By Ilena Di Toro

Every week since Halloween, I have received toy circulars advertising all the latest toys for good girls and boys. Unfortunately, the recent discovery of lead and other hazards in toys has parents and others looking at toys in more than just a nostalgic way. Yet, this time of year has me thinking back to simpler times, when toys were about fun and no one gave a second thought to who was making them and what materials were used.

What plaything did I like the best? No question, it was Barbie. Like many girls in the 1970s, I played with Barbie and a cache of other fashion dolls. Whether it was after school, on the weekends, during summer vacation, or as my mother was ironing or doing alterations on pants and dresses, I could be found in the basement, playing with Barbie and having loads of fun.

Being the youngest of two children in my family, I heard the word

no

a lot, as in "No, you can't do that," "No, you can't go there," and "No, because I said so!" When I played with Barbie the word

no

did not exist.

My parents didn't get me all the Barbie accessories, such as the townhouse or the Corvette, because they didn't want all that junk around. (They did get me the beach bus after repeated begging on my part.) Of course, I was disappointed when I didn't get the house and the car; still, I recovered. In fact, not having those things fueled my creativity.

There was no script to follow as I created my play scenarios. It was all about letting my imagination run free and seeing where it would take me.

My dolls traveled. They had adventures. They saved the world from many unsavory characters - all without my having to leave my basement. In grade school, my class read stories of Hawaiian mythology, such as the goddess Pele's giving fire to humans. When I went home and played with my dolls, I had them take a trip to Hawaii. They ended up liking the place so much that they decided to live there. In another play session, Barbie and and her boyfriend, Ken, were caught in a storm at sea. Quick thinking by both of them saved their lives and the experience brought them closer together.

Through playing with Barbie, I discovered the power of the human mind, particularly my mind. It didn't matter if it were raining outside or if I had a fight with a friend, when I played with Barbie, I could be as creative as I wanted and no one would say, "You can't do that."

Barbie taught me to believe in myself and my abilities. With Barbie, I was in charge. It was up to me to figure out how to get her out of a sticky situation, and I did so every time. So, my time with Barbie taught me more about being imaginative than I could ever have learned in school.

Of course, I know that her body is not representative of the world's women. In many ways, the Barbie universe of cars, homes, and clothes represents materialism at its worst. Also, what was Mattel thinking when it made the Growing Up Skipper doll that got taller and sprouted breasts when you moved her arm? All that not withstanding, today's children have lives that are programmed to the point where no time is left unstructured.

Those in the field of early childhood education believe the work of childhood is play. My childhood had unstructured time and I used that time to play with Barbie. Many would say that I should have been involved in a sport or some other after-school activity. In sports, you score points and get some physical activity. In an after-school activity, you have to do what the adult in charge tells you to do. With Barbie, I had space to do what I wanted in a way that no other activity would have given me.

If spending unstructured playtime with an 11½ inch fashion doll did that for me, just think of the good that would come if today's children were allowed more unstructured time.

Ilena Di Toro lives and writes in Philadelphia.