Tag Archives: health

All About … Active Games


It may be difficult for today’s children to believe, but there was a time, not so very long ago, when there were no video games (nor consoles to play them on!), no iPads, no computers — really, no electronics to speak of in the home at all — and children played inside only when they were forced to by bad weather or illness. (This period is generally referred to by parents and older people as “the Good Old Days.”)  Most days of the year, children were outside with their friends, playing variants of games that had been played by their parents, their grandparents, and even their great-grandparents in their turn.

Here are a few active games that were commonly played in Canadian schoolyards from the 1930s to the 1970s. Let’s hope that a few survive to this day!


This appears to be a descendant of the game known in late nineteenth-century New England as “Call-Ball.”  This game was mentioned in Games and Songs of American Children (1883) as having derived from a game played in Austria earlier in the nineteenth century. 

This version of the game — sort of dodgeball meets handball — was played in Montreal in the 1930s.   A group of children stands beside a brick wall; one bounces a small ball off the wall and calls out the name of one of the other children, who must then run and retrieve the ball. The rest of the children scatter and run about until the catcher calls “Stanza,” whereupon they must freeze in place. The catcher then tries to throw the ball and hit one of the other children.  If he is successful in hitting another player, then that player becomes the catcher.

British Bulldog

Players stand at one end of the play area with one or more “bulldogs” in the centre. Players try to run from one end of the area to the other without being tagged by the bulldogs. Any players tagged remain as additional bulldogs. The last remaining runner wins the game.

Red Rover

Players divide into two lines, which stand facing one another some ten metres apart. Each team links hands (or elbows), thus forming a chain. One team “calls out” a player — let’s call him Jimmy — on the opposing side:

“Red Rover, Red Rover,

We call Jimmy over!”

The player called out must try to run through the opposing team’s chain. If he is successful, he may choose one of the “broken links” to come back and form part of his team. If not, (i.e. if the chain does not break) the runner must form part of that chain.

When one team is reduced to one player, he must try to break through the chain. If he does, he may choose another link and increase his team. If not, the game ends.

Kick the Can

Kick the Can

Kick the Can

I always imagined that “Kick the Can” just entailed a bunch of kids kicking an empty tin can down a dusty country road, but it is, in fact, an organized game with specific rules.

The game is one of the kinds sometimes known as “wide games”, and is a mixture of tag and capture-the-flag; an empty can (probably chosen for its acoustic qualities) is placed in the centre of the play area.  One player is chosen to be “it”, and the rest scatter and hide while “it” counts to some predetermined number, whereupon he tries to find and tag the other players. Any player tagged must “go to jail,” in a spot close to the can. Any player who is not in jail and who can get to the can and kick it may release one player from jail — and each trip back to the empty can and subsequent kick releases another player.

If “it” tags all the players then the game is over, and a new player becomes “it” for the next round.

Some, if not all, of these games have been banned from school playgrounds due to fears of injury to children during rough play. Not all the fears are overblown; in 2013, an eight-year-old British girl died from injuries sustained in a London school playground after being accidentally pushed to the ground by a boy playing British Bulldog.

Despite this tragic accident, however, I can’t help feeling that banning high-energy games from schools has been a factor in producing a generation of overweight, fidgety, and unfit kids — and that we might do well to bring them back, under adequate supervision and with appropriate safeguards. What do you think?


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All Sizzle, No Steak?

vintage_colgate_toothpaste_adThere’s an well-known marketing adage that says: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak”.  This idea is the very essence of marketing, which is, after all, a discipline that has evolved to help sell people things that they probably don’t need, may not even want, and sometimes can’t easily afford.  Marketing has turned us from people, who may occasionally need a fresh tube of toothpaste, into consumers, who are subtly reminded through advertising that bad breath and yellowing teeth, say, make us less desirable and successful-looking, and that these unhappy attributes can be corrected by purchasing this or that specific brand of toothpaste or mouthwash.

The fact that we fall for this ancient selling gimmick — even when we profess to be skeptical and hard-nosed consumers — is proof that practitioners of the black arts of marketing know exactly how to tap our innermost anxieties and our unspoken yearnings. Nowhere do we betray our fears more than in our hopes and desires for our children.  And marketers are listening.

Children learn through play. They imitate adult behaviours, they pretend, they explore the world around them, and they are endlessly creative. If play is learning, then — by definition — anything that facilitates play also facilitates learning.  Any well-designed, age-appropriate, and sturdy toy provides a learning experience.  Therefore, toys help children learn through play.

So far, so good. It’s at this point, however, that marketing comes into play, all ready to sell you the sizzle rather than the (somewhat more prosaic if infinitely more nourishing) steak.

Will This Toy Ensure Your Child Gets a Great Job When He's Thirty? Not Likely.

Will This Toy Ensure Your Child Gets a Great Job When He’s Thirty? Not Likely.

Marketers are eager to have  you believe that only a particular toy, or type of toy, will have the maximum positive benefit on your child’s intelligence and potential. There is a huge emphasis in the toy industry on electronic toys that are touted as “teaching” basic intellectual concepts and skills, such as letters, numbers, reading and math.  The marketing is aimed squarely at parents who are — quite naturally — anxious that their children do well in school, so that they can get good jobs, and make successful lives for themselves.

Let's Not Even Go There.

Let’s Not Even Go There.

What the advertisers don’t tell parents in these carefully-designed marketing materials is that there is absolutely zero evidence that these electronic learning aids are any more effective than are the more old-fashioned, lower-cost, and more hands-on methods of helping children learn these basic skills. Read to your child every day, and you increase the odds that he or she will be a fluent reader. Spend time counting things, like petals on a flower, pennies on a table-top, or muffins in a tin and you increase the odds that he or she will master basic mathematics. Cut out paper shapes and glue them to an empty toilet roll, or make and play with play-dough, and you increase the odds that your child will believe that he or she can conceptualize and create things.

idiot-boxNone of these things requires a dedicated electronic machine. What electronic toys do to small children is to shut them into a pre-conceived notion — someone else’s preconceived notion — that tacitly limits their horizons. Further, there is compelling evidence that exposing children under the age of 2 years to electronic media — including iPads, smart phones, and computers as well as purpose-built electronic toys — eats up precious time that is best spent interacting with actual people. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly suggests that children under the age of 2 years avoid television and other electronic entertainment media altogether, and that screen time be strictly limited to no more than one to two hours per day (still a huge amount!) for children older than that.

Make a conscious effort to ignore the seductive messages of advertisers. Set your children free. Unplug them.

They’ll thank you later.

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Filed under Advertising, Economy

Back in the Olden Days, When Toys Were Toys


Scooter Skaters from 1922, courtesy http://www.shorpy.com

In the store, we often hear parents (or grandparents) say things like:  “We never had toys like this when we were young!”.  This is always said with a slightly disapproving shake of the head, a sort of tut-tut that kids these days don’t know how lucky they are to have so many toys, and that the parent remembers when kids called themselves fortunate to own a hoop, or possibly just a rock or stick.

This is, of course, a load of horse poop.  Kids, your parents — unless they grew up in some sort of recently-discovered Amazonian tribe still living a Neolithic life — had toys just like you do. Lots of toys. And often they were way cooler than anything you can get your hands on today, because we didn’t mind flirting with danger then.  (Also the Consumer Products Safety Commission  wasn’t created until 1972, so basically everything before that was a kind of safety free-for-all.  Good times!)  Here are just a few of the toys I remember playing with when I was ten or eleven years old, and the summers just seemed to stretch on forever.

  1. Incredible Edibles.  This toy came from the fertile imaginations at Mattel (where else?), and involved an electric heating element housed inside that vaguely face-shaped apparatus in the
    incredible edibles

    The Incredible Edibles Thing Maker

    photo at left.  The element heated up metal molds into which you had previously poured “Liquid Gobble De-Goop in Six Awfully Good Flavors”, and baked the stuff until it set into rubbery candies.  You then pried your creations out of the molds, and ate them.  Mattel made a big deal out of the fact that the Gobble De-Goop was sugarless, although heaven only knows what was actually in it.  We spent hours inadvertently burning ourselves on the extremely-hot metal plates, and eating these gelatinous things. Mmmm.

  2. Creepy Crawlers ThingMaker.  Although this was also from Mattel and involved pouring liquid good into metal plates, the ThingMaker was a different electric heating unit (“Sold Separately!”).  The liquid stuff was
    Creepy Crawlers

    The Creepy Crawlers ThingMaker from Mattel

    called PlastiGoop and came in bottles that resembled those of Elmer’s Glue.  Our most prized bottle was Nite-Glo, which did, indeed, glow in the dark and with which we made armies of centipedes, spiders, flies, and other rubbery bugs.  What made it glow, you ask? Who knows — probably something radioactive.  I also remember that, at least with the many-legged Crawlers, it was often difficult to end up with a full complement of legs or antennae, since any bubbles in the liquid plastic would become weak spots in the baked creature.  Very traumatic.  The whole enterprise produced, unsurprisingly, a strong smell of hot plastic.  God only knows what sort of off-gassing the whole production created.  No wonder our mother suffered from migraines.

  3. chemistry set

    At Least He’s Wearing Goggles

    Chemistry sets.  These were immensely popular when I was a child; I certainly had one when I was eleven or twelve years old (my childhood desk still bears the scars).  Now, chemistry sets are still sold today, but they are nothing like those sets from the 1970s and earlier (one set even contained some mildly radioactive elements!):  the experiments are easier and better explained, the chemicals are far less dangerous, and the processes are far less hazardous.  The set I had contained an alcohol burner (the home equivalent of the famous “Bunsen Burner”, for heating up various solutions of chemicals) and the glass test-tubes and so on that were necessary (most of which eventually broke, either over the flame of the burner, or as they rolled off the desk onto the floor).  Can you imagine a parent today encouraging a child to go to his bedroom and heat various chemicals together over an open flame? (Because you just know that lots of kids didn’t bother to read the instructions, right? I mean, come on.) I can’t either.

  4. And then there’s the Slip-n-Slide from Wham-O:
    This cleverly-simple toy merged water, plastic, and humid summer days to great effect.  It was also designed for small children, and from 1973 to 1991 at least 8 teens and adults suffered spinal cord injury or paralysis when they hit an obstacle on the Slip-n-Slide, and their greater body mass and height caused them to abruptly stop. The Consumer Products Safety Commission issued a recall in 1993, urging teenagers and adults not to use the product.  If you think about it, it’s pretty unsafe even for children:  any stick or pointy foreign object lying hidden in the grass under the plastic could be forced up by the pressure of the body scooting along above it, and impale the unsuspecting traveler in less time than it takes to say: “Should we have an ambulance standing by?”

So, kids, you can see that we did have toys when we were your age.  Awesome toys (well, awesome for those that survived with all their appendages and eyes intact).  And when Grandad looks at you sitting on the basement sofa in the summertime, as pale as a mushroom, playing Cut the Rope or Micro Miners on your iPod, and he makes that tsk-tsk noise and mumbles something about “You kids and your toys”, it’s really not that he is envious.

He secretly feels a bit sorry for you, that’s all.

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“I Can Do It!” — Toys That Help With Basic Skills

In a blog post way back in October, I promised to write about toys that help children practice basic skills.  And then, being kind of disorganized, I promptly forgot.  I was looking back over last year’s topics this afternoon, and suddenly it jumped out at me — I had never done it.  So here it is.  Better late than never, right?

Dress Up Pirate from Manhattan Toy

Small children love to learn.  They want to be able to do things, to get better at things.  Anyone who has watched a baby learn to sit up, then to stand, then to crawl, then to walk and run and hop, knows this.  Small children have a single-mindedness that is quite amazing: they will try and try and try to master some skill.  Sometimes the skill comes more easily, and the child can move smoothly on to the next challenge.  Sometimes it does not, and the frustration this causes may emerge as tantrums or mulish obstinacy.

Toys can help children practice all kinds of skills.  Some skills are more concrete, such as gross motor skills like walking or fine motor skills like placing puzzle pieces.  Other skills are more abstract and intellectual, such as colour recognition, reading, counting, and problem-solving.

Now, don’t get me wrong here.  Toys will not teach your child to walk or to read.  The learning does not arise from the toy, but rather the toy helps the child make the effort to learn, by helping to make the process enjoyable.

What’s In Here, I Wonder?

There is a sort of feedback loop involved, where the action of play is gratifying and the child wants to repeat the action in order to re-experience the gratification.  (We’re not really that different from those Skinnerian lab rats, are we?)  The repeated actions are what produce mastery of the skill.  Have you ever watched a kid dribbling a basketball or shooting baskets in his driveway?  It’s not the basketball that produces the skill, it’s the practice.

In fact, there’s a theory floating around (popularized by writer Malcolm Gladwell, and based upon the research of psychologist Anders Ericsson) that an average of 10,000 hours practice is required to become a world-class anything — musician, mathematician, what have you.  The upshot seems to be that a whole lot of single-minded and dedicated practice is needed, and repetitively practicing a skill can sometimes be, well, boring.

And that’s where the toys come in.  They make the practice fun.

So, without further yakkity-yak, here’s a short list of basic skills that children often have some trouble mastering, and some suggestions for toys that can help.

Gross motor skills (walking, running)

  • push or pull toys help motivate children to stand up and walk.  Push toys like the Block and Roll (Hape) can be extra helpful as they often provide a measure of balance to wobbly toddlers
  • ride-on toys like the PlasmaCar help children find their balance while giving them a speedy thrill as they zoom along
  • stilts and pogo sticks are great for developing greater balance and poise

Fine motor skills (writing, feeding oneself, drawing)

  • Simplified utensils (fork, spoon, and “pusher”) such as the Constructive Eating series help small children learn to eat by themselves
  • Puzzles train children’s hand-eye coordination, starting with big chunky pieces and progressing to abstract, traditional jigsaw puzzles
  • Unbreakable crayons that can be easily gripped in a toddler’s fist let him practice making the lines and scribbles go where he wants them (Mommy wants those lines to stay on the paper!)
  • Learn-to-dress dolls and stuffed animals help children master the intricacies of buttons, zippers, Velcro, and laces
  • Blocks of all kinds develop spatial skills

You may have noticed that there is a lot of overlap between the kinds of toys mentioned here, and those listed on our Top Ten Toys list.  If you recall, the Top Ten Toys scored high in open-ended learning potential, in creativity, and in value — and these are precisely the attributes that make a good learning aid.  If children want to use the toy, if they can use it in many different ways, and if they will be able to use it for a long time, then it will help them learn.

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Oil From Plastic

The amount of plastic that we use and sell in the store has been an increasing worry to us, both from the standpoint of our carbon footprint (with regard to climate change) and with regard to the phenomenon of Peak Oil and decreasing world energy supplies.

Here’s a video from United Nations University that shows a Japanese inventor and CEO named Akinori Ito, whose table-top-sized machinery might not only be the answer to overflowing landfills, but also might help us eke out our energy supplies a little longer.  Brilliant!

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Filed under Consumer Information, Economy, Simple Science

Families, Go Play Outside!

Geocaching Poster

It's the Truth

We have a dirty little secret in our family:  dirty, and dusty, and leaf-mold-y.  We are geocachers.  Other people may spend their free time throwing a football around, or sailing, or even watching television; but we like to go out into the woods — or the fields, or even the parking lots of the world — and find things that other geocachers have hidden.

Geocaching is essentially a high-tech game of hide-and-seek treasure hunting, in which participants use GPS devices to find their way to hidden items called “caches”.  Often the only reward is the thrill of success (the “Aha!” moment) but often there are little trinkets in the container to be traded.

And that is — in part, at least — what makes this such a great family activity.  Children love the whole concept of adventure and hiking in the outdoors, and they especially love the idea of finding hidden treasure.  Geocaching is essentially an outing that has an additional purpose, a game that children are often especially good at (in part because they are naturally curious, but also — let’s face it — because they tend to be shorter and have better vision than adults and can more easily see close to the ground.)

For the child who is interested in the natural sciences, the hobby of geocaching offers a welcome opportunity to hone his observational skills.  There are plenty of birds, beasts, and crawly things to be observed along the way, and the practice of close inspection (which is, after all, necessary to find hidden items) serves the budding biologist well.  A field guide to identify plants, bugs, or birds, a small pair of binoculars, and a child’s field microscope (see photo below) are great accessories to bring along on geocaching expeditions.  A small hand-held compass would also be a great addition (though GPS systems do have a compass function) so that kids can learn about navigation and bushwhacking.

Bug Viewer

Two Way Field Microscope for Junior Cachers

The only truly necessary equipment for geocaching, though, is a GPS (global positioning system).  Experienced geocachers don’t recommend using automotive GPS systems, as the caches may be a considerable distance from car parking, and the search radius would therefore be uncomfortably large.  There are a great many hand-held GPS systems available, starting at under $100, which will do a great job (we have a Garmin, which we like a lot), and you can also download GPS apps for smartphones such as the iPhone and the Blackberry which will essentially turn them into GPS systems (and they seem to work just fine).

Geocaching has encouraged us to get out into the world and see things we might never have noticed had we not been trying to find a cache:  lovely parks, beautiful vistas, historic buildings, quiet trails.  We usually bring our dog along (though she’s proven herself quite useless as a treasure-finding-dog) and she loves the outings too.

For a complete introduction to this engrossing hobby, visit Geocaching – The Official GPS Cache Hunt Site.  Basic membership is free, and allows you to seek (and hide!) caches in your area or wherever you may travel around the world.  They have a good little video on the page that explains all the basics.

Now get out there, and have fun!

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Filed under Simple Science

Are Fast-Food Toys to Blame for Childhood Obesity?

Fast Food Toys

Fast Food Toys

In response to increasing rates of childhood obesity — and perhaps prompted by correspondingly high medical costs to treat conditions arising from this obesity — Santa Clara County, CA, has voted to ban toys in fast food meals that do not meet certain nutritional guidelines.

The restrictions are as follows:

  • the meal cannot exceed 485 calories
  • no one food item may contain more than 200 calories
  • the drink portion may contain no more than 120 calories
  • the salt content in any one item may not exceed 480 milligrams
  • the salt content in the entire meal may have no more than 600 milligrams
  • of the calories in the meal, no more than 35% may come from fat
  • finally, added sugar may provide no more than 10% of total calories.

According to the Childhood Obesity Foundation, approximately 25% of Canadian children between the ages of 2 and 17 may currently be classified as overweight or obese.  The Centers for Disease Control has this to say about the situation in the United States:

Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008. The prevalence of obesity among adolescents aged 12 to 19 years increased from 5.0% to 18.1%.

Overweight or obese children are at risk for cardiovascular disease, social and psychological problems, and bone and joint problems, as well as associated adult health issues if they grow into overweight or obese adults.  You can measure your child’s Body Mass Index (BMI) using the calculator found at the Centers for Disease Control website.

Santa Clara County’s action is, I think, a clever way to bring fast-food restaurants into line (or at least closer to the line) with current nutritional standards and advice.  By making nutritionally-damaging “kids’ meals” less attractive to children though eliminating the lure of the included toys, they may be able to hit the restaurants right where it hurts — in the pocketbook — and perhaps persuade them to take a step in the right direction.

Now it just remains to be seen whether or not Santa Clara’s councillors will be able to maintain their gutsy stand in the face of the inevitable opposition and lobbying of the giant fast-food industry.  Fingers crossed, guys.

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