There was a great column in the 12/26 edition of USA Today bemoaning the state of the toy industry. While much has been made of the zillions of lead-related recalls in 2007, Laura Vanderkam points to a different, slightly more disturbing trend. I call it the dumbing of the youngest generation. Ms. Vanderkam is more eloquent than I. But basically she writes about something which I, and a number of my colleagues, have been saying for years when we worked in the toy and game industry: toys and games are being developed and marketed to ensure that the educational benefit comes through stronger than anything else. Remember when a toy was good because it was fun? No longer. A generation of hysterical parents are looking for reassurance that the hours spent pumping Mozart into the womb through headphones applied to distended bellies was not all for naught. Toys that were once purely fun now promise "valuable color matching skills" or "counting" or "socialization". Some of these items even come with an endorsement from one child psychologist or another. Screw imagination. There's no guarantee that a kid's imagination will teach him or her anything valuable. The toy and game makers will supply the preapproved and pretested game play structure for the kids. Even classic toys we may remember from our childhoods are being remarketed with a retrofitted educational component.
The other problem in Toy Land is the rush to compete with video games. Since kids like video games, it must follow that they hate board games, right? This silly hypothesis has led to classic board games being modernized so that there is no tactile play experience. Computers tally up Monopoly money and dice are rolled with a push of a button rather than actually rolling them by hand.
On the USA Today website, a reader named mkletch called Ms. Vanderkam's article oversimplified and disagreed with the part about licensed Lego sets taking the imagination out of building. But I feel that it is mkletch who is incorrect. These sets are not disassembled to become part of a larger Lego set. They are assembled painstakingly according to the directions and then displayed like ships in a bottle. The only imagination that comes from these sets is trying to figure out the directions from the pictures. This will provide valuable training for the kids once they need to assemble furniture from IKEA.
Having a couple of kids of my own, I've spent a lot of time in the toy and game aisles of my local stores and have felt some comfort in seeing that despite all of the changes and modernizations in the category, one thing remains constant: batteries are still not included. The Energizer Bunny thumps on.