The Case for Creative Play in a Digital Age

By | December 17, 2018

All the excesses of my own childhood are, of course, available on eBay, priced for the vintage market. There are the accessories for the 1960s Thingmaker, from Mattel, with its metal molds to be poured full of plastigoop (I can smell it now) and cooked to a nice soft solid texture on the square little electrical stove, then lifted out of the mold with a pin and assembled into Creepy Crawlers or Creeple People. I saw a vintage 1965 Thingmaker available for a mere $ 25, but full sets run to a couple of hundred dollars.

I don’t know if you’ll actually be able to find Chop Suey, a 1967 board game in which a bowl is filled with small plastic food items, and you have to pick them out with (wait for it) chopsticks as the bowl spins. Culturally insensitive, perhaps, but very good for learning how to handle chopsticks; in the interests of defeating my brother in the contest for slippery little pieces of plastic, I developed reliable skills that have served me well.

Let’s not even talk about Barbie and her dream house. Most evocative of all for me, there on eBay are the 1960s vintage Easy-Bake Ovens, and as I look at the photo, a jingle starts to play insistently in my brain: “Be a Betty Crocker baker, make a Betty Crocker cake, in your Betty Crocker Easy-Bake oven!”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a statement on toys, advising parents of young children (from birth to school age) to go for high-quality “traditional” (that is, physical) toys rather than elaborate digital ones. It discusses the cognitive and developmental advantages of toys that give children scope for imagination and invention and, above all, toys that encourage play that brings parents and children together.

Dr. Aleeya Healey, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Albany Medical College who was a co-author of the A.A.P. statement, said that the most essential message for parents was the importance of relationships in the lives of young children. “The less bells and whistles a toy comes with, the more it lends itself to creative play and imaginative play,” she said. “The more the toy can do on its own, the more distraction it lends itself to.”

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As a parent and as a pediatrician, I love this idea; children need manipulative toys, blocks and puzzles that let them practice with their hands and their brains, they need props for imagination and for interaction, books that will be read aloud over and over, space and scope to invent stories and act them out. The statement emphasizes that toys don’t need to be expensive, any more than they need to be fancy. (Every toddler knows that the best toys are the cabinet full of pots and pans or the big cardboard box that something else came in.)

And yet, as they get older, children are as susceptible to marketing as I was, and they crave toys parents might regard as having dubious value like unicorns that poop glitter, Call of Duty Black Ops 4, or new outfits — known as skins — for their Fortnite avatars. Nowadays, however, the concern is not only marketing, but also increasingly sophisticated electronic toys, which substitute virtual interactions for the human interactions that are developmentally essential for children.

[Read Wirecutter’s recommendations of gifts for children.]

Dr. Alan Mendelsohn, an associate professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine who was a co-author of the A.A.P. statement, said that there is a great deal of overlap between screens and toys now, and “parents are getting all of these messages about how screens and tablets and mobile devices and laptops are the thing that’s going to help their children to learn and become advanced in their development.”

In fact, he said, there is plenty of evidence that screens can cause problems if they interfere with parents and children playing together, and it’s that playing together that matters most, both while the children are young and as they grow. “Spending some time playing with your child or reading with your child builds the relationship,” he said. “It helps them as things get more complicated in later childhood and adolescence.”

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[Read our guide on How to Raise a Reader.]

As children get older, of course, they start to demand whatever bells and whistles are on offer. Those vintage Easy-Bake oven ads showed children — well, girls — producing spectacular spreads of layer cakes and cookies from the device, as Mother exclaimed in admiration. It was party time and the oven was the star.

“Parents want to please their children, and children have very strong wishes, some a result of messaging,” Dr. Mendelsohn said. “I would recommend that parents strike a balance between trying to find toys that would make their child happy, but at the same time find toys that are going to be positive for the child” and might lead to parents and children spending time together.

[Read more about the importance of play and learning through playtime.]

When I was seduced by the Easy-Bake oven commercials, my mother said, of course, that any time I wanted to bake cookies, the family oven was at my disposal. My parents said, of course, that the things I baked would not look like the pictures on TV. My father said, of course, that they were only trying to sell me something.

None of this mattered to me. I knew what it would take to change my life and get the party started, and it was the only thing I wanted, and ultimately, inevitably, when my 8th or 9th birthday came around, my parents bought me the Easy-Bake oven. You mixed a little packet of cake mix and poured it into a little tin pan and then you waited for the “cake” — which was the size of a large cookie — to bake over a light bulb.

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It took a while, as I recall, and when it was done … well, you know the story. You know the moral. My mother tried hard to simulate pleased surprise when the cakelets were displayed, but the oven was soon abandoned.

I know that someone is reading this with profoundly fond nostalgia, remembering the joy of baking with her own plastic oven, recalling happy doll parties and extravagant midnight feasts. One person’s ill-advised toy is another’s golden childhood memory.

Sometimes the memories are preceded by the toy crushes and cravings that put certain toys at the top of children’s wish lists. Yes, some of it is marketing, but even there, children respond idiosyncratically. I wasn’t a particularly domestic child, heaven knows, and I never begged for anything else that could remotely have been considered a homemaking or cooking toy.

One of the universals of play has always been imitation and approximation. The imitation baking that was depicted on the TV ads was so attractive that it trumped the real thing: I wanted the pretend oven, even though the real one was on offer. But in fact I would have had more fun doing real cooking — under parental supervision — or serving elaborate imaginary feasts to imaginary royal visitors, or to dolls or stuffed animals.

“Imaginative play is where the magic happens,” Dr. Healey said.