October 08, 2007

On Producing Idle Minds

So many children these days grow up without toys- they will never own a toy in their life, perhaps never want one, and never know, or know too late, what they missed.

I'm not talking about children from lower-income families, homeless children, third-world children, or the children in orphanages. I'm talking about the kids you see every day- your little neighbors, your students, your siblings, maybe even your own children.

It seems to me that toys these days, most of the toy industry, are simply not creative or stimulative of creativity. Toys, instead of making kids use their minds or skills, have more and more of a tendency to cater to idleness.

For instance, take a toy truck. I had toy trucks when I was little, and so did my brothers. A toy truck, to me, had four wheels and endless possibilites. It could be anything I wanted it to be, and I imagined it to be everything. These days, you buy a toy truck, and it has real headlights, perhaps a siren or horn, little voices that shout "Fire!" or "Squad car 10, come in please!" Perhaps it even drives itself around on the floor.

Where's the fun in that?

Sure, it's thrilling. It's really neat to see real life duplicated in the miniature- but it's turning a toy from an opportunity for ivating your imagination to a mere spectator event. Kids are fully and completely capable of making truck/siren noises themselves- anyone who's known kids doesn't need to be told that. Where's the fun in having a talking race car if you can't shout "Gentlemen, start your engines!" all by yourself, with different voices?

The truth is, while toy companies claim that their toys will give kids skills they'll need in the world, it's limiting their minds severely. How much skill does it take to press a button and have a toy do something for you?

On a different note, the electronic sounds really can grate upon the nerves.

Toy companies these days make it so hard for children to use their imagination. Everything is done for them at the touch of a button or by remote control. A kid can ten toys in the room, and still be bored after fifteen minutes, simply because his imagination isn't being challenged. Most toys will either addict him and accustom his mind to addiction on different levels, be used to give him a false sense of control over a mindless gadget, or subtly drain his desire to use his own imagination. At best, it'll keep the kid quiet for ten minutes and sate the burning desire to be entertained.

That may be one reason why so many young people are unduly aggressive- simply frustrated by the uncultivated, abused imagination that's unsettling them and making them restless.

I'm not entirely condeming electronic toys or all the plethora of little gadgets out these days. I've owned some myself in days past. I'm saying that there's a difference between the things that prepare you for reality and the things that don't.

Imagination is healthy! Imagination is one of the things that will help someone be successful in the world. Look at the difference between playing a with self or friends, "Let's pretend to be..."-and for an hour, or ten minutes, or however long, you pretend. I have the disturbing idea that too many of today's toys are saying not "let's pretend..." but "you are." Toys that are boosting ego, creating false images of oneself, convincing a child that he is completely in charge, in command, and grown up. For this to be someone's only plaything is severely limiting to the mind. "Skills your child will need to succeed in the world..." it's limiting his mind. "Oh, but imagination- he'll get stuck in a little world of his own-" imagination is not what limits people. Imagination helps you to truly use your mind.

These are just my thoughts. It may seem like overreacting, or a laughably amusing paranoia in itself. I'm merely musing on the effects that uncreative toys have on the individual and the community.

For example, in my neighborhood, you never see the kids out enjoying the outdoors. Healthy of spontaneous pretend are simply not existent. Building forts, catching insects and amphibia, organizing an amusing historic reenactment, kite-flying, paper-airplane flying, even swinging- I haven't seen any of this since I did it myself, alone. Oh, and the indoor activities- if only more people would realize that kids understand the true potential of cardboard, scissors, duct tape, and string. Laugh at me, but that's all I wanted when I was little. I could make anything. King Richard's crown- let me make it myself, out of tin foil and paperboard. Stethoscopes and syringes out of string and clay. An Indian costume out of an old brown blanket, some beads, and an old crow feather. A nondescript, abstract sculpture made of sticks and plastic milk cartons. A viking longship out of a wagon with a tablecloth for a sail.

"But the kid will be tired of something made of junk in five minutes, anyway!" True, I'll admit. I'll even add that it will probably make a mess. However, even the most sophisticated toy can't hold someone's attention for very long- and when the toy gets old, whether that be in two weeks or two years- it's kicking around the house and the kid won't let go of it. Usually, the toy ends up broken or taken apart, since it's a child's nature to want to take things apart. Unfortunately, once it gets taken apart it doesn't usually go back together again. How much better to have playthings that one can construct, enjoy for a limited attention span, and then either be reassembled into something more satisfactory or simply recycled.

Kids are going to want something new, anyway- but look at the big difference between "I want something new- I'll find it or make it myself" and "I want something new- give it to me, I'm bored." Self-reliance is indeed an admirable quality. I have never been bored a day in my life.

I've always had toys that were mostly old-fashioned, and supplemented them with the things I could create out of odds and ends. I gained perseverance and inspiration from using all my faculties to discover exactly how I could best make that thing I wanted. I believe I gained just as much satisfaction as I ever could out of the expensive plastic or electronic equivalents of my playthings. When the thing's tired of, a child has gained creative energy from making or inventing a toy that will be lost in mere pleasure when derived from playing electronics or mass-produced, impersonal toys.

Oddly enough, most kids are so receptive to a return to creativity. You'll always find some skeptics, or a thoroughly addicted person that only wants the next, more expensive thing. It's surprising, however, that kids are open to creative and activities- they simply haven't been accustomed to thinking them up themselves. I still remember clearly how, when babysitting, I held two elementary-age kids at rapt attention for two solid hours with crayoned leaf-rubbings and a zoo of origami animals. Years later, they still remember it, and me. Or the time a friend spent the morning with another friend and the afternoon with me. Her mother asked, "what did you do at Allie's house?" "I don't really remember- computer, and stuff. But at Mari's house we played log cabin and made hickory nut stew!" Not to forget the conversations I have with my sister- neither of us can remember very many of the store-bought toys we had, but we can still remember nearly every little cardboard object that we constructed together. Creativity is the stuff memories are made of.

These random thoughts came to me when helping unpack a load of groceries. My mother picked up one of those boxes of macaroni with the little clear cellophane window, and said sadly, "When was the last time you saw a kid making a camera out of one of these? They just don't know how to play, these days."

As I said above, I'm not condeming all modern toys- I'm merely saying, strike a balance between them and the more creative stimuli. Those seemingly unimportant, trivial little things- toys and - are what influence the little people the most. The little people who are going to grow up to be big people and lead the nation and the world. You are what you play can be understood not as a cliche'd expression but a subtle warning.


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Blogger Shakespeare's Cobbler said...

I often wished we could've built a treehouse, or something interesting like that, when I was young. I think the whole suburbanite residential mode is a major detriment to what most kids can find to do outside. For a short time in temporary housing when we first moved to Cincinnati, there was a wood nearby with a complex creek slogging its way through it. My brother and I (and one other friend) had the time of our lives romping through there for hours on end. (We also developed something of a commentary on how disgusting tossing trash into the woods is.)

In my own case, there has been a curious phenomenon with videogames where the inspiration from them has been rather stimulating of my imagination. Of course, that depended a lot on the development of my imagination itself. I also wouldn't recommend ever trying it with most modern games, sadly. Furthermore, it certainly would never have happened if my mom hadn't been limiting on the videogames themselves. Left liking them (I will freely confess they are addicting) but unable to play them most of the time, I tended to search out what was interesting about them (these were the old ones that didn't appeal by sheer graphics power) and recreate that on my own. So it turns out that that limiting thing parents do is actually quite easily proven to be beneficial. (Thanks, mom!)

October 15, 2007 9:10 PM  
Blogger Shakespeare's Cobbler said...

"Oh, and the indoor activities- if only more people would realize that kids understand the true potential of cardboard, scissors, duct tape, and string."

Did I forget to mention that the kid who grows up playing with duct tape will be experienced in utilizing the most versatile tool known to man?

October 16, 2007 11:04 AM  
Blogger ~Ambrose said...

Don't ger Mari started on Duct Tape xD

You have no idea how much we used to romp through the woods behind my house...Still do, occasionally.

October 16, 2007 11:39 AM  

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