The fact that technology has affected every aspect of life is certainly not news to anyone, so it should come as no surprise the way children play is changing too. As experts put it, children are the same inquisitive explorers they have always been. What is changing is the environment that they are playing in, and how they interact with it. In a bid to stave off bankruptcy, retail giant Toys R Us has announced that 180 stores will soon be closing across the United States. While no stores will be closing in Canada, this is a good indicator that children’s taste for toys has changed.
A few years ago, touchscreens were the new main entertainment option for children. This was mostly due to games, but utility apps and books were also widely used. Tales of children making a swiping motion when they heard the words of a story that they knew and recognised the place in the narrative where they usually swiped to simulate a page turning abounded. As mobile technology continues to develop touchscreens remain very widespread, and the games that children can play are as popular as online casinos are with adults. However, as the physical and digital worlds blend together, something new is developing in the play options for children. Just as devices for adults are beginning to feel like more natural parts of everyday life, with smart homes being a prime example, so too are physical toys being improved with evolutions in technology.
In previous decades, “technologically advanced” toys were as distinct as personal computers. The bells and whistles were more to do with impressing parents than with meeting children at their own level. A virtual game of building blocks, for example, might not stimulate any growth but could look very good on a tablet screen. In the same way, light-up physical building blocks might not enhance a child’s experience at all. Traditional, brightly-coloured blocks that are specifically sized and shaped to help with motor skills and 3D planning would be better than either of these.
Play, it is often said, is the “serious work of childhood”, and its lessons are not only learned through specific tasks but in the meta-activities that surround them too. Those same building blocks can help youngsters to learn about turn taking and shared attention as they are creating imaginative structures. The advanced toys of today seem to be embracing this fact, and are elegantly simplified to meet children where they are in their development and to stimulate them to take their own initiative and so learn much more. Apps that are designed to respond to the different actions that children take in different ways are just as much a part of the plaything revolution as the renewed respect for good old-fashioned building blocks are.
So are “smart toys” which are connected to the Internet and answer questions, help with homework, stream audio books and do much more. Looking at these examples it is easy to see why the humble teddy bear is going the way of the dinosaur, and Toys R’ Us is being replaced with gadget shops that cater to all ages.