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dot life Monday, 29 July, 2002, 14:29 GMT 15:29 UK
Playing with childhood
Children playing hopscotch
Play isn't always about technology

Have toys with microchips and flashing LEDs ruined children's play or given their young imaginations a boost?
In 1976, I was nine-years-old and well on the way to being the tech-obsessed geek that I am now.

It was then that I got my first Lego technical set which added gears, pistons, springs and all manner of weirdly shaped pieces to the functional bricks that I was familiar with.

Lego
Wot no reclining seats?
Instead of my normal blocky buildings, it let me create piston engines, rack and pinion steering, gearboxes and even an entire car, with a working motor and reclining seats.

Although I was delighted with my new toy I think, even then, I was vaguely troubled by the changes the newly shaped blocks might usher in.

The technical set let you build a car, but it was too hard for my puny nine-year-old brain to work out how to build something original with the bricks that was as pleasingly complex as the design the Lego people came up with.

Mind games

This stunted the chance I had to use my own imagination. Previously it was all I had to turn chunky cars into Grand Prix winners, rally cars, flying spymobiles or Evel Knievel's ride home. I even provided my own sound effects.

The technical set meant I had a car that could be nothing more than a car, albeit one with a working motor and reclining seats.

Scalextric set
"I could make that out of Lego"
Since then many toys have gone the hi-tech route and now almost none seem complete without LEDs, sensors, screens and synthesised voices.

"The trade as a whole has embraced new technology," says Andrew Myall, editor of ToyNews.

Unfortunately, he says, not all companies have put the technology to good use. Some companies use it to dress up otherwise mundane toys, such as all those cheap, robot dogs that appeared a couple of years ago.

"The dogs died away pretty quickly once the novelty wore off," says Mr Myall.

"There's now a realisation that technology has to be applied properly. There are quite a lot of companies applying technology in much better ways."

Rise of the robots

One example, he said, was the Leapfrog company, which makes annotated electronic books that help kids learn to read.

Parents can buy new Leapfrog books which slot in the reader device and help their kids work their way through a story and explain anything they do not know or are unsure about.

Robot dog, PA
Not all robot dogs were big successes
Lego too has gone much further than its technical sets with the release of the Mindstorms programmable kits - surely one of the few toys to have a book written about it by technical publisher O'Reilly.

Now Lego is releasing the Spybotics sets which let nine-year-olds in on the robot fun.

"We have a long-term commitment to technology enhanced toys," said Stuart Drexler, creative director for Lego, "but we never want to step away from our core philosophy of open-ended play."

Far from limiting kids, says Mr Drexler, the technical sets and kits provide children with greater freedom.

"Kids do not see the technology. They see what they can do with it."

Perhaps this is the big difference. Mobile phones are no longer a science-fiction dream. Technology which children today take for granted just did not exist then.

For those who did not grow up surrounded by technology, perhaps they are overly concerned about its spread.

Lego Spybotics, Lego
Now even younger kids can play with robots
It may well turn out that, inspite of whatever technology puts in front of children, their imaginations will live on.

Just think of the joy children get from playing with a big cardboard box - regardless of whatever fancy modcon has been inside.

Maybe people like me are just jealous that we didn't have these fancy gadgets when we really had the time to play with them.


Will technology harm childrens' imaginations? Send us your views, using the form below.

Your views so far:

The more high-tech toys you give a child, the more bored they will become. If it has 10 flashing buttons that make 10 fancy sound effects, then is is so limited it practically useless. But if it has no buttons, no flashing lights and no sound effects, it is almost limitless in its possible uses for thoughtful play.
R Miller, UK

Technology will harm childrens' imaginations if parents feed their off-spring a constant diet of Hi-tech toys to keep them out of their hair. Used in a controlled but limited fashion these toys can be a really powerful stimulus to imagination and creative thinking. All the best hings have serious limitations.
Len Jarman, England

A problem that I see with a lot of the hi-tech toys that are around these days, is that the children take this stuff so much for granted, but then they have no interest in all the details behind it. It would be good to see these toys encourage more interest and creativity, often like lego does. this would help them to understand that things need design and construction in order to achieve some end, not merely a thing in a box with flashing lights.
Duncan Hill, UK

When I was in my early 20s, I would have said, "No, technology doesn't harm childrens imagination." Now I am a little bit older and have ankle-biters of my own I would say that it probably does stifle imaginative play, especially games consoles (and I grew up with Atari and ZX Spectrums). I watch my nearly 3 year old son playing with his 2" Winnie the Pooh figure, a Bob the Builder toothbrush holder, a small plastic monkey and small tractor driver known as Farmer. No technology involved and he plays for hours with them, they have to go everywhere with him and heaven help us if one gets lost! He has toys with flashing lights and various synthesised noises but doesn't really seem interested with them. All he needs are Winnie, Bob, Monkey and Farmer, and his garage that they all play in.
Andy, UK

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Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.
Weely guide to getting buttoned up

See also:

26 Jul 02 | Business
22 May 02 | Science/Nature
04 Apr 02 | England
30 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
13 Nov 01 | Science/Nature
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