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“Toy play is one of the ways in which children nurture their disposition for imagination and fantasy.”   David Elkind, PhD.

The season of gift giving is upon us.  My niece and nephew have already received Hanukkah gifts from their father’s side of the family and are eagerly awaiting the next round of presents that will come when they celebrate Christmas with their mother’s side of the  family.  My sister’s inter-faith family has been the subject of many conversations with my children who used to find it quite unjust that their cousins got to celebrate two holidays, and receive special gifts on two occasions, while they, tragically,  were limited to just one.  Thankfully, now that they are a bit older,  we are beginning to move on from this line of thinking.  At the very least, they have given up on pleading their case, yet we are still many years away from embracing the philosophy that “it is better to give than to receive.”  Like most of you, I find that I am a consumer during the holidays.

Before I brave the crowds in the toy section each year, I like to re-read a chapter from David Elkind’s excellent book The Power of Play entitled Toys Aren’t Us.  In this chapter, Elkind highlights the history of toys, the marketing of toys, classics that have survived the test of time and changes in the way that children interact with toys.  He begins by discussing the  volume of toys that contemporary children have.  He posits that the sheer number of toys that modern children own make it harder for them to invest emotionally in them, therefore inhibiting their ability to use the toy in truly imaginative play.

According to Elkind, toys should have a personal meaning and significance to the child rather than being tied to a movie or television program. While it is hard to escape the powerful marketing pull of movie or T.V. products, it is good to keep in mind that it is harder for children to engage imaginatively with a product that already has a predetermined “story” connected to it.  Likewise, building sets with specific step-by-step building instructions limit the creativity of children by forcing them to create a set product rather than coming up with their own design.  A recent post in the New York Times echos this sentiment: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/sunday-review/has-lego-sold-out.html?_r=0

Many messages about gender are communicated through toys and their corresponding advertizements.  While we can applaud the fact that Legos are now marketed to girls, we should question the fact that they are pink.  The next time you are in the toys section of a store, notice the way that toys are marketed to girls and boys.  What messages are being transmitted?  What stereotypes are being perpetuated?  Many of us have seen the video that went viral this fall in which girls used their overwhelmingly pink “girly” toys to create a complicated Rube Goldberg machine.  If you did not have a chance to view it, here is the link:

http://www.goldieblox.com/pages/beastie-boys-rube-goldberg-machine

Ironically, the Goldiblox video itself is also an advertizement, which has ignited some conversation and debate as seen in this recent article from the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2013/12/can-toys-help-create-future-engineers.html

Are you confused yet?  In the age of information overload, we are bombarded with conflicting views, which we must balance with our own personal values as well as the individual wish lists of our children.

Toys have become a huge part of consumer culture, and are marketed to adults and children in both subtle and overt ways on a daily basis. In general, the more open-ended the toy, the better. Look for toys that allow for versatility if you want them to stand the test of time.  Truly educational toys allow children to solve problems or create something new rather than doing the work for them.

Parents have known for centuries that very few toys rival the appeal of the boxes in which they are wrapped.  Indeed, the cardboard box epitomizes the notion of an open-ended, educational toy.  There is truly no better vessel from which to inspire creativity at any age.

The Caine’s Arcade project that grades 1-5 are working on at Park Tudor has inspired my 4th and 5th grade children to take a renewed interest in cardboard boxes.  While the boxes and box remnants, duct tape and paper scraps strewn throughout my home are not adding a lot aesthetically to my holiday decor, it has been fun to see them fully engaged in the creative process with such simple materials.  The link below provides a good introduction to the project, which began with one child tinkering with cardboard boxes in his father’s auto shop in L.A. http://vimeo.com/40000072

Whatever your holiday plans, I hope that your child will be fortunate enough to play with at least one box during winter break.  Elkind points out in his book that whimsy and imagination are often captured in the most simple things.  The cardboard box is a classic example.

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