In childhood, toys become part of a playful process of becoming ones’ self. hTrough play, children learn empathy, "try on" identities, and experiment with their place in the world. Unfortunately for kids today, the designed world doesn’t leave much room for them to explore. Most toys come with pre-defined identities and stories, which rob children of the joy of imagining these things. There is also a dearth of open-ended toys, or toys without instructions and right and wrong answers. This leaves few opportunities to figure out how to use a toy, experiment, fail, and invent the story of where it came from, and why it does what it does.
Let kids imagine the story and design their own play.
The ideal toy for a child is not a toy at all but something that they’ve appropriated for play. Enter: sticks and rocks! Imagination transforms a stick into a magic wand, a sword, or a tool to poke a dead thing. A rock becomes a car or a whale. Because these found objects have no assigned story (they are "un-designed"), they shift identities as needed.
The ideal toy for a child is not a toy at all but something that they’ve appropriated for play.
Later, the rock that was once a car becomes a tool to smash leaves when the play changes. This isn’t likely to happen with a toy car that has four wheels and a plastic body. That car can only be a car. The stick that was previously imagined to be a sword and helped slay a dragon (a tree) will shift to become a superhero flying through the air with jet-shoes. This can’t happen with a pre-defined action figure. Superheroes have specific physical characteristics which, along with the movie, comic book or TV show plot, provides the story of how that toy will behave. In play these are the equivalent of instructions, limiting the potential for the child to invent the narrative.
Cas Holman from RISD School of Design has spent a long time with Penny Wilson, an influential playworker in adventure playgrounds in the U.K., observing children playing. She explains how she learnt how important is the difference between asking to a kid: "What are you building?" instead of saying: "Tell me about what you’re doing." By saying "tell me about this" we leave the door open to stories about what children are imagining, and they can share challenges, discoveries about putting things together, or any number of things about their experience with their peers and school.
Says Cas, who explains how allowing kids to direct their own play they develop habits of agency, independence, and self-determination. Armed with these skills, they jump in to figure out who they are and will be in the world, rather than waiting for someone to hand them a model to follow