Stretching potential

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Karen and the SZZ team

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As promised, here’s another look at some of the trends that were doing the rounds at the Nuremberg Toy Fair 2014.  One of the identified trends, which didn’t take too much deep analysis to realise, was Tech Toys.  It seems that every modern toy needs to be robotic or have its own app.  Apps for all the latest toys are available on smartphones, and I’m not sure whether the presumption is that every child has their own phone, or whether parents are continually letting their kids use their phones as toys and babysitters?

I can definitely see the benefit in teaching a child to build a robot, and LEGO has some great construction-robotic combos which children can build from scratch and then learn to programme.  There are also many apps geared towards teaching children a foreign language, such as English, and this can really have major advantages for parents who do not speak the language themselves.  The problem I have with tech toys, is when they start to turn play into a one-dimesional activity, bombarding only one or two senses (vision and hearing), and leaving the rest to rot.

Take for example a doll with fairy wings which has become very popular in recent years.  Now that the app is available, you need not take the actual toy along with you in the car.  Your child’s doll can fly through virtual forests by tipping the phone or tablet to negotiate the pathways.  Or what about the latest Tamagotchi?  This undersized toy need not come along either, as there is an app linked to the toy while you’re out, making sure that it is still fed as necessary.  We have apps that scan books and read your children bedtime stories, and puzzles that can be built by swiping your finger across the screen rather than rotating and orientating the wooden pieces in your hand.  Is the ultimate goal for parents and caregivers to be replaced by electronic devices?

Yes we live in smaller spaces and yes our children will need to know how to use technology.  But if we keep on feeding them technological junk food, the basis of their human existence, their health, their ability to sit, stand, run, feel, and explore is going to be stunted. What are the motives behind the development of these toys?  Is it really childhood education as I was told multiple times by their vendors, or is it money, capitalising on parents’ need to make sure their children are ahead of the pack?  It’s a dangerous virtual game we’re playing.

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I’ve just returned home from a crazy week-long trip to Nuremberg, Germany, where anyone who’s anyone in the toy world, from maufacturer to retailer, has been meeting new people and showcasing their ideas. Twelve massive halls presented every toy you can imagine.  Halls with dolls and puppets, to model railways, to tech toys and new trends.  Countries presented the very best they had to offer.  While some designers punted the traditional and classic toys in a new way, others made apps to drag every possible play thing into the digital era.

I have posted a short 2-min video for those who would like a visual walk-through…

One of the most exciting concepts at the fair was the addition of a Trend Gallery, in which new toy trends are analysed and presented.  I will be covering each of these in separate blog posts over the coming weeks.

Another highlight was the release of two fantastic new toys from Moluk, the Oogi and Plui Rain Cloud.  These will also be covered in their own blog post and we’ll send you links for their videos as soon as we have them.

Happy playing!

“Spontaneous play is the delicate dance of childhood that strengthens the mind and body, and nourishes the soul.” – Dr Joe L. Frost

Toy Review: Pluï

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Due to the nature of the toys that capture the imaginations of children and not necessarily adults, we’ve decided to review some great toys one by one, for the adults that buy them for the kids. Today’s blog post is the first in that series as we review the Pluï.

Pluï is a fun new water toy, perfect for summer as well as bath time.  It’s a hard sphere with bumps, available in blue, yellow and green.  At first I thought it looked a bit like a farm yard animal, maybe a cow or pig.  But on closer inspection it becomes apparent that each little bump has a hole – and that’s where the fun starts!

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Pluï makes rain. The name was developed from the french word pluie or rain. All you need to do is hold it under the water until it fills up.  Pick it up using one finger to close off the single hole on the top of the toy.  As you lift your finger to uncover the hole, rain starts to flow from the holes at the bottom of the toy. Persistent rain (until the water runs out).  But this is where the fun comes in – stop the rain, or bob your finger up and down to create lighter drops or even drizzle. And if you have two or three pluï, and some friends, you could really create a downpour in the bath tub! Even tiny hands can manage two at a time.

Some little creative souls started their own version of Händel’s “Water Music”, each with their index finger tapping away at the top hole at a different speed to create their own rhythm as the drops hit the surface of the water. What fun!  You see, moms and dads, it’s not about what the toy looks like to us, or what WE think it “does” or can be used for.  A toy is merely an instrument with which a child’s imagination can be tapped.  It provides a starting point from which they can create their own story.

As a paediatric occupational therapist, I have my own reasons for appreciating the design of Pluï.  I like the size – similar to that of a tennis ball which gets a nice spherical grip with a large web space.  This is something we’re always looking for to encourage strong hands and a good pencil grip later on.  On top of that, I like the way the index (pointer) finger has to control the speed of the water flow.  Individual finger movements are critical for the development of fine motor control and dexterity. If little hands are too tiny to manage that, a toddler can use two hands, one to hold and one to block the hole (great for bilateral integration).  And water play as a medium is a lovely starting point for children with tactile defensiveness.

So whether you’re playing with your Pluï in the bathtub or in the swimming pool, have fun this summer.  But remember – safety always comes first.

Happy Playing!

SZZ

PS Here’s a video of some children playing with Pluï!

Play is boring!

Yep, I said it.  Come on- you have to agree with me, it’s what most of your kids think.  Most of the under 10’s, and dare I say under 7’s, I meet these days are glued to a screen, be it a 50-inch flat-screen in their bedroom, Dad’s iPad or Mom’s smartphone (or their own!).  Dare to voice the sentiment we all grew up with (“Go and play outside”) and these techno-savvy preschoolers will bombard you with a long list of why they can’t.  It’s too hot. It’s too cold.  I don’t have any friends to play with.  You must come too.  There’s nothing to do out there.  Play is boring.

Gone are the days when the tools needed for play were your body, some space and an imagination.  Children want to be entertained.  Fun less creative effort.

The comments from our recent trip to Disneyworld were delayed as a result of Nelson Mandela’s passing soon after our return, so let me start the new year by sharing some of my thoughts from that fairytale experience.  Here in South Africa, most children have heard of Disneyworld/Disneyland, yet although they might wish to visit, a trans-atlantic flight to a theme park is beyond the scope of most vacation budgets.  As qualified professionals never too old to play, we eventually had the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about.

Disney has it all worked out.  Even from the highway leading up to Disneyworld you are invited to believe that dreams really do come true.  Everything is magical.  Everything works.  Everything glitters.  As soon as you enter The Magic Kingdom every building and character looks as though they stepped straight off the set of one of the many Disney movies we all grew up with, and there, in the distance, is the blue and white castle which sparkled at the beginning and end of each one.  The symphonies playing over the loudspeakers put a bounce in your step.  It is a world without sad faces, without litter, without evil characters.  Every interaction is an invitation to be entertained.  Little girls dressed up as princesses prance around in mini ball gowns and with tiaras in their hair.  My goodness, even the queueing is turned into an entertainment experience with video games along the way as you wind your way ever closer to Space Mountain, you’re invited to share a joke with Mike from Monsters University at the Laugh Floor, or you play with the honey in the Hundred Acre Wood.

And yet, amongst all this happiness, was an uneasiness in my soul.  While some families posed for portraits here and there, many children spent the day staring at their iPads as they tapped the screen to Instagram yet another snap of the day. I couldn’t help but feel that they were missing out on the whole expereince – to really look at the beauty and intricate detail of the environment.  Did they notice the bushes cut into characters from Alice in Wonderland? Did they see Winnie the Pooh sneaking past as he headed towards a meet-and-greet area? Did they feel the fake snow falling on their noses that wasn’t cold?

Randi Zuckerberg, (yes, sister to Mark from Facebook fame) commented in her book Dot Complicated on the phenomenon gripping today’s children – that if you didn’t post a pic of it, it didn’t happen.  So actually what I was witnessing was a severe new form of social anxiety – if these children didn’t post it, did it really happen?  Were they really there?  What would their friends think? Well let’s be contraversial for a moment – I propose that it’s those children who DIDN’T post every moment that were really and truely there, in the moment, absorbing it all.  They were the ones who had the full experience – they saw, smelt, heard, felt and tasted every carefully thought out Disney detail.  They were the ones who were in essence PRESENT for the experience.

You would think that in a world that provides insta-tainment at the click of a button or a swipe of your finger, children would be ready to lap up every detail of a done-for-you play experience.  And yet, it’s that very same world that robs them of the play they paid many dollars to “see”.

Madiba loved the children

In the light of Thursday’s sad news of the passing of our much-loved and respected Tata Nelson Mandela, I thought it only appropriate to ponder for a moment on this great man’s life before we launch into the chaos of the festive season.

Firstly, I’d like to welcome all our new readers.  When I’d blogged previously, Straight Zigzag was more of an ideal, a philosophy about play, a notion of how we’d like to see children develop.  Now I can honestly say that Straight Zigzag has launched into the atmosphere, become a name that people ask us about and is developing the momentum to really change the way that us adults see the “work of play” that children understand so well. You’re all so welcome and we’re happy to know that you’re along for the ride!

So back to our former president and the father of the nation we call home.  So many tributes have been playing non-stop on our tvs and radios for the last 4 days, and in so many of them we read and watch how Madiba treated the little ones.  There have been videos of children singing happy birthday to him, Mandela stopping to greet the sick, stories of how he acknowledged the children of those who worked for him.  One overarching value – compassion.

Maybe in the last few days you’ve received an email from us regarding Bilibos and Plui’s, but let’s not forget that Straight Zigzag is so much more than a toy shop.  Our real aim is to reach those who are missing out on play opportunities for whatever reason.  We’d like to attribute the Toy Sharing aspect of our vision to Madiba – a vision of sharing a generosity of spirit with everyone. So if you have reasonable looking toys that are no longer loved by your children, log onto http://www.straightzigzag.com and connect with us on the Toy Share page – we’ll make sure that some play experts (i.e. occupational therapists) match them to children who will love them.  Also use the opportunity to explain to your children where the toys are going – and that perhaps for every new toy they get this year, they could share one with someone else.  Compassion is a big word but it can be understood by the little ones when we show them how it’s done.

Wishing you and your families a happy, playful holiday season!