Toy naming and the stories of children
The brown-eyed five-year-old proudly held up her new doll. As always, I asked what her new companion’s name was. You’ll know this was a while back when I tell you her response: “Strawberry Shortcake”.
Children in the K-3 school where I spent my last two years as a school librarian loved to show off their new doll, plastic duck, stuffed animal, or train engine. I always oohed and ahed appropriately, and I always asked what they had named it. I can’t remember a single time when they had given it a name they hadn’t heard in a commercial for it.
I’d never had children, but I figured not re-naming toys gave story-making power to the corporations that created them. My job was to return that power to the children.
“Does she have another name? A special name you gave her?”
“No. She’s Strawberry Shortcake.”
“What does she like to eat? What’s her favourite game? Does she sleep in her shoes? Does she wear her t-shirts inside out?”
Question by question, I’d encourage the children to create a story about their new toy. Give it character, eccentricities, preferences, secrets only the child could know. Some gave up quickly. They couldn’t imagine a life for the toy that existed outside the confines of the marketing story. I was sad for them but hoped all the stories they heard during their library visits would fill them with enough colourful details to stir their imaginations.
Others entered into the game, whether quickly or reluctantly. After they had answered a dozen questions, I’d say to them, “That doesn’t sound like a Strawberry Shortcake (or whatever other name they’d given). Ask her if she has another name she likes better, a name that is hers alone, a name she’d like you to call her.”
For the children, the new names became signals for the toys’ stories. For me, they were a way to combat the weighty power of marketing by encouraging children to believe in the power of their own story-making abilities. They were born with them, but advertising had been having its way with them, robbing them of some of their belief in their own creativity.
My insistence on children’s giving names and stories to their toys was a tiny gesture in the big scheme of things. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.