If you open a particular closet in my house, you will step right back into the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. But what's in the closet doesn’t have anything to do with fashion.
Instead of clothing, the closet holds my collection of vintage Fisher Price “Little People” play sets. After having been boxed and put away for years, they’re back out again and in the hands of a child. This time my granddaughter.
One or two, like the barn and silo and the Sesame Street play set, were toys purchased new as birthday or Christmas gifts for my four children. But most of them, each tucked into an individual cubby in the closet, are pieces that I picked up from garage sales and thrift stores.
My collection started when I noticed a couple of older Fisher Price pieces at my first child’s pre-school. They were obviously hand-me-down toys brought in by a family that was clearing out things that were no longer played with.
And because the play sets are so well made and kid proof, they were still around after having been in hundreds of little hands over the years. My favorite was the station wagon and tent trailer. It was exactly like the car and trailer we’d been in when we camped across the United States when I was a girl. Just looking at the toy filled me with happy memories.
Maybe that’s why these toys appeal to both adults and children. They are simple to use and yet in basic ways they capture the complexity of real life. The baggage carousel on the 1970s airport spins tiny suitcases around.
The Children’s Hospital, my granddaughter’s current favorite, also from the 70s, has a working elevator and and when chunky little people are placed on the X-ray machine, bones—a rib cage—appear on the “screen.” The ambulance holds a minuscule gurney onto which a patient can be strapped and transported. She loves the fact that some of the little people that come with the toys are not smiling, but have grumpy frowns painted on their faces.
Would you smile if your job was to turn the crank endlessly while others rode the Ferris wheel? I don’t think so and neither does she.
Contrasted with most modern toys, there are no flashing lights, no loud digital tones on these old toys. If there’s music, you wind up the toy to hear it. If there’s a bell, it’s an actual bell. These toys aren’t high-tech baby sitters meant to entertain. They operate on the unlimited power of a child’s imagination.
I loved watching my children play with their toys and it’s double the pleasure to see my granddaughter sprawled on her tummy, peering into the same doll’s house or putting the little figures in a vintage minibus and pushing them around. Her fun is my pleasure.
That’s why, when she comes over to spend the afternoon at Nana’s house, I open the toy closet and ask, “What shall we play with today?”