Left to the imagination

25th August 2000 at 01:00
The modern media age has changed toys beyond recognition. But how has this affected their value as playthings? Debbie Davies investigates

From virtual pets to talking teddies, Silicon Valley has entered the playroom, leaving more and more teachers and parents wondering how much pedagogical value is left in toys. Hasbro, the world's second largest toymaker, is cutting back on pre-school and creative play products and toys aimed at girls, and discontinuing racing toys and large dolls in favour of computer games. So what is happening to the secret garden of play - the world of the child's imagination?

Increasingly, teachers who encounter new toys either try to cope with their negative effects or, in some cases, ban them - occasionally overlooking the contribution the biggest commercial successes can make to learning. Many primary schools have banned Pokemon, the trading card game, even though children who play it need to memorise vast amounts of information, read long lists of lengthy names, juggle points and make decisions after evaluation. The May issue of the TES's Primary magazine included ideas for exploiting Pokemon in the classroom - a craze that is likely to endure, with 100 new Pokemon characters being planned.

Worries about how well the childish imagination is served by the increasing commercialisation of toys - and their technological makeover - is nothing new. For the past two decades, people have mourned the passing of a time when toys were made out of scraps of wood and cardboard and played with away from adults, in secret places, with friends. By comparison, today's playrooms are a mirror of modern society, heavily influenced by television, other media and increasingly protective parents.

Child psychologists such as Wendy Varney, a member of the International Toy Researchers Association based in Halmstad, Sweden, believe this adult-centred approach lacks play value. "It is the worst aspects of our society that are most influencing toys and play," she says.

At the same time, teachers are finding themselves with less scheduled time for play in the school day. Dr Kathleen Alfano, manager of the Fisher-Price child research department and play laboratory in East Aurora, New York, and a former elementary school teacher, believes this is a mistake.

She argues that toys remain one of the richest pedagogical tools available to teachers of young children. "Playful children are likely to be effective learners at school and, in itself, play is an important part of a child's development," she says. In one study for Mattel (owner of the Fisher-Price brand and the world's largest toy company), the availability of toys in infancy was strongly related to a child's IQ at the age of three. "Playful children are more likely to have developed the skills they need later in life and are more likely to be successful learners at school," the report says.

Dr Alfano believes numeracy and literacy tasks should be woven into play to a far greater degree than at present. "Kitchen play, which children all around the world enjoy, is under-used as a learning experience," she says. "By adding price tags to pretend foods or deciding on a menu on which everything begins with a letter of the day, you might be surprised at what children will learn as they play."

This is the sort of exercise teachers are used to havingto develop themselves, time allowing. Yet while teachers would prefer a toy's educational potential to be developed by manufacturers as part of its play value, the major manufacturers make global products for mass markets - and customisation for a "local" task, such as supporting the literacy hour, isnot a commercially viable option.

Dr Alfano has spent more than 20 years observing children aged from one month to nine years at the Fisher-Price play lab, which researches the relationship between child development and play, and tests hundreds of new toy ideas each year. There is a two-year waiting list to become a tester, with 7,000 US families on it. "Some parents have called from the hospital just after the birth of their child to book in for testing programmes."

Fisher-Price's child-centred approach to product development makes for toys with lots of play value. For the latest update of the highly popular Pretend Kitchen set, plastic eggs with yolks inside have been added. "By watching how children played in the kitchen, we learned that they acted out cracking eggs into the frying pan, so our designers redesigned them so they break open and the yolks drop out," says Dr Alfano.

The Fisher-Price play lab offers a model for how children's learning for life can be enriched by toys, but how does this relate to the real environments in which children play - and the toys they choose to play with?

Dr Alfano acknowledges children's familiarity with computers and modern technology. "When children move to another part of the play lab, they pick up their toy mobile phone and take it with them just like they've seen their mums and dads do." She believes toys will increasingly incorporate computer technology, and she approves. Asked what she would buy for a four or five-year-old as a present, she chooses a CD-Rom or, for a child without a computer, a book.

Fisher-Price has just added a computer chip to the characters in its Rescue Heroes range, which will enable each character to produce open-ended phrases, and allow the characters to talk to each other. "Parents have told us how the talking Rescue Heroes encourage children to talk. If children gain confidence in talking, they are better prepared to contribute in class discussions."

But Fisher-Price and other manufacturers may be wrong in assuming that we can predict what children do with toys. In the unique environment of their bedrooms, children use toys in very novel ways. My son uses old soft toys including a bunny and an Elmo figure (a character from Sesame Street) to play involved and complicated games based on the popular TV series World Wrestling Federation. I don't understand his games, but I do know, from glimpsing the TV version of WWF, that it is beyond an adult's imagination for a lifesize Elmo and a fluffy bunny to appear in the ring. And the contrived nature of play in the Fisher-Price lab takes no account of the pre-existing culture and norms of group play that influence how children behave.

For teachers to conclude that such phenomena as Pokemon (and before that, Furbys) have taken play in school and its potential for learning out of their control, and given it to the toy companies and entertainment giants, misses the organic nature of play. There is no better demonstration of this than the failure, with the help of the world's best technological and marketing capabilities, to make children want to play with toys based on the latest Star Wars film, The Phantom Menace. The company holding the film's toy licence in the UK lost an estimated pound;6 million on toys it could barely give away.

Marketing and technology are powerful, but they take their place alongside many other factors that determine how children play. Today's secret garden may look different to the childish world we once inhabited, but it is still there.

Debbie Davies has been a judge of the Best Toy Award, run by parenting magazine 'Right Start', since 1998

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