Friday, February 12, 2016

Have Toys Changed?

I am reading and reflecting on the book The Power of Play by David Elkind.

Chapter 2 - Toys Aren't Us

Have you ever heard or read something and thought that it was the answer to a question you didn’t even know you had? That’s what I felt when I finished Chapter 2.

In this chapter, David Elkind examines how toys and the culture around toys has changed – and the impact that those changes have on the social benefits of toys on children. Here are some highlights of this chapter for me.

Toys are an important way kids nurture their imaginations and fantasy play. But the relationship between kids and toys have changed. All kids today, regardless of socio-economic level, have more toys than kids had in the past. This abundance of toys means kids value individual toys less and spend less time interacting with specific toys. Because kids are spending less time with toys, they have less time and expend less effort in creating fantasy and imagination.

Toys are less special for kids. In the past, toys were given as special occasion presents; toys were selected specifically for a child’s interests or talents. Now toys are given all the time; they can be purchased anywhere; and they are often fad toys or toys that are already attached to a specific “storyline” from a movie, book, show, or game.

The growth of electronic toys and branded toys have also impacted the imagination and fantasy use. Toys are part of a marketing campaign rather than tools for imagination. “Childhood has become commercialized as children are viewed as a niche market,” David Elkind writes. And later, he says, “What sells takes precedence over what might be good for children.”

There is a lot in this chapter. I really was interested in his comparison of toys in the early 20th century and today. But mostly I really resonated with his discussion of how “children in the twenty-first century have been transformed from net producers of their own toy and play culture to net consumers of a play culture imposed by adults.”

No wonder I sometimes feel like I’m out of step with the times. My classroom has blocks and plastic dishes, paint and paper. Most of the things in my classroom don’t do anything without the kids themselves. I do have a couple of “appliances” that require batteries…but we use our imaginations instead of those batteries to use them.

Sometimes when kids come into my classroom for the first time, they ask “What do we do here?” They sometimes struggle with making their own choices or moving around the room with little or no guidance. But after a few times in the space, they figure it out.

I love to see the ways kids use materials. Often they think of ways I’d never think of myself. Sometimes together we create an idea that was beyond either of us alone. I think this is what it’s all about.

David Elkind related a story about a counselor in an elementary school. She used the word imagination as she was talking to some first graders. They didn’t know what she meant. She explained but they still didn’t understand. She told about pretending to be someone else; the kids said they didn’t know how to do that.

Whew! I hope I’m never contributing to kids not knowing how to imagine.


  1. Wow! I was told a story by a parent whose teacher used the word imagination and the kids did not know what it meant. They went home and asked, "What is imagination?" It would seem even after trying to explain it to them they still did not know. They had heard the use in the classroom in the context of being told that they had no imagination. I have seen kids in my preschool classroom sometimes come in not knowing how to pretend play, but they definitely catch on quickly. The other day I had a 4 year old close her eyes and put her fingers to her head and say, "I am imagining that I am a princess" over and over again. I think she thought if she said it enough it would become true.

  2. Keep building those imaginations! Pretend play is great.