than she had ever anticipated.

Sadly, most things kids get to play with these days are (a) plastic; (b) cheap, warped cardboard; or (c) computer stuff. As the big box stores work harder and harder to reduce their costs more and more, few games, toys or dolls are made well, or made out of anything nice, any more.

I'm reminded of a toy I saw when I accompanied Zed to Wal-Mart to buy a present for his younger brother. It was a "McDonald's Drive-Through" game! It came with a plastic headset, plastic hamburger, plastic french fries! So you could pretend to be the guy who gives people hamburgers at McDonalds! Preparation for a future career.

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At 5:43 PM, Anonymous Teka said...

I started rereading Russell Hoban's beautiful The Mouse and His Child and was struck by how vivid and sensuous the descriptions of the toys in the shop are, with their plush and shiny painted wood and exquisite detailing. Though, as a book, I know the descriptions of the new toys are heightened, it saddened me to think how intangible toys today seem to me. It's all plastic and beeps now, and the beautiful toys are reserved for collectors who would never dream of *playing* with them.


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