Monday, December 24, 2007

Child's Play

My husband, Matt, and I stumbled onto this children's playground a few weeks ago on a trip to France. It's located on the Grand Ile in the town of Strasbourg. The Grand Ile is the historic section of the city, located over bridges and surrounded by water. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1980's for its amazingly in tact Franco-German architecture and culture.

This day was cold and rainy, so we had the park to ourselves. Beyond this sculpture, just in the distance, you can see the jungle gym fabricated in the same style. It reminded me of old wooden toys, simple hand made blocks.

Now we're in Charleston, SC and it's Christmas Eve. Lots of parents are still shopping amidst a media frenzy regarding toxic toys from China. But there's a much bigger issue at stake here. What we deem acceptable chemically in the products we hand our children, and that we use to design our furniture, our homes, our offices, is fairly shocking. Architect Bill McDonough often refers to what goes into the average yellow rubber ducky and it is pretty staggering.

Strasbourg is home to the European Union. The EU, of course, issues much stricter guidelines for consumer and food products than the FDA. The EU has standards against chemicals, like parabens, that are now showing up in the breast cancer tumors of women, many of whom don't realize such ingredients exist in most cosmetics. They require food manufacturers to label products with genetically modified ingredients, something our government is unwilling to do. In the EU, consumers are given full disclosure and they are given a choice. They are presented with the facts and allowed to decide what to put in and on their bodies. And the prevailing consumer reaction is to shun the chemically treated, the preserved, the agri-business product in favor of more natural options. Bush says such labels would harm American business and stunt innovation. The EU has shown that limiting such harmful ingredients actually stimulates innovation as companies work to create new solutions for their savvy customers.

Shopping today amidst all the plastic, dinging, ringing, bright, and noxious toys this holiday season, I thought back on this simple jungle gym. French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote an essay in the 50's about the evolution of toys in modern culture:

Current toys are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not nature. Many are now moulded from complicated mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic; it destroys the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch.

He contrasted this new materiality with the basic wood block:

When the child handles it and knocks it, it neither vibrates nor grates, it has the sound at once muffled and sharp. It is a familiar and poetic substance, which does not sever the child from close contact with the tree, the table, the floor. Wood does not wound or break down; it does not shatter, it wears out, it can last a long time, live with the child, alter little by little the relationship between the object and the hand...Wood makes essential objects, objects for all time.

Etched into the sculpture in that park in Strasbourg was this:

It means "The man who dreams."