According to experts, one of the biggest threats to American children today is their increasingly inability to play. And one need look no further than Santa’s shopping list to understand why.
A major retailer recently posted its list of Top Toys for Christmas 2013.
Perhaps not surprisingly, 18 of the top 20 toys on the list are based on popular children’s television show or movies, or are electronic video games, leading many parents to question whether their offspring are “kids” or “consumers.”
Considering that many of the toys kids will open Christmas morning will be long forgotten by the time Easter rolls around, many parents are questioning the value of their toy investments—not based on the ratio of playtime to dollars spent, but on the value of the playtime itself.
“As a child psychologist I am an adamant supporter of play,” said Dr. Michelle Forrester, a Houston-based child development specialist. “We use play therapy with children because play is the natural language of children, it is how they best express themselves.”
According to Washington Post Education Editor Valerie Strauss, “Researchers who have tracked children’s creativity for 50 years are seeing a significant decrease in creativity among children for the first time, especially younger children from kindergarten through sixth grade. This decline in creativity is thought to be due at least in part to the decline of play.”
In reality, toys today come with the play included: the child need not imagine a story for toys based on movies and TV because the characters and story line have been created for them, and electronic “learning” games teach memorization, but not the “why” behind the “what.” Astonishingly, 72 percent of iTunes’ top-selling education apps are for preschoolers and elementary school children.
“Most contemporary educational toys are created for preschool children, fueled by a widespread belief that education is a race and the earlier you start the better,” writes essayist, parent and toy store owner Peter Emmenegger. “Parents are encouraged to buy such toys to give their children an educational edge, and there is a subtle message that parents who do not buy these educational toys for their children are really not doing a good job as parents.”
Experts agree that keeping the “child” in childhood is paramount to developing a healthy brain and developing the learning and social skills that help a child grow into a healthy adult.
“We know that the brain develops sequentially and that brain growth and development are governed by experience, which also dictates neural wiring,” said Forrester. “We also know that the central nervous system is a self-organizing and dynamic system that develops in direct response to experience. It would therefore stand to reason that giving children toys and materials that allow them to express themselves is better than giving them toys that are created to perform a certain task in a certain manner or that has severe limitations on how it can be used.”
To support parents in promoting play, some retailers and toy makers have gone back to the basics.
Hayneedle, an online retailer based in Omaha, Nebraska, a few years ago began promoting a line of toys known as the Classic Play Collection through its flagship Website, hayneedle.com. Consisting largely of building blocks, rocking horses, dolls and dollhouses and other “retro” toys, Hayneedle reports its Classic Play Collection has become increasingly popular in recent years.
“We think it’s important for kids to be kids and created the Classic Play Collection to support parents who want their kids to learn using their senses and imaginations in a self-directed way,” said Rebecca Gray, Vice President, Merchandising, Hayneedle. “The feel of natural materials and the ability to make up their own games as they play prepares children to learn and grow.”
Gray reports the Hayneedle’s Classic Play Collection consistently receives high marks in the comments sections of the products’ pages.
As the holiday barrage continues, parents will continue to be outgunned by the seemingly endless stream of commercials, in-store displays promoting entertainment-based toys. And the temptation to jump-start the learning process that will someday beget SAT scores worthy of the Ivy League will keep sales of educational games rolling.
In the meantime, whether it’s nostalgia or a belief in the magic of a child’s imagination, Emmenegger offers the following advice to parents this holiday season: “A good toy should be 10 percent toy and 90 percent kid.”
Hayneedle’s Classic Playtime Collection
Playtime doesn’t require batteries or a screen, and providing kids with a place to grow and learn doesn’t require sacrificing your home’s integrity. Classic Playtime is devoted to the idea that, given constructive ways to explore their world and themselves, children blossom in their own gardens.
Highlights of the Collection Include:
This adorable kitchen gives toddlers everything they need to cook up a delicious feast for the whole family. It’s a sturdy play kitchen with the metal accessories and pretend food all together in one package. The 11-piece kitchen set features refrigerator, microwave, and oven doors that open and close, and pan, pot, lid, frying pan, spatula, ladle, spoon, carrot, two vegetables and a fried egg.
EASELS set a child’s imagination free. Three of Hayneedle’s most popular easels feature a magnetic chalkboard on one side and a white dry erase board on the other. The top of each easel holds a large roll of paper that can be unfurled for painting.
Guidecraft Building Blocks
Guidecraft was founded in 1964 in a small woodshop, producing 10 items. Today, Guidecraft’s line includes over 160 educational toys and furnishings. The remains true to their original mission: create smart, beautifully crafted wood products that allow children’s minds and imaginations room to wonder and grow.
Dream Dollhouses from KidKraft
Little girls’ eyes will fill with delight when they see this adorable dollhouse. Its large size lets her use 12-inch dolls to play pretend, and it has three levels and multiple rooms for play. This pink house with purple accents blends into a princess room or a bedroom with a feminine design, and the set comes with ten pieces of furniture that she can mix and match with other pieces to decorate the house for her favorite fashion dolls.
Take your child’s play time to the next level with this modern, mansion-style dollhouse. The dollhouse has three stories, a contemporary design, and a wide selection of furniture that encourages imaginative play. The house lights up and plays music with the push of a button. It includes a variety of living spaces and is compatible with most standard-size dolls.
These Horses from Charm Company Really Rock!
Charm Company is the nation’s leader in battery powered and motion toys. Their standards of quality in terms of safety and performance are second to none and its special relationship with its customers proves it. The high-end, catalog, and department store toy market has consistently made Charm Company a success, and now their themed products can be seen in hotels, theme parks and gift shops all over the nation.
Life on the range just got a whole lot better for your little cowboy or cowgirl, thanks to Charm Blonde Rocking Horse with Movement and Sounds. This plush rocking horse makes realistic galloping and neighing noises when you press his ear for a playtime experience that’s almost as good as the real thing. Kids will also love watching his mouth move and his tail flick to the sounds he makes. This adorable rocking horse features a leather-like saddle and reins and a fun red bandana around his neck.
A good horse is key to any little ranch hand’s success, and the Charm Pinto Rocking Horse with Movement and Sounds is definitely a fine specimen. This plush rocking horse features a white and chocolate body with a soft brown mane and tail. Press his ear to listen to him gallop and whinny. Best of all, his mouth moves and his tail flicks along with the sounds. He sits on a wood rocking base in a natural finish and features a leather-like saddle and reins. A bandanna gives him the finishing touch.