Why we stop playing: The science behind moving from playing with toys to collecting them

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Dec 17, 2020, 2:50 PM EST (Updated)

I have a distinct memory, a little fuzzy around the edges, of the last time I ever played with my childhood toys. I was probably 11 or 12, maybe younger. It had been a while since I had pulled out my G.I. Joes, my Transformers, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So I went down to the brown rug in front of the TV in my parents’ basement as I had done probably a thousand times before, dumped out my box of action figures, and started playing.

Except something was off right away. Leonardo and Destro and Optimus Prime didn’t seem as alive to me as they once were. Seeing them lying there on my floor, I couldn’t conjure any little stories about them, and I didn’t want to stage little battles like I used to with everyone lined up in their vehicles. My action figures had simply stopped being fun. I remember feeling very alone.

You probably had the same experience at some point in your childhood. We like to think it’s a part of growing up, to give up childish things. But it’s hard to argue that we truly abandon the characters we loved in our youth. After all, the long string of successful Marvel movies, the less successful but still money-making DC movies, and the renewal of the Star Wars franchise (not to mention the dozens of other recent reboots) owe a lot to the fact that much of their audiences knew these properties as kids. And of course, there’s a high level of interest among adults for toys and other memorabilia — both new and old — that we’ve been talking about all month long on Blastr.

“Do we stop playing with toys? Or is it that we change the toys we play with?” says Scott Eberle, Ph.D., vice president for play studies at The Strong National Museum of Play and editor of the American Journal of Play. “How about rocket engines, circuit boards, and radiotelescopes? Our attitude toward play changes toward the instrumental, and our toys get more specialized and complex.”

Let’s back up and talk about why we play with toys in the first place. Twentieth-century Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget developed the theory that children’s cognitive development breaks down into four separate stages. We learn the basics of interacting with the world as babies, and from there, we develop progressively more sophisticated reasoning and abstract thinking as we come to understand the relationship between ourselves, other people, and the objects around us. 

Our toys help us develop through those stages, but serve different functions at each turn. At first, a stuffed toy lion is just a stuffed toy lion, but later, you might use a green Duplo to represent the Hulk action figure you don’t have, and even later, develop little stories for your toys. “You see these small children coming up with very elaborate and wild and fun things, because they have these new abilities for symbolic play and interactive play,” says Travis Langley, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Henderson State University and the author of Batman and Psychology.

A growing body of research has looked at how play facilitates types of learning and creative thinking that can be missed in a school day full of multiplication tables and spelling quizzes. “It’s the possibility of creating new ideas,” says Hilary Conklin, Ph.D., a professor of education at DePaul University who has researched the use of play to enhance middle school classrooms. “If you think about how innovation happens, it’s through the merging of worlds and experimentation.” Which is another way of saying, you weren’t wrong to create crossover universes where Batman fights Hulk Hogan or Captain Kirk moves in with Barbie.

Even the fact that many of our toys are based on TV shows and movies (and the occasional book that’s yet to become a movie) helps develop certain modes of thinking. From those pre-existing narratives, we can use our toys to come up with new stories and then break characters out of their defined roles — maybe the bad guy wins in the end, or maybe the good guy and the bad guy become friends. 

When we’re on the cusp of puberty in our early teens, several psychological changes happen at once that make our favorite action figures less appealing. For one thing, we’re suddenly interested in having a boyfriend or girlfriend. And outside of those pre-teen “going steady” relationships, our peer interactions are more social than ever before. For the first time, sitting in your basement playing with toys can’t compete with simply hanging out with your friends. (Which explains why I felt so lonely the day my toys stopped being fun.)

You’re also at a stage in development that Piaget called the “formal operational stage,” where you can use complex logic — not just A causes B, but also that B causes C, and C causes D and might relate back to B. You also have an improved ability to form abstract thoughts. “You’ve got your own brain getting in the way of being able to just enjoy the damn toy,” Langley says.

That’s not to say you’re less imaginative during your teen years — in fact, the opposite is true. “At this stage you don’t need the concrete thing to represent the thing you’re thinking about,” adds Langley. Maybe these were the years where you started writing short fan fiction or original stories. Or the artistically inclined put pen to paper to draw original characters with intricate backstories and motives. 

Even in adulthood, the toys from our childhood can continue to have a role in our lives. I still have all my old Star Wars toys — an admittedly small collection. I bought Poe Dameron’s black X-wing last year, and it sits on my desk in its box. Maybe you have a shelf full of He-Man action figures in their unopened blister packs, or all the latest Marvel superheroes as Lego minifigures. Is that also a form of play?

The answer, it turns out, is yes. “The play in collecting doesn’t come from the object sitting on the shelf, but in the pursuit of it, the bargaining for it, the mastery of the subject, and the suspense before a completion that never quite happens,” says Eberle. There’s a social component as well — you head to conventions to find the next items in your collection, but also to make friends with people who share the same passion.

That goes for any kind of collection, from Native American art to baseball cards. When we collect the toys owned as kids, however, it might help us maintain ties to the playful, imaginative scamps we used to be. “It’s not just about these things we have; it’s about a connection to who we were and to the child who played with this stuff once upon a time,” says Langley, adding that he displays roughly 130 toy Batmobiles in his own campus office. 

You may even find that as an adult, your toys still help you to gain a spark of inspiration or find a creative solution to a problem. While immersive video games let us experience all sorts of novel things in digital worlds, you could find yourself gaining something else entirely by physically maneuvering your Japanese mecha statues instead. 

“I think you shouldn’t just buy it, you should play with it, since it’s through the interaction with it that it creates learning,” Conklin says. “Why not have an action figure lunch meeting?”

Taking that cue, I gently pry Poe Dameron’s X-wing out of its box for the first time. (Don’t weep for me, hardcore collectors. I didn’t buy it for any future value.) It’s a solidly-built die-cast metal model, and heavier than I expected. I’m not sure that pretending a starfighter is dogfighting in my office will help me be more creative or more productive, but there’s only one way to find out.