Why Tech-Free Toys Make Better Gifts During the Holidays

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The holiday gift giving season is upon us. Never before have we been offered the ease of procuring whatever we want to give to whomever we want. Online retailers deliver unique items to our doorstep at all hours of the day and night with the slightest bit of effort on our part. We have access to a staggeringly expansive selection of all manner of items to give but we still often end up purchasing the most touted and “pushed to the top of our Amazon queue” items.

When I look at these lists of “Best Toys” and “Top 10 Holiday Gifts,” I am often disappointed.

While technology or technology-enabled toys will always be heavily represented in these lists, I’d love to challenge all of us this year to include toys that are tech-free in our offerings. We could change the world if we gave priority to toys that encourage a sense of embodiment creative invention and presence. Technology-enabled play items often short change these opportunities. In addition, they elevate the stimulation a child experiences in relation to play things creating an inoculation-type reaction to toys that might encourage the development of boredom tolerance or creative expression and struggle.

Boredom tolerance and the ability to persist are correlated with creativity and resilience. While technology-focused items certainly feed a desire to persist, they are often doing so via addictive neural pathways. This is different than focusing one’s attention on slow moving tasks or in playing in such a way that small failures can lead to new insights and growth.

Why not provide toys that offer children more? Not “more all-sensory-channels-stimulation” or “more bells and whistles”—instead, more opportunities to be present in their bodies, in playful and curious ways? This may require more than normal buy in but getting this is worth it for the massive creative and resiliency that can be developed through such play.

LEGO and Playmobil both offer toys that develop creativity and imagination as are any number of “pretend play” props (think costumes, props for story telling and such). Skill based toys such as Kendamas, diabolos, yo-yos, jump ropes and juggling balls allow a child to try, fail, succeed in powerful ways. Kinetic sand and thinking putty may seem like a bland gift but can become treasures as one becomes familiar with their regulating potential when over stimulated.

Musical instruments are fantastic as are art supplies for open ended exploration. Gifts of experiences—think tickets to a play or makers faire or sporting event or gift cards to local golf ranges, improv theater classes or circus arts schools—are similarly wonderful.

All these things and more could be huge helpers in raising children who can focus, delay gratification and regulate their internal selves and their outward expressions of that self.

Here’s a quick list of some great tech-free toys that make great holiday gifts.

Skill Toys: Kendama, Diabolo, YoYo, LunaSticks, Gyro Ring, Perplexus Puzzle Balls

Body-Based Toys: Balance Boards, Flow Rings, Pull Up Bars

Coffee Table/Desk Toys: Pattern or Shape Blocks, Etch-a-Sketch, Finger Labyrinth, Manipulatable Handheld Games (e.g: RushHour), Pipe Cleaners/WikkiSticks, Thinking Putty, Kinetic Sand

Creativity-Building Toys: Art Supplies (e.g: Paint/Brushes/Canvases, Leather and Leather Letter Stamps, Clay), Sewing or Weaving Supplies and Tools, Musical Instruments, Costumes

Experiential Gifts: Tickets to plays or concerts, memberships to local museums and zoos, subscription to a “gift of the month” or “book of the month” club, valuable coupons to take the recipient and a friend to a movie, festival or car race, skating, dancing, or to a cooking, sewing, or art class

Doreen Dodgen-Magee
Tinybeans Voices Contributor

doreen dodgen-magee is a psychologist, author, & speaker who thinks about how technology is shaping people. Her book, Deviced! Balancing Life & Technology in a Digital Age was awarded the 2018 Gold Nautilus Award for Psychology & has been featured in the New York Times, Time Magazine, & the Washington Post.