The LEGO Movie taught us a lot. Double-decker couches? They’re awesome. Spaceships, UniKittys, barking subwoofers, coffee costing $37, all awesome. Songs about everything being awesome – really awesome. But most awe-inspiring about the 2014 animated film was how it pitted chaos and creativity against order and oppression in a surprisingly profound storyline that didn’t seem like it was just about trying to sell more LEGO sets to kids.

With the long-awaited LEGO sequel out this week, the iconic building block is back in the spotlight. Celebration of the imagination is more important than ever considering in the future we’ll all be replaced by robot overlords.

“Anything that can be automated will be,” says Dr Elena Hoicka, senior lecturer in psychology in education at the University of Bristol. “What computers are not brilliant at right now is creativity. Computers can come up with lots of ideas, divergent thinking, but they’re not very good at focusing in on a good idea.”

On the World Economic Forum’s list of ‘Top 10 Skills for Success’ in 2015, creativity was placed in 10th place. By 2020, it’s predicted to have jumped to third spot. But only 33 per cent of parents rank it within the top five most important skills they believe a child should have.

Hoicka adds: “Through our education system and parenting it is important that we encourage independent thought, thinking through problems, coming up with solutions so a child is not always told exactly what to do.”

Playing provides the scaffolding that assists development and learning. “Play in children, especially young children, is how they interact with the world,” Hoicka explains. “It’s a great motivational way for them to learn. You get to feel happy, it’s exciting, you can get to make friends.

“During play, children practise social skills and interactions in a setting where the stakes are low. Children learn to come up with ideas with others, share, co-operate, and think about other people’s perspectives. And if they get it wrong, that’s OK – it’s just play – it becomes a learning opportunity.”

More than at any other time in modern history, playtime is under threat,

But a Play Well Report pieced together by LEGO last year exposed a play gap in the UK. Though parents recognise the benefits of play, finding time to do it is getting harder. One third of families admit they struggle to prioritise playtime because of a hectic lifestyle, 46 per cent of parents say they do not spend enough time playing together as a family. Most worryingly, 18 per cent of children say they don’t have enough time in the day to play.

“More than at any other time in modern history, playtime is under threat,” warns LEGO Group CEO Neils B Christiansen. “The time, space and permission children need to play is constantly under pressure. More importantly, we’re in danger of overlooking something fundamental: that child play and playing together as a family is not only great fun, it’s vital to a child’s ability to develop core life skills.”


LEGO is well placed to monitor the playing field. It have the biggest chunk of a global toy industry worth $89bn, but its sales fell by eight per cent in 2017, the first drop in over a decade.

Part of the reason could be a rise in vicarious playing.

According to an Ofcom report from January: “Children are giving up real-world activities because they can watch them on YouTube.” It found that children on average spend two hours 11 minutes with their phone, tablet or computer each day, mostly watching clips on YouTube. That’s in addition to the one hour 52 minutes they spend watching TV.

Passive viewers are replacing active doers. The report states that children “experienced similar gratification watching others participate in hands-on activities – such as arts and craft, or playing sport – to the extent that they said they no longer took part in these activities themselves in the ‘real world’”.

Most videos children watch fall into three categories: those relating to their hobbies and interests, vloggers who build up a community of followers (the power and popularity of online influencers was demonstrated last month when YouTuber James Charles brought Birmingham city centre to a standstill after thousands of teens and tweens turned out to see him open a cosmetics shop) and sensory videos – sounds or sensations that generate feelings of relaxation, such as films of hands squelching in slime or people opening presents. Try searching for ‘satisfying slime’ for example, then ‘opening presents’. Spoiler alert: presents often contain slime.

Image: a200/a77Wells/Flickr

One per cent of the three and four-year-olds surveyed have their own smartphone and social media profile (which could explain all the gibberish out there), 19 per cent have their own tablet and 52 per cent are online for close to 10 hours a week. These figures quickly grow with the child: 82 per cent of five to seven-year-olds are online for as long.

At the same time, there is a rise in children experiencing mental health problems. One in eight under-19s in England reported a mental health disorder in 2017, a six-fold increase since 1995, and the digital age is widely thought to be responsible.

We’re not able to cope with that pace of life,

Anna Williamson is in a unique position to comment. She presented colourful kids’ shows on CITV before training as a therapist and writing books, including the upcoming How Not To Lose It: Mental Health.

“With screen time we have to be realistic, it’s a thing now,” she says. “The progression of the digital age has made a huge impact on this generation of young people, especially for young people. We are connected 24/7 and that isn’t healthy. Whether that’s to friends, platforms or influencers, we’re not able to cope with that pace of life and that is where stress and worry and anxiety are creeping in, fuelling poor mental health. We have to be really careful to catch young people now before this becomes a bigger epidemic.”

Williamson explains that because children are the first generation to be growing up in this brave new world, we are ill equipped to address the crises that are coming down the line.

“We’re playing catch up with this digital age and the impact it is having on the younger generation,” Williamson adds. “We are cognitively more developed as adults and we are able to process our emotions better. Purely because we are older, we have experienced change, transition and disappointment. Young people haven’t, yet they are expected to have all of this emotional intelligence and resilience and they just do not possess it because of their age.”

The balance shifting from playtime to screen time has also been linked to delayed development in toddlers. Researchers in Canada found that increased screen time was generally associated with poorer test scores. If kids are spending longer playing with mobiles and tablets it may take longer for them to develop in ways needed to deal with that technology.

But playtime and screen time are not mutually exclusive, according to play expert Hoicka.

“People are worried about digital play – it’s still play. As different toys have been invented, play has changed. There are studies that say kids learn from screens. With apps, content is really important. It’s the same for books or television or toys themselves, you have some that are great for learning and some that are terrible. Some apps allow you to solve problems and be more interactive and these apps have the potential to allow children to get something out of it They get feedback, learn about new things or a language.”

A study that recorded toddlers playing with touchscreens for 17 hours found that they demonstrated 15 types of play while interacting, where footage showed them inspired to use their imagination and explore because of the app. Playing with a phone doesn’t limit them to the device, the activity fits into their everyday experience.

Playing a game like Minecraft has similar benefits to building LEGO, the difference is all building takes place virtually and there’s zero chance on standing on a stray brick lying around the house.

Digital play still inspires what is known as fluid play, where children can take ideas from one source to fuel their imaginations. An experiment conducted by Lancaster University examined the link between magical thinking and creativity in pre-schoolers, finding that children shown clips of (literally) magical moments in a Harry Potter film subsequently demonstrated more creative behaviour than kids shown clips where nothing magical was happening.

Most important of all, whether playing with toys, apps or watching television, Hoicka emphasises the importance of parental support. “For instance, when kids have television on in the background they learn fewer words compared to when parents are watching with them. They learn more words and have better cognitive abilities because parents can help children understand what’s going on. With apps I suspect it’s a similar thing. If a parent is guiding their child through it they’ll have more chance to learn.”

Humour allows you to take a step back and think about things in a different way,

And there are benefits for the parents too. The LEGO report found that nine out of 10 families who play with children for more than five hours per week say they are ‘happy’. And in fact all grown-ups could benefit from maintaining a playful attitude.

“Adults might not necessarily be building towers but they do joke around, which is a type of playfulness,” Hoicka says. “Humour allows you to take a step back and think about things in a different way. It’s great for managing stress because if you think an unexpected event is funny you’re not going to get stressed out. If you take the same event as a threat, your stress levels will go up.

“Of course, in some situations you should take things as a threat. In others, if someone says something a bit offensive maybe, for your own benefit, it might not be worth worrying about.”

So next time someone trolls you on Twitter or leaves an insensitive comment under a photo you posted, best to ignore it. It’s probably just a toddler.

Children’s Mental Health Week runs from February 4-10,

Read the full article in this week's Big Issue.
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