When I first heard Toys ’R Us was closing, I felt a deep twinge of loss. The news was made more painful by my twelve-year-old’s reporting of it. “Mom, it’s so sad. They’re closing because kids don’t play with real toys anymore.”
The shuttering of the New Jersey-based retail giant isn’t just evidence of Amazon’s crushing efficiency. It signals a far more disturbing development. As we face booming demand for engineers and scientists, we’re breeding a generation of children who can’t use their hands – because they no longer play with physical toys. This has dire implications for how parents and teachers shape children’s learning.
Instead of hands-on experiences, kids are gravitating toward on-screen substitutes. Last fall Lego reported its first sales decline in a decade, perhaps because of the digital building-block game Minecraft. Kids play Monopoly on the iPad, which rolls the dice, adds the numbers, moves the game pieces, and makes change — releasing players from using either their hands or their brains.
As a result, we’re seeing firsthand that kids cannot complete basic tasks with their fingers. Crazy 8s, the afterschool math club created by my nonprofit Bedtime Math, was intended to instill love of math through tangible games, using playful items like glowsticks and toilet paper. Over 10,000 clubs have launched, and a Johns Hopkins study found that the club succeeds in reducing math anxiety. Shockingly, what little stress the kids experience comes from everyday items like scissors and rubber bands.
In the session “Let’s Get Loud,” kids cut milkshake straws to make pan pipes. One group of third graders struggled for 40 minutes to measure and cut just eight straws. In “Zip Line Zoo,” we worried that the protractors would intimidate kids; it was actually the act of wrapping a rubber band around a small stuffed animal that daunted them. Since kids don’t make slingshots or cut paper dolls anymore, they appear to be losing these key skills. We eventually added the card game Crazy 8s to the line-up, simply because club members had never learned how to shuffle or deal.
The sinister subplot here is the digital divide. It’s well-documented that wealthy kids have greater access to strong afterschool programming, where they engage in sports, robotics, art, and music with high-quality staff and supplies. These activities stimulate the Greek ideal of “sound mind, sound body” and reinforce school achievement. By contrast, a recent New York Times op-ed describes how our poorest kids go home to be babysat by their iPads, deprived of the physical and social interactions that build academic readiness.
This highlights the urgency of teaching and reinforcing dexterity in our schools. We might applaud how digital devices can deliver content on the cheap, but are they with the loss of hands-on learning? The dark truth is that in-school gadgets often fail their very purpose. One teacher assistant in Providence, RI, shared that her 30 students all have iPads — but no earbuds. Thanks to 30 beeping, talking tablets, the classroom is deafeningly loud, hence the kids can’t hear the prompts for their lessons. Despite all the money spent, no learning is happening. A bucket of Legos would serve them far better.
No matter how digital our society may become, hands-on skills will always be a necessity. We’re still going to need tables and chairs, cups and plates, and the dreamers and tinkerers to create them. Someone will still have to design the 3D products that robots assemble — and design those robots themselves. We can’t afford to lose the ability to use our hands alongside our minds.
Our schools need to prepare the next generation for this future world. School funding needs to go not to devices, but to hands-on science, math, and engineering activities. As New Jersey tackles both its funding priorities and its testing standards, there needs to be a frank, uncomfortable conversation between schools and employers about how to turn students into resourceful problem-solvers and design thinkers. Otherwise the “Wall-E” scenario really may come true, and while a select few drive the mothership, the rest of us won’t even be able to walk.