So, what are you playing with?

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Playing popstar Hannah Montana accessories are a rage among young girls
Photo: Garima Jain

YOU HAVE heard someone say it. Perhaps you have said it yourself. “Children are so much smarter these days.” Earnest parents constantly trying to create an environment in which their babies become as smart as the one in the next stroller. The purchase of any toy becomes a sortie in the preparation for ‘Real Life’. But with the best of intentions, many parents find it difficult to discern the difference between a development aid and a toy company gimmick.

Delhi-based psychologist Shelja Sen met a mother recently who bought a musical device that played Mozart to fix on her three-month-old baby’s pram because the toy company claimed it will develop math skills in the future. “Toys exploit parents’ emotions. I am sure a few sparkling balls and chimes would have done the trick here,” says an exasperated Sen.

And who can blame the adult dazzled by the Lilliputian paradise that is a modern toy store. Toasters, hair-dryers (both ranging between Rs 300 and Rs 600), barbecue sets, laptops ( Rs 2,700), a fake shaver with foam ( Rs 499), a four-foot car ( Rs 20,000) — all miniature, some even fully functional. For many adults, the cornucopia of India’s Rs 1,500-crore toy market must be reassuring. How can your child not grow up smart with all this largesse? The truth about the toys that the Hannah Montana-loving, Xbox-using generation plays with is far more complicated.

If you are politically correct, animal loving and mildly respectful of women, going into a toy shop is sometimes a vision of a post-apocalyptic future. The male world is a black-and-grey war zone full of nuclear strike toys. Imagine plugging a hunting game to your television to shoot deer. The line on the package goes “Catch the best that Mother Nature has to offer.” It is also followed by a disclaimer that reads: “Mild violence and crude humour.” Women are size zero with massive breasts. They wear pink dresses to match their strawberry blonde hair. Homemaker Barbie sits daintily skirted on the edge of a chair. One even had a comic dialogue popping out of her blonde head, “Oh no, Ken is late again.” The other Barbie, who is a software engineer, has a pink laptop. The old gender debate is still noisy in the toy shop. And increased choice makes it even noisier.

In a modern toy shop, the male world is a black and grey war zone full of nuclear strike toys. Women are size-zero with massive breasts

Thirty-one-year-old Mitali Roy is a homemaker based in Mumbai. A unique sight in her household is one where she feeds her three-month-old baby while her four-year-old daughter too ‘breastfeeds’ her special doll (bought in the US on a trip). Roy believes that breastfeeding is just another natural process that her daughter is anyway exposed to.

On the other hand, despite being a mother of two and a thoughtful writer on parenting, Smriti Lamech is taken aback when she hears of a breastfeeding doll. “But I had time to think about it and realise that at some point we have to let go,” says the Delhi-based editor of the kids’ section at Time Out magazine. Lamech confesses she gave up on forbidding toy guns for her son the day she saw him pretending his cricket bat was a gun. Pretend play is as old as childhood, the only thing that’s changed is that the market economy offers imagination assistants — the possibility for a seven-year- old to put on a bra and pretend to feed her baby.

SOCIAL SERVICES professional Renuka Gupta, 46, has a nine-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son. She estimates that she spends about 25,000 on toys each year. Like many parents, Gupta worries more about how the toy market as a whole is working its wiles on her children. Having one bey blade (think tops but more complex) is not enough, you need the entire set — making her wage a losing battle with the kids about consumerism.

Go to a mall — that temple of modern weekends — and you are likely to see kids throwing tantrums, screaming and dragging their parents along to buy some toys (or video games and clothes). The marketing experts are right; they are a push factor in buying decisions. As Charumathy Ganesh, a mother of two puts it, “People tell me to ignore my son no matter how much he cries about demanding these toys, but I simply don’t do that. I don’t know why.” Similarly, Chennai-based IT professional Ganesh Rajashekaran, 37, has bought his three-and- a-half year old son 200 cars so far. “He will never buy a car at the street shops, it has to have a brand logo on it. Every trip to a car parking lot is a car identification parade,” Rajashekaran says laughing. “He can identify every car part and I really question my own intelligence sometimes.”

Lost in games Technology-driven toys are taking children away from social interaction
Photo: Vijay Pandey

This brings us back to the question — what is a toy for? If everything from plastic baguettes to doll shampoo is offered to a child, what is he going to imagine or think on his own? Even if you make your peace with consumerism, the fact remains that imagination is the biggest victim in the clutter of the toy market.

Rajesh Arumugam, father of six-year-old Nethra, agrees, “I believe such toys kill the originality and the potential for innovative thoughts in a child as everything is pre-packed and you get an instruction manual on top of it.”

Bengaluru-based Mandira Kumar has a degree in Educational Media from Harvard University. Sixteen years ago, she founded a childhood resource centre called Sutradhar. Kumar believes that some toys limit open-ended play where the child can create his own stories. The Sutradhar outlet is littered with puzzles, art kits and a full-scale puppet theatre with a range of characters. It is also one of the few places in the country where you can buy culturally-specific toys barring the Indian Barbies and some tacky experiments with Hanuman. In a mall, you would often find toys that sing in Spanish, have blue eyes and blonde hair. A few stores like the Early Learning Centre even have black and Mongoloid-looking toys.

Mumbai-based Arijit Lahiri, who founded Ptotem Learning Projects, developed the Kurukshetra strategy game to make Indian mythology more popular. “The reason why even the existing Indian toys are not as popular is because when you compare a Kajol doll to a Barbie one, the latter definitely wins in terms of design,” says Lahiri. Add to this the charm of playing with a soft cuddly toy as compared to a wooden folk toy.

TODAY, ADULTS routinely turn to knee-high children for help with new technology, particularly electronics and the Internet. Far from the fake shampoo and shaving kit, on the opposite end of the toy spectrum is complexity — remote-controlled helicopters and the Nintendo Wii. Parents watch half proudly, half-nervously as their young ones rapidly outgrow complex games and seek more difficult ones.

While child psychiatrist Deepak Gupta says that there are no scientific studies available on whether early exposure to complex toys impacts development of the brain, he suspects that the earlier they are exposed to techno – logy, the smarter they become. Studies suggest that video games and digital toys significantly increase visual acuity. According to Hyderabad-based child psychiatrist M Phani Prasant, complex toys and video games improve hand-and- eye co-ordination, concentration and focus as long as they are not violent games that encourage aggression. “The mind does become sharper because there is stimulation,” he says, “except when it becomes addictive.” A study by US-based brain scientist Nora Volkow and her team suggests that digital stimulation is similar to drug or sex addiction, and can affect focus and concentration in the long run.

‘When you compare a Kajol doll to a Barbie one, the latter definitely wins in terms of design,’ says Arijit Lahiri, founder of Ptotem Learning Projects

Technology-heavy toys help flourish a particular kind of intelligence. Unfortunately, the games with the surfeit of electronic bells and whistles are not enough. Today, children might be acquiring greater fluency in technology through toys, but they are also missing out on social interaction and the outside world. “In the early stages of life, it is important to learn through your body, through social interaction, from nature, to create things, to write and to draw,” argues Kumar of Sutradhar.

Six-year-old Sangeeta Ramachandran is playing a game of Plot-4, and by expected gestures of adult generosity, she is allowed to win two games and when she loses the third, Ramachandran declares that she wants to play a game that “has her own rules”. So, she invents a drawing game with vague rules and no definite win or loss. Is she just being a child or being a ‘girl’, as the toy companies would have you believe? The diverse clutter of the toy market is here to stay. We don’t really need to become hippie moms and dads isolating children in farmhouses to play with wooden toys, banning television. What would really help us navigate it better is to pause and edit and constantly question what this generation is playing with.

Psychiatrist Deepak Gupta offers the last word, “Most parents can’t keep up with their children’s competence but it is important that they make an effort.” Wide-ranging studies, including a recent Stanford University study, go a step further in a stirring and old-fashioned direction — it suggests that the best investment for parents in making their children smarter is to play with them as much as possible. The toy companies, however, would have you believe otherwise.

Yamini Deendayalan is a Feature Correspondent with Tehelka
[email protected]

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