Kids toys today. They’re a far cry from the “traditional, imaginative” toys of years ago. This is nothing new, and I’m certainly not telling you something you don’t already know. So many toys aimed at the preschool and toddler set in 2015 are electronic, automated, or otherwise connected.
That’s not to say they’re bad. Far from it. Kids today have some amazing toys with unbelievable technology. My kids take for granted toys that would’ve been considered magic when I was a kid.
But even with the prevalence of “toys” such as preschool tablets, we shouldn’t neglect some of the more time-tested and traditional toys that served kids well for generations. It would be a shame if we thought ourselves somehow beyond the need for “simple” toys such as wooden building blocks, marbles, and puppets.
Whole Wide World Toys is looking to keep that niche full–and inspire curiosity about world cultures–with their new World Village Playsets. Available now is the China Playset, which seeks to teach kids about various aspects of Chinese culture with “simple,” offline toys that spark kids’ imaginations.
Included in the base set is a colorful 32″x44″ playmat, a wooden puzzle (with large chunky pieces that double as playable pieces), story cards that encourage interactive storytelling, and a My China Travel Journal book. There’s also an “expansion kit“ available that includes a wooden kite and candy shop, boat, and canal house. These can be used with the playmat and characters from the base set to enhance storytelling and imaginative play.
The production value here is very impressive (which it should be for this price). The polyester playmat is well made, and the wooden pieces have a heft and quality that imply they’ll last a long time. They feel like toys that will still be around when your kids have kids.
The short book (My China Travel Journal) is written from the perspective of two American kids who visit China and write about various aspects of Chinese culture they find interesting, such as food, school, tea, and traditional gardens. Finally, the story cards provide prompts to get kids thinking:
- The man who makes dumplings is always smiling. I think he must have a good life. I think he’s happy because…
- The kites in China are so fancy! If I could have one, I’d want it to be…
For the target audience (preschoolers), these sets achieve their goal. They offer open-ended, imaginative play, they allow kids to stay unplugged and create their own stories, they expose young kids to specific aspects of a new culture, and they help cultivate a healthy curiosity about the world.
As a bit of background, I lived and worked in China for several years and traveled extensively around the country. I met my wife there, and both of our kids are now growing up in a bilingual household. I have been and continue to be immersed in modern Chinese culture.
That being said, my complaints with these sets aren’t necessarily unique to this product. The ultimate goal here is to help kids learn about China and Chinese culture, and that’s certainly admirable, but it’s created by someone who’s obviously an outsider. The aspects of Chinese culture presented are very basic and–in some cases–stereotypical or outdated.
Yes, China is a land of extreme contrasts, incredible diversity, and more than a billion people. And I’m fully aware that it’s next to impossible to accurately portray what “Chinese culture” is like in a playset made for preschoolers. But I feel like it might be time for us to finally move beyond chopsticks, tea, and silkworms as the standard bearers of modern Chinese culture.
However, faulting this product for simply doing what’s been done before would be unfair. The popular perception of “Chinese culture” is very much in line with how it’s portrayed here. It’s just not entirely true.
Our kids deserve more accurate and realistic portrayals of world cultures, especially in this globally connected, technologically driven age.
(Disclosure: Whole Wide World Toys provided a review sample of this product. All opinions remains my own.)