How Electronic Toys Are Stealing Our Kids' Creativity

'Black box' toys can be fun, but they don't let kids figure stuff out

Key Takeaways

  • Even educational toys have an unknowable, computerized ‘black box’ inside.
  • The best toys are like computer Lego, with computer parts and home-made software instead of plastic bricks.
  • In 2015, the BBC gave Micro:bit computer kits to 11- and 12-year-old school kids in the UK.
A young child playing with an electronic toy that looks like a digital camera.
Tanaphong Toochinda / Unsplash

Most computerized kids’ toys are "black boxes," with no way to learn what they do or how they work. Kids may be able to program them, but few will truly understand the box’s insides, and then not until much later.

Toys like the new VTech KidiZoom PrintCam look awesome. Kids can snap photos and see the results right away. But can they understand how it works? Inside, it’s just another opaque computer, like the one you’re using to read this article.

Almost all toys and gadgets are computerized, and while we and our kids might become adept at using them, we cannot understand them.

"Today’s kids are born with tech, but that doesn’t mean they are naturally tech savvier," Mark Coster, owner and editor of STEM Toy Expert, told Lifewire via email.

"Using and tinkering is not the same thing. For this familiarity to turn into savviness, society must kick in through our educational system but also through support from parents and other role models."

Missing Foundation

It’s possible to take a bike apart and see exactly how it works. The same is true for a mechanical wristwatch, a loudspeaker, and a film camera. When computers become involved, the tendency is to lock the software into a so-called black box. You can’t open or examine it. There is no way to find out how it works. 

That might not seem important, but understanding how the world works changes our relationship to it. "Technological literacy is much like general scientific literacy," says Coster.

"Using and tinkering is not the same thing. For this familiarity to turn into savviness, society must kick in..."

"You don’t need to know the nitty-gritty of, say, a vaccine, but you should be in the loop with the very basics of how it works."

For many kids, taking stuff apart to see how it works is a way to understand the world. Computerized toys offer no clues about how they work. They may as well be powered by magic. 

"Today, kids are on the internet right away, instantly entertained and consuming content," Alison Evans Adnani, founder of Maker Junior, told Lifewire via email.

"They can't see inside their devices. And they're not something that gets fixed when they break down. There's some great interactive software programs, and the desire to build, modify and create is there, but it comes later. But the foundational curiosity of the technology and infrastructure that supports it missing."

Good Computers

A computer can be opened up and understood. It’s just that most of the devices and toys we buy aren’t built in a way that makes it possible. To be accessible, software should be available to examine or at least extract, either on the device itself or for download.

Toys can be built with this in mind. In 2015, the BBC gave away a million hacking kits to UK school kids. These comprised the BBC Micro:bit, a mini-computer with no screen, keyboard, or anything else.

The micro:bit electronic programming toy that teaches kids how to build computers.

The Micro:bit, also available to buy, is designed to be programmed (via a web browser) and hooked up to sensors, loudspeakers, LEDs, and lots more. In a way, it’s like super-advanced LEGO, a construction kit that uses computer parts and home-made software instead of plastic bricks. 

"There are computerized toys that come assembled and are merely fun to figure out and play with," says Coster.

"But there are also kits that guide the child to build their own toy, teaching them many important skills such as electrical and mechanical engineering. Far more importantly, they also teach them logic, critical thinking, and creativity by way of letting them customize their toys."

Growing Up Informed

Like any education, the way we learn about technology affects us as adults. A good, fundamental understanding of how computers and other technology works is essential not just for understanding the world, but also for staying safe.

As more and more of our lives move online, or into smart and dumb devices, ignorance can leave us exposed.

"Today, most technology is connected to the internet, and most of it contains some kind of personal information," Lorie Anderson, founder of parenting site Mominformed, told Lifewire via email.

"But the foundational curiosity of the technology and infrastructure that supports it missing."

"If you don’t understand how to use your smart devices properly, you’re vulnerable to hacking."

Back to the bike example we used earlier. Even if you’re not the repairing or fixing-up type, knowing how your bike works means you can ride safer. You’ll diagnose that wobble before the pedal falls off and be able to spot a brake block that’s worn too far.

This is the same for computers. Learning how they work lets us navigate the modern world with confidence.

"If we can't understand the technology around us, it becomes magic," says Adnani. "It becomes something we feel we have no control over and can't change. It can also become something we don't trust."

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