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Toy story

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / July 18, 2009

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I’m thinking of starting a company that sells lint. Lint, dust balls, and small pieces of string. It would have a name designed to attract well-meaning new parents, like “Crawling Companions’’ or “Motor Skills Mates.’’ Or something with the word “Genius’’ in it.

I hatched the idea because my son, now 8 months old, is a lint fanatic. Yes, he owns an array of developmental toys with bright colors and varied textures: fake keys, fake birds, fake trucks. They rattle and crinkle and hold his interest briefly. But what really fascinates him is trash. I’ve seen him spend a good half-hour exploring a piece of string he found on the living room rug, or a piece of curved plastic from a water bottle wrapper. And as he learns to crawl, detritus on the floor has turned out to be prime motivator. In one early breakthrough, he shimmied across the kitchen floor on his belly, in pursuit of a small black ant.

It’s yet another reason to feel good about having a not-so-spotless house. (Another one: Dirt triggers the immune system! It’s true!) But it also highlights what many well-meaning parents and grandparents already know: Those carefully designed developmental toys quite often go to waste. One friend told me her toddler plays almost exclusively with the dust bunnies that have built up since her younger brother arrived this spring. A set of exquisitely designed European toys, meanwhile, sits desolately on a shelf. Another friend says her 11-month-old is most interested in the TV remote. Another friend admits that her kids “completely ignore wood toys of any size.’’

Yet the infant toy industry continues to expand, says Alison Marek, managing editor of the toy industry trade magazine TDmonthly. Older kids are moving away from toys and toward electronics, Marek told me, so toy companies have compensated by churning out more loot for the littlest ones. The latest products tend to promote development and early education, to woo parents with the promise that a toy can help with movement, make babies smarter, or instill some nascent sense of social consciousness. The most recent trends, Marek said, include eco-friendly toys in earth-toned colors.

If you really wanted to foster Earth-appreciation in a kid who can’t yet wipe his own nose, wouldn’t you plunk him down in the grass instead? Still, the toy companies find ways to be persuasive, to prey on modern parents who want to do what’s best and are open to suggestion. Online stores crop up with insidious names like littlesmarties.com - fallout from the fabulously successful “Baby Einstein’’ brand, which managed to convince people that a video of slowly moving toys wasn’t a mind-numbing and occasionally useful baby sitter but an educational tool. I was thrilled when I saw the study, published two years ago, that showed that regular “Einstein’’ viewers had smaller vocabularies than their deprived counterparts. Now, I’d love to see a backlash against those loud LeapFrog devices, which suggest that teaching 1-year-olds to recite the ABCs is desirable, as opposed to creepy.

In the meantime, I’d love to make a fortune off lint, to become one of those entrepreneurs who makes good on an obvious idea - like the Massachusetts mothers who met at a toddler playgroup and eventually created “Taggies.’’ After realizing that babies like to play with the tags on pillows and toys, they made a line of blankets with multiple tags attached, in various textures and colors. Taggies, Marek points out, are “the marketable equivalent of lint.’’ They’re also an international business with plush toy, bedding, and clothing lines. They even have a new eco-friendly “naturals collection,’’ made from organically grown cotton fibers.

Jesse, my baby, inherited a pair of soft Taggie books from his sister - made of synthetic fabric, as far as I know. They were gifts from one of the grandmothers, who declared at the time that “she needs a Taggie.’’ Every once in a while, I put one in his lap. He shows no interest in the faux tags, made of silk and grosgrain, covered with stripes and tiny hearts. But the real one? With the washing instructions? He loves it.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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