Thursday, November 06, 2003

Buying Toys For Learning


Have you noticed how people in Singapore have a fascination for buying "educational" toys for young persons here?

Recently, I visited a neighbourhood toy shop to buy a present for a friend's daughter.

While I was there, a middle-aged woman walked in and asked the shop assistant: "Can you recommend me an educational toy please?"

The shop assistant showed her a casino set. To the shop assistant's horror, the woman exclaimed: "This is not educational! This is gambling and bad!"

I started laughing to myself. The woman, obviously, had come to the shop with a fixed mindset of what "education" is. As a result, she was hoping that the shop assistant would be able to read her mind and understand what she was asking for!

I also asked myself: "Is there such a thing as a 'bad' toy?"

I remember reading the wise words of Dr Keith Sawyer, Assistant Professor of education in arts and sciences at Washington University in St Louis: "Parents can relax a little bit. There aren't really any bad toys or bad kinds of play."

Dr Sawyer suggests: "Whatever toy you buy your child, don't just put her in a room with it and let her play with the toy by herself and think she's going to get anything out of it. The child will get the most benefit from parent-child interaction surrounding the toy or game."

I reflected about how I, as a shop assistant, would have responded to the woman's initial request for an "educational" toy.

I would have said: "Madam, every toy in this shop has an educational value."

The real question is, depending on the child's age, what kind of learning you want to give to that child. And the more important question is how much the child will, with proper guidance, enjoy playing with the toy - and that is the "fun" factor in the toy.

Thus, if you wish to teach a child strategic thinking, you could, for example, buy the child a set of toy soldiers. Or if you wish to give the child a jumpstart in culinary skills, you could buy him a masak-masak or kitchen set.

But here's a word of caution based on my own childhood experience: Never try to impose on a young person what you think he will like. Chances are you will convert him into a young rebel!

For example, my father recently bought a quiz-book for my teenage brother. I went "oops" when I saw the present because I received one of those when I was a teenager and I knew that the book was soon to be banished into the storeroom.

Predictably, my brother thanked him for the quiz-book and left it in the living room for aesthetic use over the next two days. The book is now safely tucked away in a cupboard that is rarely opened, along with other exiled presents.

Perhaps a good way to avoid such situations would be to just buy a voucher for the young person and let him take responsibility and ownership for what he likes to read or play with.

As Phil Phillips, author of Turmoil In the Toybox, shares: "Toys should reinforce, not contradict, the positive values we are trying to instill."

After all, the toys we buy for someone can have an impact on that person's development.

I remember getting the board game Risk from my family when I was in primary school. I loved it!

The game taught me to question rules and appreciate better the value of taking risks. I developed the courage to take such risks. I also got a basic introduction to negotiating and forming strategic alliances. All these valuable lessons, in turn, enabled me to manage the unfortunate situations when I failed to achieve what I desired.

Recently, a friend shared with me how the toys he played with as a child had had a great influence on his life. My friend has had a deep fascination for cars since he was very young.

Today, he is, at least in my view, a very successful businessman. He runs two car-wash facilities. He also buys and sells cars. He participates frequently in motorcar races. And he is an avid collector of radio-controlled cars.

Do I now hear you asking what I bought for my friend's daughter?

Well, I bought her a punching bag. Not because I want her to master the art of self-defence to combat any potential rapists, murderers or molesters. And not because I want her to grow up a fighter so that she will be able to appreciate and battle the sexual discrimination that is so rampant in Singapore.

But more because I want her parents to teach her to look at a punching bag creatively. For example, the punching bag could easily be a bolster. And the gloves that came with the punching bag could as easily be placed above one's fireplace during Christmas, instead of socks.

This way, Singapore would be blessed with one more advocate of Mahatma Gandhi's positive values of non-violence.

So the next time you buy a gift for a young person or anyone else, consider the learning value you would like to impart on that individual.

Then, buy a gift that would convey that value in an enjoyable manner.

Dharmendra Yadav