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Is it time we redefine the toy?

The recent announcement of the LEGO braille brick demonstrated how an ingenious tweak to a classic design can open a toy up to a wider, more inclusive audience. This got me thinking about how we might look to redefine toys to become more accessible. A brief history lesson points to balls, kites and the yo-yo being the oldest objects specifically designed as toys. They are objects you not only play with, but ones that also teach key developmental skills, from hand-eye coordination to gross motor skills. Objects dating back thousands of years, and which have survived to earn their place in any reputable toy store still today. So where does the yo-yo of modern times now belong? And are we now at a point where we can look to further modern concepts of toys to teach future generations new skills?

Before layering any form of educational concept onto a toy, it’s important to note that play can and should be the foundation of any good learning experience. In a recent interview with the Guardian newspaper, Hanne Rasmussen, Chief Executive of the LEGO Foundation, highlights how the evidence for play-based learning has built enormously over the last decade, but that parents are still extremely unaware of its potential:

 

“Both in the formal education system and in the homes of children, the focus on the value of play is rather limited. That’s really something we want to work on – to improve the understanding of the value of play and what play really can do.” – Hanne Rasmussen

 

So why is the power of play not recognised more seriously in the home or in the classroom? From experience, I believe this can be put in part down to the modern perception of what a toy is. Gone are the days where toys were seen as tools for learning. Their modern purpose has turned instead to fulfilling consumers’ needs to be a part of the latest trend.

It’s fascinating to see how the most wanted toys for Christmas over the past 100 years has evolved from a traditional rocking horse and fireworks (I think we can all agree that the latter was a bad idea) to character-based toys such as Furby. In the 1970’s, Star Wars changed the toy industry forever as we transitioned to an industry built on character licensing, and short-term consumerism. Toys both shape and reflect their times, and the term ‘toy’ has become synonymous more with short term fun than learning. These trends have culminated in a common distinction between consumer and educational toys: one seen as maybe fun and disposable, whilst the other ‘boring’ yet purposeful. It shouldn’t be this way, and the two can most definitely work in unison.

If we look to the digital space for inspiration, we see the mixed concept of entertainment and education, otherwise termed ‘edutainment’, discussed which translates into gamified learning. The main aim of this mixture is to supplement education with the consumer appeal of entertainment in order to get kids engaged. This is a concept that can be applied to toys. In fact, there are already a rumbling of startups traversing both the education and consumer worlds, trying to find their way. If you can take the ‘fun’ elements from mass market toys, strip away the scary educational terminology to create a playful experience, and underpin it all with sound educational principles, then we may soon discover the yo-yo of the 21st century!

Ben

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