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‘Tis the season to… rethink kids’ toys

In our festive parenting blog, Gary Crossing ponders the generation gap in gift giving that tech brings.

It’s that time of the year again. A time when families up and down the land are ordering hilarious new sofas so that they can have them delivered in time for Christmas.

For a month now, telly adverts have been a blizzard of fake snow, roaring fires, beaming mums and dads in novelty knitwear and trampolining animals. Not to mention a talking carrot called Kevin.

Toy advertising has stepped up a gear too. In between watching Thunderbirds Are Go and Horrid Henry, my boys enter a dreamlike trance, pointing at the screen and chanting ‘I want that, I want that’ at an endless conveyor belt of plastic toys.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Furbies (who’d have guessed they’d be back?), numerous superhero costumes, fleets of remote control vehicles, robotic dogs, and an unsavoury game called Doggie Doo are all added to ever-growing virtual Christmas lists.

The thing is, they don’t want those toys. Not really. Although they think they do. For a magical moment.

In reality, the boys don’t really play with toys that much any more. They play on their iPads. That’s about it.

‘The Playmobil firefighters haven’t answered an emergency call in months’

The wooden railway has been running a severely restricted service for years now. It sits in bits in a plastic bucket in the living room, next to a bucket of Duplo which has long since built its last teetering tower.

Likewise, Scalextric cars sit idle in the pits and the Playmobil firefighters haven’t answered an emergency call in months. I imagine them all playing poker in their box under the bed, waiting for the phone to ring. Batman and Robin recently applied for planning permission to turn the Bat Cave into a block of studio flats.

Lego is played with and enjoyed every now and then, and art is still a preferred past-time when iPads are recharging or the TV has exploded. Glimmering shards of hope.

Bizarrely, last year’s Christmas present, the mega music station – complete with keyboard, drum pads, microphone and tinny sound effects – only ever gets played at around dawn on Sunday morning. Bliss.

‘Is this a huge conspiracy on behalf of the toy industry?’

The boys aren’t alone in preferring their iPads to more traditional toys. During a Channel 5 News report in November about children’s tech use, a sofa full of children using devices were asked whether they preferred toys or iPads. They each chose the latter, without even looking up from what they were playing.

Is this happening everywhere? Is this a huge conspiracy on behalf of the toy industry? Making and selling toys that they know aren’t being played with, hoping that parents won’t notice?

As a parent, perhaps I should recognise that this is what my boys want. But a sentimental nostalgic something in me wants to see them play with 'proper' toys every now and then.

And it’s not just me. Family members who want to buy for the boys also nearly always opt for the physical present. Despite our #moneyfornothing report on how the UK spends billions of pounds on downloads – things we can’t touch and don’t even own – buying gifts for children under 10 seems to still be very much all about the big colourful box of branded toys.

Perhaps it will take a while for us older adults to adjust to the fact that kids would rather play Pokémon, Lego Dimensions or Skylanders than Super Flight Deck (take off and land a Phantom jet on an aircraft carrier via the medium of string!) or Action Man.  In fairness though, looking back at those telly ads now I can see why. The glamour toys of yesteryear don't quite cut it today.

I’m not sure if there is anything to be done about it. We can’t put the iPad back in the box. Things change, and that includes present-giving. If someone had given me a stick and a hoop for Christmas instead of a Dinky Space 1999 Eagle Transporter like I wanted, I would have sulked through ‘til Boxing Day.

There may come a time when we start to solely buy them tech gifts. After all, they’ll be in their teens in the blink of an eye. Mind you, who knows what they will want then. For a couple of years I blithely bought my nieces iTunes gift cards for their birthdays until it was pointed out that they don’t download any more but use Spotify. I felt like such a fool.

Meanwhile, I suppose we’ll keep on buying the big exciting toys that we would have wanted when we were eight or 10 – whether the kids want them or not.

Image: CC0 Public Domain