This story appears in ParentMap's December 2017 print edition. Subscribe today!
In this digital age, what sort of toys and activities do kids prefer? Are virtual games dominating the industry? Are screens pushing out old-fashioned, retro games like puzzles, board games and dolls?
Studies show that kids like both virtual games and physical toys, but will opt to watch television or movies at home before playing with traditional toys, according to one 2015 report on consumer habits.
Are we seeing the same preference in local toy stores? To find the answer, we chatted with Allen Rickert, owner of Greenwood’s Top Ten Toys. Rickert’s sister established Top Ten Toys three decades ago. Her goal was to provide a place where parents can buy “healthier” toys for their kids.
To Rickert, who took over the store 15 years ago, “healthier” means more educational, less violent, gender-neutral, multicultural and environmentally friendly toys.
After more than a decade in the industry, Rickert says he’s noticing a change in the toys kids want; namely, he’s seeing a decline in the popularity of old-fashioned, physical toys that get kids moving and that lack of creative options isn’t good for kids, he says.
Could you elaborate on why we need creativity in our toys?
With old-fashioned toys, you’re using hand-eye coordination. That ability to physically manipulate things helps develop not just hand-eye connection, but the brain’s ability to appreciate shapes and the way things go together. We’ve noticed that now, when children come into the store, they’ll go past the section with the windup toys. [When kids do stop], they’ll wind the toys once and expect it to work. They’re used to pushing buttons. The idea that they have to wind it several times takes them by surprise.
Kids are finding it harder to play with [physical] games because online games are typically designed to hook the child pretty quickly. They’re simpler to play right away. [With games like board games or puzzles,] there is no online tutorial. You have to sit down with these different objects and figure out how they work. You have to read instructions. Kids are increasingly challenged to do that.
What about screens and virtual games? Where do they fit in?
Kids are spending many hours a day on their screens. First, it was on the computer; now, it’s on their smartphones or tablets. If they’re spending a lot of time on the screen, that’s less [time they’re spending] seeking out other ways to entertain themselves, like with traditional toys.
Traditional toys often require more imagination, physical effort and time to slowly reach the point where the model is built or the game is won. A doll tea party or the slow, meticulous set-up of toy soldiers before a battle cannot match the nearly immediate flashing colored lights and sounds of a computer game. Screen time sometimes makes the real world seem boring, [but] boredom [is what] drives us to make something happen on our own and figure out how to do it.
Even if computer games evolve to provide slower, less high-stimulating graphics to make room for creativity and social interaction, the allure of the unhealthy games and the need to set boundaries with them will always be there. [That said,] I do believe in the potential of conventional or virtual screen time.
Screen time has the potential to be healthy or unhealthy; even the good stuff needs to be [consumed] in moderation. It’s a very difficult challenge for many parents to set boundaries of moderation when they are spending large amounts of time on the screens themselves. That challenge will always remain.