If you were told you were going to a second grade class party, you’d probably expect to hear the kids before you ever entered the room. There would be laughter, kids talking loudly, and a lot of horsing around. If there weren’t organized party activities, you’d expect kids to be playing. Depending on what’s around, they might be using Legos or other blocks, dolls or action figures, or be engaged in some kind of make-believe game.
Yet today that’s not always true. When my son came home with the good news that his class had reached some milestone and was being rewarded with a class party, he asked if he could bring a tablet with him so he could play video games during the party. Not a chance, I told him, there are far better things for you to do at a class party—like actually play with your friends—than zoning out and playing Minecraft.
He’s used to being told he can’t play video games, but this time he was particularly crestfallen. There will be nothing else to do, he explained: All the other kids will have their tablets or phones with them and won’t want to play. Later I read the email sent by his teacher telling parents the rules for the party—kids were free to bring art supplies or “personal devices” for their use, but no other kinds of toys were allowed.
I can sympathize with the teacher, who I’m sure wanted the kids to have a good time but without the chaos and mess of a true party. And, in my mind, there’s nothing wrong with kids occasionally vegging out playing a mindless game or watching TV. Our school also uses technology as a part of instruction, which I understand and appreciate can help the learning process. But since kids typically get way more screen time than they need after school hours, it seems part of a school’s job is to keep the kids engaged without those crutches whenever possible.
As I was lamenting what to do about my son’s party, I read this article in The Atlantic on how preschools in Germany (known as Kitas) are moving in the other direction and removing toys entirely from their classrooms to force children to interact socially and come up with their own games. The author, Sarah Zaske, who lives in Berlin, described her son’s experience when his Kita made the move to becoming toy-free:
For several weeks, the toys would disappear, and the teachers wouldn’t tell the children what to play. While this practice may seem harsh, the project has an important pedagogic goal: to improve the children’s life skills to strengthen them against addictive behaviors in the future.
“Without any toys, children have the time to develop their own ideas,” said Elisabeth Seifert, the managing director of Aktion Jugendschutz, a Munich-based youth nonprofit that promotes this project. “In toy-free time, they don’t play with finished toys. They develop their own games. They play more together, so they can better develop psychosocial competencies.”
According to Seifert, these competencies include understanding and liking oneself, having empathy for others, thinking creatively and critically, and being able to solve problems and overcome mistakes. And the sooner children learn such life skills, the better, according to Aktion Jugendschutz.
Little long-term research on the effect of the “toy-free” program exists, but some analysis suggests it’s associated with positive outcomes, including better coping habits that discourage addictive behavior. Parents of kids at the Kita report mixed experiences—winter months when outside play was limited bred enough boredom and frustration that they cut the no toy program short. But others, like the article’s author, found their children becoming more independent, confident, and able to self-entertain with the greater use of imagination.
The no toy policy seems unnecessarily extreme to me. Blocks and animal figurines aid in imaginative play but still require the kids to be active participants, using those tools to entertain themselves and to augment a world they build with their imaginations. Such toys can be used alone, but certainly aren’t a deterrent to social interaction in the way that video games are. Kids can use simple toys in group games and activities, helping bond them in a jointly-made imaginary world. Yet if I had to pick one of the extremes I’d far prefer my children’s school take the no toy route rather than enable addiction to technology by encouraging the use of tablets and video games during school hours.
I sent my son to school with a clay set, rather than a tablet, for his class party. He reported that two other kids showed up without any electronic device, and one friend decided not to use the tablet she brought and play clay with him instead. He sounded a little surprised: We had a pretty good time doing it, he told me. That didn’t surprise me at all.