Is That Toy a Playpen or a Playground?

Is That Toy a Playpen or a Playground?

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In Lifelong Kindergarten, Mitchel Resnick, learning researcher and holder of the best-ever academic title of “LEGO endowed chair” at MIT, describes the conditions that breed creativity. To become creative thinkers, children require projects, passion, peers, and play.

Not all play, however, is created equal. Resnick borrows child development professor Marina Bers’ metaphor of the playpen and the playground. Resnick summarizes:

“A playpen is a restrictive environment. In actual playpens, children have limited room to move and limited opportunities to explore. Children play with toys in playpens, but the range of possibilities is limited. . .In contrast, a playground provides children with more room to move, explore, experiment, and collaborate. Watch children on a playground, and you’ll inevitably see them making up their own activities and games. in the process, children develop as creative thinkers.”

Resnick’s ideal “playground” toy, perhaps unsurprisingly given his academic position, are LEGO bricks: “Give children a bucket of LEGO bricks, and they can build almost anything they can imagine, from houses to castles, from dogs to dragons, from cars to spaceships. Then, they can take apart their creations and make something new–in an endless flow of creative activity, just like children creating new games and activities on a playground.”

Even some LEGO bricks, Resnick concedes, would fail the playpen test. Visit any LEGO store today and you’ll see nearly wall-to-wall activity sets, which include specially-printed bricks designed to make a specific object. Children who build these sets, Resnick argues, “are playing in the LEGO playpen, not the LEGO playground. They are learning how to follow instructions, but they aren’t developing their full potential as creative thinkers.”

Resnick isn’t arguing children should never build with these sets, but does assert that if parents are looking to encourage creative play, they’re better off with the plain bucket of bricks. Resnick offers a helpful rule of thumb to parents shopping for new toys: “Ask not what the toy can do for your child; ask what your child can do with the toy.”

Parents reading Resnick’s case for toys likely see a problem: people gift kids a lot of metaphorical playpens. Parents buy a lot themselves in desperate attempts to quell public tantrums. Fortunately, it is possible for any toy to be both a playpen and a playground…if you’re thinking creatively.

Think outside the ball pit

Owning a ball pit for twenty minutes will teach you why they were best left to Chuck E. Cheese and McDonald’s. They take up precious real estate, and when they’re in your home you’re the one responsible for cleaning them. After a few dozen jumps, there’s not much left to do in them, unless you count picking up the 2-300 balls that escaped after the first five minutes.

It doesn’t have to be that way. All you have to do is think outside the pit, which is, let’s face it, just a really big playpen. When you ask what else ball pit balls might be, you’re in for all manner of surprises, like turning your staircase into a ball ramp or building your own Plinko board.

Find a new solution to an old puzzle

A puzzle seems like it makes just one thing: the picture on the front of its box. Once you lose a few pieces, you can’t even make that.

Puzzles can live new lives as collage supplies or building tools. You can build people out of different puzzles’ body parts. With a few more supplies, you can make jewelry or fridge magnets. If you treat puzzle pieces like blocks, you can build tiny cities and other museum-quality pieces.

Create before you declutter

Even children who are meticulous about accounting for every puzzle piece surely have a stash of tiny plastic toys, the kind that come in gift bags, as school prizes, and as checkout bribes. These kinds of toys are often the top items in decluttering tutorials, precisely because they’re presumed to be useless and uncreative.

That’s just because your kids don’t have a hot glue gun. Tiny plastic toys can become amazing sculptural wonders.

Although “hot” glue implies a safety hazard, many cheap crafting guns only heat the glue to 120°, meaning that in addition to helping your kids develop creativity, also offer low-stakes safety lessons. Start with a little decluttering of your own by handing over the tangle of drycleaning hangers from your closet to let your kids start building a foundation. Then let them start gluing away.

Refresh your “bored” games

Many of the simplest board games have a short shelf life. One day you’ll have to play 10 rounds of Candy Land and another day you’ll realize that red gingerbread man has sat ignored in your car’s cupholder for three months.

Your kids can turn those old games into new treasures. Dump out all the pieces from your unused games. Live dangerously and leave out some Sharpies so that your kids can draw new features on their old game boards.

Clear your kitchen drawers

Parents own a lot of playpens. There’s no better evidence of that than our kitchen tools. The melon-baller only mangles melons, and, let’s face it, probably not even that because you’re always forgetting you have it. You might take a page from Resnick’s book and invest in a good chef’s knife, which can take on most of your kitchen tasks.

Before you throw out all of your kitchen playpens, see what your kids can do with them. Give your kids the garlic press, the spoon rest, and the whiskey stones you’re always forgetting to put in the freezer and ask “What’s this?” They may now have a ski ramp for frozen peas, play dough hair makers, and new building blocks.

Treat the playroom like an art supply store

Anything is a paintbrush if you paint with it. Just ask artist David Hammons, who creates works of art by bouncing a basketball in charcoal. (His bottlecap sculpture might also be great inspiration for your kids’ own projects.)

A quick scan of the playroom can turn up tons of surprising art supplies. DUPLOS, LEGO’s less fun younger sibling, actually make fabulous paintbrushes, as do toy trucks, Barbie shoes, and animal figurines.

Ask what else electronic toys might do

Resnick doesn’t have much love for computer-packed toys: “I have no doubt that the engineers and designers at the toy companies are learning a great deal when they create these toys, but what about the children who interact with the toys? Just because a toy itself is creative doesn’t mean that it will help children become creative.”

The biggest obstacle to turning playpens into playgrounds are toys specifically designed to do one thing: press a button and balls swoosh through a jungle or a car races around a track. Can these toys ever be anything but playpens?

One of the most paradigm-shifting parts of Resnick’s book is his defense of Sid, the toy terrorizing neighbor from Pixar’s Toy Story. Sid, Resnick argues, is only a villain if you happen to be a sentient toy. If you’re not, your view of the character should be totally different. Sid is brimming with creativity as he confidently takes apart and reassembles toys to fit new narratives.

Why not encourage your child’s inner Sid? All she needs is a screwdriver in order to take apart old toys, figure out how they tick, and assemble their parts into her own creations.

About the author

Stephanie Loomis Pappas is a professor turned write-from-home parent on a mission to debunk all the bad parenting advice on the internet. At snackdinner, she uses topics like moldy Sophies, raw cookie dough, and Tide Pods to teach parents how to do better research. Despite all her research and teaching experience, Stephanie still can’t make her 4-year-old go to bed. She lives with him and her husband in Lyndhurst.

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