March 14, 2012 | LXXI, No. 50

Technology vs. imagination

In Other Words

Recently, I spent some time at my childhood home in Georgia. One day my mother surprised my daughter and her cousins with boxes of toys we had packed away together when I was a pre-teen. I was delighted to have a small peek into my childhood, and I’m sure my face mirrored that of my daughter as we opened the lids. While I didn’t remember saving these particular toys, I can remember my mindset at the time. I understood I was too old to play with toys anymore, but too young to realize that the charm of plastic playthings fades with time.

The first things to catch my daughter and her cousin’s eye were the Barbie dolls. In my memory of my childhood self, I rarely ever played with dolls and only had a few. In actuality, I had boxes of Barbies accompanied by all her many and varied accessories. As each item was unearthed, it was clear that none of the three little girls gathered around the box had ever seen such a toy. In their world where almost every toy requires batteries, I couldn’t help but smile that they would be so elated by old plastic dolls. Watching them made me wonder: in our emerging world of technological dominance, is simple imaginative play losing ground?

I understand that my child will grow up in a world vastly different than the one I grew up in, and even more different than the one her grandparents inhabited. This is a truth that is impossible to ignore. When cursive is taken out of the school curriculum and Morse code is no longer taught to our military, it is clear that the children of today will have a vastly different toolbox than the one I was taught.

I also am keenly aware that these are new skills that are vital to learn. Learning cursive is a time-consuming process and one that they are unlikely to use in a world where any personal and professional correspondence is done with a keyboard. Clearly, there are more relevant things to be taught in the classroom. But a part of me can’t help but be nostalgic for some of the old learning that will be lost to future generations. As these skills are eradicated, I wonder if the new skills they are acquiring still teach our children to use their imagination? In their new world of graphics and 3-D imaging, are we sparking their clever minds or inhibiting them?

As I watched my daughter and my nieces play with a simple doll, it was easy to see that at least one thing has not changed since I was a child. For all the new skills they will learn over the coming years — ones that even now we can only imagine — I was happy to see that the world of imaginative play is not something that has to be taught, or even learned. Open a box of dolls, even one with decidedly out-of-date clothing and plastic that has become too fragile, and an entire imaginary world comes out with it. The imaginative world is one that will inhabit and grow only in the minds of the players, incomprehensible to any adult who may be watching.

Sometimes, to the grown ups among us, it seems that the children of today are different. They mature faster, are interested in different things than we were as children, and have an aptitude for technology that outpaces their elders. But with all the joys that technology brings to us, adults and children alike, when I see a group of children using simply their imagination to create an alternative world, I am heartened to see that children really haven’t changed all that much.

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