I was wandering the toy aisle in Target the other day and I was dismayed at most of what I saw there. There were three main types of toys that stood out to me: Electronic everything, TV/movie tie-ins, and what I call “creativity in a kit.” The latter are things like Lego models, coloring “systems” that require special paper and pens and dictate that you color only certain designs, Play-Doh sets that make kids use certain tools and colors of Play-Doh to complete the “mission” of the set, and craft kits that turn out one specific item. All of these are marketed as “creative” toys, but they’re pretty much the polar opposite of creativity. Creativity is making something out of nothing. These toy kits are about following directions which, any creative will tell you, is not the way to create a breakout idea or product.
The Lego aisle was especially dismaying. Almost every product was a kit designed to build one specific model. Way down on the bottom shelf was a sad offering of just one box of Lego bricks that wasn’t designed to build any specific thing. That box of bricks, though, represents true creativity. If a kid can use his or her imagination to create something out of nothing, without instructions, that’s creativity. That’s a skill that will serve them well in life. Even if they don’t pursue a creative occupation like art or writing, most situations in life require you to find solutions on the fly. There isn’t an instruction book for life.
(Side note: There’s nothing wrong with building models. I built plenty of them as a kid and they do teach patience, dexterity, and how to follow directions. All valuable skills to learn, just don’t think they’re teaching true creativity. Unless you go off-script and stick the wheels of the car on the roof, or create your own paint scheme, they’re not creative.)
We’ve taken creativity out of pretty much everything kids do these days.
When I look back on my childhood, you could only get a few true Lego models. Everything else was a bunch of bricks with maybe an idea sheet tossed in. It was the same with most of my other toys. They were designed for “open world” play. Lincoln Logs, crayons, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, Hot Wheels, Play-Doh, and green army men, to cite just a few examples. None of them came with kits or sets. That all came later. In my time these things just came in boxes or packages with the briefest of instructions. (Usually along the lines of “Don’t be a moron and swallow this.”) The toy was simply a tool to use during playtime. It was up to me to make it fun and interesting. That’s how we ended up with the army men sinking in the quicksand Play-Doh lagoon and the Lincoln Log house trimmed with the Barrel of Monkeys and the Lego flying car parked out front.
Even things that were a bit more prescribed (the Fisher Price Little People toys, for example, that featured airports, farms, and schools, among others) were still very open ended. Sure, you were supposed to play “school” with the schoolhouse, but there was nothing wrong with imagining the school house to be a home, a church, or a treehouse. The toys weren’t branded or tied in with anything that made you feel like you had to use them a certain way. They were generic, but that was part of the appeal.
Today’s toys seem to shackle kids to a notion of what is acceptable play. If it’s not a kit that dictates the specific outcome, it’s an electronic gizmo that has a prescribed play-path. You must complete X before moving on to Y and the end is the end. Or, it’s a movie tie-in item that means the kid must play as the Hulk or a Hobbit, and which encourages them to reenact scenes from the movies rather than creating their own. (Kudos to the kids who do what we did: Have the Star Wars guys hang out with He-Man and the Six Million Dollar Man and create your own adventures.) This sort of “locked-in” play style doesn’t encourage creativity. It encourages stifled thinking and an inability to function when there isn’t a set of directions handed to you.
I guess this isn’t surprising. We’ve taken creativity out of pretty much everything kids do these days. There’s no more recess in school and, if there is, too many games are considered “dangerous” and are forbidden. So what you get is thirty kids standing around waiting for the bell to ring instead of running, playing, poking things with sticks, and creating adventures among the playground equipment. The classroom, with its emphasis on teaching to the tests, certainly no longer encourages creativity. Art class, shop, and other creative electives are relics of the past in many schools. And if a kid tries to think out of the box and be a little bit different? Too often they get slapped with a label and maybe a prescription. A toy kit or electronic gizmo is just another way to suck the creativity out of things that used to encourage it.
(Incidentally, this “canned creativity” is profitable for toy makers. Whereas you used to buy a box of Legos maybe once or twice for your kids over their entire childhood, you now buy them kit after kit after kit. Why? Because there’s no replay value in the kits. Once it’s put together, that’s it. Doing it again isn’t fun. Same with video games and most electronic toys. Once you beat it, it’s over. But a box of bricks, (or crayons, or cans of Play-Doh, or army men) has replay value that’s limited only by the child’s imagination. You can buy it once and not have to buy another (unless you’re replacing broken crayons or dried-up clay). In other words, toy makers profit from canned entertainment while children’s imaginations wither. Yay.)
I see too many kids today who are absolutely stymied when you ask them to create something on their own. They can’t do it. They ask for directions. They whine about being bored. They ask if it’s “okay” if they do something different from what’s plastered on the box. They look to their friends for validation that their dreams and imaginings are acceptable. It’s sad to watch. I fear for the future of art, music, literature and, heck, simple problem solving. I’m not sure that the kids of today are going to be capable of dreaming up the big ideas and solutions that our world is going to need in the coming years if they can’t even create their own “masterpieces” with crayons or building blocks. If you never learn how to take a chance and develop your ideas with toys, how can you be expected to do it in the real world?
I just hope that somewhere along the line, a parent or grandparent takes these kids aside and teaches them what true creativity is about. Show them how to make something out of nothing. Show them how to use their imaginations (and that it’s okay to do so). For crying out loud, teach kids how to create and dream big because the junk on the toy aisle sure isn’t going to do it for you.