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Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4: wrong toys or the right play?

Image credit: Pixar

Are Woody, Buzz and co the 'right' kind of toys to encourage the next generation of engineers?

By the time we get to ‘Toy Story 4’, Andy’s toys, including Woody and Buzz, are now in the possession of Bonnie (a family friend). But while Bonnie loves her toys, she introduces a new character, Forky – a spork endowed with goggly eyes and pipe cleaner arms – which has severe hang-ups about being a toy. What is interesting, for this month’s Big Screen, at least, is that Forky was made by Bonnie’s own fair hand. Is a toy more loved because it has been self-made? Or does it suffer from longevity issues because, let’s be honest, it’s a bit rubbish. Forky, in the right of the main picture, is undoubtedly a bit rubbish.

Forky is also the result of creative play. Is Bonnie showing nascent signs of becoming an engineer? Should her imagination be encouraged by raining gifts of Meccano and Lego upon her? Or should we let Bonnie grow up in her own way and do her own thing? These are the issues we are looking at in this month’s Big Screen.

Much is made of the type of toys and the nature of the play that children experience these days. It is a classic case of ‘when I was a kid...’, because apparently ‘back in the day’ children would be banished from the house during daylight hours and would happily spend that time playing with wooden hoops or hunting horny-backed toads. That is not the childhood I remember, although ‘Fortnite’ and ‘Candy Crush’ were clearly not alternatives in the 1960s and '70s. ‘Fortnite’ is the app game all the kids are currently down with, apparently, for those who didn’t know.

Nature or nurture? This is particularly identified as being at the core of gender inclusion into the world of engineering. Girls are given dolls and become mothers, while boys are given train sets and become engineers – isn’t that the assumption? Only it clearly isn’t the case. National programmes like Primary Engineer, TeenTech and the IET’s Faraday Primary usually see a fairly even gender split at primary school age; it is only at secondary school that there is a big drop off in female engagement.

Toy Story 4 main cast

Image credit: Pixar

That is not to say that the types of toys we give our children are not important – bricks can help build engineers. “There have been studies that have shown construction play, play with blocks, building things, does seem to relate to children’s mathematical ability and their spatial skills,” says Dave Neale, ESRC post-doctorate fellow at PEDAL (the Centre of Research on Play in Education, Development And Learning at the University of Cambridge). Separate studies have indicated that ‘pretend play’ has strong links to language and communications. Neale continues: “We know language is a crucial aspect of development and so toys like dolls, toy animals, tea sets, could potentially then be encouraging the type of play that will help develop those crucial language skills.”

The trouble is that any evidence of a long-term connection between engineering toys and an engineering career is anecdotal. While many an engineer will harp back to a boyhood spent making go-karts in a garage, there will be so many more who actually remember their childhood toys as an Etch A Sketch and some Matchbox cars. As Neale points out, creative – and creativity is at the heart of engineering – play doesn’t need to be restricted to toys designed for purpose. A child can build a house out of building blocks, and it will look the same as the house the next child builds. On the other hand a child can build a house out of table mats and DVD cases and come up with a far more imaginative ‘des res’.

“Having engineering-type toys and construction toys available is probably very important, if that is the kind of thinking you want to encourage,” continues Neale. “But I think only having that as the child’s experience, or limiting them primarily to that, would be counter-productive. The very type of thinking you would be hoping to encourage – the creativity and the flexibility – I think would be lost a bit if they don’t have a range of other toys to play with. Diversity is important.”

There is also an argument, claims Neale, that a child can have too much of a good thing, or at least too many good things. Faced with a vast array of toys at one time can just offer distraction and confusion, whereas the child given just two or three toys at one time is more likely to focus and explore the possibilities of those toys and be more creative in the way they are played with.

Clearly some toys are designed to foster an engineering mindset – Neale describes a good engineering toy as anything that makes a child think while having fun – but the message is that it is not the toy that is important; it is the play.

Neale believes the best thing an adult can do is give time rather than just toys. The bonding and social interaction aspects are character-forming in this respect, but the way the adult engages also has an influence. “The crucial factor is that the adult guides the play experience and doesn’t take it over. If they take it over, it stops being play,” explains Neale. “If your child is playing and you want to engage with them, then you should be playing just as much as they are. And if you’re playing and having fun, and being generally creative and not taking over and turning it into a teaching experience, then you’re probably doing something constructive.”

As for ‘Toy Story 4’? More sharp scripts, great animation, the occasional tug of the heart strings – all the things people will happily pay to go and see (again) and feel they have got their money’s worth having done so.

‘Toy Story 4’ opened in the UK on 21 June 2019

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