Child’s Play

Child’s Play

23rd December 2006

Perhaps people don’t start Christmas shopping as early in India or perhaps they procrastinate just as much as people do anywhere else, and yesterday’s editorial by Arvind Gupta may actually give some people pause before frantically amassing toys for the little ones, near and dear.

Although I am naturally inclined to see that less is more, I too was beset by doubt when my daughter was born, and I saw sites and catalogs full of educational toys, stimulating paraphernalia and specialized ways to promote motor skills, sensory perception, creativity, and self-esteem. And let’s not forget brain development! Could I really say no to all of these things?

Although I didn’t shop from those catalogs, I ended up acquiring all kinds of beaded, shapey, bright & musical toys. Don’t ask me how… Of course I also found that my daughter loved most playing with the dishes, “helping” pour rice, or mixing dough. She also loved wiping tables and floors, and we could never supply her with enough clothes to wash and dry. On her insistence, we motivated ourselves to plant vegetables and flowers in the garden, for which she did a good part of the digging and most of the watering. And although lately many early child education specialists favor allowing children of even two to three years of age to use knives under supervision, we have not brought ourselves to say yes to our dd’s fervent requests to help with cutting vegetables, except with a butter knife, with which she manages to cut a tomato or two.

I’m not sure when and how we come to differentiate work and play, and see work as something we prefer to minimize but I am sure that when children show interest in work, they should not be prevented from pursuing this. So what if my one-year-old spills some beans or gets mud on her clothes? So what if it takes my three-year-old 10 minutes to measure 1 cup of urad dal and 2 cups of rice? What sense would it make for me to engage them with toys so that I could complete the work more efficiently? [And in case you’re worried about wasting food, even in cases where we cannot recover the spilt beans, I’d much rather spill a few beans than add more plastic toys to the landfills. Plus, children allowed to learn at their own pace, do spill less as they go on.]

Just around the time when my daughter was taking interest in dolls, I read something on the website of someone who sold dolls designed to free the child’s imagination by precisely not having any features to speak of. She wrote, children don’t actually need toys. They will be stimulated by the world around them, if only we give them a chance. A few toys can supplement their own imaginative play, but equating playing to toys interferes with their natural exploration. Bright plastic toys that will light up and make sounds may be exciting, but notice how fast children tire of them, or they no longer work, and more than anything else what they learn from them is how disposable they are.

That statement coming from a toy vendor herself really clarified my thinking and gave me the confidence never again just to buy a toy for the sake of it.