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We are All Overdue for Recess

After thirty-three years of designing toys, it could be said, “Greg Autore is an expert at play”. If you add in all the years of creating games for Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Sea Scouts, that should make me over-qualified. People have commented on how frequently I was able to create a new game on the spot with nothing but whatever was laying around that location. Play is important to me for several reasons.

Playing is learning. Multiple times each year I would flip through the scout manuals, looking for what the youth needed to achieve and turned it into a game. They had no idea they were learning. Often at the end of those meetings, I would shout to the crowd, “Did you have fun?” “Yes!” they would always cheer. Then I would go on to tell them, “By the way, if you are Tiger you just completed requirement… Wolves finished… Bears crossed-off and you all achieved the… Skill Award.” The cheers would erupt again and the youth would swell with pride. They had fun, they accomplished and they learned.

For one such scout event during a weekend family camp out, the cubs had fun battling like knights with their foam swords and shields we taught them to make. For protection against flaming missiles flung by a catapult (Nerf Soccer Balls with added fabric flames), they had to raise their shields in groups to protect themselves. Later to get into the castle without being hit by boulders (beach balls), they had to work together to make a modern Roman turtle with their shields protecting themselves and their fellow scouts. It required learning teamwork. They just thought they were playing knights.

If more teachers understood that simple idea, we would have more engaged students with much higher retention and understanding. It is a shame that the value of play is devalued by most of academia.

Children learn from trying. Playing is trying. It stimulates imagination. It gives them the freedom to try, fail and then try a different way to succeed. Remember that the quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress…” was spoken by Albert Einstein. Einstein is arguably one of the greatest minds to live on our planet.

It has been my observation that most children have personalities and drives that are already hard-wired into them at the earliest ages. Certainly, environment is a factor to change personalities and behavior patterns. Some “experts” insist that only environment drives personality. Those people need to get out of their cubicles more often and witness real children. Just last month at a test of play patterns with pool toys in the water, there were two very young identical twin toddlers. They looked so much alike, it was freaky. However, their personalities were completely different. One continually tormented the other by small splashes until the other reacted. The only way I could tell them apart was by their hard-wired personalities. They were too young to blame it on school. There was a slightly older child in the family with a completely different personality from the twins. I doubt the mom taught one to taunt, one to react and the other to protect. Their personalities were hard-wired.

It is often said that (those evil) toy companies are forcing girls to want pink and to play with dolls. Toy Companies (… even the evil kind) spend considerable time and money on testing. The bigger the company, the more testing they do to make sure they are spending wisely. One test we performed had the same line drawing of a character and showed the children 100 different color variations. The top three, were all pink. If kids picked orange, more toys would be orange. The toy companies, for the most part, are making toys in colors kids prefer.

One of those tests exemplified the view that most boys gravitate to similar play patterns. In a very typical test, a small group of boys was led into a room by a moderator that contained dozens of toys to play with. The moderator for the test sat behind the mirrored glass window observing and taking notes. To be sure, the moderators conducted the event properly; the moms could sit and watch their kids. One mom sat next to the moderator telling him how her son was very non-violent and only played with educational toys. As she droned on the boy went over and picked ups a Fisher Price Great Adventures Cyclops who had a large mace with a button to push to make him slam it down. The boy picked it up, walked over to one of the most non-violent toys in the room, a soft Toy Story Sheriff Woody doll, and started beating on it with the cyclops’ swinging mace. The mom stopped talking at that point.

Some parents will go to extremes to protect their children against imagined issues. One couple tried to avoid their child becoming stigmatized by (horrific) gender specific toys. There would be no pink or dolls in that house to influence their child. When they were horrified to catch their daughter cuddling a fire truck and trying to feed it, the child physiologist they sought help from fortunately told them to “Just go get your daughter a doll – she just wants to nurture.”

Even though experience and evidence supports that children in gender groups gravitate towards predicable play patterns, there are exceptions and it is not a bad thing. I have talked with boys who loved to play with dolls as a child. Having their parents take away those toys caused far more damage to their growth than any imagined harm dolls could have caused.

My son fit the classic mold. He was raised with access to a full range of toys. One day at about two years old, he came to us carrying the exceedingly cute Mattel Baby Beans doll in two fingers like he was carrying a dirty diaper. He dropped it in front of us saying, “THIS was in my toy box!” After depositing the unwanted item to his parents to cleanse his toy box, he turned away and resumed playing with cars and balls

My first-born child, a daughter, broke all molds and played with any kind of toy imaginable. Being older, she also had the full array of toys in a house full of “research”. One day we might play with the Barbie Airplane and the next day, shoot GI Joe rockets at each other.

Knowing there are gender preferences does not stop me from making toys that push the boundaries of play. I want every child can feel more empowered to make the world better. I had the privilege of designing some of the very first “Girl-empowerment” toys on the market and working on the cartoon. The result astounded me just a few years back to find that some of those kids who watched that show were now grown and expanding that world with fan art and cosplay costumes. Their efforts have filled me with pride. (Here is a big shout-out to all the Princess Gwenevere fans at!)

All of the hard wiring really means – let the children play how they want to play – as long as it is safe. Let them explore the world in ways their brains can understand. Play with them.

The generation who raised me, did not play with their kids much. As a child I only remember my father playing only once with his kids. It was on a vacation in the bus he converted to a proto-RV where he and three of us kids played with HIS original Monopoly set on a rainy day.

On one of the many times we watched the young children in the church nursery, one older rocker-bound woman was aghast that I was on the floor playing with the kids. “I hope you are not expecting me to do that. I NEVER did that with my children and do not intend to EVER do that!” I looked up at the life-hardened woman with pity and said, “I feel SO sorry for you. You missed out on so much.” Evidently, it was not the right thing to say as she never spoke to me again.

For additional validation about the importance of play and how toys facilitate it, let us review this from one Doctor’s viewpoint. In an earlier post in this blog, “So What Are Twelve Inch Treasures?” I noted how I engaged my children with elaborate adventure play-times and that they might still need professional therapy from that. After posting, I asked my daughter to comment any way she wanted – just make a comment. What I expected was something like, “I am still paying for professional therapy so I don’t have a total bill for you yet.” What she actually posted in reply touched me more than expected:

“I suspect all that adventuring with GI Joe and Barbie set me up for a lifetime of costuming, imagination and general pushing of boundaries (how do I make life better/more fun for this current life adventure?) just like we did then. There is something to be said for knowing/learning how to prepare for a situation or just step back and see the whole picture. 1/6th scale toys certainly lent a good medium for that learning… Although I’m not promising therapy wasn’t needed…J”

We can take the work of one doctor – my daughter – Toys are a good medium for learning.

Here is a real secret known by just a few people in the toy industry. It does not matter how good we make a toy. When a child has a choice – most children would rather just play with a parent.

Therefore, we need to let our kids play. We need to play with our kids. We also need to play.

Help kids play the way they want to play (as long as it is not harmful) so they can imagine, learn and grow. Take some time to play with them – whether they are your kids, grand-kids or someone else’s kids. Take time to imagine. Chances are you will be better from the experience.

Consider this a free recess pass.

What game can you make up to teach someone without them realizing it?

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