You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation, or so the saying goes. But in today’s fast-paced world, an hour of play seems like asking too much, even for children. With the average school day being compressed, condensed and intensified in order to cram as much information into students’ heads as possible, even younger learners rarely find the time—or energy—to just let loose and play. To make matters worse, the ones that do typically end up reaching for a Wii remote or a PSP as opposed to something that might actually get their brains working, like a puzzle, or simpler still, a LEGO set.
For most children of the 80s, LEGO was an indispensable feature of any playtime session. Consisting of just a basic assortment of miniature building blocks, children were encouraged to test the limits of their own creativity by constructing their own unique worlds. Twenty years later, in an age when it’s become normal to see children running around with iPods and video phones—frequently with disturbingly inappropriate songs as their ringtone—what appeal remains in a bucket of plastic bricks?
“Children still buy LEGO,” says Mahmoud Mohamadi, a 30-year-old sales manager at Toys R’ Us, as he leads Al-Masry Al-Youm to the LEGO section all the way at the back of the store. Despite Mohamadi’s claim, the selection of construction toys—LEGO shares its shelves with lesser known Spanish brand Constrablock, as well as the German-sounding EiTech—is modest to say the least, and pales in comparison to the rows of Ben 10 talking watches and Spiderman web-launchers up front near the store’s entrance. Mohamadi explains that while LEGO sets still sell, they face some tough competition.
“Most kids that come in here go straight to the videogame section. After that, it’s Spiderman, Iron Man or Barbie for the girls,” Mohamadi explains, before adding, “But really, it’s mostly videogames. Kids are obsessed with that stuff.”
At the Hallmark store, the situation is clearly much more extreme. “These things don’t sell at all,” the store’s PR manager says, gesturing disdainfully at the seven LEGO sets which, according to her earlier claim, have been sitting in the same spot since the store opened. “Kids buy board games more than they buy this stuff. And why should they? These [sets] are extremely expensive; parents might as well get something new, like a Playstation 3, or a skateboard.” She explains that the store’s current top-sellers are Toy Story 3 figurines and play sets, and, of course, videogames.
For most parents, videogames might not be such a big problem—they keep the kids busy, quiet(ish), and off the streets. But they also could be keeping them from reaching their full intellectual potential.
“Even video-games with a focus on problem-solving aren’t particularly good for children,” says Honayda Saadeh, Assistant Principal of Early Childhood at Hayat International Academy. “Sure, they’re better than other games that are just about humans and machines killing each other, but not by much.” The problem, as Saadeh explains it, is that playing videogames is often a solitary, stationary activity. “Children need to move around, they need to be active. That way, they get better blood flow to the brain, and they’re able to think better and faster, and it shows in their work.”
Creativity is also a key factor, the secret to which, Saadeh believes, lies in the earliest stages of development. “Sitting in a classroom, memorizing lessons and taking notes—that is not a complete experience—it doesn’t offer the extra stimulation that some children need in order to really learn.”
“Reading, writing, arithmetic; those things do not represent a whole, well-rounded child,” Saadeh says. “Children are extremely emotional, social, physical beings, and they need to be able to express that. Worksheets and written assignments are mostly passive activities, and we want our children to have active brains.” Children whose activities are limited to reading and writing, or even videogames, will “train” their brains to work a certain way, resulting in the weakening of neglected areas such as those regulating problem-solving skills, and creativity. “When those connections in the brain aren’t properly stimulated, they suffer,” Saadeh explains. “As they say, use it or lose it.”
In order to avoid “losing it,” children should constantly be engaged with activities that will stimulate them while simultaneously deepening their educational experience. Most children strongly benefit from the addition of a visual or tangible dimension to whatever it is they are learning about. From Play-Doh to puzzles, beads to building blocks, Saadeh insists that the more real objects children have to deal with—especially during playtime, when they’re at their most willing and uninhibited—the quicker they’ll learn to grasp such concepts as physics, categorization skills, and even empathy—a direct result of being able to literally see things from multiple points of view. “Even beads on a string, or LEGO bricks can teach children useful skills like recognizing patterns,” making them more capable later on of recognizing and understanding “patterns in math, and everyday life. Life is a pattern.”
It is imperative to keep in mind that children are, after all, individuals with unique and widely varying personalities, which means that “different kids will learn in different ways,” as Saadeh says. “Some learn better by listening, some need visual stimulation, and others need to be able to relate the lesson to previous experiences. We don’t all learn the same way.”
Ultimately, the most guaranteed starting point is getting to know your child. All things considered, an hour of play might not be too much to ask.