An unbreakable toy is wonderful thing, not least for its ability to break other toys. But a broken toy, as I’ve discovered over the first few years with young children, can be just as much fun as when it was working.
We have a bag in our house that contains things we can’t send to charity shops or pass on to friends because they are broken, incomplete or damaged. It’s a holding area until we admit that these things need to go to the recycling center, and for the non-recyclable bits to land-fill.
Last week I realized that my four year old had been particularly quiet upstairs for a good hour or so — never a good sign — so I went to investigate. I found him sat surrounded by all our old junk as if he had discovered a chest of treasures.
I sat down next to him and asked him what he was doing. “I’ve found all these toys dad, in that old bag.” To him they weren’t broken toys or things that needed to be thrown away but fresh opportunities for fun.
As we picked through the detritus of our family’s plastic toy and gadget habit it reminded me of being a small boy myself, maybe about the age of my son, and of the games I used to make up with whatever toys I could find at the bottom of our old wooden toy chest.
We spent an afternoon together figuring out new games and discovering new fun with our all broken bits and bobs. In fact it went beyond just that afternoon and became a regular feature of family playtime. These are our top 4 broken toy games:
1. Rusty Scalextrix Becomes The “Marble Race” Game
This harks back to my childhood collection of the big slot racer game. Over the years the track gets tarnished and bent and the circuits get ever harder to connect. Eventually I had to admit that some of my track was no longer useable — and not compatible with the newer Scalectrix connectors — so I consigned a bunch of them in the recycling bag.
My son had other ideas however. I discovered him putting the finishing touches to a marble run that took his shiny marble collection from one end of his room, through the hall and into the office. Having two tracks also meant that he could race two marbles down the course at the same time, something that resulted in a highly detailed pecking order for each of his marble collections.
2. Matchbox Graveyard Becomes The “Car Crash” Game
Another treasure I found my son pulling from the bin bag was an old shoebox of toy cars. These vehicles were totally un-driveable with missing wheels, bonnets and chassis — in fact some were more spare parts than actual cars.
Their depleted state was just the opportunity my son was looking for, though. Within minutes he had constructed a series of highway car crashes that required his emergency vehicles to come rushing to the scene. He would make use of every last part of broken car in a detailed reconstruction of each stage of the crash.
I was a little worried that this morbid scene wasn’t a great scenario to create a game around. But as we played it turned out that he wasn’t in fact traumatized at the thought of a high speed traffic accident but was more interested in how the different emergency services get there so quick, and work together when they are at the scene. He ended up writing a set of rules of which services were allowed to help with which sorts of accidents, and decided which accidents had happened by rolling a D6 die.
3. Nintendo DS Broken Hinge Becomes The “Family Soldering” Game
Apparently the most shocking item that my son found in the garbage bag was our old beaten up and broken original DS. It has a faulty upper screen, broken hinges and missing stylus. I’d taken it into a repair shop and it was going cost more to fix that it would be to buy a 3DS (or even a PlayStation Vita next year) — which I’d taken as a sign that it was time to upgrade.
“But, Dad, you can fix it, can’t you?” my son said, thrusting the limp handheld towards me with a look of expectation I couldn’t say no to.
“Sure, let’s fix it.”
Although I wasn’t sure it was fixable without electronics skills I’m actually pleased I was coerced into giving it a go. It turned into a great little project where the kids and I not only learned about these game devices work but also some general fix-it skills — not to mention my first bit of soldering (parts from Amazon).
4. Broken Phone Becomes The “Being a Grownup” Game
In the bag next to the DS was another gadget I couldn’t fix, an old candy bar style mobile phone. In fact I think the battery had completely died and the screen had broken when I dropped it on a car park floor a few years back.
But to my son this was a toy that didn’t need fixing to be fun. He spent most of the next day pretending he was on the phone to various people in the family – as well as a handful of important sounding business contacts. It was funny to see how having his hands on the real thing (as opposed to the pretend phones he had in the past) made him want to mimic us. It was also eye opening to see how we sounded to him when we talked on the phone.
Life Lessons From Broken Toys
This fondness for broken things that we are developing as a family may seem a little worthy or right-on, but it’s not something we’ve had to really work at. My son’s pleasure at these things we were about to send to landfill made me think twice about what we keep and what we throw away — and what we buy.
I’m more than a little grateful to him for reminding me how technology is about so much more than launch day and early adoption. How these products fare over the long term of our lives is the real test of their value.
As I try to wrap up this post I can see my son, now school has finished for Christmas, playing in his room across the hall. He has the DS that we fixed, or perhaps I should say half-fixed. The hinge now works but the top case doesn’t match the base and the screen isn’t quite straight. He’s tapping away at the scratched touch screen with a Lego road sign as a make shift stylus because we lost the original ones years ago. He couldn’t be happier.
Seeing him play like this is, perhaps, the happiest I have ever been to have the DS in the household and gadgets in our lives. I’m not sure if he’ll keep these life lessons with him when he’s older — I’m guessing not — but if all he remembers is that we squeezed every last drop of life and enjoyment from the technology in our home I’ll be a happy GeekDad.