In praise of doodling robots

During a quick trip to Munich this week, I had a few spare minutes at the airport waiting for the return flight and was reminded of a familiar quote that’s been used on the blog here many times: “We are what we celebrate”.

Like most parents, I feel an instinctive obligation to come back from any trip bearing gifts for my daughter, so I naturally found myself looking around for a toy store expecting the usual garbage.  While Munich’s airport is clearly similar to any other European airport — booth after booth of Hermes, Cartier, Montblanc, Dior, Channel, and several really bad ties with metro maps on them — I was pleasantly surprised when I came across a guilt-ridden-parent-trap kid’s toy store.  Rather than the usual garbage (the 57th Barbie that will end up in a box under the bed and row upon row of candy at 5x the normal price because they have some Disney/Pixar character emblazonned on them), I was surprised to find … wait for it … an entire store with fun science, engineering and DIY type kits for kids and interesting mechanical doo-dads!  Most of them are things I’ve seen on the web, but I think there’s a certain statement to be made that they can fill a store in the middle of a reasonable-sized airport with “science” stuff and stay in business.  What surprised me even more?  It wasn’t just one store, but the same type of science-oriented kits and toys were omnipresent in every store I looked in that had a kid’s section.  I can’t imagine the same in most other European countries, and here in Paris (not exactly a small city) there are only a handful of kid’s stores that dedicate a meaningful section of their space to science-type stuff (rarely more than 10-15% of the total surface area).  Germany, like any other country, clearly has it’s own political and social problems and isn’t perfect … but when you look at the hefty export surplus in Germany, and see stores like this you can’t help but draw a connection however naive or superficial.

What’s better?  The interest in science extends all the way down to the instruction manuals in some of the toys.  I picked up a small robot that you attach some markers to and it draws patterns on paper depending on how you orient the markers, etc.  Nothing complex (it just uses a cheap DC motor and vibrates on three adjustable “arms”), but the instructions make you want to love the company even if it’s just a bunch of cheap plastic parts.  (It helps of course that the toy company is named “4M Industrial Development Limited“)  After the initial instructions on assembling the device, they also take the time to tell you how it works, and some fun facts related to those same principles.  While 4M is based in Hong Kong and isn’t German, it still speaks volumes that you can find shelves in an airport stocked with dozens of small, inexpensive educational kits like this.

Good on the Germans, and good on the people at 4M for turning an otherwise boring hour at an airport into an interesting opportunity to ask what we celebrate in our own countries, regions and social circles.

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