Walking through any toys department or toy section of a superstore, and the one thing which is blindingly obvious is just how important technology has become as far as the popularity of toys is concerned. Shelves upon shelves of computer games scream out for attention, offering children worlds of possibilities, exciting game play, full throttle interaction, total immersion in fantasy worlds and other experiences which seem almost too good to be true.
Even taking a step away from these purely computer driven games, it seems that almost every other toy contains a microchip, for fun filled fully interactive entertainment. But do our children really need to be entertained? Or do children have not only a natural desire to entertain themselves, but actually have such a need? It's tempting to think, looking at the array of toys on offer, that computer games and technology driven toys are likely to take over a child's life, and replace their play time with entertainment time. Replacing play with entertainment is not, of course, the same thing, and creates a particular issue.
Play is fully active, the child is the centre and the driving force of the game, and the child is the one who need to use their imagination, whereas entertainment is more passive, with the child merely observing, or participating in a relatively passive way, what someone else has imagined and created. Reducing the child's active involvement, and reducing the need for them to stimulate and use their own imagination can be no good thing - but is this where we are heading, and are traditional toys set to be resigned to the history museum? Will the children of the future simply plug themselves in to play?
Certainly it is tempting to suggest such a thing, but in reality, the answer can be found very easily by watching children play. Children's basic needs are not moulded by fashion or industry. Children have a strong natural desire to play, to be in control of their own play, to create their own rules and to break the rules set for them. This is not simply a misty eyed way of looking at childhood, these needs are set in the psychological stone of thousands of years of evolution. It's the way children discover the independence, and how they makes sense of the world.
Although children enjoy playing computer games, generally this is a social thing, with them inviting friends round to play with them, as most games are multiplayer. The game then becomes not the focus, but the medium through which they play and compete. The amount of time they spend on each game is, in the vast majority of cases, actually quite limited. Even looking at the clever technological toys, such as the ones that sing, dance, tell stories and react. When the batteries are dead, the toy is often still played with, in the more traditional sense. My daughter will happily play tea time with her teddy bears and have a couple of all singing all dancing dolls sitting alongside them, remaining switched, entirely mute and enjoyed every bit as much as if they were active.
Children write the rules, and although the technology and toy industry can throw technology into the mix, it's the children who ultimately make their choices about not only what to play with, but how. Clever toys might produce an excited reaction, and receive much attention during the life of the first set of batteries, but when the batteries have dies, and the initial novelty has worn off, there will always be building blocks and crayons, which never run out, either of possibilities, or power. Powered by children's imaginations, rather than batteries, these toys are set to last forever.