Dog Days of Summer – A Brief History of Toys and the Role of Apps

As summer wanes, do you consider the importance of physical activity and how imagination can be fostered in your children?  It’s important to have ideas for what kids can do to keep from becoming bored during the dog days of summer.  Heat lends itself to lackadaisical fun. Indoor activities are useful during the hottest hours of the day.

I got to thinking about toys, and how much or little they interest children. Their newest manifestation – apps – made me wonder how humanity (parents) and especially, children, got by before the invention of manufactured toys? While there are rare instances of toys that have been discovered or written about, dated back a thousand years, most toys did not come to exist, and certainly not on a mass scale, until about one hundred years ago, and the great majority, not even then.  We know about antique music boxes, porcelain dolls and figurines, for instance, but the majority of humanity had and still does not have such objects for play or amusement.  For hundreds of years, lucky little girls had mothers who made rag dolls for them.

Metalwork brought us the world mechanical toys – of tremendous fascination – 150 years ago.  Mechanical toys turned up, largely as a by-product of know-how in traditional crafts, such as clock works and cobblery.  Lucky little boys were permitted to play with leftover materials of metal and wood, and they fashioned them into something productive by fiddling. Children learned important skills when the materials they had, in order to represent anything, required that they fiddle, tinker, and fudge things into imaginative creations.

Jumping ahead a century or so, education is moving into a new paradigm.  Some educational apps show tremendous promise, and though there are many challenges, as a parent and educator, I’m confident some app-makers will become masters of their craft.  Just like a few publishing houses became great in recent centuries (and a few remain so).

The great philosopher and social scientist, Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) wrote compellingly about manufactured toys, and contrasted them with the world of, what we might today think of as ‘one-off’ toys.  Bourdieu, influenced by the discipline of formal Criticism, and his research among Berbers and peoples of Algeria, focused on the child’s experience with broken toys, the inability to repair them, and the effect of hopelessly broken, manufactured toys on a child’s cognitive functions.

Fast forward to children’s apps again.  There are a lot of junky apps out there, but parents are quickly starting to look online for reliable information about, say, educational apps and their utility.  It’s pretty easy to recognize the ‘broken toys’ variety, because they’re inexplicable, and there is no positive outcome for young users.  Bourdieu might consider this damaging.

We have a long way to go with educational apps, but important studies are beginning to reflect on the effects, especially of blended learning, in classrooms and less structured environments.  On the downside, some apps are not well-designed, some will fail, kids may play on them and quickly bore, or play too long, and some kids will fall victim to ‘zoning out’ on mobile devices.  On the upside, we are at the frontier, not yet cognizant, but somehow beginning to see how powerful new adaptive digital apps can be.  Seduced by their many applications to life as we know it, we might gently reflect back on the times when play involved rocks, sticks, mud, all manner of biota, star-gazing, cloud-watching, and… What would a good educational app for these phenomena be like?

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