Imagine That

‘What does it do?’

A group of friends and I were volunteering recently, and a mom with her young son in tow came to join us. Mom had dutifully purchased a Lego Star Wars kit for her son to keep him occupied while she worked with the other adults. Fifteen minutes into the project, the boy lost a very important piece and he could no longer make it look like the picture on the box. They went home early.

Increasingly, makers of some of the best toys for creative play are offering “kit” versions, such as the Lego Star Wars kit or Play Doh kits, to name just two. The kits employ the use of the classic toy in a very specific and prescribed manner. They are often tied to a media program or fast-food restaurant as well. Too often, the kind of play offered by such kits is limited. You can only make so many Play Doh French fries before it gets boring and, as in the case of that little boy, if you lose a part, the possibilities in the toy are greatly diminished.

Mike Mann

Toys created from media programs come with built in stories so children do not have to create their own.

A local preschool teacher shared a story with me about a three-year-old girl who brought her new teddy bear to school one day. Her classmate picked it up and squeezed its hands and squeezed its tummy and then turned to the teddy bear’s owner and asked, “What does it do?”

Toys created from media programs come with built in stories so children do not have to create their own. Children tend to play longer with toys not linked to a media script. A Cookie Monster puppet is always a Cookie Monster puppet; it seldom becomes something else. Tickle Me Elmo has his set script; once a child has heard it a few hundred times, it is done. Children derive little benefit from pushing a button. Such toys and the myriad others like them calling for our attention from the toy shelves tend to limit, not expand, a child’s free-form play.

“The opposite of play is depression.”

Play and public life

The science around the importance of play can be found in the work of the National Institute for Play. Founded by Dr. Stuart L. Brown, who first discovered the importance of play by discerning its absence in a carefully studied group of dysfunctional adults, the Institute for Play’s mission is “to bring the unrealized knowledge, practice, and benefits of play into public life.”

Brown states that from earliest infancy, play is the primary way children learn. “Through play, children eagerly use all the ‘tools’ they have at their disposal — their bodies, their relationships with their family and peers, and the world around them.” Play, more than any other activity, develops a child’s human talents and character. Dr. Brown adds, “The opposite of play is depression.”

When we search for toys that can enhance this primary way that our children develop, we should keep a few things in mind:

1. A good toy is 90 percent child and 10 percent toy.

2. Be sure your child has access to “true toys,” like blocks, dolls, and puppets, which stimulate imagination, rather than objects that require more passive participation from children like pushing a button or pulling a string.

3. Include the classic versions of Legos and Play Doh. Nothing says “possibility” like a bin of Legos or lump of Play Doh that can become anything your child chooses.

4. Be wary of advertising claims about products and toys that intend to help produce “super-children.”

5. Understand that, if you pay attention as your child plays with good toys, they will often reveal keys to their innate talents.

Remember: A good toy lies there until a child picks it up and transforms it into something. Imagine that!

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