Remarkably, even the choice of materials that arrest the attention of boys and girls often seems to be gender-specific. Men’s memories cite playing with sticks, plastic pens, metal parts of disassembled devices, and such, and testify to the more aggressive way of playing with these objects as well. Women, conversely, often choose “softer” materials, whether taken from nature or household objects, and play quieter, slower-paced games:
A piece of tube… aluminum, or maybe copper or steel, 5 to 10 millimeters in diameter. Any boy would give a lot for one of those. I was lucky to have one: it used to be a towel hanger in grandma’s bathroom. I sawed it, gave a third to my younger brother, and kept the rest. The guys were jealous: the tube was big enough so a small crab apple would fit inside and you could shoot it from the tube. It would hit far and hard. A weapon! …
Ruslan Dautov, Safakulevo, Kurgan region, Russia, 1990s
Many factories were shut down, and all the equipment that was not sold or stolen was thrown out to become children’s property. From the variety of gadgets that we found and played with, I especially remember lamination stacks from electric transformers: base-metal hunters would disassemble transformers, steal the copper parts and throw away the lamination stacks. Each of those stacks contained a huge number of metal flats in the E-shape. You could twist them into new shapes or assemble things from them, and they also flew really far if you threw them.
Enot, Sevastopol, Ukraine, 1990s
When I was younger I remember using my sister's old baby wipe boxes to build more houses for my Barbies, and to give them a car. I would stack the boxes on top of one another, and arrange different pathways to be the Barbie's room, nursery, kitchen, etc. When Barbie needed to go from point A to point B, all she had to do was hop in her car or baby wipe box and drive there.
Katie, Chelsea, AL, 1990s
When I was a girl of 6 - 7, I remember how we played with my girlfriends a game called daughters-and-mothers or something of the kind. People lived rather poorly at that time and if we had dolls we didn't take them out of doors, we cherished them and kept at home. Nevertheless, we had something even better to play with outside in the yards and gardens: earcorns! Do you imagine what they look like? A long body and a mess of real brown hair on the top - Barbies of our childhood!
Galina, Lebyazhje, Kurgan region, Russia, 1960s
Even though games as described above seem the epitome of conformity, they, too, allow for a self-guided exploration of various roles and models of life. Playing through pretend social situations prepares for a smoother transition into adulthood responsibilities and the many challenges of domestic and public lives. “Trying on” various identities through engagement with material objects facilitates construction of personality, likes and dislikes, and building of relationships to both things and people. What’s more important, however, is that sometimes it is exactly such trying on of cookie-cutter identities and roles that prompts one to look further, to approach things from a different perspective, to look for alliances in the object world that are better suited to express one’s identity.
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.