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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Peas, Toothpicks and the Loss of Creative Play

January 05, 2002|ARTHUR TOBIAS | Arthur Tobias teaches art in an area high school.

I picked up a miniature toy scooter outside my house the other day. It had lost a tiny part and appeared to have been abandoned by the neighbor boy while at play with my two sons. It is an attractively constructed device just the right size for a pet mouse to ride. The machined and cast metal surfaces gleam with precision. The little red plastic wheels turn with ease. As an older boy, I can understand its lure. As an adult and educator, I am cautious of its promise.

I became aware of another cunningly constructed play object during the consumer season just past. It comes from a company originally known for completely generic, small modular building blocks.

This current production is just the opposite. Its many little parts are unique and particular. One almost hates to take it apart. Its cunningly constructed puzzle offers up the genius of the designer who created it and locks out the genius of the children to whom it is marketed. This clever consumer play device is closed-ended. There is nowhere for the creative imagination to go with it. All the fun work has already been done. The growing mind can only live in awe of those who make such devices. There is no creative play.

Friedrich Froebel had a better idea. He's the fellow who invented kindergarten 170 years ago. His ideas, considered revolutionary in some circles, quickly spread around the globe. The mother of one lad became attracted to the movement when she saw a demonstration kindergarten on the grounds of the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Frank Lloyd Wright would recall in later years the significant influence that Froebel's simple shapes had on his formative years.

In the Froebel system, children became engaged in creative play with extremely simple objects.

Among the more complex play sets that Froebel designed was a small box of toothpicks and peas. When the peas were wet any number of toothpicks could be inserted at various angles. In old photographs one sees large and complex constructions of bridges, towers and cranes from these simple elements.

The kindergarten movement's creative play objects were manufactured and marketed by a number of companies, some of whose names are still familiar. By the end of the 1800s, as the movement spread and Froebel's message of creative play was watered down, the marketed items became increasingly complex. The plain maple cylinders and cubes became elaborate columns and door frames for architectural play. The peas became wooden cookies with a set numbers of holes at fixed angles. Play became constrained by the adult world.

Designing worthwhile play for children requires adult constraint, and yes, a measure of creativity. It is all too easy to let market forces overwhelm the simple nature of truly open-ended play objects. After all, how much of a brand name can you build selling sets of toothpicks and peas?

Yet it is in avoiding the clamor of the cleverly constructed, closed-ended confections that tug at our children from screen and billboard that we hold out the promise of creative play: to build young minds.

So as I collect the various little plastic and metal parts of this year's toys scattered in the driveway, I think I will head to the store and look for a bag of peas and a box of toothpicks.

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