Toying with technology
For those of us who don’t often have cause to go into a children’s toyshop, said establishments can become unexpectedly fascinating sites for anthropological research. On a recent trip to Carlisle, I decided to see what I could find in their Early Learning Centre for my two adorable nieces. Considering I was an “early learner” myself when I last visited, I was understandably amazed at how things have changed since then. The ELC do make a concerted effort to offer a range of toys categorised according to area and skill development – problem solving, gross motor skills, hand-to-eye-coordination, thinking skills, learning to read and so on. I’m not sure about the amount of research that has gone into them, but no doubt these guides are appreciated by regular customers. At the same time, toyshops are just that: shops. Profit, not education, is the ultimate bottom line, and that means keeping up-to-date and “on trend”.
As an adult, you can’t fail to notice the sheer number of toys that continue to promote the usual stereotypical gender roles. Although both girls and boys are pictured playing with kitchen sets and tractors, the meta tags for ELCs online Xmas Shop still refer insistently to “top toys for girls” (pink phantasia, styling heads and prams) and “top toys for boys” (greens, browns, yellows, construction kits and cowboy costumes) in terms carefully avoided elsewhere on the site. The arguments that follow from such assumptions are well known and I won’t repeat them all here. Equally interesting is how a new range of toys reflect the technological changes of our own “adult” environments. Hearteningly, the same little girls who are expected to content themselves with fake washing machines, vacuum cleaners and fairytale castles are at least expected to leave the domestic sphere at some point and undertake the kind of labour that requires a multitude of tech gadgets. 😉 To illustrate:
A lightweight multi-purpose laptop with a “32 page workbook”. For 3-6 year olds? Wow. Is fun time over? Or are the links between creativity, consumption and productivity what is being encoded here as fun? A scale of consumer gradation means that eventually the toys start subtly to assume actual functionality; whether that be for work or entertainment. Try an image search for “Pink laptop” and you’ll probably struggle to differentiate the fakes from the real things. As Bind Apple noted a few years ago:
Since manufacturers decided they should improve the design and the colors of their existing products, the IT market has been flooded by the massive demand of pink products. Why pink? Because, unlike 10 years ago, technology is not for men only. Also, because the feminine target now represents more than 45% of the total consumers of the whole gadget market.
Of course, it all eventually comes full circle when the adult “gadgets” get marketed as though they were toys. The message seems to be that while children need to mimic their parents, their parents really ought to regress back to the colourful non-results-focused world of play. But isn’t that world becoming just a miniature version of what they’re doing anyway? In future, maybe we’ll have a separate queue for children at airport baggage screening areas. At the ELC, they could buy a multi-coloured, personalised tray to deposit their fake laptops, smartphones and tractor keys into. Just to make sure they really understand the implications of all of this sparkly social technology.
More seriously, there are of course clear links between play, games, learning, creativity and skills development, regardless of age group. Most people would agree that play shouldn’t stop the minute we get added to the electoral register. It’s a question though of what kind of play should be encouraged, and of what gets conditioned into us by the lessons embedded in the socio-cultural tools of the toyshop. Where do the chunky, bright buttons of the laptop and the smartphone fit within paradigms of “investigative” or “collaborative” learning? With the development of critical faculties and personality and “problematic” gender identity? Following the logic of the manufacturers, children will arrive at school already primed to be a certain type of consumer. If I were a parent, I might start to worry about the cost of the inevitable upgrades. That said, can I admit that I did find a lot of the toys pretty nifty?