M: Jane, you work with preschool children, with their parents and were a consultant to Brio toys for a number of years. What do you look for in a good toy?
J: I always look for a toy that doesn’t do very much because the less the toy does the more the child can bring his or her imagination or ideas to it. It is call an open-ended toy.
M: Let’s talk about that.
J: An open-ended toy is one that can be used in a variety of ways and by children of different ages and at different stages in their development. My favorite example are building blocks because for the two year old they’re pretty much are carrying them around, lining them up on a horizontal level, and then perhaps stacking or bridging or enclosing.
It’s so interesting to see parent’s reactions because they buy a set of building blocks and they have this great idea, ahh - castles or space stations and they get disappointed when a child might only line them up. But that’s what a two year old does and that is in preparation for those later stages.
Blocks, being an open-ended toy, can be one experience for the two year old. It can be another experience for the eight year old. They’ll use it in different ways. Open-ended toys also have no right or wrong. A child can build a tower and put the heaviest block on top, what’s going to happen? It’s going to fall over. That’s not wrong. They’re discovering something. Maybe they’re learning a little bit about gravity or balance and so a good open-ended toy will allow the child to experiment.
Open-ended toys are also unstructured. It doesn’t do anything until the child comes into the scene. The child brings the object to life by adding their imagination to it. Providing children with good open-ended toys, I think, is the best way to encourage them to explore not only materials but different concepts through their imagination.
M: There are a lot of adult overlays on what we consider to be child’s play or play in general. Have you seen that manifest with both the people that are making toys and also with parents?
J: I see it in both areas, certainly in toy companies and manufacturers because they want to have something new and exciting every year to present at toy fair or to sell, and of course they want to make money and so they need more product.
It’s a very consumer oriented society that we’re in. I think the parent is also looking for something new and exciting to entertain their child or to give them something that they think will please the child or maybe out of their lack of attention they will give an object that they feel says I love you. So I think both the toy companies and the parents get caught in that trap of something more, something new.
It amazes me today how many places you can find toys. As a child I think the only place was maybe a toy store or in a catalog. And now you can go to the grocery store, and the drug store, the gift shop, every place. Even at food establishments you can get a toy. It’s pretty alluring for the child because they’re seeing them every place. I’m amazed too when I’ve done focus groups with parents and we ask the question how often do you buy a toy for a child? It’s not just at a birthday or at a holiday; some parents told me that they buy a toy every time they go to the store. Maybe it’s only a two or three dollar item, but it’s overwhelming.