It’s that time of year again.

Lights appear strung across shopping streets like Victorian washing lines. The same four songs are playing in every single shop. Retail workers have that glazed-eye expression from hearing the same four songs on a loop all day. Everyday packaging suddenly is adorned with pictures of holly leaves. Everybody is ‘festive’.

You really know it is getting close to Christmas when you watch TV. No, I’m not talking about the film channel, Christmas 24, restarting sometime in August, nor am I talking about the weirdly sexualised adverts for perfumes that have no link to their smell. What I’m talking about is adverts for children’s toys.

My eldest child is three years old. He is starting to pay attention to adverts. I try to ignore the “Daddy, I would like one of those” between episodes of Ben & Holly. It seems the toy industry is in the ‘throw every idea at the kids and see what sticks’ mode.

Some of the choice toys include:

  • A board game where a giant nose blows snot at you
  • A board game where you have to not wake Dad when you raid the fridge
  • Something with flashing lights – not worked what it is yet
  • Incredibly specific Paw Patrol ‘locations
  • A pretend baby that does non-pretend crying, drinking and urinating
  • Sylvanian Families – I mean come on, nobody liked that when I was a kid and they’re still pushing it
  • Some kids’ shoes that fold up, have replaceable buckles, and come with a wand and a nauseatingly nasal American accent (I know it’s not a toy, but have a word with yourself Lelli-Kelly)

All top quality fayre that will no doubt make the toy companies a lot of money.

All these toys, however, leave me cold. They look exciting on the adverts, with a bunch of laughing children and adults joining in the fun. I can imagine that the first time someone is ‘getting snotted on’, is really quite fun, but will that last? Will these toys end up being played with after that initial excitement? Will kids return to play these games week after week?

I suggest not. And it is for one good reason. All the games are ‘one trick ponies’. You do just one thing. There is no skill in ‘avoiding Dad’; there is a timer and when it is your time to get snotted on, it’s your time.

I doubt these toys will be remembered at Easter, let alone recollected fondly when my children are grown up.

So, what of the great toys I remember playing with? Lego, Meccano, Barbie (okay, maybe not Barbie in my case, but the same holds for her too). I remember spending hours/days/weeks building and rebuilding my Lego castles, creating aeroplanes for what I think was a Meccano car. Many an hour was spent putting stuff together, taking it apart and rebuilding.

It is easy to say these games endure because we spent so long of our childhoods playing with them because there wasn’t much else, but let’s dig a little deeper.

What do Lego, Meccano and Barbie have in common?

Although that sounds like the beginning of a really rubbish joke, it is a good question.

I would suggest that Lego stood out from other games of my youth, like Frustration, Mouse Trap, Subbuteo, etc. because the toy didn’t define the game. Yes, all came with rule books and instructions, but none encouraged you to throw them away like Lego did. The game wasn’t building the model on the front of the box – once you’d done that, it was a bit boring. What was great was the opportunity for you to create something new.

The best toys aren’t about what the manufacturer creates, it is about what it enables us to do with it. We can feed our imagination and create our own ‘game’. The brightly coloured, plastic brick is not the game; the opportunity those bricks provide to create new worlds is what is important. The game belongs to the child.

Building our children’s future

So what can we learn from Lego and Barbie? How do toys relate to our education system? How much do you want to play with Lego right now?

Well, firstly, there is a ‘learning through play’ movement that is firmly-entrenched in Early Years provision and has slowly spread to bigger kids. Lego has developed its own ‘Lego Serious Play’ methods for business leaders, etc to develop their strategies, be innovative and ‘think outside the box’ by playing with kid’s toys.

Gamification of learning is one of the big things from recent years. Although it was dropped from the Gartner Hype Cycle in 2015, it has had a bit of a resurgence recently. Events like Playful Learning conference critically examine how play, and games, can be part of the learning process. [And yes, I really want to go the next one in July 2018].

Fundamental games

There is a lot of research in to game-based learning, much of it by private companies looking to profit from this area, but I think the idea of bringing games into the educational process is much more fundamental than that:

Let’s give kids/learners/everyone some agency in their learning process.

This could be allowing students to determine any type of media to meet the assessment criteria for an assignment. It could be in allowing students to take their own routes through the curriculum. It could be allowing students to determine the curriculum in the first place.

This whole idea runs parallel with my other passions: heutagogy and ‘student as producer’. They are all slightly different ways of looking at the same thing: the transfer of power back to the student and supporting them through their learning.

Let’s give learning back to the student. Maybe the teacher’s role is to provide the bricks…

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