The Basic Idea
When we say play, we're actually talking about a whole variety of different things. The term encompasses activities which range from manual to mental, from tangible to imaginary, from closed to open, from individual to group, from competitive to cooperative, and from silent all the way to rowdy. Basically, play refers to the enjoyable and purposeful activities of babies, old folks, and everyone in between. Play is often centred around some kind of game, or toy, or scenario—but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a pretty open category.
Play is one of the most natural human behaviours. It is among the precious few innate human functions which are not immediately necessary for survival. Children are born with the drive to explore and experiment, and are biochemically programmed to enjoy the process. This is why we play, and why it's fun.
Play in this sense is the most basic form of inquiry, and it relates directly to the way our minds work. As we explore we begin to develop a structure to our perceptions. This structure becomes increasingly sophisticated over time, as does our play. Playing with objects, we begin to learn about physical properties. Playing with others, we begn to learn conventions and norms, rules and structures, hierarchies, and language. Toys have a role in this. As do games and sports. As do adults and other children.
The idea of play in our colloquial usage has changed a lot over time. Increasingly, play has been corrupted by those who don't understand it's inherent value. Play for play's sake is fading into history. In its place, those focused on child development have tried to make play more educational, more instructive, more stimulating. This usually involves increasingly prescriptive or closed activities--solving challenges, matching patterns, puzzles, or complex step by step building activities. This puts the child's curiosity and initiative at risk. We should be concerned about toys and games advertising themselves as educational. Usually what they take away from children is much more than whatever they claim to add.
The other trend that we can observe, is towards entertainment and direct stimulation. This may sound innocent or even positive, but it's not. Children are designed to seek out stimulation and learn from it, they have an innate hunger, and they feed off of their real world experiences. They seek nourishment. We need to be very careful of toys and games which are designed to feed that stimulation to children rather than have them seek it out. Toys with blinking lights and beeps and whistles supply the stimulation that children seek without them needing to work for it. They will satisfy the child for some time until they become acclimatized. Then the child will become bored.. until we ratchet up the stimulation. Screen-based games are especially bad for this. they are literally designed to game the child, and hold their attention for longer by integrating rewards and validation, by changing the sounds and colours, and by incrementally increasing the intensity or speed or complexity of the environment to keep the child engaged. But this intensity of stimulation will slowly dumb the senses rather than develop them. And when a child can obtain this dosage of stimulation so easily, they lose the initiative to seek out other sources. Children will sit and be quiet in front of the television because it is feeding their senses a buzz. But it is akin to feeding them a diet of sugar. They may be happy in the short term but will become listless and temperamental because it is not nourishing them. Children need more than this.
There are many other concerns to be aware of in relation to toys. Children are born into the world ready to imprint. This is part of why they so quickly establish bonds with parents, siblings, and even pets. We can see an evolutionary reason for this. But many toy franchises, especially those which are character-based, leverage this fact (intentionally or not) to brand children before they have developed the skills of intellectual self defence. These types of toys are often heavily gendered, or embody other stereotypes which can take deep root in children's minds because they are so susceptible.
Another concern relates to the more subtle characteristics of toys. If we look below the surface, so many toys feed into a kind of throwaway culture. Many plastic toys in particular appear designed to break--to last only as long as they hold the interest of the child. As adults we should attune ourselves to the subtle messages embodied in the things we surround children with.
Like any other element of learning, play can be tweaked in favour of progressive goals related to sustainability, democracy, and social justice. To make this happen, we need to look for ways in which these ideals can be incorporated into the play experience in some way. It doesn't have to be explicit--and in fact, it's probably better that it isn't. But it is important be attuned to the subtle influences of different types of play, different toys and games and equipment. When making these judgments, the questions we should ask ourselves are things like: What is the child practicing right now? What mindset is this putting the child into? Are they making decisions for themselves, or are they following instructions? Are they exploring properties? Are they using their bodies and their minds? Is their initiative involved or is the child being led or fed? Are they interacting socially, or just drinking sugar water? These are things which directly contribute to their development.. or not. Everything is political, what the child does and doesn't learn, does and doesn't practice, and so on. Ask yourself what is being cultivated through this activity. And if you're not happy with the answer, guide the child towards something different.
But tweaking play to support progressive social goals is not just about the types of actions and interactions involved. We can also do a lot to reorient the hidden curriculum of play through deeper consideration of what is embodied in the games and equipment and toys children play with, and the tacit learning that comes about through the child's experience with them. Every manufactured object embodies certain values. These values are encoded within the object through the decisions made regarding not only they type of object and type of activity it supports, but also in the materials, the quality, the representation, and the subtle design elements. When deciding about what objects to surround the child with, think about it in terms of osmosis. Children are sponges, and so we need to be thoughtful about their play environment.