The Voice in the Toy

The voice was unmistakable. “A, B, C, D…” the goofy tone sang. I turned around in the waiting room full of moms and found it: a stuffed, animatronic dinosaur, sitting in a lap, singing to a little girl. Each time the voice would stop, the girl would squeeze something and make it start again.

Flash forward to lunch. A stuffed bear sat in the middle of our table watching my daughter Grace and I eat. Theo was Grace’s pre-school mascot, who made trips home to each child’s house and had a journal families could add to. This was a decidedly low-tech bear. If he was going to talk, one of us was going to have to do it for him. Never one to turn down a chance to do a silly voice, I pulled him over and started him chatting.

Grace loved it. Within minutes, the two of them were engaged in a discussion about bears they both knew. Apparently, Theo was personal friends with Winnie the Pooh and has repeatedly told him to cut down on the honey. Soon Grace added her own personal stuffed bear into the mix. The two of them were fast becoming furry friends.

Toys that come to life. That idea has long been a staple of children’s imaginative play. Long before Toy Story was The Indian in the Cupboard. And long before that was The Velveteen Rabbit. Giving life to a special toy or stuffed animal is a pre-cursor to creating a character in a story. A child gives it personality; endowing it with loves, weaknesses, fears and joys. A “living” toy becomes an ally in a child’s unfolding adventure.

That’s why I so dislike a robotic toy. There is no unfolding adventure, no dialogue. There is just a limited series of pat phrases that reach for – and terribly miss – a feeling of being real. Being real isn’t just combining a voice with moving arms. It’s having a personality that develops with the situation, flowing from the fertile mind of a child. That little girl I watched wasn’t interacting with the toy in her mom’s lap; she was just being entertained. Poorly, I might add.

So, for my family, keep the gizmos out of our toys, thanks. We’ll take an ordinary stuffed bear and our own goofy voices any day.

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2005 Bruce Van Patter