It’s almost that time of year again. The cold is closing in, the lights are coming on earlier, the leaves are turning and everywhere there are intimations of jingling. Even as early as November you can hear it: the jingle of bells, the jingle of cash registers, and the real or metaphoric jingle of coins in pockets as parents gear up for their annual holiday toy-shopping spree. What will they be buying, and what do their purchases portend?
According to industry analysts, those unreflective trackers of trends, the biggest phenomenon in the lucrative “toy category” just now is the technology invasion. Electronic gizmos are supposedly where the money is. The president of one large American toy manufacturer said recently that in the past three years the use of electronics in toys has jumped from less than 10 percent to more than 60 percent. If true, this is a sobering figure. The higher the pile of electronic options — Sony PlayStations, robotic pets, kid-size digital cameras, video and computer games and so on — the longer the shadow it casts over traditional toys like blocks, balls and Barbie dolls.
Some deny that the trend is so marked. A September industry survey predicted that the world’s top-selling toy for the 2000 holiday season will be the scooter — a space-age, neon-wheeled, titanium version, admittedly, but still basically a people-powered board on wheels. Last year it was Pokemon, in mostly nonelectronic manifestations, that took the top spot. But others say that the pause or dip in the relentless upward progress of techno-toys merely reflects the current global shortage of electronic chips. Sony, for instance, could deliver only half its planned shipment of PlayStation2s overseas last month. The perception is that traditional toys have thereby won an unexpected reprieve this season.
Yet, whatever the statistics say, the evidence of one’s own eyes confirms that the entire landscape of children’s toys has been transformed in recent years, and that technology has been the principal instrument of that transformation. Dolls and stuffed animals are as popular as ever, but more and more of them “interact” electronically, some in a choice of languages, where before they used to be mute receptacles for a child’s imagination. Children still play games, too, but more often with mouse and screen rather than board and dice. Even that old standby of creativity, the Lego construction set, has turned into a battery-powered light-and-sound show. And one of the most rapidly growing segments of the market is high-tech infant and preschool toys.
The question troubling some parents is whether this is a good thing: Even conceding its inevitability, they wonder, should they buy into it. It’s hard to resist. Quite apart from the pressure brought to bear by trend-sensitive children, there is the subtler pressure of the sales pitch that kids’ entire futures as competent, employable adults depend on their technological savvy. Tomorrow’s world will be a wired kingdom, it is argued, and kids had better be ready for it.
It takes toughness and wisdom to hold out for the old-fashioned view that a little technology goes a long way, and that what children need most in that regard — basic computer skills — they will pick up as easily as they “learn” to breathe or eat. In the average Western household, there are quite enough electronic gizmos already to entertain and instruct a child, from the family computer and video camera to the cable TV-DVD-CD-player system that the kids invariably operate better than their parents anyway.
When it comes to toys, the last thing children need is more electronics. They need time in the real world, preferably outdoors among whatever rocks, dirt, trees, weeds and water can still be found in the interstices of urban neighborhoods. (The rural idylls captured in the paintings of Yuji Ando, say, are a vanished dream for most Japanese parents, let alone their city-bred children.) This is as much an educational as a sentimental imperative. The late great physicist Richard Feynman once described an advanced university physics class he had taught in Brazil. All the students, he said, had the formulas down cold; what they couldn’t do was apply them to the real world. They had memorized rules governing “moments of inertia,” but had no idea that explained why it was harder to push a door open when you put weights on the outside than when you put them near the hinge. To Feynman, these students knew nothing, since abstractions divorced from sense perceptions are meaningless. This insight may be worth remembering in the rush to embrace techno-toys, those ultimate abstractions.
The best advice for parents this shopping season is simple: Keep your money in your pocket, and let the kids play with what’s already around them.
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