Ana Veciana-Suarez: Best Christmas toys use a child’s imagination, not their thumbs


I felt like a little girl all over again, pig-tailed and knock-kneed, eager to be left alone to play. One bin brimmed with sealed packages of shiny new jacks and little pink balls, another with a collection of Pickup Sticks. In this cramped back room of a funky Gainesville restaurant, there were also striped tops, harmonicas, several different versions of the cup and ball toss games, wooden whistles, chalkboard sets, paddle balls and whoopee cushions.

We had come for pizza and had, in the process of waiting for our pies, rediscovered the past in a wild assortment of toys with the power to enchant people like us. People of a certain age and era who have, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes willingly, been plunged into the digital age.

“Oh, I want one of these,” I told The Hubby. “And one of those. And two of that. And…and…and…”

I’m not usually prone to nostalgia — it can be a drag — but seeing the toys of my childhood collected under one roof delivered a stronger punch than I expected. It got me thinking how playthings had changed even as children themselves, with their desire to pretend and imagine and run and skip and hang upside down from monkey bars, have remained the same.

Every year as I help Santa Claus “wrap” stuff for my grandchildren, I face the same dilemma: choosing between the latest beeping, blinking, electronic gadget and a toy without batteries that Santa thinks might engage the brain best. Invariably there’s a compromise, a balance struck between the newfangled, chip-controlled and the traditional wooden block and paper, no plug. In other words, an e-reader and a set of metal trucks.

Tech toys have come a long way since my own children clamored for the Commodore 64 and Atari game consoles. For one, the games are more interactive and challenging, and they can entice a child to learn. They’re also a mainstay in even the humblest of homes. To shun them altogether is like swimming upstream. As a grandparent I don’t pretend to be a salmon. Been there, done that. That’s the parents’ job.

Yet, it’s important we introduce our children to games and toys that don’t require an outside power source. I hate to sound like a crotchety Luddite, but even the best tech toy is no replacement for the open-ended play and sensory-rich games that can claim a kid’s attention for hours.

There is, after all, no fuel like the imagination, no spark of energy like creativity borne of boredom. I’ve known this to be true for a while, but I now witness it again and again when I babysit for this generation of digital natives.

My 2-year-old granddaughter finds the game apps on my smart phone like a pro. She slides and points and toggles around her parents’ tablet with ease. But she can also be as engrossed, if not more so, when I give her a doll. Last week she used Play-doh to make the baby a bed and she devised armholes out of a tissue to fashion a shirt.

“Baby cold, Buela,” she told me, and shivered to illustrate her point.

One of her older sisters can spend hours entranced by a blank sheet of paper and a set of magic markers. She draws landscapes and still lives, picture books and greeting cards, worlds she creates with no help but her own resources.

Who needs an iPad when you’ve got brain synapses firing away madly?

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