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Two Short Essays on Play and the
Value of Teaching Craftsmanship
1. What Makes a Toy "Educational"?
Almost everyone selling toys these days tries to tell us that
their toys are educational. Children,
playing and experimenting freely, inventing their own rules and structure as
they go along or using no rules at all, will acquire and maintain new motor,
cognitive, and creative skills when they engage in genuine play.
An explicitly didactic toy is boring. A toy with a
predetermined set of goals, with a "right answer", is not a toy at
all. Play with such a "toy" is not play, but work. Children
cannot learn much from a toy they are not motivated to play with. On
the other hand, one of the most important things a child ever learns, either
through structured, didactic learning experiences or by doing real-world
tasks, is that the successful attainment of a predetermined goal is supremely
satisfying, and that part of the satisfaction comes from the knowledge that
he or she may fail to attain the goal in any particular instance. There are
play products for children that do a very good job of guiding this process.
toy holds attention for a while, but pretty soon, after it has done its thing, a
child gets bored with it and moves on. A toy really teaches if it requires
thought and effort from a child, and rewards new efforts with new kinds of
results. There is a place for real, structured learning even in the life
of an infant. But such behavior is never play and shouldn't be confused
Read more about the behavioral science of
play at The Nature of Play
2. The Teaching Value of Craftsmanship
A child with any aptitude for learning craft skills, and who has a quiet
place to work, a few necesssary tools and materials, and a little
sympathetic, patient coaching when needed, is a fortunate child indeed.
A successful and emotionally healthy adult has acquired a few critical skills:
1. to prepare for a task by gathering necessary information before starting,
and controlling the impulsive desire to jump in head first.
2. to follow directions. This often means acknowledging the expertise of
others, and realizing that he or she needs instructional help with a task, even
if it seems easy and obvious at a casual glance.
3. to tolerate frustration. A difficult, new, lengthy, complex project
will always go wrong in small ways. A mature individual sees these obstacles
as temporary, as problems to be solved, and as natural, normal, and
expected; not as tragedies or failures.
4. to know when to shift focus away from a compelling task. Inherent
in any significant undertaking is the necessity of letting it go
temporarily, whether to rest and regain a fresh enthusiasm for a difficult
problem or just to let the glue dry. Avoiding a compulsive pounding at a
project that is, for the moment, resisting progress, is a valuable emotional
5. to finish a project completely. It seems to happen so often, that
the attention to detail demonstrated at the start of a project is abandoned
near the end, after the novelty of the task has worn off and is replaced by
a desire to move on to something else.
Real craft skills, those that are not casually or easily learned, can
provide a child with instruction in all of these, and offers one thing more:
pride in a true accomplishment. A child who has built a real stick and
tissue model airplane, one that really flies and flies well, will feel pride
not only in ownership and use of the new toy, but also pride in the
ownership of a new, larger self. These are lasting experiences, the basis of
genuine self esteem.
Toys that build these skills, as we suggest in the first
of the two esssays on this page, are not really toys. They do not offer a
play experience in the pure sense, but rather a task with a clearly defined
outcome. Our balsa
model-building kits are an ideal example of such a product. The desired
outcome is clear and obvious, and although the finished airplanes lend
themselves to real play when they are successfully finished and can fly,
even here, the difference between good and bad outcomes is pretty clear.
What makes these kits suitable for children is the carefully graded levels
of difficulty built into the series, starting from quick (dry) assembly and
easy flying, to complex glue-up using a variety of materials, and following
plans with precision.
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