Picture it: The year is 1958. Mr. Potato Head is a real potato, and kids stab sharp little facial features and body parts into his lumpy, misshapen spud body. No two Mr. Potato Heads are alike. Creative ten-year-olds can design Mr. Potato Head with four mutant legs coming out of his head and two eyes where his belly button should be. I was in love with Mr. P, especially if his tuber body was extra weird and lumpy. I once filled his pink pipe with Velveeta cheese. I’m still in therapy.
Fast-forward half a century. Mr. Potato Head’s entire body is now plastic, with a few predrilled holes that receive only the appropriate accessory. Every Potato Head is alike, unless you spring for the more expensive designer Potato Heads that reflect movies and super heroes. The toy companies, in taking out the endless creative possibilities, have also eliminated thinking, and therefore, most of the fun. What used to be the domain of curious, inventive, Velveeta-stuffing kids now comes pre-packaged in a box.
The other day I saw an advertisement for a sheet of plastic for sliding down hills. What’s wrong with a big cardboard box you can play on until it falls apart and then slide it down the hill with three of your friends hanging on behind you?
Whatever happened to building forts? Inventing cool things from scraps? Acting out stories you saw at the movies or read in a book?
Between our ears we have the most intricate, complex, miraculous super computer ever created: the human brain. Designed to last a lifetime, it warehouses thought, innovation, imagination, creativity, memory, design, spontaneity, logic, emotion, and problem solving. Dr. Frankenstein wanted one. Steve Martin had two. The Scarecrow sang about one.
Kids just don’t spend enough time tapping into their brains these days. I don’t mean to imply they don’t use their noggins for schoolwork and play. I’m talking about thinking . . . pondering . . . ruminating . . . problem solving . . . daydreaming . . . wondering . . . tinkering . . . inventing. When my husband, Rick, was a boy, he was given free rein of their huge basement and all the wonders that lay therein. He puttered with his grandfather’s interesting array of tools. He dismantled electric motors and alarm clocks to see how they worked. He dabbled with a cornucopia of chemistry sets and examined interesting finds under the microscope. These years of exploring led to a career in medicine and science, but had he been born today, that might never have happened. Because of our fear of danger, because we sometimes feel that children must be entertained constantly so they won’t become bored, kids today seldom have time to let their brains become curious. We have sanitized their environments and substituted personal, hands-on experiences with knowledge exclusively found in books and videos. Watch, children. Learn by accepting what SOMEONE ELSE has found out.
Much of their daily worlds are filled with chatter, music, and schedules filled with classroom learning, sports, dancing, music lessons, meals, bath time, chores, and homework. Little time is left for the simple art of thinking. Thinking is a vital life skill that comes in handy in all walks of life. Childhood is a perfect time to practice, and that just might involve taking things apart, using things for new purposes, snooping into things, asking zillions of questions, and being allowed to try, try, and try again.