Paul Dixon knows something about having fun. He's been in the toy business since 1994 as a toy buyer for Target, and a salesperson for the Walt Disney Co. and Hopkins-based Animal Adventure. He has also worked with his cousin, author Lehman Riley, to publish a series of children's books featuring their grandfather helping youth learn about history. Adults these days, Dixon believes, have forgotten how to have the kind of fun they had as children. So he has been encouraging people — on a TEDx talk and a guest spot on a CNN podcast episode about play — to find a version of their favorite childhood toy, play with it, and see what happens. We asked him to explain how adults can benefit from revisiting toys.
Q: How did you develop the concept of adults playing with favorite childhood toys?
A: One day five years ago, I was just sitting around and the idea came to me. OK, I've been in the toy business for a while. So what was my favorite toy? My electric football set came to mind and I thought, what if I buy this toy and actually play with it for 30 days and see what happens?
Q: So, what happened?
A: The personal benefits that I gained, sitting around on the floor playing with this football set for 5 to 10 minutes for 30 days, was the connection to how much I enjoyed that game when I was a child. It's kind of like with music. Sometimes a person can hear a song from 20, 30, 40 years ago, and instantly go back to that state of mind based on the song. I think there's a similar connection with toys.
Q: When kids play with toys, they tend to do things like whirl them around, pretending the action figure is alive or that someone's driving the toy car. Should adults try to play with toys the same way a kid would? I think of kids as being better at pretending that kind of thing.
A: It's more open-ended. Everybody's different. You may sit there with the toy and just look at it. You might have amazing memories come up. For some people, maybe there's going to be no effect. For other people, it's going to be the most important thing that has ever happened to them. When we're kids, one of the primary things that resonates in our mind is like, how can I have more fun? Just think how excited most children get during the holiday season or at birthdays when they open up a present. So as an adult, do you ever get that excited about anything?
Q: Maybe we just feel too busy to set aside time for fun?
A: If you look at our lives nowadays, things have gotten a lot more hectic — this was even before COVID — and I don't believe people spend enough time by themselves, or just reflecting. Toys have this amazing effect on children. Sometimes adults can't understand why they have that effect because they've forgotten. Yet at one point in time, they were children and those toys had that effect on them also. It's really about making time for yourself to go back to your childhood and see what happens.
Q: Is playing with physical toys more beneficial than playing with a video game or onscreen activity?
A: I personally feel that there's nothing wrong with onscreen — that's kind of the way we live life nowadays — but I truly believe that there's something about touching and feeling, that tactile experience.
Q: How did your career help you develop this appreciation for fun and toys?
A: There aren't many African American males in the toy and kids' book industry. Being in that world has made me stand out to a certain degree. I'm kind of outside the norm. The thing about it is, you can always have fun conversations with people. They'll say, 'Oh, my gosh, it must have been fun.' And for me it has been fun. But trust me, there are people who take it too seriously. And if you're working for a company, you have to make your numbers and so forth and so on. But I've had a blast being in the toy and kids' book industry. Yes, there have been challenging times, but I've always had fun.
Q: If your idea catches on with enough people, what do you see happening in practice?
A: I was talking to a friend yesterday and she suggested that corporations could use my idea in team-building sessions. They could have people bring in their favorite toys and say, "We're going to play with it and we're going to talk about it." I'm hoping that if someone takes this seriously, it will lead to gaining better understanding of what they enjoy in life.
Q: So, do you think this could catch on and become a trend?
A: My suggestion here may not resonate with this person or that person. But maybe a couple of people will go, "Wow, I never thought of that." You don't have to have everybody jump in. You can just have a teeny-tiny percentage, and I think that small [group] can actually cause changes and shifts within society.