Today's Toys: Child's Play or Something Else?

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Child's Play or Something Else?

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"Yank out alien organs dripping in glowing alien blood." This cheery invitation greets children 7 and under from the box of a toy called Dissect-an-Alien. It's part of the popular Mad Scientist line of playthings made by one of the nation's largest toy manufacturers.

Toys aren't what they used to be

Have you noticed what kinds of toys your children have been playing with lately? How are some of the new types of games and toys affecting them?

Toy manufacturing and marketing has boomed into a multibillion-dollar business. Toy makers not only follow the trends; they start them. Electronics and vivid graphics have added a new dimension to our children's toys.

But, with all that is available, are our children better off?

Benefits of playtime

When most of us reminisce about our childhood, we cannot help but think about our play with siblings, friends, pets and toys. I smile when I think about hiking to a waterfall in the woods with my dog or playing catch with my brother. On wintry Sunday afternoons, I remember playing chess for hours with my father.

Whether we had many toys or only a few, we all remember our favorite teddy bears, dolls, model cars or construction sets. Through toys children experiment, explore, express and discover themselves. They give their toys life, character, abilities and talents. With their imagination they project themselves into their play. Through make-believe they build a bridge with adulthood and look forward to growing up.

Play is important for a child's development. It is one way children learn about the world around them. How they relate to and play with toys helps them learn skills such as dexterity and hand-eye coordination.

Playing with other children helps a child with social development. He (or she) learns how to get along with, tolerate and share with other kids. By interacting with others, children learn how to solve problems.

Survival of the funnest

The first toys could well have been natural objects such as sticks, fir cones, seed pods, bones and smooth, round stones. Since then, dolls, balls, spinning tops and pull toys have become the basic playthings of many cultures.

When visiting a toy store in Russia, I was fascinated to see how universally boys and girls are attracted to animal shapes, puppets, dolls, and miniature cars, trucks and tractors.

At ancient burial sites, animal figures have been found that appear to have been made for no purpose other than to play with. For example, Persian wheeled pull or push toys carved from white limestone into the shapes of animals date from the 12th century B.C. Clues to the nature of many old toys have been found on ancient vases and reliefs, which often picture hobbyhorses, carts, hoops, balls, tops and musical instruments.

Toys were almost completely handcrafted until late in the 18th century, after which mass-produced objects for children to play with began to appear for the first time.

The last decade saw some entirely new species of toys. The computer-game craze reflects advances in science and technology. Yet, although the complexity of toys is on the increase, the longevity of games and toys is decreasing with the constantly changing popularity of styles and heroes.

Although exceptional toys exist that bring out the best in our children, there are an increasing number that represent alarming trends that we as parents need to be beware of. Many toys do not help a child develop imagination, or they develop an entirely wrong kind of creativity.

Violence, the occult, repulsion

Toy makers have found models such as GI Joe (a perennial best-seller) or Rambo-or characters from the current space, war and adventure movies-to be hot-selling items. Toy firearms that discharge lasers and fake bullets sell exceptionally well.

Toys that are disturbing to many parents, like The Blaster, casually offer a child a way to blow up the world. With push buttons and a handgrip with vast firepower, this toy is advertised to help its operator relieve tension: "Leave in your wake a flood of totally imaginary destruction and feel good about yourself once again." The Blaster simulates machine-gun fire, laser beams and nuclear explosions.

Is this a good way to release tension? What are the lessons a child learns from this kind of toy? Are we doing anything other than teaching barbarism with toys like this?

The impact of playing with war toys increases inappropriate behavior such as hitting, kicking, hair-pulling and teasing. War toys can desensitize children toward violence, produce exaggerated fear of others and increase angry and violent behavior. Children may become more hyperactive, fight and quarrel more, and generally demonstrate more belligerence when they play with miniature weapons of destruction.

Sending a deadly message

By buying children war toys, the message parents send them is that it is appropriate to fight and solve problems violently. If we give impressionable children toys that imply that war or hostility is acceptable, then we send them the message that it is all right to act out feelings using weapons.

On the other hand, the prophet Isaiah speaks about a time during which man will no longer learn war and violence. In those days, erstwhile combatants "shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4).

The huge increase in the popularity of electronic games assaults our children with violence. The National Coalition on Television Violence studied 95 Nintendo video games and found that 83 percent feature violent themes, with 58 percent spotlighting war games. The study discovered that children ages 8 through 10 are 80 percent more likely to fight among themselves after playing with interactive laser weapons.

In addition, video games can produce stress, are inherently frustrating and promote obsessive, even addictive, behavior. They also tend to isolate children from other people. Children scream at a video game because it won't do what they want it to. They may throw down the controls in rage or yell at people who come near them and break their concentration. If playmates are involved, they may yell at each other or end up fighting because of the game.

A mother commented that the family's video-game unit turned her two children, ages 10 and 8, into "animals." She said her 10-year-old "can't stop playing once he starts." The 8-year-old becomes frustrated, hostile, angry and violent when he plays. The two fight and argue with their friends over Nintendo.

Toying with the occult

Along with violent toys, children and adolescents experiment with the occult-and plenty of toys and games based on the supernatural are available. I strolled down the aisle of the largest toy chain store near my home. Piled high in one section were Ouija boards and other games that encourage dabbling in the occult.

One particularly hideous game is Nightmare on Elm Street: The Freddie Game, based on a movie about a man who murders teenagers. In this nightmare of a toy, Freddie is depicted wearing a glove equipped with razor-sharp blades for slashing his victims.

Do we really want our children to amuse themselves with such a "game"? What could possibly be redeeming about it? Such games only encourage children to come close to the mysterious world of fear, ugliness and death.

Another toy, Boglins, encourages children to identify with lovable but ugly little creatures that come alive in their hands. Still another, the Brain Blaster, has a head that falls apart, with brain matter falling out in chunks. Drool is a hand puppet that lives up to its name. Airsickness depicts an airline passenger strapped into a seat with a look of nauseated anticipation on his face.

Other toys in the Mad Scientist series include one called Monster Lab, which invites children to "make disgusting, gross monsters . . . then sizzle the flesh off their bones." On the box, a group of young boys is depicted dipping a creature in a frothing vat of make-believe acid.

Then there is the Glowing Glop kit, with advertising that advises youngsters to "squeeze 'em! Alien blood oozes from their eyes." The popularity of such dreadful toys has prompted a popular brand of candy that looks like spiders and rats, which children are encouraged to devour.

Some adults are rightly concerned with trends toward repulsiveness in lines of toys such as Garbage Pail Kids, because the ugliness desensitizes children to the point that they are no longer offended by violence, sadism and the grotesque.

In the context of children, Jesus Christ warned those who would take advantage of the impressionable and defenseless: "But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matthew 18:6).

You buy the toys

The president of Child World, which owns Children's Palace, the second-largest toy-store chain in the United States, stated that playthings featuring the grotesque "are selling quite well. They seem to be part of what we see as a larger trend aimed at little boys for gross kinds of stuff."

The Toy Manufacturers Association sees no harm in such toys. "When it comes to grossness, we firmly believe that the decision to buy the toys should be made by the parents."

Even though it comes from a perspective I strongly disagree with, that's good advice, parents. The TMA couldn't have said it any better. The decision to purchase such toys is up to you. As parents, we should closely monitor and evaluate the kinds of toys our children play with. We should make it clear to our offspring that we, as adults, will help choose their toys.

How is it that children are so knowledgeable about and lust for certain kinds of consumer goods? It is no coincidence that children's television programming is often little more than one long advertisement for toys. Your children are a lucrative market, to say the least.

In one year the average 4- to 8-year-old will see 1,000 or more 30-second and 180 or so 30-minute cartoon commercials selling war toys--the equivalent of 18 days of classroom instruction in exciting, stimulating pro-war entertainment. Advertising like this is effective; war-toy sales increased 700 percent in five years from 1982 to 1987.

Don't let yourself feel guilty if you don't get your children the particular toys they want. Don't allow children to go crazy for every toy with a certain make-believe character's picture on it. Monitor what your children watch, and take control of the toy purchases in your family. Your children should not be preyed upon by toy manufacturers competing for your money with bizarre and grotesque products.

What's good

In the midst of commercialism and chaos, you can make many sensible choices if first you consider the impact of a toy before you buy it.

Toys need not be expensive. For example, a device as simple as a yo-yo will teach a child a memorable lesson about objects in motion he will recall in high school and college when he studies physics.

Question the value of any toy your child asks for. How will he (or she) benefit from a particular toy? Will his imagination be directed toward wholesomeness? What will she learn? Will it help her solve problems? Will it help him use his mind?

Will the toy help him interact with others? Will it help her refine her skills or explore and discover things about herself and the world around her? There are many creative, peaceful toys that will stretch your child's imagination while giving hours of fun.

Classic construction sets such as those made by Tinker Toys, Lego, Lincoln Logs and Erector are excellent choices. They help a child imagine a structure, then build it. A simple microscope-or chemistry or electronic kit-with which you can guide a child in learning about the physical creation is also a good choice.

When shopping for toys, you may find it best to avoid the products of high-visibility companies that promote toys that go well with heavily sugared cereals and Saturday-morning television. You can do a lot better by going to the toy department of a science museum or out-of-the-way shops near college campuses.

Hobby stores are a good source for toys. In them you will find products that force parents to spend time with their children as together they learn how they work.

Keep it simple

The toy industry has made many of their wares too complicated. Simplicity should top the list of things to look for in a toy. Something as basic and durable as a ball could be a child's first toy. Skills learned from throwing, catching and bouncing a ball endure for a lifetime.

Often the simplest toys last while the complicated ones drop dead when their batteries run down. Keeping toys supplied with alkaline sources of power can get expensive.

When planning a purchase, consider how an item could be used by the whole family to help bring parents and children together to play and talk. One problem with many electronic games is that children retire to their own little world and tune out everything and everyone around them.

Parents are often irritated and repulsed by a game's sounds, or they may not have the faintest idea how to play it. If children spend too much time playing with electronic games, they tend to get bored easily and aren't interested in developing relationships with others.

Sports toys are wholesome. Many parlor games promote discussion. Pictionary, for example, teaches children to follow rules, take turns, learn new words and communicate with symbols.

The play's the thing

Children want to play. Toys are perfect for play. In our busy world, we often abdicate our responsibilities as parents by using toys as a crutch to entertain our children while we do something else. Children respond favorably to parents and friends who interact with and pay attention to them. Playtimes can be fun and educational and can nurture familial ties.

Make your precious children's early years an experience they will treasure. In the world of the future, there will be the right kind of play with the right kind of toys, for "the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets" (Zechariah 8:5). GN