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November 13, 2008

Behold the Stick! A Classic of the Toy Commons

National Toy Hall of Fame inducts “the stick” into its venerable pantheon

It’s the simple, everyday things that go ignored, eclipsed by the razzle-dazzle of the new, the exclusive, the advertised. This is especially true of childhood, which is overrun by expensive and glitzy electronic gadgets, games, software, and other flashy toys.

So it is a great pleasure to behold the stick – the simple, versatile and ubiquitous toy of childhood.

The National Toy Hall of Fame, based in Rochester, New York, catapulted the stick into consciousness recently when it inducted the ubiquitous cylinder of wood into its pantheon of classic toys. Chris Bensch, chief curator at the National Toy Hall of Fame, explained that the stick was chosen because it was so pervasive and yet transformational (even more than the trademarked “Transfomer” toys that shift shapes).

Photo by Carplips Family, via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license.

“The stick just kept emerging,” Bensch told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s open-ended, it’s free, it’s available. It allows for all sorts of free play and exploration. All those kinds of adventures and non-structured types of play are so important.”

He added, “[The stick] can be a Wild West horse, a medieval knight’s sword, a boat on a stream or a slingshot with a rubber band….No snowman is complete without a couple of stock arms, and every campfire needs a stick for toasting marshmallows. This toy is so fantastic that it’s not just for humans any more. You can find otters, chimps and dogs – especially dogs – playing with it.”

The National Toy Hall of Fame has been “inducting” timeless toys into its museum since 2003. OntheCommons.org would gamely rename them “toys of the commons” – things that are so universally loved and used that they have become part of our shared cultural heritage. One of the key criteria for selecting a toy is its longevity of use. It not only has to have been used for generations, but its use in play must foster learning, creativity and discovery.

Among the classic items of play identified by the Hall of Fame are the baby doll, marbles and the skateboard. Proprietary toys that have become so ubiquitous as to belong to the commons include LEGOs, Barbies, Silly Putty, Mr. Potato Head, Crayola crayons and the Atari 2600 video game system.

When our cultural universe is saturated with advertisements for countless “new and improved” toys that will be forgotten tomorrow, it is refreshing to be reminded of the toys that will always be with us, the ones that endure because they invite us to bring something of ourselves to them: toys of the commons.