Toys of the future spark yearning for the past
In 10-year-old terms, Daisuke Sekine has it good. Dad works for a toy company, mom used to be a toy designer. That means lots of playthings - Gameboys, Legos, you name it. It also means Daisuke is something of a connoisseur. He sizes up new gadgets with the same appraising eye a state-fair judge turns on a pig.Skip to next paragraph
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Recently, he took time to give the Monitor his cogent analysis of the newest computer-driven toys. "They're sort of boring," he declared, mentioning Tamagotchi, a virtual pet that requires regular "feeding."
But Daisuke hasn't seen what's going on at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab in Cambridge. MIT researchers have launched a project called Toys of Tomorrow that aims to reinvent the way kids play and learn.
"We want to rethink childhood itself," says Prof. Mitchel Resnick, who came to the annual Tokyo Toy Fair this spring with colleagues from the Media Lab and some Toys of Tomorrow prototypes.
Professors displayed a jacket that makes music out of movement, toy cars that learn "dance" moves from each other, and a fluffy sensor-loaded ladybug that responds to its owner's movements.
Computer chips are revolutionizing the world of play by creating "smart" toys that sing, talk, listen, and even need time to "sleep." Furby, a chatty fuzzball, is so "smart" that the US National Security Agency banned people from bringing one into their buildings for fear it may overhear and remember classified information. In the future, researchers say stuffed animals will connect kids to the Internet.
But grown-ups may want to think a bit before rushing to wire the romper room. Adults debate how computers affect kids, but few are asking about the impact of computers inside playthings.
Smart-toy backers say adding technology to toys is crucial for our children's future. Others point to their constructive and fun uses. But while information technology has undergone a revolution, experts say kids' developmental needs remain pretty much unchanged. As a result, some specialists say these toys may be a little too smart for their owners' good, robbing children of some benefits of play. The debate is just beginning.
Ask a kid like Daisuke, and they'll tell you the play's the thing. It's been that way since the dawn of time, but it wasn't until the 1960s that early-childhood educator Maria Montessori coined a phrase to explain why. "Play is the child's work," she said, meaning that when kids dress their dolls or build a tower of blocks, they are gaining skills that will help them maneuver in the adult world. The Toy Manufacturers of America describes how play develops "motor skills and dexterity as [children] reach and grasp, crawl, run, climb, and balance.
"Interaction with other children not only promotes language skills, but also important social concepts such as cooperation, taking turns, and playing by established rules. Toys and games enhance problem-solving abilities, and a child's emotional well-being - feelings of success and self-esteem - benefits from positive play experiences."
"Play is crucial," says Naoko Misawa, a Tokyo-based child psychologist. "Even if it looks useless to adults, it is how kids learn, through communicating and interacting with others."
For millennia, children have gone about their work with essentially the same tools - sandcastles, dolls, dress-up clothes, play weapons. Now these tools are being upgraded and MIT professors, among others, say "smart" toys will provide children with added benefits.
If parents want to prepare their kids for the high-tech future, says Prof. Michael Hawley, the best place to start is the playpen. "It's not only important to put technology into toys, it's vital," he says. "Because it's going to be in the hands of the next generation."