Are children whose parents shop primarily at big-box stores and mass-market retailers cut off from the toys most clearly designed to promote creativity and learning?

In a Big City column, Ginia Bellafante explores the question of “toy deserts” – areas where “the least-privileged children are choked off from the recreations most explicitly geared toward creativity and achievement.”

Toys that are top sellers in independent toy stores, like Magna-Tiles, a geometrically shaped set of magnetic tiles for building, aren’t even available at Toys “R” Us et al, nor are the games and puzzles of Fat Brain Toys or many similar smaller, hand-developed products.

Shop only at major retailers, and those are items that will never make it into your cart or the hands of your children.

Different segments of our society are being pitched different toys.

Does that matter at all? When we talk about toys, we tend to talk as much about the “message” of certain playthings as we do about the play (thus the debate over marketing forces that color everything from balls to building blocks pink and blue). The focused, learning-centric toys that are absent from the big-box stores may “signal to a child a parental investment in ambition and accomplishment, in active absorption over passive observation.”

But do they signal to the child that it’s time to pick them up and play?

The smaller toys available in the independent toy stores offer parental novelty, and sometimes superior materials, but much of what’s achieved mass-market appeal has done so for a reason, and it’s not always related to commercial tie-ins or powerhouse marketing.

Among the Amazon best-sellers this year are the Perplexus and Spot It (not to mention the Lego Ultimate Building Set, a boon to all those who said, of the Lego sets we’ve discussed so much of late, why not just buy the basic kit and be done with it?).

The Toys “R” Us best-seller list includes a Little Tykes Basketball hoop, a train table and the Game of Life. Walmart’s shopping site names a Crayola Creativity Station as a top seller.

We’ve owned Magna-Tiles. Although they saw some playtime in the first year after their holiday arrival, in this year’s big playroom garage sale clean-out, they were among the first things the children chose to go.

Every single other thing I’ve listed here, from Spot It to the train table to the crayons (although not a “creativity station”) remains, and probably will for some time to come.

Maybe some toys fail to make that leap to mega-big-box success, not because many parents don’t know that play is a major component of learning, but because they’re just not that much fun to begin with.

Not every toy in the big stores offers a whole lot of bang for the buck, but there are plenty of failures to be found in the smaller stores, too.

There are a lot of reasons that children whose parents do most of their shopping in big-box stores may differ from children whose parents favor small, independent retailers.

I’m unconvinced that any of them have much to do with the difference in the toys that tempt those parents to buy. You?

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com