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A Creative Toy Story

By Mitchel Resnick

Walking into a toy store these days feels like walking into the movie Toy Story: it seems as if all of the toys have come to life. Start talking to a teddy bear, and it talks back to you. Sing a song to the bear, and it starts dancing.

The technology is amazing. But are these toys really what's best for children?

The issue is not whether toys should include the latest technology, but rather what types of play activities are encouraged by the toys. Unfortunately, most of today's high-tech toys squeeze creativity out of children's play.

This is not an idle academic concern. There is a growing recognition that creative thinking is the key to success in today's fast-changing society. In his book The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida estimates that 30% of all jobs now require creative thinking, up ten-fold since 1900. And the percentage will undoubtedly continue to climb in the future.

QuoteWhat can we do to prepare today's children for a society that demands and rewards creative thinking more than ever before? At the root of creative thinking is the ability to create. So, to help children develop as creative thinkers, we need to give them more opportunities to design, create, and invent.

That's not the case with most of today's electronic toys. As children play with today's leading toys, they spend lots of time interacting, but not much time designing and creating. I have no doubt that designers at the toy companies are learning a great deal as they create new electronic toys. But I'm skeptical whether children learn very much as they interact with the toys.

QuoteOur culture, despite magazine covers trumpeting the importance of innovation, does not seem to place much value on creative design activities for children. Think again about the movie Toy Story. As you might remember, there are two different children's bedrooms in the movie. Andy's room is like a modern toy store, full of commercial products that talk and interact with one another. Sid's room, across the backyard, is quite different, more like an inventor's workshop. Sid is constantly taking apart his toys and recombining them in unexpected ways.

Which child is more likely to develop as a creative thinker? Andy, whose toys do everything on their own - or Sid, who is inventing his own toys?

The answer seems obvious to me. Unfortunately, the movie chooses to mix Sid's creativity with deviant behavior. I certainly do not want to condone Sid's decision to do a head transplant on his sister's favorite doll, but I do want to encourage his creative spirit. I find it frustrating that popular culture too often represents the most creative children as misfits or deviants.

QuoteWe need to shift the ways we think about children's play and learning. That's starting to happen in some parts of the world. In Asia, in particular, there is a growing recognition that traditional educational strategies, focused on rote learning, are not effective at preparing children for the needs of today's society. Business leaders are concerned that new employees, even those with high scores on standardized school tests, are unable to come up with creative solutions when they encounter unexpected problems in the workplace.


Throughout Asia, governments and educators are starting to experiment with new educational approaches to foster creativity and inventiveness. This trend became very clear to me recently, when I helped develop a new type of robotics kit, called the PicoCricket Kit, designed specifically to engage children in creative thinking. In the product's first year on the market, sales in Hong Kong (population 7 million) were almost as high as sales in the United States (population 300 million).

Many parents are understandably confused by today's high-tech toys. With so many choices and advanced features, how can a parent decide?

Here's my advice: Ask not what the toy can do for your child, ask what your child can do with the toy. It doesn't matter if the toy is as "smart" as the toys in Andy's room in Toy Story. And it doesn't matter whether the toy is made of wood, plastic, or computer chips. What's important is whether the toy provides your child with opportunities to design, create, experiment, and explore. If so, the toy is more likely to help your child develop as a creative thinker — and be prepared for life in tomorrow's society.


About the Author
Mitchel Resnick is Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab and Chairman of Playful Invention Company.


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