The loss of our innocence

Age of computers has robbed children of their fascination with toys, report says
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Once upon a time, children pored over elaborate toy train sets, fortified camps in remote woods, played kiss-chase, tag and hopscotch in the streets and returned home in a heap to get stuck into Swallows and Amazons. In a single generation that age of innocence seems to have been entirely lost.

Today's children, who are more likely to spend their early years holed up at home glued to the screens of their Sega Mega Drive than roaming around outdoors with friends, are being robbed of a "sense of wonder", according to a senior child psychologist. Parents are too afraid to let them run loose and instead plough millions of pounds into the games industry by way of an apology.

Sales of toys and games are up by 31% in the last five years and are set to increase by another 29% by the turn of the century, according to a new study by the international market research company, Euromonitor.

Professor Elizabeth Newson, head of the child psychology unit at Nottingham University, explained the booming toy business: "We think: 'How can I make up to them for the way they can't do the things I did which were free and easy and exciting?' "

Furthermore, this new-look childhood is over almost before it has begun. Many toy manufacturers are now putting the end of the "toy age" as early as 10 because children have grown up and out of toys by the time they reach double figures. The industry dubs the phenomenon of children's more sophisticated tastes "KGOY" or "Kids Growing Older Younger".

The Euromonitor study shows how there has been a shift away from outdoor, communal pursuits towards indoor, solitary ones. UK sales in outdoor games such as swings and climbing frames fell by 12.5% between 1991 and 1995. In- creasing "urbanisation" of children in affluent countries and the shortage of safe open spaces where they can play may account for the worldwide stagnation in the outdoor games market, the study suggests.

Meanwhile, UK sales of electronic games have risen by 49% during the same period. But even video games - which account for more than 30% of the total value of toys sold worldwide - are perceived mainly as a kind of "toy" and, outside Japan, are unlikely to be used by young adults, says Euromonitor.

The combined effect of growing up and out of toys by the age of 10, plus the emphasis on playing indoors means that children fail to develop independence and an ability to "rough it", believes Professor Newson.

"Children must get more of a sense of achievement when they've battled with the elements than when they've won on a computer game," she said.

"Something has been lost and I don't know how you make up for it. Whether you could, even, given that children aren't allowed to go out and do things themselves anymore. I think we're bringing up a set of people who expect an awful lot in the sense of consumer gifts and don't expect to be able to manage without things."

Jon Salisbury, editor and publisher of the magazine UK Toy News, said: "Children are playing with Barbie Dolls and Action Toys at the age of two. Some stay younger a bit longer but particularly in the case of second and third children, the pre-school age is almost over by one-and-a-half - basically as soon as they can walk."

Mr Salisbury points the finger at fashion. "If you asked my five-year- old daughter whether she wanted a lipstick, a crop top or a Barbie, it would be a close call," he said. "And I don't think she's atypical either."

Girls have a harder time of it than boys, he believes. "They aren't able to play out their fantasies in the way boys can once they become teenagers. There is pressure on them to act like women. They're not going to look pretty with a toy, are they? But boys can keep playing well into their adulthood - as my wife would say. The whole issue here is marketing to children. Toys have never been more than a mirror of real life."

But Professor Newson, who owns a traditional toy shop, says she feels it is the boys who are sold short. "It's very difficult to find toys for boys after the age of eight. They used to want better and better train lay-outs, but that no longer seems to be the case."

Professor Jeffrey Goldstein, an expert in children's play who lectures in psychology at the University of Utrecht, in Holland, and advises toy manufacturers, agrees that toys are but a mirror of life. "Kids are doing what they've always done: copying what's around them and preparing themselves for what they see as their potential future. They know we use computers and faxes and so do the same.

"The whole of childhood is devoted to questions of independence, identity and friendship. Everything is put to that service. Children use the opportunities we offer them. In this age, children use computers to help them decide what sort of person they are. When I was a kid it was daring: walking on a wall or climbing a tree. Now kids do it by having a high score on a video game or something with technology because that's what we've given them. For better or worse, we breed children like us."

Penelope Leach, child development expert and best-selling author on parenting, said it was a mistake for parents to hark back to some kind of golden age.

"In some ways it would be sad if a child didn't have its face lit up with a humming top any more, but we need a mixture. We didn't have things like video games - and they give a lot of pleasure."