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Published: Sunday, 8/19/2007

Fewer toys might not be a bad thing

Child's play is serious business.

Last year, according to the market research firm the NPD Group, sales for the U.S. toy industry (motto: "Made in China") hit just over $22 billion.

But last week Mattel - the nation's dominant toy maker - called back almost 20 million toys worldwide. This on top of industry recalls earlier this summer of another 10 million or so toys.

But is this really so bad for the children?

And I say this as someone who once bought Mattel's Sesame Street toys for my own child. I say this recognizing the inconvenience and panic these recalls cause, forcing parents to divide the toy chest into piles marked "OK" and "no way."

I also say this as someone who once saw for sale a plastic, two-handled "snowball maker" because doesn't your heart break for kids underprivileged enough to still use their hands?

If these recalls mean kids will make do with fewer toys, I say: Good! They'll make do and maybe even flourish. A casual stroll through Toys 'R' Us shows our widespread misunderstanding of the importance and even the definition of "play" as it relates to child development.

Shelf after shelf of toys have but a single use, a single purpose, which makes them objects of limitation - the very antithesis of everything a good toy ought to be.

The Parents Choice Foundation - a nonprofit guide for children's products to "sharpen young minds, not blunt them" - gave this description:

"Good toys have staying power; they engage. They help build attention spans, not fragment them. A good toy does not offer answers; it stimulates questions and presents problems for solving."

A good toy, in other words, doesn't restrict a child's imagination - it inspires it. What we call "play" is serious developmental work: physically, socially, cognitively, and emotionally.

It is not at all helped along by plastic snowball makers. On the contrary, not for nothing was the humble cardboard box inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, which said:

"The strength, light weight, and easy availability that make cardboard boxes successful with industry have made them endlessly adaptable by children for creative play."

In a post-toybox-clearing era, it's heartening to think that maybe, just maybe, some child somewhere will be "reduced" to playing on the kitchen floor with pots 'n' pans. Or, better yet, outside in the backyard with twigs and sticks.

It's funny, the recent kerfuffle over a study of "Baby Einstein" videos by University of Washington researchers (the outcome of which is still hotly contested by the Disney Co.).

Despite appealing to well-meaning parents who hope to give their infants a leg up on all things verbal, artistic, and musical, the study showed these videos may actually stunt a baby's building vocabulary.

Yes, I know: astonishing to think TV might not be great for baby after all ...

Given how these videos piggyback atop the name of a world-renowned scientist, it's ironic that Albert Einstein himself reminded us that:

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."



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