In Ways that Can Only Be Imagined…

By Christopher Byrne

I love this. Over the past weeks, I’ve counted no fewer than five press releases that have come across my desk telling me that some new technological innovation (aka: gimmick) that allows kids to play “In ways that could only be imagined” previously.


Did I miss something? Isn’t imagination what play is supposed to be about?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love technological toys, particularly when they are immersive and narrative driven like the best video games, or inspire interaction such as the growing number of reading devices and sophisticated learning toys or add dimensions of entertainment that complement a basic play pattern such as the many wonderful interactive plush items out there.

But sometimes technology can go awry, and the technology emerges as something that will delight an adult developer but leaves kids cold. Unfortunately, a lot of these current toys are taking things kids used to do in the dimensional world and putting it on the screen. Now let me say again there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just that it changes the nature of the play.

When play is translated from the physical world into online play, once involved the kinesthetic and the centers of the brain that create imaginary pictures is overridden by the different centers that process information visually. So in bringing things “to life” in this way, the play experience is changed.

We continue to observe that kids will naturally seek balanced play experiences, given the opportunity, just as picky eaters somehow manage to get a balanced diet. For example, we see that when kids are given choices a week of video gaming often gives way to a week of skateboarding, just as a passion for, say, egg salad, often leads to a passion for fruit.

Boys are happily putting down their Nintendo DS’s and backing away from the computer screens to play Bakugan. Girls still “play Barbies” without any reference to the computer. Technology does make the toy box bigger, but it doesn’t take away the human need—and desire—for play that exercises the various centers of the brain and the imagination. Kids need this diversity of experiences to fully develop.

And it’s not all just fun and games. The ability to visualize whether with action figures or dolls uses the same mental processes that facilitate aptitude in math and reading. The child is literally creating the reality in his or her imagination, rather than the kind of stimulus/response process of online or computer games. They need—and respond to—both.

As parents, caregivers and adults concerned about healthy play, our job is to ensure that kids get a balanced play diet. We need to understand the role of different styles of play in kids’ lives and encourage them to the extent possible. The last thing we need to do is vilify one mode of play over another or think that because we played in a certain way as kids that that’s the “best” way. (Many of us had to acquire our computer skills later in life, learning to use a mouse by playing Solitaire or Mine Sweeper.)

Amidst all the computer time, take the time this summer to encourage kids to play in ways that can only be imagined. It may not seem new in the marketing sense, but it’s new to them and critical to their development.  And that’s the most important thing of all.

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