Tuesday repost: It’s good to share?

I recently watched a video on youtube about children sharing (I’ll pop it at the end of this post) which made me think that this post which I wrote about sharing a while ago could do with a rewrite. Hope you enjoy it, as always comments are welcome.

This week I want to talk about sharing. To be honest there are some things about the concept which baffle me. For starters I can have a group of friends round and slice a cake up share it. Alternatively a child can be playing with a toy car and in allowing another child to take a turn they share. We can also share an activity, we can share interests or share a common ancestor. Basically we can apply the word ‘share’ to a whole host of different activities and it’s this that confuses me. For me the cake sharing is the closest thing to ‘real’ sharing that I can think of since all parties walk away equally satisfied but when it comes to teaching my sons about sharing toys this causes problems. I associate sharing with an evenly divided resource and I’m not sure if this is the consensus.

Here’s an example of how tricky the concept can be to explain: Logan is playing with some figures on the floor and his little brother comes over and picks up a toy which Logan is currently not holding. From Alexander’s (my youngest’s) perspective he hasn’t snatched (which he vaguely aware he’s not allowed to do) but he has disrupted Logan’s play, typically in this instance I’ll take the toy off of Alexander and give it back to Logan or ask Logan if Alexander can join in and share (which sometimes works). When the situation is the other way round and Logan takes a toy I am faced with the additional (and difficult) task of explaining why he should give it back. Logan responds that he is ‘sharing’ which isn’t right but I can’t seem to explain, in terms which a five year old can understand, why sharing only works one way for toys (that is you can share your toys but if someone shares their toys with you you aren’t the one that’s sharing).

You typically don’t praise someone for being on the receiving end of a kind act and you can’t really force an act like sharing or it ceases to be praiseworthy. My problem is mainly with the highly mixed definition of the word ‘share’ but I’ve also got an issue with how sharing is to be initiated. Why is it that a child must instantaneously share their toy when asked?

Imagine a similar scenario for an adult: I’m in a coffee shop reading my kindle while a friend is reading the newspaper friends. They ask what I’m reading  and it turns out they’ve been wanting to read this book for ages. When they see that they have a chance to read a book they’re really excited about they ask me to share my kindle so that they can read a few chapters while we both drink a cup of coffee, They assure me they’re a fast reader so they won’t have it all afternoon, am I supposed to just hand it over? If you answer no, you’re in the same place as me when it comes to sharing: sharing is a choice, not a necessity, we choose when and what to share. If a child is clearly absorbed in playing with a particular toy, why must they break from their activity instantly for another child who asks for a turn? I’m not saying that they have a right to rudely ignore the other child or not let them have a turn but if they politely say that they are busy with it, offering to let the other child can have it when they’re done, what right do we have to insist that they ‘share’ immediately? Can we even call it ‘sharing’ when it’s forced upon someone?

I understand the importance of cooperative play with others but when did solitary play get so heavily demoted? Of course some activities can only be shared: playing a board game, playing football etc. etc. Maybe I’m getting this wrong, I’m starting to worry that I’m a much less sociable person than I thought I was, because I think everyone has the right to loose themselves in something without fear of their attention being broken to ‘share’ the object of their focus. I’m genuinely irked and confused by this whole issue.

On a side note it looks like sharing (in the dividing sense at least) might be innate. Have a look at the video below:

The cost of toys, is this the end of ‘pocket money toys’?

are pocket money toys on their way to becoming a thing of the past?According to Dominic Sacco over at Toy News Online Tesco has decided to downsize their toy section (along with many other ‘non-food’ sections). The reason they give is high cost and low margin and I expect that this won’t be the last we hear of this kind of thing. The truth is it’s getting trickier to get toys made cheaply in China because two things are happening at once. The first, and most obvious, change is that the cost of living (and the expectation) of life in China is changing and this is resulting in an increase in the price of getting something manufactured there. To be honest this first change has been a long time coming and we can hardly be surprised that China’s expectations for standard of living have risen along with their position in the world.

selection of traditional and new pocket money toysThe second change is one that is effecting the lowest priced items the most (though the effects ; CE certification (health and safety checks) used to be based on the assessment of a product in it’s first run at a factory, after that point the company could continue to manufacture that product with minor amendments (colour etc.) for years. However, a new move has now been introduced which, on the face of it, is supposed to avoid the risk standards slipping over time: basically checks are now performed at regular intervals and every test costs money. The tests appear to cost a flat rate and so the result of this is that the effect this has on high priced items will be minimal with the test amounting to a small fraction of the cost per item. However for toys at the budget/ pocket money end where margins are already kept pretty tight there’s less room for them to take this kind of cost and still come in as something you could market as a ‘pocket money’ item.

great wee construction sets at pocket money pricesI can imagine that this situation will only become more pronounced over time and so the question we’re left with is what does this mean for pocket money toys? My feelings about the value of pocket money toys have been made clear in a previous post but it’s worth making them known again here: they’re a simple, inexpensive play item which can nonetheless become a staple part of your child’s play (that is if they’re built to last). What’s more, pocket money toys provide a surprising wealth of play experience, allowing children to encounter very different types of toys (and play) without having to sacrifice a Christmas or Birthday present to test out a new type of toy.

cheap and cheerful and lots of fun, a great way to introduce children to scienceWith this in mind the effect on the way children play will likely be complex but I do expect less pocket money toys to produce an initial lessening in the range of play which kids engage in. This may produce something of a polarising effect in the toy market as children stick to tried and tested toys and become less willing to venture into different camps. Of course many pocket money toys can be described as ‘cheap tat’ but this often misses the point: buying oner of these cheaper toys lets you know if your child will be likely to play with their more expensive counterparts.

Take one very simple example taken from my life. As you can see in my old pocket money post Logan gained some favourite toys in the form a small set of pocket money animals he got when he was two. We now have two toy drawers at home stuffed full of animal and dinosaur figures, most of them are schleich figures which are far from being the cheapest toy figures on the market but they’re far more detailed and generally really robust so we felt it was worth the extra cost. As far as toy animals are concerned I’m not sure if we would have stepped up our spending to this degree if we hadn’t been sure that Logan would play with them and the pocket money animal set he got was a big part of that decision-making process.

So basically I’m trying to point out that pocket money toys are going to start costing more whilst other toys may not increase to the same degree but I don’t think this should put us off buying them. These kinds of toy can be a vital research tool for parents, allowing them to gauge their child’s response to play formats they may not have been exposed to yet. In short, if we lose pocket money the whole industry could change, but more than this (and much worse) children are likely to polarise towards the kinds of play that are most familiar to them, as they become less and less exposed to things that lie outside their comfort zone. We may need to start limiting buying pocket money toys to once a fortnight or once a month or risk a massive rise on our toy spending as parents, but I don’t think we should stop buying them. We should stick to pocket money toys as they teach our children not simply to treat themselves every now and then but also pocket money toys show them new worlds of play and I for one am comfortable with spending a bit more (maybe less often) to continue to make this happen.

Tuesday repost: Engendered toys: Construction toys

Had a couple of conversations on twitter about gender the other day and it made me want to revisit this post, just to clear up any confusion people might have about how I feel about gendering toys for children. Hope you enjoy it and please feel free to fire back any comments you have (good or bad).

Construction toys

I originally wrote this post a few months ago when I came home from work to find Logan and Alexander helping Grampa to fix a cupboard door. My mum and dad were watching the boys and my dad decided to do a much needed bit of DIY. When I was growing up my dad doing DIY was pretty much a constant event in our house. As soon as somebody mentions a dad doing DIY we start to expect the kind of story that highlights the bumbling mistakes of the dad and the inevitable call out to a professional. This was never the case with my dad, he was generally careful; especially when it came to electrical repairs, to be honest I don’t really remember any cases of him jumping in without doing at least a bit of research into what was involved in a job. As a result I grew up with the belief that if I’m careful and pay attention I’ll be able to fix most things that go wrong in the house. That said, what I saw on TV sent a very different message, through characters like Homer Simpson and Tim ‘the tool man’ Taylor.

new_4960802_retro-tv-icon-1I often have a good moan at the media blaming them for many of the woes of modern parenting but I can’t help it, I watched a lot of TV as a kid and I think most kids today are about the same. As a result I’d bet that TV plays a big role in the kind of self-image that kids come to develop (possibly bigger now than ever, now that we have dedicated kids TV stations). I’ve always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the way men are sometimes depicted in the media. So, on to how this impacts toys: simply put I think that men are often depicted as not-so-handy, this is apparent in family comedies in particular, and as a result I expect that many boys exposed to that are likely to develop an image of themselves as similarly lacking in handy skills. If this is the case then you could expect traditional construction toys (like meccano) and toys involving the use of tools to have lost popularity from one generation to the next, and the sad fact is that they have.

Of course there’s no doubt that other factors have played their part in this. There’s no denying the massive role that computer games play in many young boys’ lives now compared even to when I was a kid (back in the 80s). What’s more we can’t ignore the role that the dreaded health and safety regulations (sometimes the killing stroke to some of the best toys) will have likely played in stamping down on toys with points and cutting edges.

tooltimeHowever, the notion that we can’t fix things without the help of a professional has become mainstream and as a result I have little doubt that many children feel intimidated by toys that require them to use tools. So far I’ve been talking about the effect this depiction has on boys, there’s a reason for this: traditionally construction and repair were the domain of men and boys, it’s a role that boys still show a strong connection to in their choice of TV shows like ‘Bob the Builder’ and ‘Handy Manny’. These positive male role models give boys something to aspire to; they provide boys with a potential vocation which they feel a close connection to. However there is nothing inherent in the use of tools that excludes girls from playing. The debate about why girls typically choose pink, dolls, and fashion, and boys pick blue, construction and science toys rages on and my own perspective is hard to get a handle on in one post but I have tried in a previous post.

Describing shows like ‘Bob The Builder’ and ‘Handy Manny’ as depictions of positive male role models may sound as if I’m advocating an exclusionary stance against girls when it comes to aspirations relating to characters like this. It’s important that I stress a distinction here between someone who claims that girls can’t do something and someone who wishes to emphasise the need for positive male role-models. I belong to the latter camp; while I wholeheartedly agree that girls need to feel capable of following a career path relating to a manual skill I don’t think this should be at the expense of a positive role model for boys. I also think that it’s important that these role-models follow boys throughout their development (beyond pre-school) and sadly they don’t. As soon as boys get into primary school they start to encounter an academic bias that makes light of the role of manual skills (unless you count art and craft). What they’re left with is sport and if they find themselves lacking in that department there isn’t anywhere traditionally ‘boyish’ left.

In the shop we have a woodworking kit with a saw, a hammer and all the other tools you’ll need to complete the projects in the box (you can see it in the picture at the top of this post). Sadly this set has sat there since before Christmas. I would have loved this set as a wee boy but it’s had little to no interest from children of the appropriate age. I don’t know if it’s lack of familiarity for the kids coming into the shop or if it’s lack of exposure from their parents but I haven’t seen one boy (or girl for that matter) giving it a second glance. Price may be a factor for the parents but that still doesn’t explain the lack of attention from the kids (who often pay little to no attention to the price of the toys they’re looking at).


Really hate this meme, nothing positive about it and it’s not funny

This post has a lot in common with another post I did  about gender: in both I blame media depictions of day-to-day life which I think is  a depiction of shifts in gender stereotypes. In both posts I feel the need to blame these factors for the loss of interest in playing with these more ‘mundane’ kinds of toys. And my conclusion is very similar also, if children become familiar with the notion that only professionals can fix or build things, this has the potential to lead them to lose faith in their ability to look after their homes. I know I’ve concentrated on how boys are effected but it’s for a reason: whilst girls seem to be discouraged from ‘domestic’ toys in order to expose them to something ‘better’, when it comes to construction and repair boys seem to be getting the message that they can’t do these things whilst at the same time they are being denied a positive alternative. One move is seen as empowerment for girls but the alternative for boys seems to leave them questioning their abilities.

There’s no denying that the media often portrays the average man as unable to make/ do things for comedic effect but do you think I’m right to conclude that this can effect the attitudes of boys in relation to construction toys? On top of this do you think that working with your hands is beginning to be seen as somehow uncivilised or outdated? (Though it’s worth noting that if this were the case one would expect a similar drop in craft activities, which hasn’t happened). Also perhaps it’s just me but the recommended age for construction kits seems to have crept up; meccano is now for 7 or 8 years+, as is airfix, but I remember doing these kinds of sets at 5 or 6 years old (and no I’m not trying to sound like a child prodigy, loads of my friends did it too). Is this simply a health and safety issue or is it yet another example of boys being seen as ‘un-handy’?

Mole’s house Crieff and Imaginative Community

Mole's house Lady Mary's walk Crieff PerthshireI’ve been meaning to post about this for ages. As most of you know I live in Crieff, a little ‘market town’ in Perthshire, Scotland. Down the road from my house is a popular local walk called ‘Lady Mary’s Walk’ and somewhere around half way along this walk is something really special: ‘Mole’s House’. No one I ask seems to know who started this idea but every local parent seems to know about it. Basically at the foot of an old tree in a spot where the bark is less rough someone, some time, decided to paint a door and ‘Mole’s house’ was born. We’ve all donated a wee something there, a well loved toy or something else special for Mole to use or play with. He never seems to be around when you walk by but the kids always stop to look for him and to see what new things mole has collected.

Logan at 'Mole's house' Lady Mary's walk CrieffThis has been going on for years and I’ve been meaning to post about it since I started this blog but it keeps slipping my mind to take a picture when I’m down there with the family. Yesterday I had the day off and on our way round ‘Lady Mary’s walk’ I remembered to pull my camera out so that I could share this wee gem of imagination with you. Logan posed in the picture to the left so he could show off one of his favourite things about the walk. As you can see in the picture Mole has his own house sign and there’s even a wee mole that appeared one day. I suggested that this was Mole but was quickly informed by Logan that it was a toy and that the real Mole must be in bed because he’s ‘nocturnal’ (maybe I watch too many documentaries with him).

If things like ‘Mole’s house’ happened all the time perhaps they would seem less special but I’m inclined to think there’s enough room in a child’s imagination to accommodate a whole host of magic and make-believe. However, the uniqueness, the anonymity of the creator, and the amazing community spirit that keeps it going are all fantastic lessons to introduce your child to. I remember when I went to school in this town a lot of the kids thought of Crieff as a ‘boring’ town but things like Mole’s house show that it’s not. I am happy to say that I live in a town full of artistic people and big kids and long may it continue. If whoever came up with ‘Mole’s house’ ever reads this then thank you from us all for a wonderful lesson in imagination and wonder to present to our children (and don’t be afraid to expand on it, I for one would love to see what else you have to offer).

Short one today, thanks as always for reading. Tell us about anything similar to ‘Mole’s house’ that you’ve come across, or if you’ve been for a visit tell us about your experiences by adding a comment below. Also as a quick reminder, you can follow my block by popping your e-mail address into the box to the right (wordpress and myself have no interest in passing your e-mail address on to third parties). I’ll leave you with a picture of the boys being lions in the grass down by Lady Mary’s yesterday. Cheers, John


Tuesday repost: Challenge accepted!

After last week’s post about computer games and the difference in play offered by more traditional games I thought I’d put together a wee post about board games, I’ll put together one about multi-player games later in the week but I thought I’d get the ball rolling with this. This re-post comes from a post I made back in February about ‘solitaire’ style board games. I’ll admit that solitary puzzles are exactly the kind of one person activity I was putting down last week but the difference is in the tactile element and the fact that in cases where they leave you stumped, solving these can become a group activity. On top of that they’re wonderfully, frustratingly fun.

rush hourI often post about slightly ‘younger’ toys, this is probably because my sons are 2 and 4 (soon to be 5) so my home experience is limited to this. This week I thought I’d try and get outside this box and talk about some toys aimed at older children: those toys/ games described as ‘logic puzzles’. They can range from the simple (yet frustrating) tangles of metal that you get in a Christmas cracker, to larger, more complicated sets with multiple pieces and varying scenarios (such as Thinkfun’s ‘rush hour’ pictured above, which you can get here). These kinds of sets incorporate multiple pieces which have to be moved around in designated ways, sometimes by consulting a plan from an accompanying set of cards. In the case of Think Fun’s ‘rush hour’ you have to get a car out of a traffic jam by only moving the surrounding cars backwards or forwards (no turning!).

36 cube is like sudoku on steroids, your brain will melt. One of each colour per line and each peg is a different size and can only fit in certain positions on the board.

36 cube is like sudoku on steroids, your brain will melt. One of each colour per line and each peg is a different size and can only fit in certain positions on the board.

I love and loathe these sorts of games in equal measure. Because of my stubborn streak (and I have to confess a little over-confidence in my intelligence) once I start one I have to complete it which can, in some cases, take hours. I’ve solved most of the smaller puzzles in the shop at least once and some many more times than that. Completing a logic puzzle can give you a wonderful and guilty mixture of achievement coupled with a feeling of superiority (“I can do this and you can’t!”). That said, I have genuinely given up with some puzzles, e.g. I have never solved a rubik’s cube and I gave up on Think Fun’s ’36 cube’ game after 4-5 hours. I think I like the challenge but there’s a limit on how much of my time I’ll put into it and that’s kind of what I’d like to ask people to comment about today.

What’s the ‘sweet spot’ between the eureka moment when you complete something challenging, and the frustration of inability? For me it is probably the factor of time that makes the difference: if it takes too long I’m just not going to try any more, that perhaps sounds lazy but part of me becomes increasingly aware, as time goes on, that I’m playing a game. There are so many other things I could be doing with my time and as fun as games are, solitaire games in particular can only warrant my attention for so long. It’s different for conventional board games because then there’s the socialising aspect to make the time more meaningful, since the game itself is normally just something to do while you enjoy other people’s company.

This said I often come back to a logic puzzle to try my luck again thinking: “Maybe I wasted four hours on this yesterday but I know how it works now so I’ll get it dome in about twenty minutes”. I’ll delude myself like this, repeatedly in some cases, but I must admit I don’t see myself returning to a Rubik’s cube or 36 cube. I just can’t ‘get them’ and ‘getting’ them will probably take more time than I could ever bring myself to put in.

I wonder if there could be other factors, other than time, that might make someone abandon a puzzle; perhaps a lack of confidence (I guess that’s part of my cop-outs too) or even using the ultimate excuse and blaming the toy for being defective (e.g. giving up because you think it’s been made wrong). As always comments are welcome, and feel free to taunt me on my lack of Rubik’s skill pointing out how intellectually superior you are for having solved it (you know you want to, that’s part of the fun). It would also be interesting to know what logic puzzles have really got under your skin. Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

EDIT (20.07.13): I completed a Rubiks cube the other night! Finally, I can claim membership to this elite group. Remember, it’s all about the centres, the opposing sides are always the same so theme your moves around them.