Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Play and the Over-Scheduled Child

What has happened to free play these days? It appears that in our rush to greatness, we have scheduled ourselves so thoroughly that being able to have free time--and free play--is becoming a rare thing. And, it may be doing more harm to our children than we think.

A recent report by IKEA, the international home furnishings retailer (wonderfully enough), shows that 78% of all parents agree that "children should be allowed to play without it having to be educational." Now, we all like a good educational game, like Think-ets, but when we start to dictate to our kids that all play needs to accomplish something educational or that everything our kid does has to be productive in some way, we may have gone too far.

Studies show that, worldwide, our kids are more stressed than they were a decade ago. This stress can be so great that it even can lead to mental illness. Parents, too, face plenty of social pressure from a variety of sources telling them that their kids need to be high achievers. But it appears to be time for some parents to back off.

Fortunately, the answer is simple and right in front of us: more free play without structure or goals. We need to give our kids time to run around or play "just for the fun of it." No rules. No agenda. No goal in mind. According to the IKEA report, this may be one of the best ways parents can help facilitate a child's healthy development.

So, go ahead. Play a game, have some fun, and let kids be kids by allowing them to play, or think, or dream, or draw without a purpose in mind. We like to call it open-ended play. It may be just what the doctor ordered.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Imagination is Like Fire

"Imagination is like fire. No—strike that. Imagination is fire... Perhaps you have figured out a few ways to make sparks and fan flames. Now comes the question: to what ends shall you use that fire?"

This bold quote and question comes from one of the best books recently published on the subject of imagination. It's called "Imagination First: Unlocking the Power of Possibility" by Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon. And, it calls us to recognize and use one of the most powerful tools in our toolbox...our imagination.

They go on to say that, "The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce paints an ominous picture of the surge in skilled labor in China, India, and other emerging economies—juxtaposed against an aging American workforce that needs serious retooling. In every sector, our competitors’ investments in education and technology are eroding the edge that has traditionally justified the pay of American workers. As China and India climb the skills ladder, there is, in the view of the Commission, only one potential competitive advantage left for Americans: our imagination."

You heard that right. Our biggest resource is likely the power of our imagination--and we better harness it if we want to stay competitive in the world economy. It's why we here at Think-a-lot Toys believe so much in the power of imaginative play.

On the brighter and lighter side, isn't using our imagination fun, too? If you have ever played with our game Think-ets and heard some of the whacky, creative stories people come up with, you will surely agree.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Unplugging is the New Freedom

This Memorial Day weekend couldn't have been better. Sunshine with a bit of rain; outdoor activities, barbecues, and pleasant easy-going conversation with people that matter. I noticed one wonderful thing: it felt good to be unplugged. By that I mean being far from the digital barrage of information, if only for a brief weekend, felt good--even freeing.

Unplugging ourselves on a regular basis is critically important in today's day and age. If we want to live a life of balance, it is important that we create time and space away from the computer and in front of real human beings and nature. The value it brings us is immeasurable. Unfortunately, it is slowly becoming a scarce resource.

The Alliance for Childhood says in their recent newsletter that over the past decade, we have seen profound changes--both good and bad--in the landscape of childhood. We have seen the disappearance of unstructured play, the growth of passive screen time and standardized testing, the rise of childhood obesity, and the disconnection of children from the natural world.

It's time for us to take a long hard look at how much free time we give ourselves and our children and how we can make a conscious effort to uplug more often. One of the best ways to unplug ourselves is to go outside and play in nature. Another way is to play games that don't have batteries or a screen. Our games at Think-a-lot Toys are designed to be open-ended and to be played both outside and in.

Think of all the things you can do without being plugged in. You don't always have to have all the information at your fingertips. In fact, wandering and not knowing are sometimes the healthiest and most creative acts we can do.

I like to think that unplugging ourselves from the digital age once in awhile is the new freedom--and a freedom that is worth fighting for.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Importance of Encouraging Free Play

A leading colleague in the field of toys and games wrote this letter to Mrs. Obama that I thought was so good it was worth sharing in its entirety. It's a wonderful ode to the importance of open-ended play--something all of us here at Think-a-lot Toys believe in wholeheartedly...

Dear Mrs. Obama,

I was very pleased to read about your efforts in getting America's children active through your “Let's Move America” program.

For those who may still be unaware of your initiative, it has set as its goal “…solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation.” One way that the initiative seeks to get some of that weight off is through getting kids to get out from in front of their computer screens and go outside and play.

I applaud your desire to see children to play outside and be active. I firmly believe, however, that there is an even bigger reason for children to play outside than improving their physical health and losing weight. They need to do it so that we and they can continue to maintain a civil society and a robust democracy.

Does that sound like an oversized statement? Hear me out: Outdoor play teaches children to be good citizens of a democracy; it teaches them to be leaders; it teaches them to be entrepreneurs; and it teaches them to get along with their neighbors. Here's why: Unlike indoor games, outdoor games typically don't have strict rules. Buy a board game and you will get a precise set of regulations. Play outdoors and you will usually have to establish the rules yourself.

When we were children, we had lots of free time, particularly in the summer when school was out. If we decided, for example, to play Wiffleball, we and not our parents decided which bush or tree was a base and whether hitting the ball out of the yard into the street was a home run. In addition, we chose our own captains, the captains chose their own teams and everyone had to decide (with no parent or umpire present) if someone was out. In short, we made the law, we obeyed the law and we enforced the law.

Don't get me wrong, indoor games are vitally important to a society as well; they teach us how to regulate our lives within a legal structure, and if there is a disagreement on the interpretation of the rules, we learn how to parse them and make a “legal” decision. Outdoor games, however, give us something more. They don't just teach us how to obey and interpret the law, they teach us how to make and enforce it as well.

And that's not all: You don't have to have lots of money to play outdoor games. In fact, you don't have to have any. All you need is a ball, a jump rope, jacks, a piece of chalk or a stick. If you want to play hide and seek or tag, you don't need anything but raw energy and imagination. Outdoor play is the peoples' play.

So why don't kids go out and play today?

They simply don't have the time. There are too many soccer league practices, too many music lessons, too many adult-organized play groups and too many hours spent riding in the back seat of a car. When they get home, they need to do their homework. It's no wonder we hear so much about the amount of hours kids spend in front of TV and computer screens.

Children haven't just lost the time devoted to free play; they have lost the spontaneity that comes from having no adults in their way. Remember how much fun it was to play with no adults around? In fact, 'grown-up' was almost a bad word in those days. Who needed them? As long as we stayed on the block and no one got hurt, cried, fought or yelled too loudly, we got to do pretty much whatever we wanted. Mostly, at least to our parents, we were seen and unseen. Like little wills of the wisp, we scurried down alleys, climbed over fences and crawled under porches. We were out there, our parents keeping half an ear and an eye out in the hope that they might spot us. Children today, however, are overly guarded and guided. Adults hover over them, choosing teams, establishing rules and setting boundaries. Children simply do not have any freedom. They are in a perpetual lock down.

So, here is an idea, Mrs. Obama, ask America's parents to give their kids back their free time and their freedom. Let them employ their imaginations, their backyards and their friends to choose what they want to do as well as when, how and with whom they want to do it. We will all be better off for it.


Richard Gottlieb

(Richard Gottlieb is president of Richard Gottlieb & Associates LLC, a provider of business development services. He has 35 years experience in the toy industry in sales and sales management. He can be reached at

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Importance of Play in Education

Do you remember what you learned in elementary school? For most of us, that was a long time ago and we probably don’t remember much. But we often remember those fun events where we learned and played at the same time. Barbara Mehler is the media specialist at Bedford Hills Elementary School in Lynchburg VA and she came up with a very creative way to engage the kids at her school. She created a Think-ets Competition, based on the Think-ets game by Think-a-lot Toys.

She realized that there were lots of events where kids who excelled in sports got support and recognition for their talents but there weren’t events for kids who were great thinkers. So, she created a Think-ets Competition at which students played the classic game, “What’s Missing?” in pairs. The winner of each pair would advance to the next round--and if they were smart enough, they would reach the finals. The winner of the finals would win a free Think-ets game.

As she said, “We based the competition around the memory game, “What’s Missing?” because what we have been doing in the library for the last month is exercising your brain without watching television or being in front of a computer. I have gotten a lot of different kinds of games for our school but none of them have taken off like Think-ets. They think it’s just the most marvelous thing. I cannot express the excitement and enthusiasm that this game has created among our students. Now isn’t that cool?

When kids get engaged in something they love, they often “take it to heart.” The simple game of Think-ets has been such a game for this elementary school. Any other elementary school want to take up the challenge? Send us your story and we'll send you a free game.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Impact of the Digital Age on Imagination

Author and renowned storyteller, Laura Simms, has a lot to say about the need for imagination in our world. Her perspective is a powerful reminder that imagination is critical. But here's what got me--she talks about the impact that the digital age is having on imagination.

She says, "Imagination is essential. It keeps alive our access to embodied compassion, inner reflection and delight. In these times of dependence on digital communication, it is important to find ways to enliven imagination, make meaning, and drench ourselves and/or our children in the visceral delight of sharing our stories."

It makes one wonder...are we allowing enough free time for kids and adults to use their imaginations free of outside influence such as licensed products? Do we encourage creative thinking where thoughtful, even deep questions, are encouraged?

The digital age often bombards us with information. Much of it is useful. But too much of it crowds out our ability to think, feel, and question. It may be that many of us need less time in front of the computer and more time in front of other human beings and in nature where our minds can be freer to think creatively.

We need space, and imagination is like the space between the digits of our digital world.