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Today's Toys: Where's the Imagination?

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Two recent news stories made me sit up and take a closer look not just at what toys my kids are playing with, but at how they are using them.

Three girls using cellphones

Bethany Sanders: The first was a survey done by the NPD Group, which found that doll sales are down by 20 percent since 2005 -- not because of a tanking economy, mind you, but because girls are dropping doll play at a younger age. In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jeff Holtzman, head of doll manufacturer The Goldberger Company, said, "By the time they hit 4 or 5, they want a cell phone. We're replacing dolls sooner." In 2009, just 18 percent of dolls sold went to kids over 9.

The second was an op-ed that ran in The New York Times on March 26. In it, David Elkind wrote about the necessity of recess coaches on the playground, because kids have forgotten how to play. "For children in past eras, participating in the culture of childhood was a socializing process," wrote Elkind. "They learned to settle their own quarrels, to make and break their own rules and to respect the rights of others. They learned that friends could be mean as well as kind, and that life was not always fair .... Now that most children no longer participate in this free-form experience -- playdates arranged by parents are no substitute -- their peer socialization has suffered. One tangible result of this lack of socialization is the increase in bullying, teasing and discrimination that we see in all too many of our schools."

Is anyone else depressed yet? In an effort to keep our kids safe and entertained, we might actually be stealing away the most important part of childhood: play.

I'm one of those old-fashioned type parents who has yet to buy either of my kids (ages 5 and 7) a cell phone. (Because ... really?) But in an honest survey of their toys, I found that even though my kids do know how to jump rope and play hopscotch, they've got plenty of toys that entertain without requiring an ounce of imagination: babies who walk and talk and wet their diapers all on their own; robotic cats so realistic my neighbors asked me if we had a new pet after seeing it in the window; and electronic gadgets galore.

Susan Linn, Ed.D., author of "Consuming Kids and the Case for Make Believe," sums it up in an article at "The toy gets to have all the fun," Linn says. "If a child looks at a stuffed animal and says 'What does it do?' instead of playing with it, they may be engaged too much in activities that are doing the play for them."

My belief is that not only do our kids have too many choices today (my own kids' possessions currently occupy two bedrooms and a playroom), but many of their toys are taking away the pleasure of play -- and leaving imagination behind.

Now tell us:
What are your kids playing with? Do you think playtime has changed since you were a kid?

next: Marriage: Team Players Only, Please
6 comments so far | Post a comment now
janetlansbury April 14, 2010, 11:21 AM

Letting “the toy get all the fun” for our children begins in infancy, when we place our babies in confining devices, play ‘educational’ videos for them, carry them constantly, or otherwise entertain and ‘play’ for them. Babies quickly get accustomed to being passively entertained.

Alternatively, infants can begin the joyful lifelong habit of initiating their own self-directed play from when they are a few weeks old. All we have to do is create a safe environment (starting with a bassinet or playpen) in which our baby can move freely, place a few simple toys nearby, and then enjoy watching what he chooses to do. The sensory delight of the outdoors is always best whenever possible!

For more details, and a video of a 4-month-old discovering he can reflect light with a bowl, please see: Infant Play - Great Minds at Work, on my blog:

Heidi Danos April 14, 2010, 11:21 AM

A cell phone at 4 yrs. of age? What happened to good ‘ol Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys?

dmill April 14, 2010, 12:17 PM

My daughter is one of the 18% who still loves to play with her dolls. She’s 9 and just spent her Christmas money on a Barbie. We have had many talks in the last few years about it being OK for her to still like to play with them even though most of her friends think they are baby-ish. It’s been hard for her at times, but now she’s ok with it. I didn’t even get my dollhouse until I was about nine-ish because it had breakable furniture. I have only recently passed it on to my daughter. Before now, she wasn’t responsible enough to care for it.

Kat Eden May 3, 2010, 1:58 PM

Great post Bethany. Right now my kids (5 & 7) are thrilled to play with the toys I buy them (which are always imagination based and often even sneak in a little educational value!) But I know as they get older and more and more of their friends get hooked on video games this is going to get harder and harder. Already, the seven year old is starting to feel a little bit left out because he’s not good at the Wii games his pals are all pros at. It’s not easy! Sigh.

Just wanted to let everyone know that in addition to scary articles Bethany found on, we also have a gift guide to help parents find really fun toys that also have some learning value. You may want to check it out the next time you’re searching for a “cell phone alternative” ;-)

Best, Kat (

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