Zen and the Art of Toy Assembly

That grinding sound you hear is my teeth, and that loud crash you just heard was me throwing a toy against the way.

You see, I’ve been trying to put things together. Many things. It comes with the job of toy reviews, but having assembled dozens of toys in the last few weeks, I can say with certainty that instructions are getting worse and worse.

My first job in the toy industry was writing instructions, and it was a painstaking, time-consuming process that required extensive testing to make sure we got it right, and that the process was almost foolproof.

I had several mantras, “Read the instructions through before starting.” “Don’t just try to make it look like the box.” “Those pieces are in there for a reason.” This last was particularly true of things like spring horses and swing sets that kids would get physical on.

No such care seems to go into many of the recent toys I’ve put together. (Now we can discount construction sets where the point is to put it together.) I’m thinking of games, play sets, and other things that your kids can’t use until Tab A is completely in Slot X, and the batteries are installed correctly.

Nor is the toy industry alone in this. Have you bought electronics lately? Aside from a quick start guide, anything else you need to know you have to download. Now, that’s fine if you have, say, a tiny digital camera on the desk next to your computer. It’s another thing altogether, if you’ve got a large dollhouse that you don’t want to carry around—and a kid who’s saying, “Is it done yet?”

And good luck calling customer service. Tried that with a recent toy that was baffling me too. Here’s what I heard: “I’m sorry, can you call back? I’m not familiar with that toy, and I’m the only one here.”

Or, how about this one: A box with about 6 different slips of paper with diverse instructions, the last one telling you to go online to get the updated instructions. No wonder my teeth are wearing down. And I do this nearly every day.


Nothing can induce buyers’ remorse as quickly as frustration with a product, and why manufacturers don’t get this is beyond me. But they have consistently shortened their instructions or relied exclusively on pictures so that the instructions they do print can be used internationally.

So, what can you do?

Well, a little zen goes a long way. Turns out in most cases, if you can make it look like the picture, you’re doing pretty well. Examine things that snap together because many once snapped can’t be undone without breaking the toy.

But even with instructions that could be better, a few of the classic rules still apply:

  1. Don’t wait till after midnight on the night before a holiday or a birthday to start putting things together.
  2. Give yourself much more time than you think you’ll need.
  3. Check to see all parts are there before you start assembling.
  4. Put on labels last.

Oh, and check where you’re doing the work. My father once started putting together a spring horse—after midnight on Christmas—in the basement. It was an involved process, but he finally got it done…only to find out that the assembled horse wouldn’t fit through the door at the top of the stairs.

That was a long, long time ago, and we’re still laughing about it.

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