The toy catalogs that inundate our mailbox this time of year are the saddest things I've read in a long time. Perhaps I'm just getting old or maybe I haven't paid such close attention in years past. But these selections of the "best" toys of the year are downright depressing.
It's not just the cost, which seems to have jumped several brackets. ("No, Sweetie, you won't be getting that $200 Hot Wheels garage. Ever.") And it's not the technology that permeates nearly every toy option. At least not entirely.
It's mostly that these are the kinds of toys you can play with one way. Look at the cute dog that walks and barks. How long is the novelty of that one going to last? In my experience, not very long. And did you see the spiral art kit that is motorized? Just put in the markers and watch the design be created. Not exactly the hands-on, experimental art I had in mind.
But it was this one toy that really got me. A magic fairy wand for...(wait for it)...$59.99. Sure, it lights up and casts spells and "take(s) you on amazing adventures!" This is the toy that broke my imagination-loving heart.
Where are the open-ended toys? The blocks, the doll houses, the pretend play? The toys powered by imagination and limited by only that as well. Admittedly, there are plenty of LEGO sets available, mostly tied in with the new ninja movie and costing upwards of $50. And dolls, too, make an appearance - dolls that cry, dolls that eat (and poop!), even dolls that play peek-a-boo and crawl. Less visible are the dolls that just lay there, waiting for a caring little mom to bring her to life. Or the trucks that offer no sound effects or flashing lights; the trucks that are just trucks.
We know more now than at any other time in history about child development and the importance of play. And we're learning more every day. Children need lots of play, and much of it, ideally, free play (meaning they choose the rules, the materials, and the direction, within limits). We know this helps them learn about their world, try on different roles, test their decision-making skills, discover their interests and move at their own pace.
It is that last part that I believe these toys are taking away, or at least hindering. Children can't progress at their own pace when the toy does all the imagining for them. You can't stretch that imagination muscle if you don't actually have to. Hey, this doll "eats" and comes with pretend food. No need to make up things she can "eat" (like a toddler "feeding" a baby doll a block); it's already done! And that's what makes these toys boring much more quickly. It's more like adult-controlled play, where "children acquiesce to adult rules and concerns and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership, and group skills". These toys are the adult ideas of what children will like and "should" play with.
So this year, I'm determined to help take back playtime for our children. Not technology-free, perhaps, but more like technology-lite. Let's encourage pretend play and ignore the toys that don't inspire our children to imagine and grow. Who's with me?