toy interviews
M: Jane, you work with preschool children, with their parents and were a consultant to Brio toys for a number of years. What do you look for in a good toy?

J: I always look for a toy that doesn’t do very much because the less the toy does the more the child can bring his or her imagination or ideas to it. It is call an open-ended toy.
M: Let’s talk about that.

J: An open-ended toy is one that can be used in a variety of ways and by children of different ages and at different stages in their development. My favorite example are building blocks because for the two year old they’re pretty much are carrying them around, lining them up on a horizontal level, and then perhaps stacking or bridging or enclosing.

It’s so interesting to see parent’s reactions because they buy a set of building blocks and they have this great idea, ahh - castles or space stations and they get disappointed when a child might only line them up. But that’s what a two year old does and that is in preparation for those later stages.
Blocks, being an open-ended toy, can be one experience for the two year old. It can be another experience for the eight year old. They’ll use it in different ways. Open-ended toys also have no right or wrong. A child can build a tower and put the heaviest block on top, what’s going to happen? It’s going to fall over. That’s not wrong. They’re discovering something. Maybe they’re learning a little bit about gravity or balance and so a good open-ended toy will allow the child to experiment.
Open-ended toys are also unstructured. It doesn’t do anything until the child comes into the scene. The child brings the object to life by adding their imagination to it. Providing children with good open-ended toys, I think, is the best way to encourage them to explore not only materials but different concepts through their imagination.

M: There are a lot of adult overlays on what we consider to be child’s play or play in general. Have you seen that manifest with both the people that are making toys and also with parents?

J: I see it in both areas, certainly in toy companies and manufacturers because they want to have something new and exciting every year to present at toy fair or to sell, and of course they want to make money and so they need more product.

It’s a very consumer oriented society that we’re in. I think the parent is also looking for something new and exciting to entertain their child or to give them something that they think will please the child or maybe out of their lack of attention they will give an object that they feel says I love you. So I think both the toy companies and the parents get caught in that trap of something more, something new.

It amazes me today how many places you can find toys. As a child I think the only place was maybe a toy store or in a catalog. And now you can go to the grocery store, and the drug store, the gift shop, every place. Even at food establishments you can get a toy. It’s pretty alluring for the child because they’re seeing them every place. I’m amazed too when I’ve done focus groups with parents and we ask the question how often do you buy a toy for a child? It’s not just at a birthday or at a holiday; some parents told me that they buy a toy every time they go to the store. Maybe it’s only a two or three dollar item, but it’s overwhelming.

M: The nature of a child’s experience seems to be increasingly structured, as you said we’re doing more and more for children. They’re indoors more, they’re not outside. They’re supervised all the time. What do you think this adult structuring of childhood is doing in terms of the child’s sense of who they are?

J: Over structuring and hovering is taking something away from the child and I think parents might be shocked to realize that because they think that they’re giving more to the child. But again, they’re giving things and not experiences.
I think really what the children want is the chance to explore and to experience and toys or objects sometimes help them do that, but mainly it’s just the environment that they would like to explore.
You mentioned the supervision, this is a real switch in society and I understand the parents concern about safety and having an idea what the child is doing and where, but what a difference from a generation ago.

Parents will tell me that as children they would leave the house in the morning and maybe they’d check in at noon time because they were hungry, but they were pretty free to go and play in the neighborhood. That’s a real change. Children are so closely supervised, watched all the time.

It’s hard for Kids to go out and have that club where they have their own rules, excluded the boys or excluded the girls - because everything is so programmed and so supervised. I think that is a loss. And again, just making up club rules and excluding boys or girls, which often happened at certain ages, now parents are studying the rules and they want to be all inclusive. Sometimes kids don’t want to be all inclusive.

M: We’re talking about athletics. This adult imposition of rules and regulations, the kids aren’t organizing their games anymore, the parents are refereeing and calling the shots. There’s a disempowerment that’s taking place.

J: Yes, absolutely.

M: Do you see that dealing with the young children in pre-school areas?

J: In terms of toys, that good open-ended toy can be very empowering because the child decides how to use the toy, how to set up a play environment so they are in charge. That is empowering. A toy that does everything for the child absolutely strips them of any sense of being empower.
Part of my drive and mission in the toy area is to get rid of or not buy those toys that do everything, but concentrate on those that will allow the child to be empowered and to be in charge. Even with open-ended toys, I think we have to be very careful because sometimes we give too much detail.

I think of some of the little figures that children like to play with, they have all the details worked out and so the child can’t have this little figure be a construction worker one time and a pirate the next time and a fairy princess the next time because it has all of the details on it and all of the little baggage that goes with it.
You want to give just enough detail, whether it’s on a figure or on a car or on a train to get the child started and then let them go with it. We know that a child will pick up a block and it will be a telephone, or it will be a car if they run it this way. But if you put on headlights and wheels, then it’s a little harder for it to be a telephone. I think it’s really important to just give a hint to get them started.

M: There has to be a commercial side to this. It’s much better for the industry to put the detail in so that it can only be one thing so that in order to play different games, you literally are forced to purchase more things.

J: The toy companies want to sell more so they make it more limited instead of more expansive, and then again the parents are trying to please their child and to respond to the child who sees something on TV. It’s an escalating cycle. Many years ago someone said to me, if our children had half the toys that they do, they would still have twice as many as they need. And I think that’s true. 
Quantity certainly isn’t what they need. In fact I think children get overwhelmed. There are too many choices. Personally I don’t like to shop in large stores or mass market places because the choices are overwhelming. I think children feel that way when there’s too much in their playroom. Where do I begin?
Attention issues are a growing concern. One reason children find it difficult to pay attention is or focus is because they have too much to choose from. If you can narrow, not their play experiences, but the number of things that they can choose from, the child’s experience, depth and attention will expand. But that is a very difficult concept to explain to parents in our fast paced consumer culture.

Dr. Toy, Stevanne Auerbach, PhD, an educator and author of Smart Play – Smart Toys, How to raise a Child with a High PQ.

S: (Dr. Toy) I went to work for the Department of Education and my job was to evaluate Title 1 programs in the country. Some children were not doing well who had special problems in inner city schools, and somehow the school systems were not fulfilling what was needed.

There was a connection in my head between learning and play and materials and child development. During that period I approved the first grant for Sesame Street. I also became an activist in childcare because I organized the first childcare center in the Office of Education.

Then something else happened. I went to the National Association for the Education of Young Children conferences. I walk around and looked at materials that would be available for children, looking at toys, looking at other types of products. But I always kept coming back to toys. I kept thinking - gee this is really a terrific product or – this really does some of the things that I think are important and this is not so good.

M: What is a toy?

S: To me a toy is a tool, a tool to interact with. Whether it’s a child, the parent, a senior, a teenager, it doesn’t matter. Toys are tools that create opportunities to play.

M: You did a book on the history of toys. There’s been quite an evolution of toys as products. However, toys aren’t necessarily products. There are product toys and there are natural toys; frogs, dirt, other kids.

S: Absolutely, and boxes.

M: There are all kinds of things that are not products the children use to grow and then there are products which has been created to stimulate that discovery. What’s the difference between those?

S: In my definition of toys they are the same. I think about the tool it can be - a stone or a child who has stones and sticks that are made from nature around them, water that’s natural, leaves and boxes. The materials that you find in nursery schools might be blocks instead of the stones but the principle is the same.
I think we are making a mistake not introducing sticks and stones in a nursery school classroom too because nature is what children really like to explore most, real clay and not just play-dough. Real materials instead of things that are artificial.
It’s just that what happens in programs. Things get institutionalized and they have to buy material so they forget about things that are natural until they go outside and children are having more fun playing with sand and stones. It’s a mistake.

M: Toys are tools and the use or experience the too creates affects the child’s body and mind. What is the toy-tool doing to the mind, the body and the psyche of that child? What’s going on?

S: The child sees something and connect with it, now they want to touch it. They want to put it in their mouth depending on their age. They want to find out what this thing does, whatever that thing is. They’re immediately trying to figure it out, see the color, see the shape. It becomes a challenge. To a child everything, whether it be a stick or a pen, they’re interested. They want to reach out.
But to me, Michael, the first toy is the parent. I think that parents really have a responsibility, not just to feed their child and take care of them but to interact with your child, to be their child’s first interactive toy. Before you even think about any of these other objects, the stuffed animal - people immediately when they’re expecting a baby rush out and buy a lot of products. I say no! You don’t have to buy things. You just have to be with your child, sing to them, talk to them, interact and play games. That’s the improvisation experience that I had early on in my career. I don’t think adults get down on the level of the child and be with them at that level. That’s what’s really important.
M: I never really heard anybody say that the adult is the child’s first toy. But it is so true.

S: Interactive toy.

M: It’s a s a wonderful image because an interactive toy is different than a teacher explaining, judging what is right and wrong.

S: Absolutely.

M: Let’s focus in on this distinction between parent as teachers and parents a interactive toys or tools that create learning experiences.

S: The child is born observing, feeling and experiencing every moment. The way the adult touches them, responds to them and handles them, every moment is really what the child learns first.
The warmth, the nurturing builds trust, builds security, builds a sense of this is going to be a good place to be in the world.
Giving a child water and baths is an extremely important experience. It’s not just to get them clean it’s really to interact with them and an opportunity to be playful so that they associate play and water, touch and safety. Parents, grandparents, whoever is involved with the child, the caregivers, need to be aware of this as the underlying principle. The child is learning all the time.

M: We all know that you do it this way, you don’t do it that way. That’s the parent/teacher. Now the parent/toy is very different. The whole attitude and disposition, the relationship, everything is different with the parent being the toy.

S: The quality of playfulness the parent, being the first toy, brings to the relationship increases the Play Quotient, what I call the P.Q. We all know about I. Q.- the Intelligence Quotient. In my book I describe the Play Quotient, that is a child’s capacity to Play which is actually related to intelligence. The more a species plays the greater their intelligence. A child’s play quotient depends on the parent’s ability to be playful.
The parent has to examine themselves as a player, as a playful person. In the course of becoming ready for a child you have to be willing to look at yourself as a playful person. I think we get ready for children in a lot of different ways but we don’t think about play being part of this process. That’s why I wrote my book, Dr. Toys Smart Play – Smart Toys, How to raise a Child with a High PQ, to encourage parents to think about playfulness. I think everyone needs to have timeout every day not just to have a cocktail or to watch a television. That’s not play per-se, but taking a walk and observing nature, to begin getting in touch with playfulness. We, and I mean adults, really need to take time out to be playful.

M: What is play? You use the word but what does it mean?

S: To facilitate play you have got to be open to it in yourself. I notice that people seem to be to be very stressed, shut down. There’s a disconnect. The playfulness of a child is easy, natural but adults have a difficult time engaging in a playful way. It’s difficult for most adults to let down their guard, be spontaneous and be interactive.
There’s something else about all of this Michael that I touched on in my book that relates to what we’re talking about. Before I make any presentation about play and toys I have people close their eyes and go back into their memory of being a child and remember the first toy that they had, remember what it felt like, what it smelled like, see yourself at play.
Within seconds everyone has an immediate memory that comes up about what they were doing when they were four, five or six years old. There’s an immediacy about it, there is an amazing memory that’s stored in our inner selves of these moments of playfulness. Okay, here we are 30, 40, 50 years later and you can recall what it felt like being a chil, how important that experience was, how you remember it. That is how important it is to play with your children. That is how important is to make good choices about the toys that we give them.

M: So the toy tool really sets the stage and determines the activity, determines how it’s going to be used, what’s going to happen to it, what this child is going to do and learn is shaped by the object that they’re interacting with. But the adult toy, the nature and quality of that adult, their playfulness or not, shapes that child’s interaction.

S: Exactly.
M: The nature and quality of the play thing, the toy, at different ages and stages shape the development that’s going on as the child interacts with them. Let’s talk about the nature and structure of the object of the toy and what makes it the “good” toy, what makes a good toy as opposed to a lot of the stuff that’s out there?

S: Way back in the beginning grandpa used to carve something wooden. He created a boat or he’d create a bear. Raggedy Ann and Andy was a story the dad made up and mom made the first Raggedy Ann. The child’s play grew out of this personal experience.

Today much of that personal experience is missing so we look at the quality, how it’s made, it’s durability and the color, the shape, how it comes together, whether it’s going to be appropriate for the child at different ages. I’m looking at the materials today even more, looking for green toys, things that are not only safe but ecologically sensible. I’m looking for companies that are making things from safe materials, making them in interesting ways.

M: Let’s talk about imagination. When you really look at what the toys are doing, imagination is the key ingredient.

S: The child is constantly exploring the limitations of any object that they are playing with. When they’re playing with water, as an example, it has unlimited possibilities. You can pour it, you can splash it. Blocks are unlimited. They can become an airport or a truck or a house or whatever the child wants. Construction materials are wonderful for that reason. They’re open-ended and allow the child to use their imagination.
But there’s more than just imagination, they’re using coordination, they’re figuring things out, they’re developing strategies, they’re communicating. Children will adapt and make the object be whatever they want it to be if it fits their play, experiences. If they can’t immediately find what they need for their play experience they will find something to fit and it may be something that you wouldn’t think would be the right thing but to them at that moment that object can fit whatever they want it to be. Children are not as limited as we often are in the way they are looking at something.
M: That’s what I meant by imagination. They’re taking the inner image of a space ship and they’re imposing that on the truck and suddenly the truck becomes a space ship. Their imagination is transforming what this object is.

S: Einstein liked gyroscopes. Some things have magical qualities all unto themselves. The slinky has a certain quality. There are certain objects you have to use the way they are designed. A yo-yo, for example, is not the right object for a three year old. That’s what I meant by appropriateness for children. The opportunity to use an object and how the child uses it depends on their age, their experience, what their parents have encouraged them to do or not do. If we have lots of objects around that are open-ended for the child to use as they want to, that’s going to stimulate them to try to find new things to do. Suddenly there’s something new there that they haven’t seen before. They get excited and they want to explore it. They want to see what it can do.
M: Let’s go back to imagination and discovery. The child finds an object and is immersed simply trying to figure out what it does. The next thing is the inner story. I want to go to the moon. It’s under water, it’s a fish, and the child begins a narrative. They begin creating a story and that drives the play.

S: The child is discovering what they can do with something that’s introduced to them. Then they make a connection to some inner narrative or story and they start putting things back into that scenario. They start to integrate the object into the scenario they were working with build on it. We call it scaffolding, being able to extend the play in many directions.

People say can you have too many toys. That can lead to overwhelm if you have a lot of junk around and it’s disconnected, it can be a confusing. What I’m talking about is sequentially enriching the child’s play. In terms of play you’ve got to think about how to provide a palette that is providing nutritious enriching stimulating and rewarding materials and helping the child to extend their interests.

M: In the twenties and thirties children got a toy a year. They got a wagon or they got a bike. They didn’t get toys every day or four or five toys every day.

S: I know when I was growing up during World War II we didn’t have toys. I made clothespin dolls, I had cardboard boxes, we had a victory garden, we played games, a lot of games; hide n’ seek and tag and stick ball and jump ropes. We were playing with our friends. We were doing things outside and you would go out and you wouldn’t see your folks again until the end of the day.
It’s a really sad thing Michael when I think about what’s happened to children. They’re imprisoned every day in school and at home and they don’t really get outdoors and they don’t play. They’re not using the playfulness that they have inside them to be healthy and to be explorers and create adventure. No, we didn’t have a lot of toys but we sure had a lot of imagination and we sure made up games and we would play different kinds of rolls. We just used our imagination.

M: Toys became more abundant. The toy industry grew and parents began giving kids toys all the time. Today is Tuesday we go to the market and the child gets a toy. They come from cereal boxes. So what happened was we went outside less. Toys along with many other factors conspired to domesticate the childhood experience. The nature and quality of child’s play changed dramatically.
S: The jail keepers gave the kids lots of things but without the playfulness connected to it. The jail keepers are imprisoning children whether it be teachers or parents. They are giving them objects but not the playfulness. You can’t really be playful sitting passively watching television or with video games. It’s the video games that’s doing the play. It’s a substitute for parenting in many cases. They buy a toy to distract or entertain the child. Play is different from entertainment.

I’m constantly saying to parents ‘get down on the floor and play with your children,’ and they look at me puzzled like nobody has ever told them that before or given them permissions to do that. 
Underlying all of this, one of my pet peeves, is that there is no training to be a parent. We get certified and licensed to be everything else; Accountants, Teachers, Lawyers, everything else but not to be a parent, as if the most important profession is the least important in terms of credentials.
And I don’t think anybody can just become a parent because they can become a parent. Being a parent is a really big responsibility and part of the curriculum of being a parent should to know how to be a playful parent. The toy gives you a chance to be playful with your child. Not only the parent is important but you have to know when to let your child play alone, and also play with other children, to know when to connect and when to let them be themselves.
M: The lack of parent development has been systematically imposed by the structure; schools, pre schools, mothers entering the workforce. Basically the system told parents very early they don’t matter, they’re not important, turn the kid over to us, the professionals, we’ll take care of them, we know how to do it better. It’s better for you to go to work and make us tax dollars than it is for you to deal with this parent development stuff. Don’t bother with the parent stuff, we’ll take care of that.

S: To me the only way a school really works is to have parent involvement. If parents are not participating with the school, coming in and spending time in the class, not turning over their child at the door, then we’re really losing a very important part of the whole system which includes parent, teachers and the community.
Parent participation use to be a very important part of the culture. I think that the economy has forced most parents to work and to be so exhausted by the time they get their child back from childcare or school they don’t have the energy left to go out for one more meeting or to take time off from work to spend time at the child’s program. There’s no really good communication going on between the child’s teacher and home. Once a year meeting is totally inadequate.

I think this is really a serious hole in the system. We’re touching on a big part of why kids have become so self-absorbed, very much taken with the electronics because the parents and the teachers have got have not been interactive with them.

M: Social engineers at the turn of the century realized they needed to break the family bond in order to program children the way that they wanted them to be programmed. The authority of the parent and the family had to be broken if the authority of the system was going to succeed.

There was an interview that was done with one Nicholas Rockefeller’s and he said proudly, “we funded women’s lib. Do you know why?” The interviewer said, ‘equal pay, equal rights.’ Rockefeller said, ‘ you’re a dope. We did it for two reasons, one, so we could tax the fifty percent of the work force, that’s number one, and number two was, by putting put little kids into the system earlier their allegiance will shift from the family to the professionals. That’s why we funded women’s lib.
Parent development is the key to child development. When parents turn that responsibility over to the state the parent stops or retards dramatically their own developing as a parent. The state or the system becomes the authority. Parents, by being absent support this. And the real development of the parent and the child diminishes.

S: The economy is very difficult. Almost everyone I know is having a very difficult time. They didn’t feel this way when they had extra money. As a result children are more vulnerable than ever to turning to electronic devices. The other day I read a child was being reprimanded by the Principal for behavior at school and the child was texting to his friends at the same time.

I read the Wall Street Journal yesterday, movies are being made about toys. G.I. Joe and Mr. Potato Head have become characters who have offices at a studio lot in the movie lot. Toys have moved from play things into promotable objects that are selling movies and the movies sell more toys.

That’s far a field from what I’ve been talking about which is playfulness. It’s more like they’re turning movies into a way of promoting the products, not promoting playfulness. The point is that media has changed profoundly the nature of child’s play. Buying toys is not the answer to what I’m saying. It’s not about just buying a lot of stuff, it’s using what we have selectively and in a positive way.

That generates a children’s interest and their creativity and their imagination, not what’s put out artificially to increase sales of movies. Barbie’s going to be a movie. Barbie already sells a billion dollars worth of Barbie’s. How many Barbie’s does a girl have to have to play with it? But it’s really coming away from play and it’s really about sales, marketing and promotion and that is what the toy industry is mostly about.
M: You brought up issue of licensing.

S: The licensing issue is a very big issue.

M: Disney is one of the primary corporate exploiters of children in the world. They said look, we’re in the business of making money. That’s what we’re in business to do - make money. That’s our goal. When 101 Dalmatians came out Disney made more money preselling licensees for toys and lunch boxes then they were going to make selling in movie tickets. The movie was basically a long form commercial to sell toys and tie shirts. Ralph Nader did an expose quite a few years ago on corporate exploitation in children which is a huge industry.

S: Our country is built on capitalism and there are many aspects of capitalism that take advantage of people in negative ways. As good as it might be for a system for enterprise, there are aspects of it that become over-indulgent.
Most of the cereals on the market are not good for kids nutritionally so therefore by the same token many of the toys that are available in big stores, no matter how Wal-Mart might discount them, they may not be really what’s good for children in the play experiences of them.
So what happens is the parent buys this object, whatever it is, and it’s $25 or $30 dollars and they bring it home and the child plays with it maybe 10 or 15 minutes and it breaks or doesn’t work right and it’s disappointing so they go back to playing with the box because that’s what’s really much more fun anyway.
And the parent sees the child playing with the box and feels really bad and probably feels somehow ripped off by the whole system but feels powerless to do anything about it. We end up having a lot of disappointed consumers and kids that are not healthy. Kids are overweight. Diabetes is on the increase. Parents are frustrated and I think we have a lot of soul searching to do in this country.

M: I don’t mean to be so overly negative but this is very serious.

S: It’s a reality. Looking a the glass half full - let’s say that parents ready my book and they begin to realize gee, there’s something to play and toys after all. Maybe then they can turn off the television and start playing games.
Maybe they begin to discover their own childhood and the opportunity they have to share some toys from their past and bring them into their lives today. Let’s think about how to create a playful environment at home, in school, in the community, certainly toys play a very big part in a happy childhood, discovery of play and the relationship between play and products, the right products, can help children a great deal.
I think we have a wonderful opportunity to evaluate what we’re doing with children, as teachers, a parents, a grand-parent. What can we do today to have fun? How can we enhance today’s experience so there are moments that open up the world of discovery and begin to see how things work? How does a toy work, getting inside?
M: The area we should touch on a little bit more, you mentioned it just reflectively, to turn off the television. Television, and more broadly media, is driving the whole thing. The toys that children are buying they’re buying because they see them on the television. The licensing, it is all driven by media. As a matter of fact media is a counterfeit of the imagination. The more time that the kids watch television the more likely they are to buy the toys that are being promoted and those toys can be viewed as counterfeits of the kids imagination too. So the whole system basically robs the children of what toys are really designed to do which is grow that imagination and that sense of wonder and so on. So the turning off the television is my view, pretty much the key to the whole deal.

S: Along with it comes sugar cereal and all the other objects that kids get pushed to obtain that they feel are so important. The whiney buy me, buy me child is what the TV or media experience creates.
And parents model how media is used and consumed. If a change is going to take place it has to begin with parents. They have to change. They have to see that it’s not about buying. It’s about being and experiencing. And that experience changes at ever age and stage of a child’s life.

My book describes how there are new challenges at each stage, new opportunities for that child to discover what toys are at that age. Play is a lifelong process. It’s a long term process. It doesn’t end at age 10. We have talked mostly about children but I think teenagers and adult get a lot of pressure also from television. We’re a consumer generated economy and when people are not shopping we’re in trouble. There’s a big issue here in terms of a much larger picture. I don’t think the problem is the same in Europe and in other countries. There are more There’s family oriented activities.
I think what we have to look at the role of play in ourselves, with our children, in schools. Maybe that’s why children are not doing well in math, because there aren’t math games to play. Maybe if we had some cash registers and play money and play objects they would begin to see some connection between math and everyday life.

We have to look at what we’re doing at home. We have to look at what we’re selling to children,, that they hype is really not what it’s all about but more importantly how can we help our children rediscover playfulness. The toy industry has as much responsibility to promote play as it does promoting products. I’ve been trying to get that point across for a long time. The industry is oriented towards advertising and promoting products.

But as we said, toys are tools that promote the experience of playfulness. What we forget is that playful experience is the heart and soul of real learning. We are touching on a much larger issue. How can we provide the experiences that grow a healthy society in which everybody is having a happier time, being happier, more playful, more productive, not so stressed. How do we create a playful learning world where children have better relationships with their parents and with each other? Cutting down on violence, cutting down on negative behavior and maybe having more fun? Play is a bridge to learning and that’s really what it’s all about. So children would be learning all the time through play.