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Minimalist toys offer safer alternative: experts

Updated Sat. Nov. 10 2007 9:03 AM ET

Ashleigh Patterson, News

This year's growing list of toy recalls is prompting independent toy companies to step in with safer alternatives that promise to improve children's minds with minimal risk to their health.

Peter Emmenegger, owner of online toy store INQUISITIVEkid, says parents today are inadvertently undermining a child's creative thinking and development when purchasing popular "licensed" toys and high-tech smart games.

"Video games and passive plastic toys restrict children's progress by stifling their creativity and imagination, and hindering their social skills," Emmenegger said.

He argues that "licensed" toys -- toys based solely on popular television or movie characters -- tell children how to play by directing them to known themes associated with the character, effectively crushing the child's creative thinking in favour of imitation.

"They just want the child to play with one thing and then hope to sell them another product that they can play with in a different way," Emmenegger told from Toronto.

"It's very one-dimensional."

Diane Bergeron, professor of early childhood education at the George Brown School of Early Childhood, agrees that minimalist toys, such as wooden blocks, and unstructured play function as a catalyst for creative thinking.

"When a child is playing with blocks, they are essentially constructing their own vision and building a castle of their own imagination," Bergeron told

"Then the child is able to construct their own vision of the larger world made small."

When children grow out of their pre-school years, toys move from imitation to high-tech, teaching the child that "technology can do the thinking for you," Bergeron said.

"That is a dangerous place to go because if you want to socialize children to be thinkers, than you need to teach children how to think, not what to think," she said.

"That technology was invented by a creative mind and in order to produce creative minds you need to have people who can think."

Toys that socialize

Bergeron says minimalist toys also serve to socialize children, teaching them important life skills - such as sharing and teamwork -- that become imperative as adults enter into the workforce.

"If they are simply mimicking what they see on television, if the toy has a singular purpose, or you're only responding to what the computer tells you, than that's fine to a point," she said.

"But when you're working in the real world, human beings don't respond like a computer and children need to be taught things like being flexible -- things like being resilient, courtesy and controlling impulses."

Parents are also making the switch to all-natural minimalist toys for safety reasons due to the millions of toys recalled since June of this year.

Randal Lee, owner and general manager of The Toy Space Inc. in Toronto, told that the threat of hazardous materials is prompting more parents to choose independent toy stores with simple products.

"We've seen increased sales and increased interest from new customers," Lee said Thursday.

Lee said rather than electronic play, his store supports family-oriented games and education through creative thinking and free play.

"I think a child's imagination is much more complex than we give them credit for. If you leave them to create their own world out of something simple and just give them the tools to help them with that than that's the best thing you can do for them," Lee said.

According to the British National Toy Council, half of a toddler's waking hours are devoted to play, making it a must for parents to consider their child's development when they choose their toys.

Computer-based toys

But the popularity of computer-based or electronic toys is undeniable. Some say, these games can even hone children's skills.

Jeffrey Goldstein, from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, contends electronic games can improve speed-reaction times, hone cognitive skills, and may retard memory decline later in life.

Goldstein states that video games are even being used as an alternative to medication for children with attention deficit disorder.

The specially developed games increase in difficulty when a player's brain waves indicate their attention is waning.

Despite the positive research, Bergeron maintains natural toys -- even sticks and stones -- are a better choice for child development.

"In terms of environment, I think we really need to move toward getting back to wooden blocks, sand, water and cardboard boxes," she said.

"Those kinds of things children can act upon and manipulate, but they also have very low energy demands, are freely available and connect to the natural world."

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