Friday, May 9, 2008

What's happening to play?

What’s happening to play?

Here’s a cool idea: give your kid a box. It’ll keep her entertained. And guess what? It’s cheap!

The interesting thing about toys is that kids have no say really in what gets bought. Parents make the final call on all purchases. And parents buy things they think are cool. Depending on a parent, a kid might get educational toys, or maybe they’ll get something outrageous and loud.

The thing about kids is that they’re really creative. Kids all over the place love to play with simple things like boxes, so why do we spend so much money on toys?

This questions hits pretty close to home for me since I have two sisters ages 4 and 9. I know it wasn’t too long ago, but when I was a kid, my sister and I kept each other company. We designed elaborate worlds with our friends to play our games in. One of my friends and I spent countless hours digging a hole in her backyard (in hopes of making a fort.) Every time we had a play date we’d dig deeper, for about a year. Somehow this kept us entertained. It must have made things easy on her parents too! And remembering all of this, I can’t remember a single toy that I used to be attached to. I had a calculator that I’d play with, and maybe a few plush animals. I remember playing with Hot Wheels and Polly Pockets occasionally, but mostly with things like Lego’s, Tinker Toys, and K’nex. Maybe this toy list for me happens to reflect my gravitation toward engineering, but I also feel like the toys I used to play with were things that let me be creative. Sure, K’nex gave me a little book to start off with, but after that I could just build whatever I imagined. And I never had trouble keeping myself amused.

The worst thing I can remember as a kid was running errands at Home Depot. This store was designed for people fixing up their homes-the last thing a kid wants to do. My sister and I used to go to the paint section together and play with all the different colors. After that we’d look at the countertop tile samples. We’d try to collect as many as we could every time we went. It was a game to try and remember how many we already had, and not to take too many that the man at the counter noticed.

So what’s wrong with the toys today? They’re educational, aren’t they?

Honestly, I can’t stand them. Maybe I’m idealistic about my childhood, but I see my sisters today who start whining as soon as they are apart from their Gameboys and Pokémon cards. I’ll usually try to suggest a game to them, but to no avail. They need something to keep them entertained. And this worries me a little. I guess it stands out because I can see the difference so clearly between my childhood and my little sisters, only about 10 years apart. I guess what bothers me about it is that as we (the toymakers) define a world more and more for these kids to play in, this leaves less and less room for the kids to imagine. And when you can get online and go to or to, why bother using your imagination? It’s all right there in front of you.

Play has transformed from some creative, fun interaction to some now form of managing assets given to you online, or playing by someone else’s rules. This is still play, but it’s radically different from my definition of play. I know this doesn’t tie into the idea of design too much, but my point here is that there’s an art to designing for fun. And that lies in the ability to create something that children can interact with in a way that allows them to fully be themselves, not something that constrains them to operating inside some outwardly defined criteria.

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