Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Resolve to Play Better in 2008

Happy 2008!

And all our best wishes for a play-full year for the kids in your life--and the kid in you.

Even with holiday sales depressed overall, 2008 still looks like it's going to be a great year for play. Early reviews, in prototype form, at the toys kids will be clamoring for 12 (shocking short) months from now resist categorizing in trends, except for the most facile of minds, but at least for the major companies that have previewed their lines, the watchwords are good play. It's early days, of course, and we head to Hong Kong at the end of the week for more peeks at what's on the drawing boards, but we're encouraged to see the level of true play--driven by imagination and a child's individual creativity seems to be on the rise.

So, we're excited about the year ahead. There's lots to look forward to. For one, it's the 40th Anniversary of Hot Wheels, one of the classic toy brands of all time precisely because it embodies all the elements of good play. We're not violating any agreements, and we want to be the first to tell you that what we've seen of the 2008 Hot Wheels line is about as exciting as it gets in terms of play and ingenuity--and it's not just online stuff.

In thinking about the year ahead, it seems like it might be a good time for some resolutions about play. I don't much care for resolutions for the most part. They often provide an idealized view of what's possible, and can't be carried through, leading to that much more frustration. So, let's call these, perhaps, reminders.

1. Plastic is irrelevant. The experience is what counts. At the end of the day play happens when the child's imagination connects to a concept or idea. We've all seen kids who can pick up a stick and create a magic wand. The play is what happens in the child's imagination. Where the toys are relevant is how they inspire that imaginative process. They function as visual and tactile inspirations for kids. Whether it's Polly Pocket or Nerf, the best play experiences begin with a child's imagination of him or herself in a specific situation. Remember, the three most important components of play--experience the world in new ways, explore new possibilities and realities and express one's individuality.

2. Balance is essential. Kids naturally seek diverse play experiences. Make that possible through what you purchase. Sports, arts and crafts, board games and, yes, video games are all important play experiences. Kids get different things from each of them. So make them available and kids will engage in them.

3. Remember, all play is learning. Many parents and caregivers get bogged down in ABCs and 123s. But play serves very important functions in socialization. Board games reinforce turn taking and cooperation. Drawing and painting and construction toys provide experience in conceptual thinking. Even certain video games provide experiences in deductive reasoning and problem solving. These are essential skills that will foster confidence and ability in school.

And, the last two are just for grown-ups.

4. Educate yourself. One of the things that was so upsetting about the spate of recalls last year--over and above the scares about toxicity--was how little real information was available. The mainstream news media again and again used emotional tactics that obscured facts. Sentences in print articles like "the toy was covered in lead," were false, particularly when a closer reading would show that one area of paint was affected. Now, lead has been illegal in paint on toys for 30 years and it's right to be concerned and perhaps even outraged. Still, rational thought and realistic risk assessment would provide you with peace of mind. (For instance, lead must be ingested and metabolized to pose any risk. There was a lot of misinformation out there about how kids could touch lead paint, touch their mouths or eyes and be exposed. That's not true. And were it true, the paint on your cell phone, which potentially contains lead, would be more of a cause for alarm. Oh, and we have no patience with the several parents who told us they didn't have time to go through all of their children's toys to see if they were affected.

A corollary to this is to encourage you to pay attention to things like age grading and educate yourself about all risks related to toys from tripping and ingestion to riding a bike without proper protective gear.

There has been a lot of emotionalism around issues related to toy safety in 2007, and that's a completely understandable and human reaction. At the same time, emotions will only take you so far if you're trying to create a safe environment for your kids. Rational thinking based on facts is always going to put you in a better state to take appropriate action in any situation--not just related to toy safety but in anything you do in life.

5. Model a playful approach to life. This is a gift you can give yourself and the kids in your lives today. How you approach the world and how you communicate that in your thoughts, words and actions will empower your kids to be the same way.

If you choose, resolve to be more playful this year. That doesn't mean be silly, superficial or childish or abandon your role or responsibilities, but it does mean encountering the world with a sense of possibility and a willingness to see where events take you. If you watch preschoolers, particularly, as they play, they almost always make up positive things, things that intrigue them and they fearlessly embrace where their imaginations can take them. Try it for yourself. You'll be amazed at how freeing it can be.

Wishing you all the best for the New Year--and a new sense of fun and excitement!

-C. Byrne