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June 26, 2013
Category: In the News
Tags: Untagged

Retro Toys and the Importance of Being Bored

Source: The Child Mind Blog

When I'm shopping for presents for young children, toys from the Melissa & Doug company stand out. Melissa & Doug toys don't do anything—they don't light up, they don't moo, and they definitely don't have an on/off switch. What you see is what you get—dress up costumes, a child-size toolbox, plastic kitchenware and groceries. As far as I know, their only toys that make noise are the musical instruments. Melissa & Doug aren't the only company making toys like this—an article in Sunday's Times profiling the company also mentions Haba and Alex, for example—but their brand might be the most recognizable.

In 2013, toys like this are decidedly retro. Handing kids the iPad or iPhone to play games is reflexive for many parents and these days even Lego has a line of video games. One mother interviewed in the Times story says she buys Melissa & Doug products as a kind of "rebellion against digitized toys," and acknowledges that they probably appeal more to her than her son. "The thing about Melissa & Doug toys, the problem with them, is they encourage you to be creative, which is great, but they also, speaking of it kind of concretely, are relatively one-dimensional," she explains. These toys are open-ended and require more work from kids. And without flashing lights and sound effects that provide constant feedback, they run the risk of being boring.

Melissa Bernstein, the Melissa half of Melissa & Doug, is okay with that. "Parents are so scared of having their kids say, 'I'm bored.' It's synonymous with, 'I'm a bad parent,' and so they never allow kids to feel boredom, which equals frustration, and so kids don't get to the point where they have to dig deeper and figure out what to do." Which is really too bad because the inventiveness that comes from figuring out how something works or how to keep yourself entertained is an important childhood lesson that our kids are increasingly missing out on. Open-ended play teaches children how to think critically and creatively—it's how most of us learned how to solve problems, work together, and control our impulses. Contrast that with the hyper-structured modern idea of play, where kids follow rules to complete a task and are rewarded with a "level up." As Bernstein tells the Times, "When you're using a computer or an app, it's giving you all the information you need. It's a completely reactive experience."

Learning how to be bored or frustrated and then how to self-regulate also helps kids build resiliency, something child psychologists consider essential to becoming a well-adjusted adult. Bernstein can attest to this personally. Growing up she described herself as lonely and miserable. In seventh grade she became anorexic. Her solace was her creativity. She wrote music and poetry and threw herself into arts and crafts. She told the Times that creating things "took me out of what could have been." "When I create it makes me so happy. I'm able to soothe myself." The ability to self-soothe is vital, but kids who are growing up in a constant state of occupation are getting fewer and fewer opportunities to learn how.

Play in general is being threatened for American children, and the movement away from basic, open-ended toys is reflective of that. Recess and gym are disappearing in schools, a casualty of our national obsession over test scores. Our kids have full schedules, with sports, tutoring, and extra-curricular activities filling up their downtime, which has become a dirty word. When kids are at home, they're still kept busy. If parents need to do the laundry or make dinner without getting hassled, they turn on a video or hand kids the iPad. Our desire to have accomplished, well-rounded children (and to get dinner on the table) is laudable, but an important part of being well-rounded is being able to think independently and self-regulate. The lessons learned from imaginative play are real, and it's important that we not discount them.  


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