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Published: Friday May 30, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday May 30, 2014 MYT 3:42:53 PM

Old-fashioned toys rule

Playtime adventures: Traditional play helps develop the minds of Nadia Zeehan Abdul Aziz Romano’s daughters: (from left) Wan Fara Iman, Wan Zara Sophyia and Wan Aiza Rania.

Playtime adventures: Traditional play helps develop the minds of Nadia Zeehan Abdul Aziz Romano’s daughters: (from left) Wan Fara Iman, Wan Zara Sophyia and Wan Aiza Rania.

We are living in the digital age, but some families still prefer traditional toys rather than high-tech ones.

What (do) you want?” asks Jared Teoh as he dashes back and forth between serving demanding “customers” and tending to the “boiling” pot on his stove.

Jared is the chef of the day, and in the three-year-old’s realm of pretend play his kitchen is churning out pizza and steak. He loves cooking up a storm in his battery-operated kitchenette, complete with whooshing sound effects, but he also enjoys coaxing Thomas the Tank Engine to choo-choo down the railway tracks and is ever-willing to whip out his miniature pirate ship to role-play a scene from Disney’s Jack And The Neverland Pirates.

While the Teoh family is very much connected to the digital age – Jared and his brother Joshua, 12, have a tablet each – the children are encouraged to play with traditional toys. The boys’ mother, Grace Ng, 38, believes physical toys are better for brain development.

“Joshua grew up at a time when smart devices hadn’t yet made it big. He loved his blocks and transportation toys, and would spend hours constructing things with paper, scissors and cellophane tape.

“Physical play encourages imagination and creativity. We’ve noticed this with Jared as well, especially when he engages in individual play. That’s when he gets a chance to figure things out on his own, without having the adults, or a computer, to tell him what to do,” shares the homemaker.

Grace Ng (above) believes physical toys are more conducive for developing the minds of her sons Jared, 3 (left) and Joshua, 12. - AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star
Grace Ng believes physical toys are more conducive for developing the minds of her sons Jared,
3, and Joshua (not pictured), 12. –AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

In the Teoh home, floor-to-ceiling cupboards are filled with Lego sets, play dough contraptions, board games, more pretend food and boxes of puzzles.

Joshua has outgrown some of the toys but will willingly participate in a game of racing trucks to keep his younger brother company. The boys are never spoilt for choice as Ng has practised the rotating rule: only a few toys are introduced at a time to avoid toy overload.

Nevertheless, their toyland has been invaded by tablets and gadgets.

While Ng is happy that her children are adept at using touch screens and are naturals at navigating the Internet, she is concerned about technology taking over their playtime.

“The boys would never give up their toys for the iPad, but once they get their hands on a digital device, they get sucked in and will just be in the virtual zone for hours on end unless we stop them,” she says.

Ng was quick to set clear boundaries right from the start: electronic gadgets are allowed on weekends and holidays, but only for an hour a day. The boys will forfeit their turn if they do not keep to the time limit.

Even then, kids are kids, and Ng once caught her older son stealing some quality time with the tablet when everyone was supposed to be fast asleep.

“It’s a good thing we had rules in place from the start – can you imagine if we hadn’t? Gadgets are an everyday thing for a lot of families, just not in this one,” Ng says.

The great divide

According to child developmental psychologist Woo Pei Jun, 37, caution must be exercised when exposing children to digital devices. While they are excellent learning tools for young minds, an apps-dominated playtime is not in the child’s best interest.

“When it comes to playtime, traditional toys are still the best. Most playsets stimulate creativity and imaginative play. Children get to explore and create different scenarios – there isn’t one button that does everything for you.

Studies show that children who have spent a lot of time on gadgets are less likely to keep eye contact due to a lack of communication with people,” explains Woo, who is also a senior lecturer at Sunway University in Selangor.

Tech-focused play also does not stimulate cognitive development as interactions with the virtual world require very little activity but the flicking of the wrist in most cases. Striking a balance is key and parents need to set some ground rules.

If you suspect that your child is fast becoming a gadget addict, start limiting his “screen time” and encourage him to play the traditional way, Woo suggests.

“Children want to play; they can’t just sit still, so if you start taking away their gadgets, they will find things to do and naturally fall back on traditional play. I have two boys and they do love their tablets but once I limited their access to only weekends for a certain number of hours, they started racing with their toy cars and building stuff out of cardboard.

“In minutes, they had created a world of their own. I didn’t know they had it in them to create such fantastic play with just a few boxes, chairs and Hot Wheels cars,” Woo shares.

Toys like Barbie dolls are more than just playthings. Children learn when they play, and just through interacting with Barbie the astronaut or Woody the Toy Story action figure, they are picking up skills that will prepare them for the real world.

“With apps and computer games, children become passive receivers – imaginative input just isn’t needed sometimes. The same can be said of watching TV. While modern children’s programmes are designed to be interactive – cartoons that ask a question and pause to wait for the child’s answer – the desired reaction just becomes lost on some children because watching TV is, after all, a passive activity.

“On the other hand, children can learn important values from interacting with traditional toys,” says Woo.

For instance, children can indirectly learn about responsibility, such as from spending an afternoon with Barbie the vet and her pet shop set of furry wards. Such pretend play could gently ease children into the responsibilities of owning a pet.

“Problem-solving skills will also come into play, like when Barbie’s clothes get stuck or when something comes apart,” Woo adds.

Dealing with emotions

Nadia Zeehan Abdul Aziz Romano is all for adding to her four children’s collection of Barbies, spooky Monster High girls and colourful My Little Pony Equestria dolls. Based on her observation, the interactive figurines have been great in teaching her three older girls, aged four to nine, how to play well with one another.

“I grew up playing with Barbie dolls so I am really delighted that my children are equally fascinated with them. They love all that’s pretty and pink and girly-girl about Barbie, and I really love watching how they interact with the dolls and with each other – playtime really helps develop their characters,” says the sales trainer, 37.

Woo encourages playdates, where children get to invite their friends over and learn how to play together.

Role playing with her dolls helps Wan Zara Sophyia, nine, express her hopes and dreams, as well as her anxieties and fears. - AZLINA ABDULLAH/The Star
Role playing with her dolls helps Wan Zara Sophyia, 9, express her hopes and dreams, as well as her anxietiesand fears. -AZLINA ABDULLAH/The Star

“Playdates present opportunities to solve conflict and children can learn a lot when they are given the chance to iron things out on their own. They get to experience first-hand how to negotiate and socialise – invaluable skills you probably can’t get from a digital device,” says Woo.

There is also the benefit of emotion-regulation, where children learn to be aware of other people’s feelings and also their own.

“There may be situations where a child gets angry or fearful and it is important that they understand and learn how to control those feelings so that they can become more confident. Traditional toys facilitate self-expression. When there’s make-believe play, the child is in control – he or she can use the time to revisit fears or worries or explore their hopes and dreams and in a very safe environment,” adds Woo.

Nadia’s eldest daughter has since matured into a collector’s phase and prefers to keep all nine of her Monster High dolls, a line-up of fashion dolls inspired by monster movies and sci-fi horror, in mint condition – a message that is undoubtedly challenging to convey to her younger sisters.

To Nadia, that shows responsibility and ownership; values that children can acquire from playing with traditional toys.

Like Ng’s children, Nadia’s are also skillful with digital devices. Yet, it is tangible play that takes a front seat in the household.

“Technology will never be a substitute for toys. Rather, it’s more of a complementary device,” says Nadia.

Striking a balance

For engineer Daniel Tan’s family of five, playtime is bonding time, usually led by his “princesses” – Faith, nine, and Sarah, five. Tan and his wife Marlene Khor also have a two-month old baby girl.

“Sarah loves playing ‘picnic’. She’d spread out the quilt and lay out the masak-masak (cooking) utensils and make you sit with her for a tea party with her bears and stuffed toys. That’s her form of learning, so we try to join in as much as we can,” says Tan, 37.

His children have so far been given limited exposure to the smartphone, but they prefer pretend play sessions.

Sarah (right) enjoying a 'picnic' with her sister Faith. She likes to insist the whole family join in. (Inset) Daniel Tan 'playing along'. - SAM THAM/The Star
Sarah enjoying a picnic with her sister Faith. She likes to insist the whole family join in. So Daniel Tan plays along. –SAM THAM/The Star
During teatime, Daniel Tan (left) follows his daughter Sarah's lead.

“We don’t have a tablet, but we are thinking of buying one soon. Even then, we will still prioritise traditional play. We like that physical playtime teaches the children to be sociable and independent. My girls can play on their own but they are also good at playing together and with others.

“The concept of sharing is still a challenge to teach, but it won’t be long before they master it. Playing gives them a chance to fight and to make up,” adds Tan.

Woo says interactive play sessions are also good opportunities for parents to interact with their children.

“With gadgets, the children are often left on their own. But with dolls and toys, children would sometimes initiate conversation and indirectly invite parents to join in for some quality play time because they have questions or need help with something.”

During one of these co-playing sessions, it is essential for parents to let their children take the lead, Woo advises.

“Let your child decide the storyline. If she wants Barbie to fly, Barbie flies. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to play. Refrain from teaching your child how to play. When you consciously make everything about learning, playing ceases to be fun and your child may not want to play with you anymore.

“Young children are in the care of adults 90% of the time. For the most part, they have no control over any situation. It can get quite stressful. Playtime is the only time where they can have full control over what happens.

“A little guidance is good, but leave the structured play out of it. That’s what’s so great about traditional toys – learning doesn’t have to be obvious. There isn’t a script; it all boils down to imagination and we all know that the sky is the limit when it comes to that.”

Tags / Keywords: Family & Community, Barbie, Traditional toys, Play, Children

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