If you want to reduce serious adults to silly smiles, ask about their favorite childhood toy - the one they held onto for years, or perhaps still have. Some toys live long beyond the days of boyhood and girlhood.
Who says that toys are just kid stuff? When mountains of gifts are opened tomorrow in homes across the US, their young owners may discover that they've been given passports to a world beyond any they've known. The toys they unwrap may transport them to distant stars and faraway countries, to a land of fantasies and imagination, where they get to be astronauts, parents, and kings or queens.
What the young recipients might not realize until much later, though, is how much of an impact those toys could have on their adult lives.
Some playthings nurture, instill creativity, or make tough times easier for a child. But the best toys open the doors to the future by fostering deep-seated interests and talents - and their effects can last for a lifetime.
Just ask Caryn Amster. When she was barely tall enough to be seen behind the cash register, Ms. Amster helped out in her parents' Wee Folks toy store on 79th Street in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood.
Over the years she has seen, time and time again, how profoundly a toy can change a child's life.
In fact, she is so convinced of the power of child-toy ties that she is writing a book about her parents' store and the toy memories of some of its former customers.
She recalls two boys who often visited the store and grew up to be engineers.
"Did their meticulousness come first," Amster wonders, "or did they learn to be meticulous by building these very intricate 450-piece boats, the battleships and sailing ships that came in huge boxes?"
No one can say for sure what the connection is, but it's generally agreed that the how isn't that important. The outcome is what matters, and for generation after generation, toys have taught important lessons.
One of the earliest lessons may be that the world, while a big and strange place, can also be soft and inviting.
Toys allow children to nurture and feel nurtured, according to Dolph Gotelli, who teaches environmental design at the University of California, Davis. That's why Professor Gotelli gives teddy bears to the infant children of friends. Those bears provide a warm welcome to the world for their young owners, and the comfort they offer can stay with children for years.
Stewart Goodbody, a professional woman in New York, knows this firsthand. Ms. Goodbody received a Velveteen Rabbit on her first birthday and still has it. "Having my stuffed animal for 24 years has been a great source of comfort for me," she says.
Some children, growing up in turbulent times, find solace and understanding in a particular toy. Weeble Wobbles are a good example. Created in 1969, the egg-shaped plastic people may have looked kooky, but their family ties and counterweighted bodies gave them a lovable quality.
"Weeble Wobbles were absolutely wonderful," says Rebecca Laurie, a media relations specialist at the University of Denver. "It is the only toy set that I can think of in the late 1970s and early '80s - during a time of mass divorce and the liquidation of the nuclear family - that seemed to promote family and togetherness.
"The Weebles weren't perfect. They rolled around if you tipped them over and had two-dimensional faces, almost as if they were clumsy," she says. But they allowed children to play house and deal with real-life issues while also "being injected into a fantasy world."
Fantasy worlds, whatever form they take, aren't just fun for children, they are valuable training grounds, say experts. They give children a chance to try on new situations and develop their values in enjoyable, low-pressure ways.
Take, for example, the Lionel electric train that Richard Culver of Salisbury, Mass., received the year he was 6.
The toy didn't cause him to grow up to work for a railroad, but it did have a lasting effect on his life in ways he couldn't have imagined.
It might be expected that it would instill a lifelong romance with rail travel, and that's true. He takes Amtrak whenever he can, sitting in the back of the train so he can envision a red caboose like those that intrigued him as a boy.
But it was the village he created inside the tracks of his toy train that impressed him the most - and continues to influence where he lives as an adult.
"The village fascinated me - it would change each year in some way," Mr. Culver says. "It was nothing special, just decorated cardboard houses with cellophane windows, bottle-brush trees, and the essential mirror lake with skaters, all on cotton batting."
Still, simple as it was, "it formed my vision of what a town should be," he says. "I've never been a suburbs guy. The New England village is still my ideal of the American community."
Toys such as Culver's train are important in children's lives because they encourage them to draw on their imagination and creativity, says Gotelli. In many cases, he adds, such playthings reflect a desire to mimic the adult world.
When Whit Alexander was growing up at the height of the space race, he dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Playing with his Major Matt Robinson action figure, he created elaborate space adventures, using the household pets as "designated aliens."
His wish to be a space traveler didn't come true. The Seattle resident instead worked for Microsoft and became cocreator of Cranium, a well-known board game. But he does see the toy astronaut's lingering influence on his life. "I recently took up flying lessons, and that sort of brings the dream of flight a little closer to reality," he says.
Gotelli also created living-room "productions" when he was a boy. In his case, the main character was a Howdy Doody marionette, which now hangs on his studio wall. Today, he teaches a class called "Fantasy, Imagination, and Creativity," and often uses toys from his collection in class discussions. He laments the rise of computerized toys and the demise of those that tap a child's imagination.
But Gotelli would wholeheartedly approve of a gift like the one Kurt Praschak of Pompton Plains, N.J., received as a child. Most of his boyhood toys have long since vanished, but Mr. Praschak continues to hold onto several hundred toy dinosaurs, many of which were purchased for him by his grandfather.
Through playing with these plastic miniature dinosaurs, Praschak developed a fascination with fossils, and he has passed it - and the toys - along to his 7-year-old son, Derek.
When Praschak was a boy, he felt that the toy figures represented power, excitement, and mystery. "Let's face it," he says, "most kids love dinosaurs."
Even today, he glues himself to the TV to watch Discovery Channel specials on the prehistoric themes and devours news reports about major new fossil finds. "I suppose it all traces back to that old box of dinos," he says.
Beyond fueling his continuing interest in prehistoric life, he sees the miniature dinosaurs connecting four generations of males in his family. When his son is playing with the toys, he's "connecting in some way with a great-grandfather he never met," Praschak says. "I sit in my living room and watch him having an absolutely great time with the very same toys that captivated me decades before. It's almost like being able to open a door on the past and revisit my childhood."
For some children, however, a toy doesn't just foster an interest, it sets them on their future career path.
Tom Holland of Calabasas, Calif., can attribute not just one but two careers to toys he received as a boy. A 1964 Sears 8-mm moviemaking kit led to his becoming a television producer. But the nostalgia for a number of toys from his youth also caused him to form Windmill Press, which reprints pages from Sears and Montgomery Ward toy catalogs from the 1950s to 1980s. These are filled with nostalgia-inducing photos of such classics as Betsy Wetsy dolls, light sabers, Twister, and a tea set made from real china.
Toys "help us explore new things and shape our personalities," Mr. Holland says.
Cynthia McKay of Castle Rock, Colo., loved Monopoly growing up, but was always struck by how some players ended up penniless at the end of the game. As a result, "I decided to attend law school, hoping to work as a pro bono or consumer lawyer, representing the 'underdog,' " she says.
"With my legal background I began a corporation to assist individuals and would-be entrepreneurs hoping to make their mark in life. I finance them with no interest and watch their motivation grow into a viable living."
Monopoly also made a difference in the life and career of Phil Orbanes of Danvers, Mass. He worked for Parker Brothers for 12 years - serving as chief judge of the US and world championship tournaments during that time - and is currently writing a history of the company. He now owns a classic games company.
Everyone can learn life lessons from Monopoly, he says - especially how to compromise and negotiate. "A player who is obnoxious or a bully or browbeater gets shut out of trades," he notes. "But the best players handle things with such finesse.... As a result, if you lose to them, you feel like you've lost to a worthy opponent."
There are perhaps as many lessons as there are toys, but in some cases children have learned about the ways of the world from the playthings they did not receive. This was especially true for the girls in past decades who asked for toys they didn't get.
Instead of chemistry sets and telescopes (often thought of as most suitable for boys), they were given dolls, carriages, and Easy Bake Ovens.
Ann Hatch of Texas, who grew up in the late 1950s and early '60s, agrees that toys reserved for boys had an impact on young girls that was every bit as great as the Barbie dolls so many owned.
"I've always loved space and science fiction, but girls just didn't get spaceships and ray guns and other cool stuff like the boys did," she says. "So when I had a son many years later, and Star Wars was at its peak, I relived my childhood through my son's space toys, movies, and Princess Leia."
Sharon Hussey of New York City is one of many female baby boomers who, because they received only "girl toys," reserve their fondest childhood memories for gifts given to their brothers or male friends.
"I loved playing with my brother's Erector set and chemistry set," says Ms. Hussey. "I was more interested than he was in those things, but those were considered boy things, and although my parents didn't discourage me, they didn't think to get me my own."
Today, this experience factors into her job as a senior vice president with Girl Scouts of the USA. "My work," she says, "is focused on making sure that girls feel valued and empowered and that their sense of curiosity and adventure is not constricted by gender."
As the tomboy daughter of toy-store owners, Amster didn't have to wait for a brother or male friend to get the toy she wanted. She had the pick of any product in her parents' business. One of her favorites, she recalls, was a pair of Fanner 50 toy revolvers, which allowed her to play shoot-'em-up games with the boys in the neighborhood. With her toy gun, she could be "one of the guys."
But somehow the division between toys most suitable for girls and for boys didn't necessarily extend to wheeled vehicles. Women today, therefore, are as apt to remember a favorite bike as men are.
Ms. Hussey viewed her bike as a surrogate horse when she was growing up in Brooklyn: "I remember the feeling of both adventure and self-sufficiency that came with being able to get around on one's own."
Bicycles weren't the only vehicles competing for girls' affections. Big Wheels - those funky, low-slung tricycles - were also a big hit. Not the least bit sedate - as most traditional "girls' toys" could be - plastic Big Wheels practically screamed speed and excitement.
Liza Gutierrez-O'Neill of Boca Raton, Fla., was one of the few girls on her street who owned a Big Wheel, and she recalls relishing the daredevil instincts it brought out in her.
Heather Wilkins of West Hollywood, Calif., took part in Big Wheels competitions against friends for the best "skid out - the longest black mark on our parents' driveway." As an adult, she often recalls those experiences, since she handles public relations for Razor Scream Machines, the stylishly revamped "Big Wheels" of today.
Ms. Wilkins wants another generation to experience the same sense of excitement and delight that she did when riding on her Big Wheel - feelings that come from a toy that allows children to dream big and expand their horizons while having a good time.
And that, say experts, is what the best toys are all about. They open up a world of fun, a world of possibilities. That's why just the mention of them has the power to make adults smile, even decades later.