Tom Purcell, 12/11/2013 [Archive]

A Christmas Toy Story - Back To The Basics

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A Christmas Toy Story -- Back to the Basics

By Tom Purcell

Boy, do we need to get back to the basics in America — especially with our Christmas toys.

Consider: In the basement of any kid's home you'll find once-trendy, dust-collecting gadgets that are no longer played with.

So I was delighted to stumble across a article by Jonathan Liu that ranked "The 5 Best Toys of All Time."

First up: the stick, a simple branch or hunk of wood you can find in your own backyard.

Though doing so is no longer acceptable today, when I was a kid I made several slingshots out of sticks that could fire a small rock a long way.

I also tried whittling a flute once with a Swiss Army knife, but that was before kids did jail time for getting caught with any kind of a blade.

Which brings us to Geekdad's second-best toy of all time: the box.

Boy, did we love a good box in the '70s. We used the box that a giant, new refrigerator came in to make a fort out back. It was a terrific structure -- until the first rain came along and our father made us drag it to the curb for garbage pickup.

One of the great ironies of modern times is that no matter what trendy toy you buy your kids, you'll soon find them playing with the box it came in.

Here's third-best toy: string.

Though Geekdad says kids can use string to hang things from doorknobs, make leashes for stuffed animals or play Cat's Cradle, I don't recall having any interest in such things.

Geekdad is right about tying a long piece of string to two empty cans, though. When the string had tension, one can would carry your voice to the other can several feet away.

So cool is this still, I'll bet today's average kids would set down their smartphones for hours while trying to perfect the can-string audio.

Which brings us to Geekdad's fourth-best choice: the cardboard tube.

The little tubes that hold toilet paper or paper towels were always great fun. We taped them together to create little horns, which we could toot out of -- they had the faint sound of a kazoo -- until our father couldn't take it anymore.

The best tubes, ever, were the kind that architects carried their drawings around in. They were hard to find, but would pop up occasionally when some architect dad would toss it in the garbage.

With some aluminum foil or small mirrors, some tape and a pair of scissors, an architect's tube could be made into a periscope, allowing us kids to see around doorways and into windows from three or more feet away.

Top that, Apple Inc.!

That brings us to Geekdad's fifth-best choice: dirt.

In my early years, despite being warned by my mother to avoid dirt, the only thing I loved more than rolling around in it was rolling around in mud puddles after a rainstorm.

Could you imagine how much less stressed Americans would be if we rolled around in dirt and mud puddles at least once every week?

In any event, there is a moral to this toy story, I believe.

Despite all the trendy gadgets that clutter the basement in every kid's home, kids are still drawn to the most fundamental playthings -- simple things that allow them to imagine and discover on their own.

Heck, the best things in life really are simple and free.

Rather than give our kids a bunch of trendy gadgets for Christmas this year, why not pick up some sticks, boxes, string, cardboard tubes and dirt and give them the gift of creativity.

© 2013 Tom Purcell. Tom Purcell, author of "Misadventures of a 1970's Childhood" and "Comical Sense: A Lone Humorist Takes on a World Gone Nutty!" is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. For info on using this column in your publication or website, contact Sales Barley at For comments to Tom email

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