Have you ever noticed how challenging it can be to figure out which toys on the market are going to be a hit with your kids, and which ones aren’t?
When my first son was born, we received as a gift a toy that was a turtle on wheels. If you pushed a button, the turtle rolled across the room and played music. It was cute, and when my son was old enough to sit up, he watched it go a couple of times, but that was it.
As I watched my 6-month old totally ignore this toy, I realized it was not a great toy for him. It was too big and bulky for him to pick up. The button on it was very sensitive, so it was easy to set the thing going when you didn’t mean to. And because the wheels were motorized, you couldn’t push it on your own. The toy did one thing and one thing only, and there was virtually no other way to play with it. Of course he was bored with it.
Susan Linn, a psychologist, ventriloquist, and author of The Case for Make Believe, would say this is exactly the kind of toy that hampers imagination. Instead of encouraging a child to play, pretend, and explore, a toy like this one tells the child what to do with it. There’s not much encouragement to use your imagination and creativity.
I think when we’re shopping for children, we often try to think about what type of toy will engage them. But that’s only half the equation. A good toy doesn’t just engage a child—it requires a child to do some of the “work.” To use her imagination, creativity, and cognitive abilities.
Linn says that kids are born with a drive to play and explore the world around them. It’s why we baby-proof the house; we know young kids are going to get into stuff. Unfortunately, Linn argues that our modern society and trends in toys are working against this innate curiosity and imaginative capability. Instead of working to develop these traits, our modern toys are actually squelching them. And the ability to use your imagination, which is important for creativity, problem solving, empathy, and a slue of other developmental areas, is one of the biggest potential casualties.
How do toys hamper imagination? Here are three big ways:
1. By tying in too much with television shows and movies
In certain stores it can be hard to find a toy that is not themed by a television show or movie. The problem with these toys is they provide pre-made characters and storylines. Kids don’t have to make up their own personalities, storylines and conflicts anymore. They fall into the trap of imitating what they saw on TV. Worse than that, they see deviating from these established characters and storylines as wrong. Batman can’t have X-ray vision, right? And the Joker can’t be a good guy, can he?
2. By doing the work for you
The Alliance for Childhood says that a good toy is “10% toy and 90% child.” The more the toy does, the less the child has to do to play with it. My son’s motorized turtle is a good example of a toy that does everything by itself instead of requiring imagination to fill in the gaps. Similarly, a doll that talks by itself doesn’t require a child to invent the dialogue.
Does your child ask, “What does it do?” when she sees a new toy? It’s not atypical. The electronic toy market is booming, from baby toys with lights and sounds to tablets for kids. But a question like this may be a sign that kids aren’t learning to rely on their own capabilities. Thus they aren’t receiving the true benefits of play.
In our house, we certainly have some of these of toys. I think they serve a purpose in the right time and place. When we’ve been in the car for several hours and the kids are cranky, I’m not afraid to pull out an iPhone or some other device to get through a rough patch. But on a day-to-day basis, I would much rather see my kids play with toys that require them to do the work, whether that’s physical or mental.
Tip: When shopping for kids, look for toys that require kids to do the work of playing, rather than letting the toys do the work.
3. By forcing or encouraging you to play in a given way
It’s the difference between a big bucket of Legos, Megablocks, or other similar building sets versus a kit with instructions designed to make one particular thing. When the toy tells you what you’re supposed to do with it, it limits the creativity and imaginative powers needed.
My kids have a remote control train set they enjoy playing with from time-to-time. The track that it comes with, however, has to be set up in one particular way. Deviate from that way, and you’re going to have loose ends you can’t connect. It’s a fine toy in other ways, but the track might as well have come as one big piece. There’s not a lot of room for creativity when it comes to building the layout.
It’s probably okay to have a few toys like this. But if all of the toys our kids play with limit their imagination and creativity, they may not develop these traits as well for later in life. It’s something to think about as we begin our holiday season shopping: to choose open-ended toys that really let them play and explore so they can get all the benefits of this precious part of childhood.