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Toys for Kids in the Cyber Age

These days I have concerns about how children play," I said to Alan who works in retail. "Today toys are about buying and collecting. They teach materialism."

Alan replied, "Working at Holt Renfrew I discovered the largest mark-up was for toys. Parents often do without to buy a toy, and they pay premium prices."

"What about the fad for media toys? Jane Stevenson wrote about buying Webkinz for her daughters age 8 and 10. She hated that the girls wanted several and were always on the computer playing with Webkins. (Binks, George. "Kids toys: How to be a savvy shopper." CBC News in Depth, December 4, 2006)

"I used to collect tin soldiers," Alan said. "I'd trade with pals and my sister collected Barbie dolls. She'd buy costumes and accessories."

"But you and your sister played with those toys. You used your imagination to reenact daily life. You tried out lessons of success, defeat, frustration, enjoyment. You learned something."

"When those girls played on the computer they practiced reading," Alan countered. "They learned math, how to budget money, how to bargain when trading with pals. They'll need those skills one day to buy a car."

"Okay, you have a point," I said. "But those media toys don't encourage exercise."

"I collected baseball cards and got interested in following a professional team and playing the game," Alan said. "I wanted to be like Mickey Mantle. Of course, I hoped they'd increase in value."

"Ah, your collecting encouraged you to be active. Shouldn't the girls be exercising instead of sitting at the computer? Their muscles won't develop without exercise. And what about socializing eye to eye? You don't learn to read the mood of your friend or carry on a conversation seated at a computer."

We agreed that traditional toys and media toys can be great opportunities for learning. I went to resources for other opinions.

Dr. Esther Gelcer, a play therapist in Toronto, wrote, "I think that what's important is to help parents understand that playing with toys is like going to work for an adult." (Heatherington, Janet, ed. "Rating the toys." CBC News Online, November 14, 2005). Toys are the tools. Some toys stimulate motor development and dexterity, some enhance imagination and enquiring minds or teach verbal and other communication skills. Concepts and ideas are discovered and reinforced. When a child masters a skill or grasps a concept his confidence blossoms. Some toys promote socialization, some promote quiet time. Psychological problems are often exposed when a child mimics life situations.

The Canadian Toy Testing Council tests 400 to 600 toys each year. They look at the ease of assembly, play value, durability, safety and cost of batteries. Play value is based on the reaction of eight children who have tried the toy for eight weeks. Safety recalls are listed at the Health Canada Product Safety Branch. The Safety Branch investigates complaints, and can issue a warning or a recall. Most warnings involve choking hazards. Safety requirements specify that anything smaller than a tennis ball should not be given to a child under age 3. That includes detachable components. Marketed toys must adhere to the federal government Hazardous Products Act. The discovery that lead paint was used in some imported toys became a concern.

Under supervision the school-age child can use media for research. Purchasers should consider age appropriate toys, read labels and not follow fads. Parents should ask if they are choosing the media toy to keep the child occupied while they are busy. They are influenced by social pressure from the child's peers.

Everyday things can be toys. Our son liked to fit together my set of graduated plastic mixing bowls. An old catalogue provided cut-outs. Two boys I knew in China used bricks like toy trucks.

Arlene Moscovitch studied contemporary trends regarding technological toys in Canada and abroad. "Good Servant, Bad Master? Electronic Media and the Family" was released by the Vanier Institute of Family on October 15, 2007. (The Vanier Institute of the Family, 94 Centrepointe Drive, Ottawa, Canada M2G 6B1) Moscovitch reported that kids spend nearly six and a half hours per day with media toys including TVs and computers. Preschoolers are the fastest growing group of online users. These heavy users spend less time interacting with other children and adults. About teaching critical thinking she wrote, "Kids know all about the technology, but they don't know about the world." About disruption of family life she said, "The deluge of DVD players, computers, cell phones and games has dramatically affected home life with a decline in face time and more unsupervised time spent on media." Parents worry about media messages. "Parents feel they are tying to raise kids in an atmosphere which is against the best interest of young people." Researchers say excessive exposure may lead to attention problems and aggressive behaviour. Moscovitch recommends that parents set time limits, model behaviour and help kids evaluate media programming. She wrote, "It is time for public debate among politicians, producers of media, educators and parents to develop policies that put priority on kids health, happiness and well-being.

We are all responsible for our children's learning and development. Questions arise about the choice of toys. If the child wants a play-thing that the parents find unsuitable or too expensive, how is that issue solved? Which media toys are suitable for a particular child? What effect does the media instrument have on the family interactions, on the physical and mental health of the child, on teaching the child to discover and problem solve? How can caregivers limit the use? Do both parents agree about the purchase and limits? Is the media toy a problem at school? (Many schools in Canada outlaw cell-phones and text messaging.) Medical associations recommend no TV for children under age 2 but this message is widely ignored. What is your experience? Some of you must have strong opinions.
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