Kids Need Better Toys, but They Also Need Freedom to Play

CC BY 2.0. Rusty Clark

Toy innovation has stagnated in recent years and kids are bored. Who's at fault?

When I was a child, my father was a carpenter whose work was seasonal. In December, when things were slow, he’d hole up in his workshop to make Christmas gifts for my sister and me. We took those handmade wooden gifts for granted at the time, but every adult who entered our house told us how incredible they were.

He built a wooden marble run that stood four feet tall, with multiple intricate pathways for a marble to follow, including musical chimes and a wooden spiral funnel. He built folding desks with chalkboards and secret compartments. He built a dollhouse, complete with miniature electric lights, and a barn for our Playmobil, as well as the beautiful spalted maple tables on which they sat. Best of all was the post office/library combo, a real office space with a slatted front, mailboxes for every family member, and a set of personalized ink stamps. My sister and I played for hours with our wooden toys, and so did all our friends.

Now, as a parent, I understand how unusual and fabulous these gifts were. Not only did they reflect hours of skilled handiwork, but they also tapped into our imaginations, creating a magical place where we could take our play in any direction we wanted. There were no limits to what these toys, especially the dollhouse and post office, could do in my minds.

Sadly, I don’t see much excitement in my kids’ or their friends’ toys these days. Playrooms are overflowing with plastic characters and vehicles with buttons, blinking lights, and batteries. They make sounds, fit onto special tracks, and might go fast, but they lack depth. They don’t strike me as being particularly intuitive, malleable, or capable of reinvention or extension of any kind.

A recent article in Maclean’s called "Why are children's toys so boring?" argues that toy innovation has stagnated badly in recent years, that things aren’t what they used to be. The author cites a few reasons, including the growing popularity of iPads from ever-younger ages. I would add that excessive screen time damages their attention span, making it harder to focus on a toy that requires mental energy; hence the surge in ‘fidget toys’ that dominate the most popular toy lists on Amazon. The problem is, these too are mind-numbingly boring:

“Even the argument that [fidget spinners] are effective productivity devices actually hinges on the idea that they are boring—the physical equivalent of a white noise machine.”
spinner toy

Robert Couse-Baker/CC BY 2.0

The author, Adrian Lee, also blames the industry. Fifty percent of the U.S. toy market is dominated by five big players, and these are reluctant to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. If they’re guaranteed profits by riffing off a blockbuster movie or updating an old favorite, what’s the point in inventing anything truly different? Take the Hatchimal, for example:

“Hatchimals [were] lauded by the industry, with awards like the 2017 Innovative Toy Of The Year award at the prestigious New York Toy Fair. But even they were just a massive coup of rebranding, a more irritating Kinder Surprise without any of the pleasures of eating chocolate that basically becomes a Furby. And once it’s born, the Hatchimal just makes needy demands that require disproportionate time and energy.”

© Amazon

These are valid points, but I think there’s more going on here, and it comes down to parenting style.

Parents these days are so paranoid about safety that they don’t allow their kids out of the house or let them play with raw materials to create their own games. Instead, they force them to play with toys in tightly controlled environments that have pre-determined outcomes that never vary. No wonder kids are uninspired, unable to focus, and acting up; and no wonder frustrated parents hand them fidget spinners and iPads to keep them entertained. Everyone’s going stir-crazy indoors.

I don’t know if toys in the past were ever that much better at sparking creativity, or if their inherent simplicity is what made them such successes. Quite possibly we’re overdoing toy purchases in order to compensate for the lack of freedom given to children these days, and the whole experiment is backfiring terribly with kids who don’t know how to entertain themselves and parents who are stressed about having to keep their kids busy.

If children were allowed to roam neighborhoods, ride their bikes, and climb dirt mountains, if they were permitted to band together with friends and push the limits of independence, if they could throw balls and snowballs and climb trees and build secret forts in forests, then none of these (mostly indoor) toys would matter as much as they do.

Rather than fretting about coming up with gadgets that will keep kids happy, I think parents should be prioritizing the return of simple toys, ones designed to be endlessly deconstructed and reconstructed, transformed into whatever a child wants them to be, in conjunction with greater freedom in outdoor play. Then, once again, toys will be fulfilling the role they were always meant to – stimulating creativity and imagination, fostering social and emotional development, and (perhaps most importantly) keeping little ones out of their exhausted parents’ hair.