Keep it simple: Classic toys bring classic joy

It was early December 1996. The Christmas spirit was in the air, an early-winter blizzard was making our central Pennsylvania home feel extra-cozy, and I was basking in the glow of my Hanukkah booty. Then a story on the nightly news interrupted my holiday bliss: A fistfight had broken out at the local Toys “R” Us. Two women were literally clawing at each other over the last remaining Tickle Me Elmo.

In 1996 it was Tickle Me Elmo, but every year has its hottest toy, the kind of present that drives otherwise courteous, reserved mothers to go for the jugular.

This year, for reasons passing understanding, it’s a small robotic hamster whose must-have quality seems to be that it comes with its own hamster-sized car.

With names like “Num Nums” and “Mr. Squiggles,” the Zhu Zhu Hamster has been projected by at least one retail analyst to hit sales of $70 million this year and $300 million in 2010 as the full weight of their fluffy awesomeness sinks in.

Here’s the thing: the same year those two moms went at it in the toy store, I got a Slinky. Actually, it was a set of four Slinkies, each in a different shape. And they were amazing. The simple joy at watching them bound down the stairs, though dampened a bit when the ended up in a metallic tumbleweed, was enough for me to remember 13 holiday seasons later.

A Time Magazine piece this week reminds us that:

[t]he best toys transcend, their survival a testament to their purpose and power. The Babylonians played board games; the ancient Greeks had yo-yos. The Chinese were flying kites 3,000 years ago. Crayola crayons were first produced in 1903….The worst toys are the opposite: overdesigned, overengineered, the product of so much imagination on the part of the toymaker that they require none from the child.

I’m sure a lot of you have picked up the Zhu Zhu Hamster for your kids, and you’ll undoubtedly be rewarded with the “cool parent” label for it. A job well done.

But for those of you who haven’t (or just aren’t willing to risk bodily harm for a robotic rodent), remember this: Sometimes classic toys are the best ones. A new bike, complete with streamers and a bell, the super-duper-economy-value pack of Legos, or yes, even a Slinky, can sometimes bring more joy than the toy du jour.

Don’t be afraid to buck the trend. Your kids might thank you for it down the road. Or write a blog post about it.

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