Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Toys: Technology vs. Traditional

It has struck me of late that the toy market is changing. In the mainstream of public consciousness it has been quietly suggested that for the discerning kindergarten attendee the traditional toy is no longer enough. There is a growing trend that sees the likes of toy soldiers, dolls and model cars being left in an ever-increasingly dust covered toy chest, as the technology market becomes desirable to those still not having reached an age worthy of double figures. Yes, were talking iPads, smart phones and, the gym teacher's mortal enemy, the videogames console. So I'm asking where does this leave the traditional toy and more importantly the social and academic development of the next generation?

This article is designed to stimulate a discussion. I want to know your thoughts, whatever they maybe, if you have your own kids, if you work with kids, even, if like me, you just have a healthy interest in the social landscape in which we find ourselves and like toys. We want to hear from you. And with that I'll begin...

The first point that needs to be addressed is the terms: technology and traditional. They appear clearly defined, yet under scrutiny, there are some things to consider. And where better to start than with Lego. It's traditional, that's a given. However, it appears to me to be as strong as it ever was; which feels like good news for fans of the time-honoured toy. Though don't be too hasty. Lego isn't just interlocking colourful blocks, not anymore. Notably they're quite a force in the videogame market, and they certainly aren't shy of a movie tie-in/endorsement, with Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter series all currently part of their line-up. Both these examples have heavy ties with what can be considered, the less traditional. And, I'm not entirely sure how many children are becoming proud owners of a Lego Death Star just shy of the £300 mark. What this shows, is that the lines between technological and the traditional are, at the very least blurred, and the definition is powerfully subjective.

This means that the evidence is anecdotal, but you can only really ever understand things as they relate to oneself, making it not a bad place to begin. Personally I would suggest that technology in the sphere of play for kids is no bad thing. I was brought up on a heady mix of videogame adventures during the late 80s and believe, genuinely, it did me no harm. These adventures were not always the most savoury either, tending to involve military action or kung fu high kicking based resolutions to all sorts of problems. While this might sound bad and certainly holds parallels with the fears of where technology might lead today's child there are caveats.

The caveats are important and here they are: I was always the hero fighting for the greater good in the videogames I played; screen time (videogames and tv watching) for the most part occurred in moderation, I also played with traditional toys and I went outside and ran around, a lot.

Applying my anecdotal evidence to the debate suggests that maybe things haven't actually changed that much or at least not as much as some may fear. Alright, we might be talking iPads and Playstations instead of Commodores and Spectrums, but the principle is the same. Too much screen time, in fact too much time spent stationary in general, is unhealthy regardless of the activity. And the act of playing through a screen (there is more than videogames for the modern child to gaze upon) isn't a negative thing per se; it's dependent on the what they're doing. Sticking with the videogame example, such things can be educational, improve hand-eye co-ordination, better problem solving abilities, aid concentration levels and unleash imagination with great stories.

There is however, as with all great debates, a counter argument, that actually, screen time play inhibits all of the above. The example of imagination is a particularly strong one, as a videogame world has its boundaries, everything in it is fixed and therefore limits a child's thought processes. This could be seen as detrimental to a developing mind that should be, well, limitless. As for the others, hand-eye co-ordination might never go further than a child's thumbs, though Nintendo Wii fans might suggest otherwise. Problem solving abilities are easily defeated by trial and error rather than true thinking, actually how educational is saving Princess Peach (again) and that concentration levels being boosted is a void argument as alpha waves, those brain processes that get you fired up, attentive and thinking, are actually suppressed by watching a screen.

And with those contrary points to think about it's over to you. The basis of the discussion is laid so give it the best you've got. One thing is for certain; technology is only going to advance, which means the technology vs. traditional in the toy world will gain ever-greater relevance. Maybe the traditional toy is done for? Maybe it needs to be fought for and brought back? We've not even addressed censorship, which is tied into the debate intrinsically, especially in the world of videogames and internet. How do you regulate an iPad savvy six-year olds stream of content? Or would just rather give them half an hour on Angry Birds before sending him out for a kick around? It's your call...

David James researches and writes about weird, quirky and novelty Christmas presents for the online gifts retailer Find Me A Gift.