Millhouse Toys

I visited the 2012 Toy Fair in London last week. As I mentioned whilst discussing BRIO pull-alongs, one of the strong themes I noticed was the number of wooden toys for sale.

Within this category, some of the most common product types were toy market stalls and kitchen units, often sold alongside toy fruit and veg. These allow young children to 'play shop', or to role play cooking dinner (or doing the laundry) - a fairly traditional and wholesome activity.

One innovation I hadn't seen before was 'sliceable' food (e.g. carrots), which could be chopped up with a wooden knife, and then stuck back together again, through the magic of simple velcro. This is a neat play feature, and also helps teach cutlery skills.

However, later on in the day, I came across another company selling wooden play furniture who were a bit different.

Millhouse is a 30-year old British company, who for starters are unusual by actually manufacturing their products themselves, in Lincolnshire (rather than China or Thailand).

Their version of the toy kitchen unit cleverly doubles up as a market stall via a blackboard on the back of the unit. They also promote it as a 'healthy eating kitchen' and supply a kit with it containing plant pots, compost pellets and seeds - everything a child needs to get started with growing things for themselves.

The stock marketing photos for the product are propped, as the sales rep was keen to point out to me, with real fruit and veg rather than toys.

Toy wooden kitchen unit with a lime green work surface, sink, hob, oven and storage shelves. Shown with a wooden crate containing fresh fruit and pots of growing cress.

The message here is simple - they think children could be learning about and engaging with real food rather than toys.

This idea struck a chord with me. Whilst working at the Science Museum, one thing the exhibition design teams were often keen to emphasise was the importance of showing real phenomena, rather than simulations. You can see this in the distinction between the Launchpad gallery (hands-on science exhibits) and the old, long closed down and much internally despised, Food For Thought gallery, which contained mock-ups (complete with toy food) of a supermarket checkout and a fast food restaurant.

However, I don't know how far this thought should go. When should a toy not be a toy? Would it be better to introduce children to real carpentry tools rather than toy ones? Or a real stethoscope instead of a toy one? I don't really know the answer to these kind of questions, but the Millhouse products did make me stop and consider the different values of toys, playing, and learning - something I wasn't really expecting at a toy fair.