Child development expert Dr Amanda Gummer has spent 20 years analysing the toys, games and activities that truly make a difference to how children engage with the world.
Dr Gummer is a judge in the Future Skills category at this year’s Play for Change Awards, organised by Toy Industries of Europe. We asked her about the impact of great toys, how play has changed along with society, and what parents can do to support their children in challenging times.
How can play help to shape a child’s learning and development?
I’m a big believer that play is how children learn. They use trial and error. They play to find out how their world works and to develop new skills. And they’re not just learning to build a tower or picking up a particular skill. It’s also about the softer, more subtle skills, like learning about themselves, and how to manage their moods, make decisions and communicate.
Can toys and games also create a safe space for children, given the uncertainties we’re currently facing because of COVID-19?
Yes. Often when children are feeling anxious, poorly or particularly tired, they will seek out comforting toys: games they know they can play and win; toys that they can cuddle; things you may have thought they had grown out of. They might look like they’re regressing, but in fact they’re seeking familiarity and comfort when their immediate world is a little uncertain. This provides a sense of comfort and reassurance. We often underestimate the power of play in this area.
Technology has become an integral part of many toys. How can manufacturers ensure they’re using it responsibly?
When used well tech can extend the play value of a toy, making it more accessible, more inclusive and more social. All of those things are great. I want to make sure we’re encouraging children, even through the use of these tech toys, to have a balanced diet of play. I’d like to encourage toy manufacturers to foster social activity and imaginative, child-led play. It’s important that children are given more opportunities to actively engage.
What role can toys play in helping children to become thoughtful and responsible citizens?
They have a huge role here. There’s some really exciting stuff coming through around toys that are encouraging sustainable lifestyles. Products such as Junko or Makedo – toys that help you reuse, recycle and upcycle – are seeing a bit of a surge at the moment, which is encouraging.
The most positive growth I’ve seen recently is around inclusivity. I think that’s really powerful. One Dear World makes an ethnically diverse range of ragdolls. And then you’ve got things like Desi Doll – toys that have a Muslim focus, which are helping children play together and understand more about each other’s cultures. They seem to be doing well – it’s so good to see that kind of thing.
What skills do children need to develop today in order to be ready for the world of tomorrow?
In an increasingly digital world, people need to be able to relate to others and have compassion and a connection with them. These social and emotional skills are more important now than ever.
Flexibility and adaptability will be key too. Flexible thinking, taking initiative and thinking outside the box will be crucial. That’s because a lot of the jobs that children today will have when they’re grown-ups haven’t even been invented yet.
The third thing children will definitely need is an understanding of the digital world. They don’t all need to be Steve Jobs or Tim Berners-Lee, but kids are going to struggle if they can’t do some simple coding or if they’re not comfortable using technology effectively.
Let’s talk about the Play for Change Awards. What will you be looking for when judging the toys that deserve recognition?
The important thing is doing something different. I’m interested to see toys that represent a real step change – things that haven’t been approached before or that tackle an existing problem in a completely new way.
There are products on the market now that have done amazing things, in terms of tech toys or sustainability, but we’ll be looking for something truly innovative. And I would hope we would be able to attract submissions from lesser-known inventors as well as the big toy companies. I’m excited to see what comes through.
Find out more about the Play for Change Awards and register here now.