As the mom of two little boys and the designer and manufacturer of a line of games, toys and parenting tools I have a unique perspective on children’s toys, games, and products. I also have attended Toy Fair every year in New York where all of the new toys are introduced to the trade before they hit the stores.
I am pro toy. I love creative board games, building blocks, puppets, books, puzzles, science projects, sports equipment and crafts. I seek toys, products and games that engage, challenge, educate, encourage movement and that are fun. I especially love toys that encourage family time. And am thrilled when a birthday invitation arrives and I get to take my kids to a toy store to buy a gift.
Unlike the average lay person who strolls the toy aisles with casual interest, I painstakingly study each shelf, taking detailed notes about the designs, age appropriateness, quality of packaging, attention to detail, and overall toy concept. “What is the mark up on this item?” “Did the manufacturer have an inspector in the manufacturing plant assuring the use of safe products?” “How much damage is this wasteful packaging going to do to the planet in my child’s lifetime?” “What kind of a hit is this toy maker going to take when smart and thoughtful moms and dads say, ‘No Way!’ to this doll that looks like a prostitute?”
I ask myself questions with my mom hat on, “Would a child lose interest after 15 minutes and leave this toy discarded on the family room floor?” and “How many pieces will get sucked up in the vacuum, roll under the couch, get eaten by the dog, or get flushed down the potty while dinner is being prepared?…Will it be fun for mom and dad to play too?”
I make it a point to get children’s perspectives on toys. I teach Tae Kwon Do to a wide age range of children and interrogate them after class about their varying interests. I volunteer in my six year old child’s classroom very often and have in-depth discussions with the children about what they enjoy doing and playing with and I get down on the floor and play with my three year old and his friends and watch them delight over things that roll.
A recurring theme repeats itself over and over to me, “Will you play with me?” “Watch me do this!” “Mom, check this out, check this out!” “Do you want me to make one for you?” “I am going to dress up as a pirate; can you dress up as Wonder Woman!” The resounding theme is: be with me, play with me, connect with me, and share yourself with me!
As I hear the welcoming and joyful invitations to play from the many kids I have the honor and privilege of being around, I can’t believe the rotten choices we are given in retail stores for juvenile products.
Of all the choices, I find video games to be the most rotten and scary. Children are begging us to give them our time and attention, and we are handing them insipid tech toys that isolate them from us, their siblings and their peers. As if it weren’t bad enough to immobilize a child in front of the television or computer at home for hour after hour, manufacturers have scaled the units down so that kids can play video games in the car, instead of speaking with us; play video games on the playground, instead of hanging on the monkey bars; and even play video games at the dinner table, instead of eating with the family.
Video games, computer games, DVD players and ipods discourage face to face interaction, requiring the user to stare sedately at a screen, or tune people out with earphones. These devices also discourage creativity, imagination and activity. We have all heard the frightening reports of increasing childhood obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes; however we continue to offer toy choices that limit mobility.
There isn’t a lack of creative toy design. There are many wildly clever toy designers that figure ingenuity, originality and inventiveness into their products. The problem is lack of interest from the masses. Small toy stores that once offered interesting choices have been pushed out by the enormous box stores that, due to their large size, can offer toys at lower prices. The risk is too high for most independent manufacturers to sell to the box stores. For instance, if a box store orders a huge amount, 100,000 units perhaps, and those units don’t sell, the small manufacturer is often required to buy back the inventory, and can be bankrupted with one terrible phone call. The result: kids get slim pickings. Video games sell, so stores offer more and more video games.
With envy, I have watched children burst out of classrooms into the sunlight and run screaming onto the playground desperate to blow off their pent up energy. I try to remember what it feels like to want to run until I fall down. It has been my pleasure to work side by side with kids for hours as they enthusiastically learn how to tie dye t-shirts, make soap, knead dough, construct cities with blocks, and kick or punch through boards. I marvel at their creative energy, their willingness to take on new things, and their social ease and intelligence. After years of teaching kids, I have never had a single child say to me, “I think that instead of cracking these eggs into this cake batter we are making together, I would rather play a video game, alone, in my room.”
After watching kids playing merrily on the playground or grinning from ear to ear as they run all day on a beach, how could any parent opt to instead sit their children in front of a television for hours of passive, inactive, button pushing. If I were a kid and I knew everything that I know now, I would revolt.
I guess it is our job, as caring, loving parents, to revolt for them.
Let’s stand up for our children’s right to actively experience childhood, and stop handing them devices that discourage running, jumping, imagining, reading, growing, learning, and moving? Let’s encourage face to face interaction and give our kids the attention that they need and crave and that we promised them the first time we held them. Let’s limit the amount of video monitors that we expose our children to, in favor of games, toys and crafts that appeal to their energized, smart, clever and funny nature. Let’s choose to put down what we are doing in favor of being with our kids. There will be plenty of time to do what we want when we blink and our kids are grown.