I don't know if anybody else is as pleased as I when they find hard data to back up their entrenched opinions and beliefs. This morning, I almost had to pull the car over because I was so enthralled with what I was hearing on the radio. Hooray for NPR, as usual. At first glance, many may not peg me as a person who is interested in toys. But I am - in a round about way. I've mostly been interested (or disheartened, rather) in the way that toys - especially electronic toys - can dull our senses and retard our social skills. We live in a culture that is so over-entertained, that practically cannot survive a minute without something to distract and entertain. We seem to crave having things in our hands and before our eyes, discontent to spend a moment in quietude. This world is brimming with cell phones, PSPs, MP3 players, PDAs, Game Boys, computers, and video games. We invent and use these things in pursuit of an enjoyable life.
To me, an enjoyable life is full of people, learning, and freedom to act. I'm not saying that these toys are antithetical to my own pursuit of happiness, but I think they detract from it more often than they add to it. All of these toys distract us from our human interactions, to the point that our social skills suffer. We close ourselves off when we put in our headphones or when we play a personal hand-held game. We have so much alone time with our electronics, which don't demand any real interaction, that we almost forget how to treat people. We choose the easy way out instead of having important conversations with those we love. We text when we could call or stop by, we watch a movie when we could serve somebody, we listen to our iPod when we could be listening to our family members.
Today on the radio, they were talking about when toys were first advertised on TV outside of Christmas. This was the turning point when play became synonymous with toys. Chudacoff said,
"It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys, whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object." Back in the days, kids (and adults) used to engage frequently in "freewheeling imaginative play." The reception of toys began a sad trend of the shrinking size of "children's imaginative space." [I don't believe all toys are bad and I am not saying that we should all abandon our toys completely, just so you know...]
The way we (and kids especially) spend our time can change our emotional and cognitive development. When we engage in creative activities - make believe, analytical thinking, etc. - we develop executive function, which includes the ability to self-regulate. Acquisition of this skill translates into the ability to control emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.
A study was done on the ability of kids to basically control themselves back in the 1940s. 3-year-olds could not sit still for even a minute. 5-year-olds could sit still for about 3 minutes, and the 7-year-olds could sit still for as long as the researchers asked them to. The same study repeated in 2006 showed that 5-year-olds were performing at the 3-year-old levels of 1940s, and the 7-year-olds were performing at the 5-year-old levels of 1940s. This is disturbing to me on a number of levels. First of all, I think there is great value in being still - controlling your emotions and actions. You can receive peace, inspiration, a recharge. On another level, self-regulation and executive function are much stronger predictors of success in school than IQ. Plus, lack of these abilities is highly correlated with drop out, drug use, and crime. Laura Berk said, "Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain."
I will stop here because I could go on for quite a time about this. But, I think that it is fascinating how much our activities affect us mentally, physically and socially. I wish we all would focus more on the people who are with us when they are with us instead of allowing ourselves to be distracted by the various forms of entertainment.