Once upon a time, my kids had what was then considered a high-tech gizmo: one of those See ‘n Say toys, where you dial an image of a certain animal, such as a cow, pull a string, and out would come something along the lines of, “The cow says ‘moo.’”
Chaos eventually erupted in the barnyard after the toy developed a low-tech malfunction, resulting in chickens making “moo” sounds, cows making “baa” sounds and so forth.
We’ve come a long way since then, perhaps too long a way. Witness complaints by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood over claims that certain mobile apps can help babies learn.
As recently reported by The Associated Press, this is the same group that mobilized against those “Baby Einstein” videos a few years ago, leading to nationwide consumer refunds. According to the AP, the American Academy of Pediatrics has also weighed in, discouraging any “screen time” for kids under 2.
If this includes smartphones, that battle is already lost. Last winter, my youngest grandson, then 23 months old, could grab his mother’s phone, speed dial his other grandmother in Colorado, then carry on a somewhat disjointed conversation of sighs, grunts and an occasional recognizable word. Meanwhile, his older brother, closing in on age 4, regards the home computer as just another fun device among his arsenal of toys.
None of this, of course, was available when my own kids were little. The best toys my son ever had were Legos, which he fashioned into every sort of object you could imagine, from trucks to fire stations to rocket ships. Alas, even good old Lego has now gone digital, allowing kids to design hundreds of virtual models without ever having to touch a real Lego.
As for my daughter, her favorite toy throughout her childhood was an old doll named “Baby,” tossed aside by an aunt who had no use for such creatures. I don’t know if our daughter took Baby on her honeymoon but it sure went with her when she moved out of the house.
Mr. Potato Head and an occasional Cootie — as in the game — were the only items I ever assembled as a kid, although my younger brother, who would go on to become a civil engineer, did have an Erector set.
Then, as now, it can be argued that the best toy a kid can have is not the toy but the cardboard box it came in. Never more has that been proven than with the case of Caine Monroy, who at age 9 started building an arcade out of discarded cardboard in his dad’s East L.A. used auto parts store.
As recently outlined in myriad national news reports, young Caine had few visitors to his arcade that summer of 2011 until a filmmaker by the name of Nirvan Mullick wandered in looking for a used door handle. Not long after, Mullick made a film about the arcade and also organized a flash mob of customers.
Naturally, the thing went viral, raising more than $225,000 in college scholarship money for Caine. More importantly, Caine’s arcade has jumpstarted a wave of cardboard creativity through the non-profit Imagination Foundation, which inspires kids around the world to “think outside the box.”
Last year kids from 41 countries participated in the foundation’s “cardboard challenge,” churning out everything from football tables to robots and claw machines.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are,” Caine recently told NBC News. “All you need is cardboard and your imagination.”
With nary a mobile app in sight.