As I thought over childhood Christmas and birthday presents (my stash of toys came almost exclusively from these two occasions – both in December – as my family could not afford anything but the smallest of toy purchases outside of these gift-giving events), I tried to recall which presents were the most memorable. It turned out that the most memorable included some toys which I did not end up playing with a whole lot and some which I played with endlessly. This made me stop to think: What was the difference? Sometimes the timing was off – I may have outgrown a particular type of toy or misjudged my interest on a new type of toy.
When it came to dolls, however, the difference came down to size, not so much large vs. small, but life-size vs. smaller than life. Smaller than life – paper dolls, their Colorform equivalents, Barbies, and a handful of hand-me-down 4” dolls from the remainders of someone’s long abandoned playset – won out every time as perennial favorites. The “losing” doll that stuck out in my mind – probably because I felt so guilty at having paid so little attention to her after her first Christmas at our house – was Saucy Walker, a toddler-sized walking doll for which my parents must have paid a small fortune. Tiny Tears, a near baby-sized doll that drank a bottle and afterwards wet her diaper, fared slightly better, probably because (a) we could do “scientific experiments” with her by changing the type and color of the liquid in her bottle (even the boys I played with could get on board with that), and (b) she came with her own suitcase and a couple of different outfits, always good for prolonging a doll’s play time by a few minutes.
But none of these came anywhere close to the hours and hours I would spend, alone and with friends, with smaller dolls and paper dolls. Moreover, I saw this phenomenon repeated with my daughters and their friends: Polly Pockets and Barbies beat out baby dolls, no contest. (For that matter, so did all sorts of animals, from small plastic ones to larger stuffed animals, no matter what size.)
I think the difference has something to do with the level and type of fantasy involved in imaginative play – are you a character within an imaginary scenario in an imaginary world or one of the “gods” outside that world who controls it and everything that happens within it – or at least this seems to be the case with girls. Boys seem to like life-sized toys as much as miniature replicas, and enjoy being both characters in their fantasy play as well as the outside “gods”. For the girls I have known, being a character is fine, too, but it has a limited life, especially when playing with others – it puts the (possibly delicate) egos of little girls on the line. The whole point of this kind of play is to be admired for how beautiful/brilliant/brave your character is and to put her in situations that show off these qualities, and this turns into a game of one-upsmanship that often ends up bruising those little egos. “Pretend I was a beautiful magic bird-girl who had wings and had hundreds of bird friends, and this is my baby who can turn into a bird.” “Pretend I was the queen of all the forest animals and was the most beautiful and magical and they all obeyed me and these were my two little girls who could combine their powers and make you do what they wanted.” “Pretend I got together with all the other animals and we our combined magical powers to kill all three of you.” That stuff usually doesn’t go on too long: half an hour or an hour tops. And if it’s tamer play, such as playing mommies with babies with no further dramatic plot twists, well, that his its limitations, too, mostly because it gets boring.
Little plastic dolls and animals and paper dolls, on the other hand, can be bad. You are there to create the melodrama and to observe it from your lofty heights of goddessdom. Nothing negative reflects back on you, it’s just that selfish/sneaky/skanky doll. “Pretend she was jealous of her friends’ clothes and stole them all.” “Yeah, pretend they found out, stole them back, and cut holes in her clothes.” “Ooh, and pretend she got dressed to go out with her boyfriend and didn’t notice the holes.” This can go on for hours.
Of course, there are levels of Pretend. This was beautifully and succinctly explained to us by the four-year-old son of friends of ours who came to visit. “Plain old Betend,” Payton explained patiently, “is when you have plastic eggs and you betend they’re real eggs. Betend-betend is when you don’t have any eggs at all and you betend that you have some real eggs.”
Well, this ended up being less about memories and more about theories, and all because I felt so bad about not playing with that Saucy Walker doll.
Tiny Tears and me
I don’t know if this doll was an alter ego or a lowly, fallible creature of mine