Cars, crazy balls but where are the contented kids?

TOY STORY

Cars, crazy balls but where are the contented kids?

When my friend Kanika moved to London three years ago, she was more than a little worried. Her son, Varun, who was only four then, would have to wait a whole month for his shipment of toys, games and books to arrive from India. That was when, she discovered, to her delight, the toy library.

It suddenly made her life simple and stress-free. With a membership, all she had to do was choose the toys. She could take Varun to the library or order the toys online and have them delivered — all sterilised and battery-fitted. Once Varun finished playing with the toys or got bored of them, she could return them and get another set for a fee. An IT professional, Kanika found that she could not only borrow toys, but also puzzles and DVDs just like how she would borrow books from her neighbourhood library back home.
The concept of the toy library is interesting and impressive. A search on Google threw up nearly 80 toy libraries in Mumbai alone. Parents like Kanika say such libraries are “just great”. They are wallet-friendly and children get something new to play with regularly.
Toy libraries also save one the trouble of looking for storage space in a shrinking world! With more toys in the house come the inevitable questions of where to stack them and whom to give old toys away.

Too much, too soon?
Simple toys such as spinning tops no longer appeal to today’s children unless they beep, light up or break into a complicated jig. Take the transformer toys, for instance. They look like trucks, but with a few twists and turns, they turn into cool action figures. Though the market is bursting with tioys parents battle, every day, to get their hands on that one toy which can satisfy the insatiable appetite of their little ones.

Ironically, today’s kids are easily bored. They outgrow toys in minutes and are constantly looking for something new and challenging. No wonder new toys hit the shelves with such alarming regularity as children seek instant gratification. Jyothi Anand, a homoeopathy doctor and a mother of two boys, says: “I would give a budget to Aditya, my older son, telling him that he could buy the toy of his choice for his birthday. He would buy a toy within the budget alright, but the toy would its magic within 48 hours and after that it would just languish in a corner of the house. I was tired of looking for storage space to house all his toys.”

Aditya, who is now 7 years old, says his current favourite is the Omnitrix (otherwise known to parents as the Ben 10 watch) but he has no idea what happens to his toys when he doesn’t play with them any more! Jyothi says she drops off the good toys, which Aditya no longer plays with, at charity homes for kids every few months.
As disposable incomes increase, children have toys which they need as well as don’t need. Jyothi says she spent Rs 6,000 on toys in 2009.

This year, she bought Aditya, a Sony playstation. “Buying a PSP is not all, because, to keep him happy, I must keep up a steady supply of game CDs for the PSP!”

Imagination? What’s that?!
According to a report, in October, 1955, Mickey Mouse Club House debuted on television. On the very day, Mattel, the toy company, began advertising a gun called Thunder Burp. Mickey Mouse Club House went on to make history. However, what is interesting is that, Thunder Burp, the toy gun, did something significant for children too. It was the first time that children began to play with objects rather than ideas.

Until then, they had pretended to hold a stick and brandish it like a sword, but Mattel soon introduced so many concepts in toys that children like Siddharth Hariharan no longer needed to indulge in make-believe games.

Siddharth Hariharan, a 6-year-old Grade 2 student in Dubai, cannot think of playing without toys. “I cannot imagine life without my trains, dinosaurs. Lego blocks and Nintendo Wii,” he confesses with a grin.

Siddharth’s grandfather, who is 74 years old, recalls that he never had toys to play with in his childhood  but never got bored either! “We kids would use discarded matchboxes to make walkie-talkie sets,” he says with a chuckle. “We played lots of indoor games but these games seem to have vanished from everyone’s memory,” he adds.
What he cannot fathom is that while there are so many ready-to-use walkie-talkie sets in toy shops, the number of “bored” kids seems to be growing too!

Howard Chudocoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, who has researched the history of children’s play in the United States, says that when it comes to play, the focus is now on the object not the activity. In his book, ‘Children at Play’, he argues that children’s games focus on predetermined and scripted ideas today because of the specific toys which are available in the market. “This pre-empts imagination which is a vital tool for building self-discipline,” he observes.

Are kids over stimulated?
The makers of Wii, Nintendo, first rolled out the game in 2006. Today, it is easily one of the most popular game in the industry. Wii (pronounced ‘we’) focuses on group play. Nintendo Wii brings sports such as tennis, baseball, boxing and golf right into living rooms.

With a console that is motion sensitive, one can play any outdoor game indoors. The Wii console becomes a badminton racquet, a golf club or a boxing glove! As you swing your arms, a motion detector senses your movements and your actions are displayed on screen.

Has the spurt in hi-tech games for kids resulted in children becoming easily bored? To many child behaviour experts, it seems as if children’s restlessness is but a natural byproduct of the technological advances that toys have made. In December 2009, Nigel Farndale, wrote in The Telegraph, UK, that over stimulation is the enemy of imagination. “We should gift our children with boredom,” he remarked.

Perhaps, the solution lies somewhere inbetween. Children need toys but what they also need is tactful help with selection. Toys do help children enhance their fine motor skills and cognitive skills. There are toys to help children with learning disabilities. Today toys are used in schools to teach Math and Science.

Gayathri Vijay, from Mumbai, believes toys stimulate curiosity in children. Gayathri’s daughter, Saanidhya, is only six months old but Gayathri has already spent Rs 7,000 on toys for her till date. “Properly chosen toys can keep babies engaged for a long time and can make learning a lot of fun. Babies learn to hold, respond and most importantly have fun with toys,” she says.

Since, most homes have a surfeit of toys and as toys are also children’s most precious possessions, they become a fantastic tool to teach kids about charity. Meenakshi Parshuram, an HR professional in Mumbai, used her 10-year-old son Arnav’s pile of toys to teach him a few life lessons. Arnav, she says, used to hate sharing his toys but after he saw who the recipients were, he began to happily donate his precious possesions. “We gave many of his toys to Mumbai Mobile Creche, a school for the children of construction workers. We have also given his toys to Magic Bus, whose volunteers then drop them off at orphanages in the city. He is happy with this arrangement,” says Meenakshi and Arnav beams his approval.

Make toys work for you
Like anything in abundance, the trick is to use toys to your advantage. Introducing children to toy libraries is sure to encourage the concept of sharing and group play. More importantly, it is our responsibility to make sure that children get to play with the right kind of toys. It is fantastic that children have virtual games but what they also need is a healthy dose of real games. Help them achieve a good mix. The idea is to strike a balance between hi-tech toys and good old time-tested ones.
Toy makers all over the world are making toys that lure children into buying them. It therefore becomes a parent’s responsibility to understand the toy before succumbing to the toy manufacturer’s call.

Before swiping your plastic at the fanciest toy store in town, ask yourself these questions:
* Will this toy teach my child something?
* Will it help my child interact with other kids?
* Will it enhance his imagination?
* Will it help him understand something about himself and the world in which he lives?
* Will it engage him constructively?
Remember, kids are very creative. They just think differently from how we used to think as children. I asked Siddharth what his dream toy is and he said “The Everything-O-Toy but it has not yet invented!” Seeing my wide-eyed surprise, he explained, “'This toy should do everything for you. It will have a screen that will ask, ‘What next?’. There will also be a couple of buttons on it with options. I will be able to choose what I want the toy to become — a truck, a train, a car!
Depending on my mood, the toy should be able to transform itself?”
Do I daresay today’s kids lack imagination?!

Five best ways to choose toys
* Toys need to be age appropriate. Pay attention to the size and safety of every toy that is bought. For example, toddlers would like something colourful and chunky — the size they can handle well. Since toddlers are prone to put toys into their mouth, the toys you choose for them should have rounded edges and should be child-safe. Choose vinyl, plastic or cloth toys that can keep the young minds busy. Choose shape sorters or colourful rings that can be stacked. Don’t buy toys with loud music or those which are too heavy for the tiny tot to handle.
* Choose toys that the child would love to play with and not what you like. Many times, we tend to buy something because we think it makes a great toy but the child may just refuse to even look at it!
* Children love to play ‘pretend’ games. So toys like garden tools, a kitchen set or a doctor’s play set are a great idea. The workman tools set, complete with child-safe screwdrivers and nails, are also great. However, these are meant for older children (two years and above). Such toys help in stimulating their imagination and encourage role.
* Choose toys which are not too complicated for the child. Some experts recommend that you buy toys which are just above the specified age or your child’s skill level as kids love a challenge. This also keeps boredom at bay.
* Make sure that the toys do not get repetitive. The best way to get the right toy is to think like a child. Lego blocks or mega blocks are a safe bet. They can keep children engaged for long hours. These are good because they enhance hand-eye coordination and help build on their imagination as well.

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